The Indo-Mongolian Relationship:  A Retrospective

                                          Outlook On Buddhism


                                    Prof. Sh. Bira (Mongolia)




       Despite the expectation of some people, Mongolia has not ever been completely isolated from the outside world, being sandwiched – to use the jargon of modern journalism – between two giants – Russia and China. On the contrary it has always been in close contact with great civilizations – the Indo-Iranian, the Sino-Tibetan, the Eurasian in old pre-modern times and even the Euro-American in our days. I share the opinion of scholars who assert that the nomadic world of the Mongols always needed relations with the outside world and the external factor has played a great role in their history.

      The geographical and geopolitical situation of Mongolia always favored the mutual relationship between nomadic and sedentary civilizations – the two main components of human civilization. The grand territory of Mongolia has always been a bridge between various civilizations. To be more concrete the great highways have since long ago linked the east and the west, namely the great Silk Road and the Eurasian steppe corridor, sometimes called the Silk Road of the steppes, stretching from the Mediterranean and the Danube river up to the Great Wall of China. Being the most mobile forces, the nomadic peoples played an active role in the mutual contacts of peoples and cultures of the different regions of the world. I would say that they had been played no less a role in their own time then, as in today’s world with it’s sophisticated means of communication. Along the above mentioned roads there had been taking place the free flow of cultures, ideas, and information.

    Coming over to our topic, long before the appearance of the Mongols into the historical arena India had become well known through its civilization. Buddhism was first spread among the ancient tribes who inhabited Mongolia – Hsiung-nu, Sien-pi, Toba, Turks and Uighurs.In earlier periods Buddhism came to the Mongolian steppes through Central Asian countries.

  The Sogdians, the Khotanese and the Uighurs played an active intermediary role in introducing Buddhism to the Eastern part of Central Asia. Most of the Sanskrit loan words in Mongolian were taken mainly from Khotanese and Sogdian forms through Uighur writing:


















































   The Uighurs, one of the most advanced nomadic peoples, created their own powerful kingdom in Mongolia in YIII – IX centuries. It was after the collapse of their kingdom in Mongolia that they moved to Eastern Turkestan. Even then they continued keeping close relations with the Mongols. It was the Sogdians and the Uighurs from whom the Mongols borrowed their script which originated from the Phoenician – Aramaic system of writing.

   The Sogdian – Uighur script, after having been adapted to the Mongolian language, had been serving as a flexible instrument of learning and literature for many centuries. All the Buddhist sutras were translated into Mongolian and written in the Uighur script.

    Although we can speak about the Indo-Mongolian interaction since a long time ago, it’s tangible results are translated to the later period which lasted from the XIII century to the modern period. The Mongolian state founded in 1206 by Chinggis Khan had become during his successors reign the world’s largest empire that has ever existed in history. It stretched from the Far East to Eastern Europe, including most of Asia as well as a good deal of Europe. India was not conquered by the Mongols, although Mongol troops from Central Asia invaded the frontier regions of India several times in the 1220’s – 1230’s.  Instead Indian civilization continued it’s invasion into the Mongolian steppes.

   Two powerful streams of Buddhism can be observed that penetrated Mongolia from two different sides – Central Asia and Tibet and China. It does not exclude the possibility of direct contacts of Mongolia with the northern parts of India, especially Kashmir while Buddhism flourished there. From Chinese sources we know that in the reign of Ögedie Khan the Kashmiri monk Namu and his brother came to the Mongolian court. He stayed during the reigns of Ögedie Khan’s successors - Güyük and Mönke Khan. The latter appointed him as Guo-shi, the State preceptor. He was given a jade seal to administer Buddhist affairs. He was much honored at the Mongolian court. He was assigned to the head of ten thousand Kashmiri households.




 Namu was also on good relations with Khubilai Khan, the youngest brother of Monke Khan. During the debates between Buddhists and the Taoists of China, Namu together

with ’Phags-pa Lama from Tibet strongly supported the Buddhists, thus securing the prevailing position of Buddhism in the empire.

