Religion and Lake Baikal

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The place of religion in nature is so natural that few people think about this. And when we start thinking about it, two extremes are manifested: either religion is identified with nature, or it is blamed for forgetting the laws of nature. A different approach to the problem had represented the genius Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov. He wrote about the unity of the Creator’s acts and the faith in him. “The nature and faith are two siblings, relatives, and may never come to quarrel among themselves. The Creator gave humanity two books: one showed His greatness, the other – His will. The first book describes the visible world. In this book physisists, mathematicians, and astronomers expounded the summation of the visible world of the divine in nature, are the same as in the books of sacred writings of prophets, apostles and church teachers. Not sensibly prudent is a mathematician, if he wants to measure the Divine with compasses”.

Nowadays it is especially necessary for the siblings to be closer to each other, for the sake of improving their future, for the sake of a man who will care more about the welfare both of nature and faith. Such a man understands the sacredness of all life on Earth.

There is a song by D. Davidov that is called “The Glorious Sea” and reflects the views of people who saw and revered the Baikal, and the views about its “holiness”. The first variant of the poem “Thoughts of a Fugitive on the Baikal” begins like this: “a glorious sea, the free Baikal”. But the word “free” did not stay when the song (made of five quatrains out of 11 available) became popular in Russia. The atmosphere of the song sounded more succinct, moral and spiritual in the last variat: “a glorious sea, the Sacred Baikal”. The word “sacred”, introduced by an unknown author, corresponded with the attitude of aborigines towards Lake Baikal, deified it, made it not only the crown of nature, but also a great Creator of spirituality, and was accepted by everyone.

This and other facts mentioned above allow us to comprehend the value of religious views in environmental and other traditions of the region. The degree of religious “motives’” importance in the lake area is confirmed by the names of some places in different languages:

• in Evenk: Kaman (Khaman) Kit (“a shamanic place) is a cape to the south of Bay Khakusa (north - eastern coast of the lake);

• in Buryat: the Shaman Rock (Cape Burkhan) on Olkhon, the Buddha Serration on the hill of the Peschanny Bay, Cape Aykha-Shuluun (Shaman) near Kultuk;

• in Russian: the Chertova (“Devil's”) mountain near Slyudyanka, Nicola village situated close to the riverhead of the Angara, where the church with the same name was built, capes Malaya and Bolshaya Kolokolnya (“a small and a big bell tower”) in the Peschanny Bay, Svyatoy Nos (“sacred nose”) Peninsula, Monastyrsky Island in Lake Kotokel near Lake Baikal where there was a monastery, etc.

The interrelation of religion with ecological traditions of people, stance of religious figures on the effect of the Baikal on moral aspects of life of human beings, presence on the shores of the Sacred Sea of a large number of places that have somewhat religious names – all this places religious themes in the analysis of Lake Baikal problems at a sufficient level. In my opinion, special interest would have been kindled if there are tours called like: “Along the religious sites of Lake Baikal”.

The religion in the 20th century (before its militant-atheistic overthrow) in the territories surrounding the Baikal was also multifaceted. Only in the then existing Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the early period of “ecclesiastical persecution” (1932) there were recorded over 400 religious groups, about 350 of them were of orthodox wing, over 40 – Buddhist-Lamaist ones, and 14 – of other religious faiths. The religious mosaic of believers in the Baikal region was represented by Christians of different directions (Orthodox, Old Believers, Evangelicals, and Catholics), Buddhists, Jews, and Mohammedans. The number of believers was at least 70% of adult population. Naturally, many of them were particularly influenced by their religion’s attitude toward nature.

The mosaic picture of the world would be chaotic and messy, if a man did not systematize it by various means of religion and mysticism. To complement the picture of nature in places where something was unknown or unclear helped myths, legends and superstitions. Besides, that religious knowledge was complemented by deep feelings and implemented in respective activities and cults. All this taken together became a powerful tool of conservation of physical environment, flora and fauna in cases when any of them attributed to supernatural influence. So it is unreasonable and impossible to ignore pre-religious and religious beliefs regarding ecology of nature.

