Kalmykia; the Largest Merciful Place for Buddhist in Russia

In Russia there are many religious movements. The freedom of conscience and religion, as well as the right to individual or collective practice of any non-aggressive religion to publicly disseminate its beliefs and actions are guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Religion in Russia is represented by the main world religions and their ideological branches. The main one is Christianity, it is professed by the largest part of the faithful. Many citizens, especially the eastern and southern regions of the country, prefer Islam. In Khakassia, Buryatia and some areas of Altai, the population is inclined to Buddhism. Judaism prevails in the Jewish Diasporas throughout the country. There is one place in Russia named Kalmykia, where Buddhists from all over the country go to.

Buddhism in Russia

In the territory of present-day Russia, Buddhism gained distribution in the 16-17th centuries from Mongolia through the nomads of Kalmyks (Oirats), who eventually settled in the northern Caspian region and on the lands of present-day Buryatia.

The life of the Buddha became known in ancient Russia by the text “Tales of Barlaam and Joasaph.” Tsarevich Joasaph, whose prototype was the Buddha, became a Christian saint (his memory is celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church on November 19).

During the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, Buddhism received official recognition. So, in 1741 she issued a decree according to which the existence of the Lamaism faith was recognized in Buryatia and 11 datsans (Buddhist monasteries) and 150 full-time lamas (religious teachers) were approved. This date is considered the date of official recognition of Buddhism in Russia.

In the 19th until early 20th centuries, Russia became one of the largest centers for the study of Buddhism. In the 19th century, the head of the Buddhist clergy of Buryatia was approved by royal decree, and the rectors of the monasteries were approved by governors general. In Kalmykia, the lama of the Kalmyk people was also appointed by royal decree.

The Russians began to turn to Buddhism in the late 19th century. The ground for the appearance of the first Russian Buddhists was prepared by the nascent interest of scientific circles in the East in general and in Buddhism in particular. This interest was partly initiated by the tasks of the Orthodox mission and the political interests of Russia in the East. The study of Sanskrit and the Tibetan language developed, and Buddhist texts were published.

About Kalmykia

The Republic of Kalmykia is a subject of the Russian Federation, a republic in its composition. It is part of the Southern Federal District which is part of the Volga Economic Region. The capital is the city of Elista. It borders in the south with the Republic of Dagestan, in the southwest with the Stavropol Territory, in the west with the Rostov Region, in the northwest with the Volgograd Region, and in the east with the Astrakhan Region. Kalmykia is the only region in Europe that professes Buddhism.

Buddhism in Kalmykia

Buddhism in Kalmykia has a long and rich history. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 90 large and small khuruls (temples) in Kalmykia, with about 3 thousand clergymen. In the 30s, as a result of Stalin’s repressions, almost all the temples were destroyed, and the Buddhist clergy suffered severe repression. By the beginning of World War II, Buddhism in Kalmykia was almost destroyed. The eviction of Kalmyks in 1943 completed the rout of Buddhism.

The revival of Buddhism in the republic began only in the late 80s and was associated with the process of perestroika in the USSR, the beginning of the democratization of public life. In 1988, the first community of Buddhists was registered in Elista, and in the same year the first prayer house was opened. Lama Tuvan Dordzh, who came from Buryatia, became its rector.

A significant event in the religious life of Kalmykia was the first visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV, which took place in the summer of 1991 and gave a powerful impact to the development of Buddhism in the republic. In the Elista, the Dalai Lama held three mass prayers, visited a khurul, consecrated the construction site of a Buddhist temple complex, met with the leadership of Kalmykia and the public of the capital.

Another major event in the life of the Buddhists of Kalmykia was the opening, at the end of 2005, of a new temple in Elista – Burhn Bagshin Altyn Sume (Golden Shakyamuni Buddha Monastery), which is the largest Buddhist temple in Europe and built with the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the visit in 2004. The monastery was built at the personal expense of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

For the period 1993-2002 there was a quantitative growth of Buddhist communities. Today, in Kalmykia, there are 35 associations of Buddhists. Much has been done with state support in the construction of Buddhist temples. There are already more than 30 khuruls in the republic.

In recent years, large khuruls have been erected by believers and local authorities in Lagan, the villages of Tsagan-Aman, Yashkul, Iki-Burul, Arshan-Zelmen, etc. Prayer houses were opened in the city of Gorodovikovsk, the Khomutnikovsky state farm, the village of Ketchener, the village of Troitsky, etc.

To date, several dozen major cities in Russia have Buddhist communities: from Vladivostok and Irkutsk to Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Ulyanovsk to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Historically, the center of Russian Buddhism is not Moscow, but Petersburg. Russian Buddhism began in St. Petersburg and by the beginning of the 20th century turned out to be one of the best academic schools in Europe. The Institute of Oriental Studies holds a unique collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts. However, Buddhists in Russia go to Kalmykia to pray, since the largest Buddhist temple stands there.

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