   I must say that in the earlier period of the Mongolian empire Buddhism held a much more influential position at the Mongolian court than we can expect. According to a stone inscription of 1346 in Ögedei Khan’s reign, there a huge Buddhist edifice was founded, a stupa covered with a pavilion five stories tall with statues of various Buddhas. It seems to me that in Kararkorum we had something similar to the famous stupa Borobudur in Indonesia. Several Buddhist temples are known to have been built in Karakorum. Buddhist books were studied and translated , and great discussions on religion were held at the Mongolian court. I have to say that not only Buddhism was popular in Karakorum but other religions – Nestorianism, Christianity and Islam were known as well. Mongolian Khans were surprisingly strong adherents of the policy of religious tolerance. As witnessed by William of Rubuck, a Fransiscan Friar, who met Möngke Khan, The Mongolian Khan said as follows:

   “We Mongols believe that there is but one God, by Whom we live, and by Whom we die, and towards Him we have an upright heart…But just as god gives different fingers to the hand, so has He given different ways to men.”

   These words of Monke Khan sound very modern and very instructive to those who in present day Mongolia are intolerant towards other religions which are now penetrating Mongolia.

   If you take the Yuan period of the Mongolian empire when Khubilai Khan and his successors ruled over China, you will find a new period that opened in the history of Indo-Mongolian contacts.

   There were two varieties of Indian Buddhism accessible to the Mongols in China. These were the Chinese and Tibetan varieties of Buddhism. The Mongolian Khan preferred to choose the latter one, that is the Tibetan variety of Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism which was most popular in Tibet thanks to the efforts of the Sa-skya sect. Mongolian Khans attached a special significance to Tibet because it was a center of Buddhism which they wished to use as a powerful counterbalance to Confucianism and to secure their domination in China. Tibet was not conquered by the Mongolian troops, and enjoyed the status of being a vassalage. Mongol Khans wanted to have Buddhism and Buddhist culture prevail in the empire as they preferred to have non-Chinese, mostly Central Asians serving in the bureaucracy and administration in China. During that period Tibet had actually become some kind of a midway-house between India and Mongolia, transmitting to Mongolia all of what they had borrowed from Buddhist India




since a long time ago. Khubilai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty in China, not only converted to Buddhism himself, but officially declared Buddhism the state religion within his cosmopolitan empire. He invited from Tibet, the famous lama `Phagspa Lama lodoi-Tsaltsan, the abbot of the Saskya sect, and put him at the head of the Buddhist church. He granted him the title of the Imperial Preceptor (Ti-shih). Khubilai Khan skillfully exploited the authority and knowledge of `Phags-pa Lama in his policies of ruling his vast empire. And `Phags-pa Lama was the right man for this purpose. He was not only a great lama, but he was also a very learned in Buddhist literature, especially in the so called epistolary writings or letters composed in short verses by ancient Indian sages – Nagarjuna, Matrceta, Cabdragoming and others with the purpose of expounding the main postulates of Buddhism and the political concepts of universal monarchies and sacred laws. In his numerous works written after the pattern of works by the just mentioned authors, `Phags-pa Lama did his best to glorify Khubilai Khan by prescribing to him the attributes of universal rulers – Chakaravardins as Indian sages did the same regarding their great patrons – Ashoka, Kanishka and others. The Tibetan teacher urged Khubilai Khan to rule by peaceful means according to the non-violence teachings of Buddhism, asserting that peace can be obtained by peace only, just as fire can be put out by water, but not by fire itself. `Phags-pa Lama could be considered to have founded the fundamental philosophy of Khubilai Khan’s policy. According to this philosophy, the khan’s power and Buddhist religion (Dharma) constitute the two main principles of imperial policy. This policy was adhered to by his successors in one way or the other. I must say that Khubilai Khan’s policy of the two principles had far-reaching consequences and terms so that even after the collapse of the Mongolian empire the Mongol khans persistently followed this policy.

    Buddhism as the Indo-Tibetan factor in the Mongolian policy could not naturally secure Mongol domination of China as well as elsewhere, but it did greatly help them to rule over the sedentary society for nearly a century and to withstand the danger of assimilation within the far more numerous population of the conquered country. Unlike the other nomads who conquered China, the Mongols were remarkably successful in maintaining many features of their lifestyle – from culinary and dress customs to language, military and political institutions throughout the entire period of their domination. With the takeover of power by the Chinese the Mongols retreated to their homeland, and even then attempted to restore their rule in China, but without any success.

  The most important point is not so much what I have just told you, but it is rather the after affects that the Indo-Mongolian intercourse has left in the history of the Mongols.

   Although the Indo-Mongolian contacts were mostly indirect and had occurred much later than when Buddhism had been flourishing in India itself, the cultural and spiritual



consequences of these contacts have been surprisingly great and have lasted for many centuries until the recent period.