Turning to the psychological aspect of the interrelation of nature and religion issue, we must first of all speak about the relationship in the triad: Nature – God – Man, which is especially important for the modern humanistic thought. The inconsistency and even break in the triad, and a clearly contradicting view to the thoughts expressed by M. Lomonosov, provided above, was expressed by the American writer of the 19th century R. Emerson in his essay “Nature”: “Both religion and morality look down on nature. The first and final lesson taught by religion is that “what is seen is temporal, but the invisible is eternal”. Religion defies nature ... Believers do not need nature”. The development of modern ecological views showed that the true thinking seeks to escape from religious and human weaknesses. To prove this, let us turn to the position of the literary critic Stopford Brooke, who when talking about Wordsworth’s works, wrote: “He who through passionate love for nature steps back from himself, will look into the soul of nature and see it as it is, he will see the God not only as personal, but also as impersonal, not only as humanized, but also as something far beyond the frame of human; and he will realize that there is an endless majesty, and eternal peace, magnificence of order, beauty and diversity, something which he will not dare to give any name or human qualities, but he will truly understand that it is a functioning and loving, wise and unbearable power. The modern theology is in need of such a theory. It would have been able to abandon the endless and painful emphasis only on human and would allow us to escape from ourselves”.

The comparison of the two alternative propositions leads to a very interesting idea. Apparently, it would be right to claim that the potential of religion in the formation of ecological consciousness of believers, in the approval of the blessed unity of the triad “Nature – God – Man” is not fully disclosed, or rather, the truth is only slightly ajar. In any case, every religion would only benefit if it finds the forms and methods by which we can assert in man the divine relation to nature. At that it is hardly rational to bring the identity of a particular god: Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, etc. to the level of the most powerful. The essence of the unity of Nature and God very accurately reflects the idea once expressed by a sage: “All religions are separate paths that lead to a common vertex – to God”. This God is the quintessence of nature “going far beyond a human”. To see and understand the divine in nature means to find the basis of attitudes to it not only in ethical and aesthetic norms of society but in belief in fatality, in the regulations that are prepared and approved not by people but by supernatural forces, who care about the eternal existence of all living creatures, including humans, and such orders must be humane, eco-friendly, eternal. “It is not planned by us, not by us it will be cancelled”.

A good contemporary illustration of the issue about the relationship of nature, God and man I saw recently in the book “Along Lake Baikal on the North Crown” written by V. Smirnov, a BAM (Baikal-Amur Railway) builder from the Far East, the head of the publishing house “Amur News”:

“The Baikal, Lake Baikal... A huge world. The Baikal is impossible to learn within one trip or two, or even three. But it is possible to feel the Baikal. To feel and believe in him (the Baikal) as in God. And then the fear of him disappears, the fear of his power, his depths and wind. Because to dissolve in the lake means to dissolve in God. Is there any greater honor and greater good?

Lake Baikal is God's grace and God's punishment. It all depends on the intention and thoughts you have come to its shores with, and entered its waters. All depends on what kind of person you are, and what you aspire in this life. If you aspire for the good, you will get the good back from the lake, if for evil – then blame yourself...”. Very fair and holy words... 

Any religion addresses to a man's soul, his innermost strings. It seeks to tune up this soul, to turn it in the direction the leaders and the apologists of that religion were going. The position of the leader, his precepts and teachings, actions and deeds should be the bedrock of belief and behavior of any believer. And it is particularly significant with regard to human morality. But what is interesting is the closer the date of birth of a particular religion is to modern days the more it is depleted of moral precepts in relation to nature. It is difficult to find evidence of the natural confluence of people with substance, which once spawned both gods and humans. Only in ancient traditional doctrines you can clearly feel it.

In religion studies there is the point of view that the simplest religious beliefs appeared 40,000 years ago, i.e. by the time of appearance on Earth of Homo Sapiens. This is proved, in particular, by cave paintings and burying traditions of primitive people, which allow us to conclude that our ancestors had ideas about life after death, about the world of the dead, about existence of a special kind of connection between people and animals, about the magical methods of influence on both people and animals. All first religions this or that way reflected the views of ancient people on the world around them. These religions were polytheistic (from Greek poly “many” + teos “god”) or pantheistic (from Greek pan “all”; this prefix denots “covers all”), i.e. tey see supernatural God in all realities of life on Earth. The basic forms of ancient religions were animism, totemism, fetishism, and shamanism.

