August 02 2021

State and Religious Rituals of Religion and State among the Buryat People

Image that reads "Conversation with Justine Buck Quijada, 2020 Book Award Winner" with a cover of her book next to it

The fall of the Soviet Union provides the cultural space for a revival of the religious practices of the Buryat, an indigenous people of southern Siberia who live on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, just north of the Mongolian border. Justine Buck Quijada, author of Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets: Rituals of History in Post-Soviet Buryatia (Oxford University Press, 2019) joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her research into how the Buryat people recontextualize the rise and fall of the Soviet period into Buddhist and shamanic histories. Quijada's book won AAR's 2020 Best First Book in the History of Religions.

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Justine Buck Quijada, Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Wesleyan University, and winner of the Best First Book in the History of Religions Award. She's here to speak to us about her book, Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets: Rituals of History in Post-Soviet Buryatia, published with Oxford University Press. Congratulations, Justine, and thanks for joining me.

Justine Buck Quijada:

Thank you, and thank you so much for having me on the interview.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, it's a great book. I'm excited to talk to you about it. I think a lot of people across the academy are going to really find interesting parts of this, because you tie a lot of different fields and disciplines together in interesting ways, but it's also a case that might be very unfamiliar to many. Do you think you can start us off just with some key things we need to know about Buryats and their religious and social contexts that can help us get into your project?

Justine Buck Quijada:

Absolutely. One of the challenges of working in a place that most people have never heard of, is that I always have to start with a map. So, if you're thinking about a picture of the globe, imagine Mongolia and then move a little bit north of Mongolia. A little bit north of Mongolia, inside the Siberian part of Russia, is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It's called Lake Baikal, and it is the largest by volume in the world. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and Buryatia is an indigenous republic on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal. So, basically, Buryats are... they speak a Mongolian language, they're culturally very similar to Mongolians, but they've been part of the Russian Empire since the 1600s, so they've been subject to Russian colonialism and the century-long Soviet experience. There's sort of one layer of Mongolian culture, there's Russian colonialism and the influence of Russian Orthodox, and then Soviet... I like to call it Soviet missionization or proselytizing, because the Soviets were very much about transforming cultures. But there's also the influence of Tibetan Buddhism that came from Tibet through Mongolia and up into Buryatia.

So, we've got multiple religions coexisting, and most Buryats consider themselves to be either Buddhist, but also practice Shamanism, or Shamanists who also practice Buddhism. So, where you live will depend on which one is predominant, but it's a really multireligious and multi-ethnic republic that, as I mentioned, has been part of the Russian Empire for about 400 years, so it's very much embedded in Russian and Soviet discourses and cultural history.

Kristian Petersen:

Now, for your subjects, there's this process of negotiation between the past and the present that you look at through ritual. So, can you set us up about how ritual enables your subjects to imagine alternative histories in the present, and how does your focus on ritual open up your analysis? Why did you focus on that?

Justine Buck Quijada:

Well, really, I ended up there because of the data. I started my field work interested in the way in which religious spaces became places where national identity could be articulated. One of the big things, one of the predominant questions after the fall of the Soviet Union was religious revival. The Soviet Union was officially an atheist state. A lot of religious practices were suppressed to varying degrees over the Soviet century. And as soon as the Soviet Union became the Russian Federation, there was this fluorescence of, hey, we can now do all these things that had been illegal for so long. And because of Soviet politics, religion was very much tied up with national identities. So, I went to Buryatia interested in how religion articulated national identity, and what I found when I talked to people was that I was constantly being told histories and stories about the past and explain... When I'd say, "Well, what's going on in this ritual?" And I'd get a history in response.

And you come back and your dissertation advisor says, "Hey, nobody knows where this place is. You need to tell us a history of Buryatia." And I was like, "I can't." I couldn't tell a history without taking sides, and that's what led me to this realization that what people were doing in these ritual spaces was working out alternative histories. And in order for that to make sense, you have to understand that the Soviet Union was really invested in the idea that they were civilizing the indigenous population. They had a very, very strong narrative that the Soviet Union is a good state, a better state than the Russian Imperial state and a better state than the capitalist West, because they were bringing civilization to the backwards nationalities in Siberia. And that meant that the historical narrative of, "You were backwards nomads with no culture and we brought you education and science and civilization," that narrative was really, really important to the state.

And so, when the Soviet Union fell apart, that state support for that narrative fell apart and people were really, really interested in coming up with a different sense of who they were. But who was generating the narrative and who they look to in the past really, really varied. So, the histories that I would get in Buddhist rituals from people who were practicing Buddhism were radically different from the histories that shamans were telling me and were radically different from the state narrative. And so, I think in a context where institutions fell apart and stopped promoting this official history, religion stepped in as a place where you could play and imagine and rework stories in order to come up with a new narrative about the past. But because none of those institutions was dominant, none of those stories became dominant stories. They all just sit next to each other.