   It is true that after the disintegration of the Mongolian empire in the end of the XIY century, Buddhism went into decay and Shamanism regained its position in Mongolia. But the linkage of the Mongols with Buddhism via Tibet had not ever been completely interrupted. Source materials provide us with historical data which testify to the contacts of different parts of Mongolia with the various sects in Tibetan Sa-Skya-pa, Karma-pa and Gelup-pa Lamaism. Moreover the second half of the XYI century was a turning point of the Buddhist revival in Mongolia. The most powerful rulers of the Mongols vigorously contested with each other to adopt Buddhism in its varieties from Tibet.

   In the end of the XYI century most of the Mongols were converted to Lamaism, which by that time had become the strongest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Monasteries were built in different parts of Mongolia, and Buddhist learning and literary activities developed further, and interrelations between Mongolia and Tibet intensified more than ever before since the period of the Mongol empire.

   One can say that in those days there emerged some kind of a religious and military alliance between the two countries. Altan Khan, the ruler of the northern Mongols, and the third Dalai Lama of Tibet, at their historical meeting in 1586, decided to establish the so called Patron and Preceptor relationship. After the previously mentioned policy of the two principles initiated by Khubilai Khan, the Dalai Lama and Mongolian rulers did their best to implement this policy for strengthening their power. Meanwhile, a new power had been emerging in Central Asia, that is the Manchu empire in the Northeast of China. The Manchus started to manipulate Tibetan Buddhism in their empire building policy toward their neighboring countries, first of all, in Mongolia. Thus Tibetan Buddhism became a powerful religious and political factor in the whole of Inner Asia, and all the rivaling forces tried to use it for the realization of their political ambitions. In their struggle for the favor of Tibet Buddhism the Manchus were more successful than anyone else. Manchu rulers, since the beginning of their expansionism against Mongolia skillfully manipulated the Tibetan factor. In this respect Mongolian rulers turned out to have been less powerful and skillful in the final analysis, they could not get united in their efforts to consolidate their power against the Manchus. The Manchus proficiently played on the nationalistic and religious feelings of the Mongols. First of all, taking advantage of their ethnic and cultural affinity, the Manchus declared themselves the rightful inheritors of the Chinggisids, and launched a propaganda campaign that they wished to restore the great empire of the Chinggisids. They claimed to have received the state seal of the great Mongolian khans.






Secondly Manchu rulers also declared they were real patrons of Buddhism, and established a close contact with the religious authorities of Tibet, including the Dalai

lamas. The Manchu emperor Abakhai even built a huge temple dedicated to Mahakala, the main guardian of Buddhism, highly worshipped both by Tibetan and the Mongols. He wished to make this temple a State sanctuary for all Buddhists in his domain. It is not difficult to understand that all these maneuvers of the Manchus greatly helped them to gain the sympathy and support of the Mongols. Prominently, the First Bogdo Gegen of Mongolia when he decided to acquire the protection of the Manchus in the struggle with the Western Mongols is said to have declared that the Manchus were closer to the Mongols in customs and religion.

    The Manchus persistently continued to patronize Tibetan Buddhism in every possible way after their conquests of the lands of Mongolia. it was during the period of the Manchu domination that Buddhism in fact became the main religion of the Mongols. Moreover under the conditions of the isolation and backwardness of the country Buddhism had eventually become the sole driving force in the life of Mongols. By the beginning of the XX century about 750 monasteries were functioning in Khalkha Mongolia and the lamas constituted on fifth of the country’s population. Incidentally, Sherbatskoi, the famous Russian Indologist who visited Mongolia in the early XX century compared  Mongolia of those days with Medieval India when Buddhism flourished there.

  I would say that the Buddhist influence on Mongolia was so great that Mongolia had eventually become a part of the Indo-Tibetan world. It is interesting to note that under the rule of the Manchus and despite the fact that their emperors claimed to be the lawful khans of the Mongols, Mongolian chroniclers persistently propagated the legend about their genealogical affinity of the family of Chinggisids with the long line of pedigrees of legendary and semi legendary kings of India. They forged an extraordinary fabulous common genealogy on Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian kings, and according to this genealogy the Golden clan of the Chinggisids could be traced back to as far as the legendry king Mahasammata. Mahasammata was believed to be the forefather of the kings of the Buddhist world. Mongolian chroniclers tried in every possible way to link Mongolia with Buddhist India. They elaborated a special scheme of writing history, that’s the scheme of the so called three Buddhist monarchies – India, Tibet and Mongolia. If you read old Mongolian chronicles you will see with what pietism this scheme was followed by their authors until recent times. Great Mongolian khans were declared to be reincarnations of various Buddhist Gods – Chinggis Khan being the reincarnation of Vajrapani, and Khubilai Khan that of Manjushri.