Animism (from Lat. anima, animus “soul, spirit”) is the belief in soul and spirit existence. The primeval man animated the entire world around him. Water and stones, plants and animals, sun and wind, a spinning wheel and a knife, sleep and disease, fortune and misfortune, life and death, everything has a soul, will, ability to act, harm or help people. According to the ideas of ancient people, spirits inhabited the unseen world, but at the same time often infiltrated into the visible world of the man. Worship and magic (Latin magia means “witchcraft, sorcery, the set of rites connected with the belief in the man's ability to influence nature, people, animals, gods”) were supposed to help people to get along with spirits, to propitiate them or outsmart. The elements of animism can be found in any modern religion.

Totemism is the belief of the tribe in its relationship with a plant or animal, rarely with a natural phenomenon or object. In the language of the Indian tribe Odzhivbei the word totem means “his family”. The totem is viewed as a real ancestor of the tribe, the tribe had its name, worshiped it if the totemic animal or plant existed in reality, or its image if it did not exist. A bright illustration that reflects the influence of totemism on the mass consciousness of Pribaikal inhabitants is a legend about the origin of some Buryat clans from an extramarital affair of an eagle and a woman.

Fetishism (from the French fetiche “idol; mascot”) is the cult of inanimate objects (e.g. feather of a totemic bird or a wood burned in a storm, or a canine of a bear killed in hunting, etc.), that, in the opinion of believers, had some supernatural properties. Fetishism, as recognition of the importance of sacred objects, accompanied the entire life of prehistoric man. The elements of fetishism are found in all religions, including modern ones, such as the worship of the cross, holy relics, icons (in Christianity), Burkhans, the holy places in Buddhism, etc.

There is a wide spread opinion that such kind of representations is just a manifestation of inferiority and savagery of the man, a kind of nonsense that needs to be carefully “uprooted” of a man’s consciousness. But the famous thinker, French philosopher of the 18 century Jean-Baptiste Robinet, considering the natural hierarchy of beings, emphasizing the principle of continuity in its development, showed the natural relationship of all the attributes and the environment, with no regard to the distinctive features they possess. “The stone, oak, horse, monkey, and man – these are gradual and consistent variations of the prototype, materialization of which began with a minimum number of elements. The stone, oak, and horse are not people, but they can be regarded as more or less coarse types of people in the sense that they relate to the same original purpose and that all of them are the products of the same more or less developed idea. In a stone and a plant the same essential life principles can be found, as in humans, the only difference lies in the combination of these symptoms, including proportion, order and form of organs” [255, p. 508]. Interestingly, in Buddhist philosophy there is the concept of “emptiness” that represents the world in all its objects and subjects “woven” of such microscopic particles that any of them may be interacting and interconnected with any other.

The consonance and interactive penetration of different subjects of nature is reflected in the given judgments; in their basis there is a holistic view on the nature of surrounding phenomena. The main idea was to recognize the man’s dependence on nature in its main manifestations. A man could not and should not been torn off from the outside world and should not treat it with pride and contempt. The animation of objects and phenomena of the world became something like “seeing” particles of themselves in them, ascribing their birthright to animals and plants, and hence a certain identification with them. The individual and collective appeals to God and spirits with dreams and desires (albeit indirectly), attempts to communicate with otherworldly higher “forces”, the subsequent confession to God – the Creator of all living beings, including human beings – all these strengthened the unity of the man with the environment and personified nature, ascribing it human qualities. It is not by chance that the modern French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote: “Religion in its essence is what no philosophy can ever be: the relationship of personality to personality with all the risk, mystery, fear, trust, admiration and longing included in it”.

Such ideas had a further development in the views of shamanism that still remains popular. Since shamanism absorbed and, therefore, preserved many of the beliefs and rituals of animism, totemism and fetishism, and at the same time exists nowadays in the face of indigenous peoples of the Baikal region, I will devote a separate section to it. 

See also


  1. A.D. Karnyshev "The Many Faces of Multilingual and Mysterious Baikal"© BSU Publishing House, 2011

Выходные данные материала:

Жанр материала: English | Автор(ы): Karnyshev A.D. | Источник(и): The Many Faces of Multilingual and Mysterious Baikal. Ulan-Ude. 2012 | Дата публикации оригинала (хрестоматии): 2011 | Дата последней редакции в Иркипедии: 30 марта 2015

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Тематический указатель: Irkipedia English