More Alive Than All the Living: Sovereign Bodies and Cosmic Politics in Buddhist Siberia

Abstract

This article explores religious practice among Buryats, a Siberian people, through scholarship on sovereignty and the body. Under conditions of rapid social transformation such as those that accompanied the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, certain religious bodies became key sites through which Buryats have negotiated their relationship with the Russian state and the larger Tibeto-Mongol and Eurasian Buddhist worlds. Despite the Russian government’s continuing reluctance to see its subjects cross borders, Buryats have maintained their long-standing mobility—across spatial borders of nation-states and temporal horizons between life and death—by employing characteristically Buddhist “body politics” that can both conform to and diplomatically challenge Russian logics of political rule. Specific bodies constructed by some Buryat Buddhists as “ideal sovereigns”—bodies that are fluid, mobile across time and space, and transgressive of geopolitical borders and, ultimately, death—become metonymic for broader cosmic processes.

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RIA Novosti, "Russian president Dmitry Medvedev with the lamas of Ivolginskii monastery, shortly after Medvedev’s nomination as the White Tara." August 2009.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on postsocialism, including Smoki Musaraj’s “Tales From Albarado: The Materiality of Pyramid Schemes in Postsocialist Albania” (2011), Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak’s “American Stiob: Or,What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal About Contemporary Political Culture in the West” (2010), and Nancy Ries’s “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” (2009).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on Buddhism. See for example, Ernestine McHugh’s “Contingent Selves: Love and Death in a Buddhist Society in Nepal” (2002) and Robert Desjarlais’s “Echoes of a Yolmo Buddhist’s Life, in Death” (2000).  

About the Author

Anya Bernstein is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Michigan Society of Fellows. She will be joining Harvard University in the fall 2012 as an Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Social Studies. As a cultural anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, her main work to date has been on the changing geopolitical imaginaries of mobile religious communities across Eurasia. She has just completed  a book manuscript that explores the transformation of Buddhist practice among a Siberian indigenous people known as Buryats, foremost through their post-Soviet renewal of transnational ties with their fellow co-religionists across north and south Asia. The book focuses on the ways in which religion and politics have intersected under conditions of rapid social change in terms raised by recent work on sovereignty and postsocialist body politics. As a visual anthropologist, Bernstein has directed, filmed, and produced several documentary films on Buryat Buddhism and shamanism, including Join Me in Shambhala (2002) and In Pursuit of the Siberian Shaman (2006). She has also started an additional project on visuality, religion, and secularism in Russia focused on recent image wars around contemporary art.

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Anya Bernstein, "Buryat pilgrims with Zhibalha Rinpoche, another Tibetan lama with “Buryat roots.” Drepung Gomang monastery, South India." February 2008.

Interview with Anya Bernstein

Darren Byler: As you argue in the article, part of what postsocialist Buryat religious practice establishes is a form of “cultural sovereignty” as a minority population, not only in Russia and Siberia, but also in the Asian Buddhist world. Could you trace some of the fundamental historical, geographical and linguistic similarities and differences among Buriyat Buddhists, Mongolian Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists?

Anya Bernstein: Buryats are very closely related to Mongolians, both linguistically, ethnically, and geographically. The establishment of a Sino-Russian frontier in 1727 separated the northern Mongol communities, who found themselves on different sides of the border. Scholars define Buryats as  “those northern Mongol tribes which decided they wished to remain in the Tsarist Russian Empire” (Humphrey 1999 [1983]: 27-28). Culturally both Mongolians and Buryats are quite distinct from Tibetans, although since Buddhism spread to Buryat communities in the Transbaikal from Tibet via Mongolia in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth centuries, they became linked by ties of religious kinship. Having received Buddhism quite late and then having it almost wiped out by the Soviet anti-religious campaigns, Buryats now find themselves in a controversial relationship with Mongolian but especially, Tibetan Buddhists, who, on the one hand, are viewed as idealized sites of Buddhist development, but on the other, as foreign “missionaries” against whom an “indigenous” Buryat Buddhism must be defined.

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Anya Bernstein, "Buryat pilgrims in India. Drepung Gomang monastery, South India." February 2008.

DB: Of course Tibet and Mongolia are quite different geopolitically, yet both certainly operate under what you refer to as a Buddhist “body politics.” In terms of the individual bodies of Russian leaders becoming “metonymical for larger processes,” why do we not see Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhists associating Buddhist deities with non-Buddhist leaders of important aid organizations or, in the Tibetan case, Hu Jintao? What is it that makes the Buryat case so unique?

AB: Buryats are in a unique position, because they manage to use their long-standing alliance with Russia to strengthen their position in the Asian Buddhist world. The Russian state, from imperial times to the present, always supported the autonomy of Buryat Buddhists, trying to prevent potential loyalties to Mongolian and Tibetan religious leaders and secure this sensitive border region. Historically, it was common for Tibetan Buddhists to transfer the notion of emanation into the secular realm. Thus, sacralized historical figures have often been proclaimed to be manifestations of deities: Genghis Khan was considered a manifestation of the fierce bodhisattva Vajrapani, the Qing emperor Qianlong an emanation of Manjusri, while the Russian emperors were widely believed to be the emanation of the goddess White Tara. For contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, it would be impossible to declare Hu Jintao a Buddhist deity, especially in light of turmoil in the present Tibet. There have been at least twenty-nine self-immolations of Tibetans in the last twelve months, some expressly to protest Hu Jintao’s policies. These corporeal acts of self-violence are a form of emerging Tibetan necropolitics. Thus, both Buryat and Tibetan contemporary body politics are assertions of cultural sovereignty, albeit in quite different political contexts.

