Religious Rituals in the Tyva Republic


A review of Finding Minds in the Natural World: Dynamics of the Religious System in the Tyva Republic, by Benjamin Purzycki.

This dissertation represents an ambitious attempt at formulating an overarching theoretical framework for the interpretation of Inner Asian religions within the characteristic socio-ecological settings of this culturally and ethnically diverse region of northern Asia. Parts of this research, which draws on the author’s fieldwork in Tyva [Tuva], have been published in several internationally renowned journals such as Sibirica (2010) and Religion, Brain, and Behavior (2011).

From the outset, the author’s objective of grasping and analyzing the constituents of the observed socio-ecological phenomenon as an Inner Asian “religious system” is explicitly demonstrated in his thesis’ introductory parts and consistently pursued throughout the dissertation. He presents a complex and well articulated systematization of religious concepts and symbolisms, as well as of historically evolved patterns of subsistence and social organization among the traditionally hunting and pastoralist indigenous peoples of Tyva and Inner Asia, on the basis of an extensive survey of the cognitive and evolutionary scholarship on religion and human ecological adaptation. Through this challenging research, he analyzes the dynamic interactions between human cognitive processes and social/environmental factors and constraints specific to Inner Asia, since these interactions inform the contours of certain kinds of religious experience and practice in the Tyvan territory.

For this purpose, the author sets about to construct a cognitive and an anthropologically minded framework for the interpretation of intriguing animistic and shamanistic patterns of Inner Asian religiosity. This is a hitherto unique project, given that this scholarship mostly examines relevant cognitive processes among Western societies. Thus, in formulating a cognitive science of religion with special reference to Inner Asia’s pastoralist societies and their animistic spiritual traditions and cults, the author advocates a view of this religious phenomenon as enabling kinds of adaptation as a response to socio-ecological constraints experienced by people who share this region’s natural resources for their livelihood. As he rightly argues, public expressions of respect for various spiritual agents believed to preside over the landscapes of Tyva – customs involving ritual offerings and libations at sacred sites – convey signals of trustworthiness, minimizing the risk of conflict resulting from perceived encroachments of one’s own territory by strangers passing by. Hence, the ritual uses of particular locales at the crossings between various territories traditionally occupied by different social groups in the Tyvan provinces are highly suggestive of the workings of cognitive mechanisms promoting this kind of religious expression, and religion in general, as an evolutionary investment in ‘pro-social’ behaviors. In other words, these rituals demand an economic sacrifice as a signal of ideological commitment to local ideas of solidarity.

Tyva, as the author renders it, is excellently suited for the purposes of this project, owing to its old leanings to Buddhism and shamanism, the great religious traditions of Inner Asia, as well as to its complex history as a territory successively conquered by various (Turk, Mongol and Manchu Chinese) dynasties before its annexation by Soviet Russia only in 1944 and its post-1990s declaration as an Autonomous Republic within the Russian Federation. Drawing on a wealth of historical and archaeological resources, Purzycki aptly documents the centrality of ancient ritual cults of stone monuments such as petroglyphs, which abound in Tyva and in other areas of Inner Asia, as well as emergent patterns of territoriality and the domestication of animals, leading to the formation of the Empires of the Eurasian steppes. Monuments, along with their spirit masters and the rituals associated with them, play a crucial function in this progressive compartmentalization of the landscape, as they enhance in-group solidarity, instruct compliance with the occupying group’s morals, and finally signal to outsiders a community’s internal cohesion.

The fact that religious rituals often play a socially integrative role can hardly be denied, and the evidence the author brings from present-day Tyva attests to this conclusion. In a region like Tyva, where strands of clan and religious loyalty proved to be remarkably resilient even against Soviet repressive policies and have been reinvigorated since the early 1990s, it is expected that trust and intimacy between ethnic Tyvans are more likely to involve mutual beliefs in the importance of performing rituals according to the custom, as he argues persuasively.

Of special relevance for his argument of a socio-ecological adaptive function of certain kinds of religiosity in Tyva is his analysis of the “ritual cairn” complex. These ritual cairns, known locally as ovaa and found all over Inner Asia, consist of piles of stones usually with branches atop decorated with ribbons, which ethnic Tyvans supplicate in honoring their ancestors or the spirits of a particular locality or while travelling along the way of an ovaa. A common belief in Tyva is that these cairns are the abodes of spirit masters, who oversee acts of human (mis-)conduct before this sacred space and in its vicinities. Purzycki presents some very interesting data on certain Tyvan informants’ thoughts regarding these spirit masters’ views about which behaviors are appraised and which ones are dismissed. It emerges through these informants’ reflections that the spirit masters are especially attentive to kinds of transgression and inadvertent behavior which entail ecological costs; that is, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and defiling the land or showing disrespect for the sanctity of the space falling within their authority. An equally interesting finding is that a fraction of these informants’ responses raised issues of social morality, such as refraining from drinking or fighting and looking after one’s own family, which these spirit masters would take into account in evaluating human persons entering their space. But, it is primarily behaviors jeopardizing the ecological equilibrium which these spirits are concerned with, something that reaffirms the author’s thesis of an Inner Asian religious complex as an evolutionary offspring of a special human adaptation to the socio-ecological conditions and constrains of this region.

Purzycki deserves full credit for his accomplishments in this dissertation. His analytic boldness and sophistication in articulating a voluminous amount of historical and ethnographic data from Tyva and broadly Inner Asia with pioneering theories from cognitive and evolutionary sciences provide valuable insights regarding levels of religious experience and knowledge, which are sometimes overshadowed by our taken-for-granted anthropological reliance on such categories as “society” and “culture.”

Konstantinos Zorbas
Department of Anthropology
Shandong University

Primary Sources
Translated Tyvan Prayers
Ethnographic Interviews about Tyva Ritual and Belief
Report of Tyvan beliefs about local spirits’ knowledge and concerns
Cross-cultural study of how people reason about gods’ minds
Experimental study of the relationship between trust and ritual cairn use in Tyva

Dissertation Information
University of Connecticut. 2012. 505 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Sosis.

Image: Ceremony in the Tuva Republic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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