Kristian Petersen:

And this... and thinking about the book as a whole and how you structure it, is very useful, because not only are you looking at Buddhist and shaman contexts, but you're also looking at ritual in a civil context as well. Can you talk a little bit about that juxtaposition between what we might think of as religious and secular ritual, and what it might demonstrate for a religious studies reader?

Justine Buck Quijada:

Sure, yeah. It wasn't, like I said, it wasn't what I went initially to focus on, but I realized very quickly that for a reader who doesn't know the local context, all of the histories that people were articulating in Buddhist spaces and in shamanic spaces didn't make sense if you didn't know the Soviet version of history. They were very much counter-histories. They were critiques. They were speaking back to an institutional history that had been crafted by the Soviet Union. And I realized that for a reader, you had to know that. I had to present that history. So, the thing that I basically ask my readers to do, is to separate themselves. We always think of history as a story of what really happened, and I try and make really clear that this isn't so much about what really happened as rather why people are telling these stories, what they're doing while they tell stories of the past.

And the civic rituals that I look at, one is Victory Day, which is the celebration of the Soviet Union's victory over Germany in World War II. I happened to have been there on the 60th anniversary, so it was a particularly big celebration that year. And that was a real occasion to revisit, for people there to revisit this Soviet version of history. This Soviet version of, "We brought civilization to Siberia." And World War II, very much, was this moment where the indigenous and other minority nationalities of the Soviet Union were brought together into the brotherhood of people, so that we could sacrifice collectively as a nation and defeat fascism. And the phrase that they always use, actually, is, "We saved the world from fascism." And so, that seemed like a really useful lens to present this Soviet story. And then the chapter after that looks at a ritual, called City Day, which is the festival that celebrates the founding of Ulan-Ude as a city, that really emphasized the multicultural and multi-ethnic history. And in order to do that, produced a narrative of colonialism and of Siberian colonialism.

So, I look at those rituals because I think they're functioning, to reach back to this old-fashioned functionalist language, they're doing something similar to the rituals that are taking place in Buddhist and shamanic settings. The thing is, is the overt goal of the ritual is different. We're commemorating an anniversary, versus we are worshiping a particular Buddhist saint. The explicit goal of the ritual is different, but what people were doing through ritual practice seemed really, really similar to me. And especially in cases like shamanism, there's a long... I don't think these days, most people would disagree that shamanism is a religion, but there is a long history of, "is it a religion? Is it not a religion? Is it a superstition? Is it something else?" I kind of liked the idea of looking at ritual as a thing that people do that doesn't necessarily have to be tied to this contentious concept of religion that we're always arguing, well, what is it? What isn't it?

Ritual, in a way, to me, felt much more concrete. It's something that we can see and analyze right there in front of us without having to argue about, "is it religion? Is it not religion?" And that was also one of the things that I thought maybe opens the book up as well, because I think there's not enough thinking about our own civic rituals in the way that we think about rituals in other places. It's really easy to draw a line between religion and other phenomena, but then we spend all of our time in religious studies classes breaking those lines down, so I wanted to try and take that seriously and just think about ritual without having to think about, "is it religion or is it not?"

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, I think it's a useful comparison and really draws out what is at play when these rituals are being enacted. You look at several other examples. One of them is the inauguration of a stupa, and this one you frame through multiple historical genres. Can you tell us a little bit about this event and how you understood it across these various genres?

Justine Buck Quijada:

Sure. So, I chose that particular ritual... So, each of the chapters in the book focuses on one ritual and parses out the historical narrative that that ritual illustrated. But in a way, it's like a heuristic because these narratives came from all over the place, but I felt like these rituals really illustrated them. The reason I start the first chapter with the inauguration of the stupa, is because this was an example of a ritual that had multiple audiences and really had... you could see the different historical genres interacting with each other, because I was afraid that people would come away from the book with this idea that there were these huge social divisions between Buddhists understand their past this way, ethnic Russians understand their path past this way, Buryat shamans understand the past this way. But it's all kind of mixed together. People will talk about different narratives in different contexts. It doesn't mean that they've converted to only that version of the past.

So, the stupa was interesting. The inauguration of the stupa was interesting because it was an event that had been organized by the grassroots population of a small town. So, the stupa is in honor of Dashi-Dorzho Etigelov, who was the head of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha before the Revolution. So, he's positioned as anti-Soviet. He was a very notable scholar, so he brings back this history of pre-Soviet Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist scholarship in Buryatia, and his body has been miraculously preserved. He was buried and then exhumed and his body is currently residing at the Ivolginsky Datsan, right outside of Ulan-Ude in Buryatia.