DB: Your paper raises interesting questions regarding recent scholarship on sovereignty. While much of this emerging work (Cattelino 2008; Winegar 2006) relates sovereignty to political economy, your paper focuses on “religious bodies politic.” Could you sketch out the ways in which this form of Buddhist “body politics” relates to rapid social and economic transformations? What sort of economic circumstances are entwined in the transnational necropolitics you describe?

AB: Although the article does not address political economy, as such, head on, these issues are an important part of my work. Like most nominally autonomous republics within the Russian Federation, Buryatia does not exercise economic autonomy in any meaningful way. The language used by the Russian government in this regards is striking: republics that are not subsidized are called “donor” republics while subsidized regions are called “donees” (in Russian, regiony-donory and dotatsionnye regiony, from the Latin verb “dotare” related to the Russian verb “davat’”, “to give”).  It is the “donor” regions that have been among the most reluctant to drop the last references to sovereignty from their respective constitutions in 2009, while the “donee” republics are constantly at risk of losing their status altogether. The shifting of givers and takers is endemic to histories of sovereignty, as is well documented in another post-Soviet context (Grant 2009).  In my work, I draw on the links between this language of givers and takers, body politics, and postsocialist economic transformations through the analysis of what is known as the chöd ritual (a tantric practice of “giving” one’s body to spiritual beings), which, in its contemporary Buryat iteration, renegotiates the ever-shifting give-and-take between the so-called karmic creditors and debtors. I also explore the specifically Buddhist dimensions of the much discussed issue of “markets and moralities” in postsocialist life (Bernstein n.d.).

DB: In your conclusion you mention that “bodies by virtue of being sites of resistance to sovereign violence, can themselves be considered sovereign.” How does this sort of sovereignty play out on the ground? To what extent is it interdependent on other sovereignties? What does it allow Buryats to do?

AB: The statement you quote relates to my interest in drawing links between body sovereignty and political sovereignty. I wanted to understand what kinds of bodies become sites for the articulation of cultural sovereignty and found that, in the Buryat Buddhist context, these are the bodies that are permeable, mobile across time and space, and transgressive of geopolitical borders and, ultimately, death. These are the figures of lamas who refuse to die when shot by the Soviet commissars, those who rematerialize after the end of socialism, like Itigelov, or those who transgress the borders between hostile nation-states, like Buryat lama Galsan Ledgen, who died in Chinese Tibet, but whose Tibetan successor managed to make it back and play an important role in postsocialist Buryatia. These metonymic bodies allow Buryats to reassert their sovereignty not so much vis-à-vis the Russian state, but to claim their place in the larger Buddhist world, where until now, they have occupied a rather marginalized position.

Inline_dsc00862 Anya Bernstein, "'Palace of Itigelov,' under construction, Buryatia." August 2008.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Who are the important actors discussed in the article?  What are their roles in cultural sovereignty and postsocialist politics? What is the relationship between ‘transnationalism’ and ‘postsocialism’ mentioned by the author?

2. What do you think is accomplished by associating Dmitry Medvedev with a Buddhist deity?

3. What do you think the author means by ‘necropolitcs’?  What are ways in which you understand death?  How can we understand ideas of death as being related to politics?

4. Why does the author ask us to consider bodies as potential sites of resistance to sovereign violence?  How does locating resistance in the body help us understand the relationship between performativity and protest?

5. Do you think the concept of ‘sovereignty’ clarifies Buriyat Buddhist transnational body politics?  Why or why not?

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Anya Bernstein, "Buryat pilgrims with Kentul Rinpoche (Galsan Legden in past life). Drepung Gomang monastery, South India." February 2008.

Related Readings

Bernstein, Anya. "The Post-Soviet Treasure Hunt: Time, Space, and Necropolitics in Siberian Buddhism." Comparative Studies in Society and History 53.3(2011): 632–653.

Bernstein, Anya. Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism. Forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Cattelino, Jessica R. High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty. Durham, NC:Duke University Press, 2008.

Grant, Bruce. The Captive and the Gift. Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

__________. "Shrines and Sovereigns: Life, Death, and Religion in Rural Azerbaijan." Comparative Studies in Society and History 53.3(2011):654–681.  

Humphrey, Caroline. Marx Went Away—But Karl Stayed Behind. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999 [1983].  

Lock, Margaret, and Judith Farquhar, eds. Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Sharp, Leslie A. "Commodification of the Body and its Parts." Annual Review of Anthropology 29(2007):287–328.

Starks, Tricia. The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Steinberg, Mark D., and Catherine Wanner, eds. Religion, Morality, and Community in Post-Soviet Societies. Washington DC:Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism. The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.

__________. "Some Mahayana Buddhist Perspectives on the Body." In Religion and the Body. S. Coakley, ed. Pp. 205–231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Winegar, Jessica. "Cultural Sovereignty in a Global Art Economy: Egyptian Cultural Policy and the New Western Interest in Art from the Middle East." Cultural Anthropology 21.1(2006):173–204.

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