Related Difference: A Comparison of Mongolian Buryat and Nepali Shamanism

By Cooper Baltis and Tyler Mayo

Our contemporary world is a collage of dominator Gucci hand bags, home-woven willow baskets, crumbling trees, and sprouting skyscrapers. It hands us a shot of absinthe mixed with holy water and asks us if we want to go to graduate school or a strip club. This globalized existence gives us individualized cubicles and corporate farms, chemical injected water and distilled knowledge. Yet, while appearing to be conflicting opposites, all of these elements exist together in our world, in our lives. Which begs the question: What is the significance of their relation?
It is this space of relation between what look like separate objects where shamanism exists. Shamanism is a form of spirituality that predates all the major world religions. It emphasizes non-physical worlds and their inhabitants, human relation to nature, and the power of healing. Shamanism has no formal organization and holds no core doctrine; in fact, it was only recently that people started to notice that ancient, localized forms of healing, spirit invocation, and communication with non-physical realms had overlapping themes. The word “shaman,” used to identify these spiritual individuals in parts of Siberia, was adopted to refer to this worldwide phenomenon. While the different forms of shamanism share many aspects, they are also filled with cultural variations that make each form unique. Examining two specific forms of shamanism from their technical to metaphysical aspects reveals what these traditions share, as well as how each tradition is molded to its culture. During my time in Mongolia, I have been exposed to Buryat shamanism, whose shamans, known as “бөө” wear elaborate costumes and channel animal, nature (trees, rivers, etc), and ancestor spirits. Two years ago, I lived in Nepal where I became involved in their form of shamanism, the “jhankri” tradition, specifically amongst the Tamang people. Nepali shamans also have a costume, though they use it mostly for larger ceremonies, and also work with animal, natural, and ancestor spirits – they often channel a forest spirit known as the “ban jhankri” (“forest shaman”). They often work with Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu deities as well, were as Buryat shamans do not seem to work with such entities as prevalently.