So, the stupa was inaugurated in the village that was his birthplace. And the impetus for the stupa came from the residents of the village, but the event was orchestrated and consecrated by the Buddhist leadership, I guess. The members of the monastic community came to inaugurate the stupa. So, you got very different versions of history and what was going on there, depending on whether or not you spoke to people who were part of the Buddhist monastic establishment or the local residents. And so, the local residents talked about him very much as if he were a shamanic spirit, a shamanic protector spirit, an ancestor, who was looking down and protecting their village. And the members of the Traditional Buddhist Sangha were talking about him as a bodhisattva who had come back to... who had left his body in this miraculous state in order to inspire faith in a post atheist society. And at the same time, someone from the village had put up these posters of the history of the collective farm that the village had been turned into after Etigelov's death.

And so, you had the Soviet version, you had this local popular village version, and then the official institutional version. And which story you got... if you're like, "Well, what are we celebrating here?" You would get a completely different answer depending on who you talk to. And so, I thought that was a particularly useful example to set up the reader to when they encounter these other versions of history, not to lock them into separate boxes. They kind of co-exist and I have to pull them apart in order to explain them to a reader, but they don't live apart from each other. They live very much in dialogue.

Kristian Petersen:

You delve further into Buddhism, but I want to ask you about the latter half of the book where you focus on shamanic rituals, because I think people might be most unfamiliar with this. Can you tell us a little bit about how Buryat identity and history are narrated in these contexts of one is an opening of a shamanic center, and another one is the initiation of a shaman? What are the themes central to the shamanic interpretive genres?

Justine Buck Quijada:

There's a lot going on there, which is why the second book that I'm working on focuses almost exclusively on shamanism, because there was so much that didn't get into the first book. Shamanism is the label that gets put on the Buryat traditional practices that pre-existed Buddhism. And a lot of that looks an awful lot like ancestor worship, or what might be called ancestor worship in a more Chinese context. But it also involves building relationships with what are called place spirits, like protector spirits of particular places. And the shamans that I was working with are part of an organization called Tengeri. So, Khuke Munkhe Tengeri is the Great Blue Sky. It's sort of the overarching Mongolian, Buryat, Mongolian sky deity, which is consistent across Mongolia and Buryatia and Kalmykia and large parts of central Asia, this idea of Tengeri, the Sky God.

So, they've named their organization for that, but they are predominantly urban residents who were raised Soviet, so there's a big dichotomy between shamanism that persisted in small villages, where it just quietly kept going during the Soviet period without being repressed, versus the urban contexts. Ulan-Ude, people hear Siberia, they think it's all out in the countryside. Ulan-Ude is an industrial city of 400,000 people. So, urban Buryats are very acculturated into Russian culture. Most of them don't speak Buryat in everyday life. And the shamans that I was working with are an urban organization that's trying to rebuild this tradition. And a lot of the reason for why they want to rebuild this tradition, is because they argue that shamanism is necessary to the public health of the Buryat people, that these relationships with ancestors exist, whether or not they're acknowledged, and because of the Soviet Union's attempt to repress shamanism, people don't recognize the symptoms of these relationships. They don't have the right relationships with their ancestors.

So, their mission is really to educate people about their ancestral traditions so that they can rebuild those relationships. And it's very focused on health and healing, but it's also expresses itself through genealogies and that's one of the ways that makes it more accessible to people from intermarried families. So, the shaman whose initiation I write about in chapter six, for example, has a Russian mother and a Buryat father, inherited his Buryat ancestor spirits from his father. Had identified as Russian up until he got sick and then rediscovered his Buryat heritage through the process of healing himself and becoming a shaman. So, their idea of Shamani practices, very, very much tied up in healing both individuals and families by reconstructing genealogies, rebuilding relationships to ancestors and on a broader scale, then rebuilding and healing the Buryat people by restoring this preexisting relationship with their ancestors, and with the environment around them.

That's something that doesn't get enough space in this particular book, but that I'm thinking about a lot in the second one. It also involves reconnecting to place spirits and to understanding this as indigenous territory that is theirs, because that's not something that was allowed during the Soviet period.

Kristian Petersen:

Well, you obviously do a lot more in the book. We don't have time to talk about it at all, but I hope that listeners are now encouraged to go and get their hands on a copy. Justine, thanks for making time to talk about the book and congrats again on the award.

Justine Buck Quijada:

Thank you so much, and thank you for talking to me about it. I always love talking about my work and as you said, there's a lot going on in it, so hopefully we managed to pull out some of the main threads.

Kristian Petersen:

I think so. Thank you.

Justine Buck Quijada:

Thank you.