 The legendary genealogy of Mongolian Khans, together with a devout faith in Buddhism, helped the Mongols to keep alive their memory of their glorious history and it was obviously the vivid expression of the reaction of the Mongols to the foreign

domination. Mongolian khans were famous not only for their real historical kinship, but also for their spiritual relationship with the sacred kings of Buddhist India.

   If you take the intellectual and artistic activities of the Mongols during the Manchu period, you can discover an interesting phenomenon in Mongolian history. Most of the Mongolian translations of Buddhist sutras and works of Mongolian learned lamas belonged to the Manchu period. It is sufficient to mention the two great famous collections Mahayana literature – the Ganjur and the Tanjur were fully translated into Mongolian and published by means of wood block printing in Beijing. The Ganjur (108 vols.) contains the commandments of Buddha and it is divided into three broad selections – Vinaya, Sutra and Tantra. the other collections Tanjur (225 vols.) comprises numerous commentaries and independent philosophical and secular scientific works of ancient Indian authors. The Ganjur and the Tanjur have been highly esteemed by the Mongols as a great treasure house of Indian wisdom, knowledge, and are worshipped  everywhere in Mongolia. From the academic point of view, the Tanjur represents a special interest. It contains numerous works on different branches of knowledge – philosophy, logic, grammar, poetics, prosody, medicine, astrology, art, etc. For instance one can find more than forty Sanskrit grammatical works including the famous Panini’s grammar, the earliest known grammar in the history of linguistics. Of great interest are the works on ancient Indian medicine composed after the pattern of Ayurveda, Sushrutasamhita and Čarakasamhita, the so called three pillars of Indian medicine.

   The Mongols not only translated a great deal of Buddhist literature, but wrote many works on various subjects of Buddhism and Buddhist knowledge including those on poetics, literature, medicine, etc., not to mention religious works. The Mongols wrote not only in their native tongue, but also in the Tibetan language which was the language of the church and learning in Mongolia. The writings of Mongolian authors were rather prodigious and had been highly praised in Tibet itself. They are of prime importance for those who study Buddhism. From these works one can see how the spiritual traditions of Buddhist India had been transmitted through the mediation of Tibet and how it was fruitfully continued by the Mongols until the modern era. The Indian influence on Mongolia was not limited to religion and culture only, but embraced the other spheres of life, from political philosophy to language and folklore. Allow me to present some examples. The old Indian language Sanskrit was popular in Mongolia, because it was the language of Buddhism. It was believed to have been the language of Buddha and therefore studied alongside Tibetan. The admiration of the Mongols for Sanskrit was so great that many Sanskrit words have been borrowed and incorporated into Mongolian.



Even now Sanskrit words are used not only in literary but also in colloquial Mongolian. It is interesting to note that in Mongolia when the need arises for new scientific terms it is

often preferred to have them adopted from Sanskrit, rather than from Latin or any other languages. Sanskrit terms relating to diverse branches of science and philosophy, from cosmonautics to medicine and botanics have been adopted in modern Mongolian terminological lexicon. The names of planets and stars, including the cosmos, in modern Mongolian are named in Sanskrit:





Adya  (Sunday, Sun)


Sumya (Monday, Moon)


Angaraq (Tuesday, Mars)




 It is worthwhile to mention that some Sanskrit words have been Mongolized to such an extent that the Mongols do not event suspect their foreign origin:
















Sansar (space)

Avyas (talent)

Buyan (good deeds)

Agshin (instant)

Tiv  (continent)

Garig (planet)

Tsadig (tales, stories)

Shuleg (poems, verses)

Badag (strophe)

Arshan (mineral water, nectar)



   The Mongols have a long tradition of having Sanskrit names:






