When Buryat shamans put on their costume (complete with bells, beads, metal plates, and a feathered headdress with leather strips covering their eyes) and begin drumming to call in their spirit, they move and shake until the spirit enters the body, and their composure changes. The shaman’s “translator,” a person who works with the shaman to translate the spirits’ old form of the Mongolian language, provides them with vodka, tobacco, snuff, and other items, which they physically imbibe. The spirits voice is often much different from that of the shaman: Deep, hoarse, and crackly. Positioned on their seat of cushions, they call forward people to heal, rubbing the patients head and back, and using a ritual club wrapped in katak with small metal figures of tools hanging off it to ‘brush off’ unwanted energy and ‘loosen’ stuck energy. Sometimes the spirit will energize vodka by blowing on it and offer it to the patient, or share a smoke with them. When the work is done, the spirit takes their drum and beater in hand, and drums again to leave the body of the shaman, who returns. The Buryat shaman does not remember anything, as all of him, save his body, has been absent.
The Nepali shaman does not always call their spirit through for healings; instead, they access their energy using “mantra” (sacred phrases) and direct it using ritual implements. However, for more involved healings they too dress in their costume and drum themselves into trance. They wear beads in the same way the Buryat shamans do, slung around their neck and side, to create an “X” across their chest like a bandolier. They also have a sling of bells worn in the same way, which differ from the Buryat shaman’s bells, which are attached to their clothes, headdress, and drum beater. As for the Nepali shaman’s headdress, it also has feathers (usually peacock feathers), but does not have the fringes that cover the eyes. Their drum is a circle with two sides and a handle that also serves as a “phurba” (ritual dagger); Buryat shaman drums are single sided, and can be octagon, polygon, or triangle, and whereas the Buryat shaman has different drums for different spirits, Nepali shamans use the same drum.
Before the spirit is called through, the Nepali shaman offers fire, incense, homemade liquor, and various fruit and sweets. The shaman sings a power song to help invoke the spirit, as do Buryat shamans. When the spirit or deity comes through the Nepali shaman, they shake violently for most of the ceremony; their eyes are sometimes open and sometimes closed, their language often broken, but understandable to Nepali speakers (or another language, if the spirit speaks in the shamans native language such as Tamang). The spirits too use a ritual club, theirs constructed of the Nepali broom and feathers, using it in the same way to ‘knock off’ and ‘loosen up’ energy. They also blow on their patient to heal them. They do not, however, imbibe the physical offerings themselves. They draw energy from them, but leave the physicality intact. The drumming can continue throughout the ceremony, as either the possessed shaman or another shaman drums, although it ceases at times. The spirit also drums themselves out of the body. Sometimes the shaman remembers what happened, sometimes they don’t.
The Buryat shamans say that, when the spirit comes through fully, the shaman will not remember anything, but if the shaman does remember the spirit and the shaman are partially present in the same body when in trance. This is one of a few notable differences between Buryat shamanism and Nepali shamanism, and these differences bring forward important observations: Buryat shamans channel mostly ancestor spirits, that is, deceased humans; Nepali shamans work more with deities, beings or energies that are not human. Ancestor spirits exist in particular “heavens,” according to Buryat shamans, but clearly can move between realms, as they come into the human realm through the shaman; deities are constantly moving through many different dimensions, and it is unclear whether or not they have a primary existence in one of them. Is the difference between the Buryat shaman’s trance state (complete blackout) and trance states where the shaman remembers, found sometimes in Nepali shamanism, partially due to the nature of the energy coming through?
The spirit channeled by the Buryat shaman is a very specific ancestor, who speaks their own form of the language; deities, on the other hand, often use the mind of the shaman, and therefore are able to speak whatever language they speak. In order for the deity to ‘use’ the shaman, is it necessary for part of the shaman to stay in the body, and hence they remember the proceedings?
Regardless of differences, underlying similarities between the traditions reveal themselves again and again. When Nepali shamans give offerings to their deities, the deities draw energy from these offerings and use it to heal, but they do not imbibe it physically. The ancestor spirits in the Buryat tradition do imbibe substances, but they too do so to gain energy in order to heal. Both beings channeled by the shamans speak with the people they are healing, giving advice and also acting as divinators, predicting future occurrences. Both traditions put an emphasis on dreams, where spirits can guide the shaman and teach them. Both traditions, through their spirits/deities and shamans, stress the importance of being humble, honest, loving, and caring to all beings – human, animal, plant, and spirit. In cultures that are becoming increasingly focused on the physical world, these traditions exist in an opposing space, continuing a relationship with non-physical realms.
The forms of shamanism in the Buryat and Nepali traditions reveal core elements of shamanism, and some of the things they do not share with each other they share with other traditions. The spirits channeled by Buryat shamans and the shamans themselves will sometimes sip vodka and then spray it onto those they are healing as a form of cleansing, a practice also found in Haitian voodoo – a shamanic practice that channels mainly deities, like Nepali shamanism – although Haitian deities use rum. The Buryat shaman’s drum shares a striking resemblance to that of the Native American medicine man, and it’s hard not to notice the presence of the feathered headdress in the Native American, Buryat, and Nepali traditions.
Beyond the material similarities and healing, of course, shamanic traditions hold in common a relationship with a non-physical dimension, realms other than that of human beings. These realms appear to be vast, if not infinite, and different human cultures have explored different spirit realms. Today, we live in an increasingly globalized world, where these various shamanic traditions are able to meet and learn from each other on the physical plane, sharing and exchanging, questioning and listening to each other. One of many examples of this is the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, comprised of female shamans from around the world who united to work throughout the globe.
This communication through healing between spirits and humans, humans and humans, and spirits and spirits is an intrinsic part of our coming together as a global community beyond nations, races, religions, and all our differing societal elements. For thousands of years now, humans have been stressing the differences we see around us, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But we can see now that we have gone to an extreme, where we believe those differences to be fundamentally true, and have forgotten our inherent unity. In effect, we have gone to war with each other, starved each other, criticized each other’s religions and ways of living. Yet, amongst all of this, shamans have continued living in a realm where the relation between seeming opposites is fundamental, things that seem as opposing as flesh and spirit, as alcohol and spirituality. As such, they hold in their very way of being a teaching for all of us: How to live in a way that is simultaneously divided and unified, opposing and related.

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Posted by on Aug 6 2012. Filed under Community. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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