Millenarian Buddhification of early 20th century Russian Altai

Znamenski_2014_Fig_3_Jaily_Mundusov_Ak-Jang_preacher_1928 Jaily Mundusov, an Ak-Jang preacher (1928)
Andrei Danilin Papers, AMAE, f. 15, op. 1, 14.

Znamenski, A.A. (2014). Power for the Powerless : Oirot/Amursana Prophecy in Altai and Western Mongolia, 1890s-1920s. Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines 45. DOI: 10.4000/emscat.2444

The paper discusses and compares two millenarian movements that sprang up in Altai (Burkhanism or the Ak-Jang [the White/Pure Faith], 1904) and in Western Mongolia (Ja-Lama fiefdom, 1911) in response to Russian (Altai) and Chinese (Mongolia) economic/cultural advances on nomadic societies. Earlier scholarship has been focused on the Altaian White Faith, stressing its unique nature and downplaying its links with the Ja-Lama movement and with Mongol/Buddhist tradition in general. In contrast, this paper suggests that preachers of the White Faith, who propagated the coming of the legendary redeemer named Oirot, and warlord Ja-Lama, who declared himself the reincarnation of Oirot prince Amursana, capitalized on the same Oirot/Amursana prophecy shared by the populations in both areas. It is also argued that in the early 20th century the White Faith was gradually transforming into what could have become an Altaian version of Tibetan Buddhism – a process that was terminated by the advance of the powerful Communist prophecy that hijacked and then secularized the Oirot and Amursana legends.

Burkhanism was a religio-political movement among the early 20th century Turkic natives of the Russian Altai with contextual and structural parallels to other messianic crisis revitalizations like Ghost Dance. I knew of its (inconsistent) “antishamanic” aspects, the basis of Ak-Burkhan in older Inner Asian visions of the coming Buddha Maitreya, and its framing invocation of a mythicized Dzungar empire — the Buddhist Oirat state annihilated by the Qing. Until this piece, however, I’d always pictured it at quite a remove from living Buddhist communities.

Without closing our eyes to the thick prism of pre-Buddhist beliefs through which all of it clearly passed — nor the patently un-Buddhist character of Chet Chelpan’s famous commandment to “kill all cats” (a “Russian” animal) — I think otherwise now. Znamenski convinced me of the significance of cross-border traffic with Buddhist Mongolia in prophecies and prophets; we learn, for instance, that among Chet Chelpan’s important followers, Argymai and Manji Kul’djin and Tyry Akemchi had actually apprenticed in Buddhist monasteries there. (And Knamenski has speculated elsewhere that Chet himself visited Mongolia.)

Interesting sketch of late-persisting Turkic-Mongolic bilingualism:

From the demise of the Oirot state in the 1750s to the 1920s, there was an ongoing traffic of ideas between both areas, formerly parts of the 17th century nomadic empire. The Mongol influence was especially noticeable in southern Altai, which was populated by former double subjects of Chinese and Russian empires. As early [sic] as the 20th century, many Altaians still spoke Mongol and some of them were even able to read Mongol books in old Oirot language. Visiting lamas and tantric healers from Mongolia were a routine part of the Altaian spiritual landscape. They healed local natives, performed fortune-telling sessions, and exposed people to Buddhism (Altai Orthodox Mission 1886, p. 25). From time to time, these visiting dignitaries shared with people the lingering prophecy about the coming of the legendary redeemer.