   The Manchu domination in Mongolia lasted more than two hundred years in the Northern part and nearly three hundred years in the Southern part of Mongolia. In the final analysis the religious policy of the Manchus that encouraged Buddhism in Mongolia gave such a paradoxical result that even the Manchus could not foresee it. It is really paradoxical that the more the Manchus tried to consolidate their power in Mongolia with the assistance of Buddhism, the more the Mongols eventually became spiritually and culturally alien to their Manchu rulers. Buddhism had after all become the national religion of the Mongols. On the other hand, the Manchus themselves had bgun to acculturate and were finally assimilated amongst the Confucian Chinese. Buddhism had gained a strong foothold in even in the political sphere of Mongolian life. The more the Manchus encouraged the Buddhist church in Mongolia, the more it became an influential power in politics as well. There has emerged a powerful ecclesiastical elite group that came to play a greater and greater role in the country’s life. The ecclesiastical leaders consisting of numerous so-called Khutugus and Khubilgads, the great sacred lamas and reincarnations, overshadowed even the secular authorities, the real inheritors of the Golden clan of Chingissids. They mastered not only the minds of the Mongols, but owned enormous material resources of the country including cattle. They had their own leader in the person of the YIII Bogdo Gegen Jebtsundamba Khutugtu who was almost the only authority in Mongolia when several khans who had claims to power were rivaling each other. As a result the ecclesiastical leaders headed by the Bogdo Gegen supported by a wider circle of Mongols succeeded in taking power when the Manchu empire was about to collapse. Thus in 1911 the YIII Bogdo Gegen declared the independence of Mongolia and announced his wish to establish friendly relations with other countries including the U.S.A., Japan and others. Bogdo Gegen was proclaimed Bogdo Khan with the titled “Elevated by the Many”/Oлноо θpгдcθн/ is the Sanskrit loan word that means Mahasammatsa, the name of the legendary Indian Buddhist king. It is also a prominent fact that in the political life of the Mongols for the last two centuries that the institution of the Bogdo Gengens played a decisive role. The first Bogdo Gegen Zanabazar who was proclaimed head of the Buddhist church in Mongolia belonged to the Golden clan of the Chingissids, and it was he who, under the threat of mutual annihilation of the Mongols during the struggle between the Eastern and Western Mongols, decided to



submit to the Manchu’s. And it is characteristic that two hundred after this event the last Bogdo Gegen restored the independence of Mongolia. I must say that under the impact of the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation that the traditional concepts of the continuity of the khans power amongst the Mongols had undergone a great change. They believed that the Bogdo Gegens through a lineage of a series of reincarnations had the right to claim not only the sacred genealogy of reincarnations of the Buddha’s learned disciples that originated in India, but also of the Golden clan of the Chinggisids in their own country. That was the reason why the Mongols so enthusiastically supported the Bogdo Gegen as a khan of the Mongols, and this event once again shows that the spiritual influence of ancient India was very strong indeed.

   After all, Buddhism in its Indo-Tibetan variety has eventually become an important component of Mongolian nationalism. Mongolian nationalists of different periods tried to use it as their ideology. The leaders of the so-called People’s revolution in 1921 supported by communist Russia put forward a slogan to restore State and Religion in Mongolia. Even the totalitarian regime that existed during the last seventy years occasionally tried to exploit the Indian factor and Buddhism in their own way. India was the first non-communist country with whom Mongolia established diplomatic relations since 1955.

   With the democratic reforms that started in 1990 in Mongolia there has begun a new period of a Buddhist revival. This unique historical process of re-Buddhaisation is taking place alongside the modernization of Mongolia along the road of democracy and the market economy. Buddhism that was known to have to been greatly suppressed during the last seven decades is now emerging once again from the ashes of destruction. And no matter whatever steps the Mongolian Buddhist revival goes through, it has to meet, in one way or the other, the requirements of the county’s development, and in this process the Indian Buddhist factor that has a long tradition in Mongolia might remain still furthermore in the years to come. At present it should be properly understood that the former Tibetan variety of Buddhism, that’s Lamaism, cannot be dogmatically restored as it had been before under the rule of the Manchus who encouraged it specially for the purpose of consolidating their domination both in Mongolia and Tibet. The present-day Mongolia needs more radical reforms in the field of religion as well as in all the spheres of life. It is difficult to think that under the present conditions Lamaism can regain is predominant position in the spiritual life of the Mongols and become a guarantee of national and cultural identity as some people believe these days. Today’s Tibet cannot claim any more to be a religious center for the Mongols.

     The question of how the Buddhist revival is really going on at present and what we can expect in the future in another topic to be dealt with separately by a more competent speaker.