Syncretism or inclusivism? – the religious terminology of “Burkhanism”

Michael Knüppel

Syncretism or inclusivism? – the religious terminology of “Burkhanism”

(63rd Annual Meeting Ulaanbaatar, 2021)

In this presentation, the speaker discusses the issue of the “nature” of the Ak Jaŋ (= “white faith”, “white” referring to the “Upper World”, Jaŋ = “faith”, but also “law, doctrine, rule, command etc.”) religious movement better known as “Burkhanism” (< turk. / mong. burkhan “Buddha”, since one of the central deities of this religion was the so-called Ak Burkhan “White Buddha”; today known to us through the famous painting of N. Roerich, c. 1926) on the basis of its religious terminology.

This “new” religion was “founded” in the early 20th century by Čot Čelpanov and his (adopted) daughter Čugul Saroq Čandyq who had some “visions” of the “White Buddha”. This movement was active in parts of the Altay region and adjacent areas and is mostly considered being a syncretistic religion comprising Lamaist-Buddhist and shamānistic elements (according to some authors the teachings even included Russian-Orthodox and “pre-shamānistic” influences as well) and references to an older “Täŋrism” (a matter closely related to the problem of Old Turkic shamānism, which has still not been solved). While there are few works on “Burkhanism” published in the last twenty years, the main sources on this religious movement, its origins and its annihilation by the Soviet authorities in the late 1920s are still unpublished (besides A.V.Anokhin’s famous article published in 1924 or an interview with its founder Čot Čelpanov printed in 1913).

Even though the descriptions of Ak Jaŋ are kept in archives and are still unpublished (mostly in Gorno-Altaysk / Altai Republic / Russia), the religious terminology of “Burkhanism” is known and dealt with in some of the mentioned few works. In his presentation the speaker introduces this terminology as well as the concepts behind the religious vocabulary of “Burkhanism”, that is shared by its followers with the religions of Altaic groups of speakers who have never been in touch with the Ak Jaŋ religious movement. This terminology was partly reinterpreted by the Ak Jaŋ and was partly “filled” with new contents. In the presentation, the speaker, who at this point doesn’t investigate the problem of what is to be understood as “new” religion, asks whether the religious terminology of this religious movement allows us to understand the Ak Jaŋ as a syncretism or as a form of inclusivism.