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A Pandemic of Shamans: The overturning of social relationships, the fracturing of community, and the diverging of morality in contemporary Mongolian shamanism,



The collapse of the socialist system, which began with the collapse demise of the Soviet Union, has brought about the (re)structuring, or the new creation, of cultural and social bonds along religious lines in those previously socialist countries that had been socialist. However, can it really be said that freedom of religion and faith necessarily brings about the (re)structuring of cultural and social bonds with their roots in a shared religious experiencecommunity? In this paper, I will address the phenomenon I describe as “a pandemic of shamans” in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar and report on the nature of the shamanism that, while building cultural and social bonds, on the one hand is also fracturing and splintering those bonds on the other. By acquiring an imaginary social position, those people who become shamans overturn social relationships and fracture family bonds. Shamanism also gives birth rise to ethical models that differ from shaman to shaman. I will conclude by examining whether the practices of the shamans are a phenomenon unique to the post-socialist period or a phenomenon unique to shamanism in general.
Socialist regimes lead by the Soviet Union were one of the great experiments for human life “without religions”. In Mongolia, as in other socialist countries, modernity was constructed by expelling religious practices from the sphere of everyday life in the name of atheism. However, modernity has never completely succeeded in fully establishing secularization anywhere in the world, and the phenomena of magico-religious practices continue and even are rampant, not least behind the facades in post-socialist countries. In other words, it can be said that the affiliation between secularization, de-sacralization, and modernity, which many scholars imagined, was just fantasy. Following the way in which Talal Asad examines the “novel” form of secularism present in Euro-American societies, it becomes quite easy to understand that socialist modernity was formulated as the “novel secular” by the Soviet Union. While examining Soviet-style atheism or Soviet-formed secularization, we need to rethink the practices that are “in between” the religious and the secular. Mongols have been practicing religion secularly. We see this in how selecting reincarnated lamas has been a political act, and in the way they have been practicing secular politics so religiously – for example, the importance of fortune telling and shamanism in political decision-making. Further, we need to note that the socialist expulsion of institutional aspects of religions such as churches, clergies, and religious scriptures resulted in the spread of magical/occult practices. In this paper we explore Mongol practices that are in between the religious and the secular by examining Buddhist practices in Zavkhan Province, where people maintained strong worship for reincarnated lamas secretly and in disguise during the socialist era.
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