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Tengri in Eurasia

Tengri is a monotheistic belief system.  It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, religions in the experience of humans, emanating from the heart of Asia.  Tengri resides in the blue sky, making that Turquoise color a symbol of worship and constant reminder of the grace of the creator.  Grace is the heart of the belief; when Tengri chooses to withdraw Grace, result is downfall.  When bestowed, the Grace of Tengri is the source of all benefaction.   It is very ecologically sensitive from the very start.  One who defiles water is immediately and physically condemned, because, water in this parched portion of the earth is one of the Graces granted by Tengri.  Both, for example, the crops as well as the reign of a monarch are entirely dependent on that Grace.  The good behavior of the adherents and the presence of Grace are thus linked. 

The various neighbors of Tengri followers chose different paths to salvation and happiness.   For example, the eastern neighbors of Tengri concentrated on proper etiquette as a part of their system, due to population pressures and order of society.  In contrast, the followers of Tengri have been concerned with staying alive in harmony with nature.   It is the original Green culture.  Apart from being ancient, Tengri believers live in the literal crossroads of eschatological battleground fought over by later religious arrivals. 

 Belief systems are perhaps the most powerful impellents of human behavior.  A few developed “user manuals (doctrine codified in writing),” yet there are others that have survived and flourished without directed indoctrination. All, belief systems compete among themselves via human agents.

One of the premier competition fields for this drama is Eurasia.  All major belief systems emanated from this vast landmass, but the cross-pollinations have not been adequately examined.   Even less so in the case of Tengri, a belief system flourishing in Eurasia from time immemorial, and thus a witness to most of those arguments. 

Even though Tengri has no known written user manual, elements of this belief system survived, albeit in fragmentary literary tradition; both written and oral.  A portion of the oral forms were at some point committed to paper, and published.   The rest remain in manuscript.  The first step, therefore, if one is intent on learning the foundations, is to cull the extant corpus of this tradition to extract the essence.  Over the past quarter of a century, while pursuing other historical, cultural and anthropological objectives, evidence of this sort has been encountered time and again.  A portion of this material is publicly available, and a reading of this corpus to fully extract the Tengri references in contrast to the belief systems of the adherents’ neighbors is also likely to yield some surprises.  This would also help identify interactions among competing belief systems in the ‘neighborhood.’   

One of the attributes of a great civilization is the members’ ability and desire to enjoy the fruits of past generations’ labors without substantially making contributions in kind.  This is akin to withdrawing from the family joint checking account without making deposits.  It can be argued that this leaning also may lead to decadence, and eventual downfall of a culture.  A particular attribute of Tengri belief is the “do not waste” attitude.  The related qualities and attention to the rejuvenation of nature serve well against any tendency toward cultural decay or opulence.

Arguably, Tengri constitutes the basic value system of humans, apart from being, perhaps, the original belief system, as well as the benchmark for what was to follow.   One of the fascinating dimensions of Tengri is its influence on other cultures and loci.  For example, traces can well be found in Europe, carried by literature recorded through narratives.  In rare cases, some of these texts are published.  These interactions of belief systems, well beyond their points of origins, wearing totally new clothes, but retaining the initial heart, will have ramifications we are yet to discover. 

How does one measure the influence of a belief system on the world?  By the wars waged in its name?   Number of adherents?  Deeds of rulers in its name?  The number of other belief systems it subsumes?  Or, the way it regulates societies?  

Tengri certainly is a way of life.   During its emergence, it was as necessary to co-exist with nature as it is today.  No wars were waged in its name.   Nor did it seek converts like the others.  It did not even create a centralized clerical structure, or, indeed, a clerical class.  In some localities, a few individuals offer their services to the adherents as “one way” messengers.  These seers undergo trances to explore the reasons why a certain event does or does not take place.  These messengers cannot intercede or change the results, whatever they may be.  Depending on the specific location in this vast landscape, these messengers are found under different designations; they are also skilled in oral verse composition, having mastered the arts of music and visual performance.  They deliver the results of their trip to the unknown in a combination of visual arts. 

When competing belief systems made their appearance in Eurasia, Tengri was there.  It did not fight the emergent systems with weapons, for it already had deep roots.   Whichever belief system was layered upon it, spiritual or political, Tengri beliefs and practices continued unabated; not necessarily as a mosaic or amalgam, but as a bedrock.  This was so even at the height of rather repressive regimes over time.  Even the Soviet dissidents from the region identified themselves with Tengri---in whatever language---in addition to everything else: “Tengri, communist, Atheist” was the self description of a prominent spokesperson of a movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tengri did not lose its identity when surrounded by various forms of Buddhism, when the latter arrived.  This may be because both shared similar objectives (e.g. peace, self betterment)---to a point.  Tengri proved much more practical and pragmatic in its practices, and equally spiritual.  When Islam arrived, in the company of invading armies, the ensuing fight was not about the belief system; but about distribution of wealth.  Tengri not only stood its ground, but also began transforming and Tengrifying clerical Islam.  Later, when Islamized polities and groups began moving West, into Europe, Tengrified Islam was there, still exerting influence through literature.  As in today’s settings, Tengri is not openly articulated due to nationalist or other doctrinaire pressures. 

Between Eastern Europe and Asia, over time, Tengri gave birth to a series of new Islamic polities; that are more Tengri than Abraham or Mohammed.   Again, the political tug of war surrounding these communities prevented the open articulation of even the name Tengri.  On the other hand, local court registers that survived various forms of opposition or repression are a testament to what the polities and populations believed and practiced under the designation ‘local custom.’   To the credit of the prevailing juridical systems of the time, courts allowed these beliefs to be the ultimate arbiter of proper behavior, hence underpinning justice.  And, as of late, this continuing evolution of Tengri has been migrating into Western Europe, to spawn yet another wave of Tengrification.  It is unlikely to stop there, and thus merits study.

Thus, it can safely be stated that Tengri has been the impellent force in many a polity since their first entry into human endeavor.   May we acquire wisdom.

H. B. Paksoy

08/08/09