Ritual Feast and Transpersonal Experience: Ossetian Religious Traditionalists in Search of Legitimization of Their Revivalist Projects

Sergei Shtyrkov

The Republic of North Ossetia is special among other North Caucasian national republics of Russia (“national” means having a non-Russian ethnic majority as the main nation, the titular ethnic group). North Ossetia has got the reputation of a special national republic because it is the only one in the region that has no Muslim majority. Sometimes, for outsiders, Ossetians even look like the only Orthodox native people of the North Caucasus.

However, the situation is not so simple. If one would have a look at it from inside one could see that until recent years the most widespread expression to define the nature of the religious situation in the Ossetian society was (and still is) a ‘mixture’ – either of Christianity, Islam, and local paganism or of Christianity and some local superstitions. Plus, some people in Ossetia did not want to represent the nature of their practices, discussed by scholars and national activists as religious ones, in terms of religion. Until very recent times, for the majority the things which a researcher may recognize as evidence of a religious cult (for example, practice of pilgrimage to local sacred places) were just ethnic or even local traditions.

At the end of the last century such uncertainty as to what the Ossetian ethnic religion actually is ceased to be convenient for a large part of the Ossetian elite, and attempts were made to apply religious terms to traditional practices in order to explain their functions and significance for North Ossetia today. Then, some ethnic religious activists began to speak first about native Ossetian paganism, and then about pre-Christian (ancient Aryan) monotheism. Some of them call it Uats-din (that can be translated as “the Holy faith”), some use other terms (Ass-din or Iron-din, that is the “Ossetian faith”). For many that conception of ethnic religion correlates directly with a conception of a particular historical way of the Ossetian people as an ethnic nation. Orthodox activists also joined the discussion and tried to represent Ossetian ethnic culture as an Orthodox one per se.

As to the religious nativists one can say that supporters of many ethnic religion projects proceed from the idea that every ethnic group has (or had or has to have) its peculiar religion, just as it has its language and culture. For these activists it is very important to represent ethnic traditional beliefs, rituals, and other practices as elements of a particular religion. From this point of view, Christianity is dangerous and harmful for ethnic groups because it is an international and even cosmopolitan religion by its nature. Sometimes it is considered as a forerunner and symbol of current processes of globalization. According to this perspective, Christianity is brought to non-Christian peoples by aliens and their voluntary or deceived allies.

In our case, the leaders of the Ossetian nativist movement cannot just renounce Christianity as a ‘religion of aliens’ – Russians and Georgians because many Ossetians consider Orthodox Christianity as the faith of their glorious ancestors – Alans. So, religious nationalists have to spend much time and other resources on explanations of their anti-Christian position. Daurbek Makeev, a bright leader or even the ideological head of the movement, a former judo trainer, tried to be more persuasive in representing Christianity not only as a colonizing project, but also as a means of secret influence of Jewry and the West on the ethnic cultures of non-Christian peoples, i. e. as an instrument of Jewish (Western) “spiritual” imperialism.

In order to make their project look more reliable and thorough, the Ossetian nativists developed their activities in two ways. Firstly, they started to officially register their communities as religious organizations. Secondly, their ideologists began to revise the very meaning of the term “religion”. The purpose of this revision was to prove that their project did not seem to be religious only to narrow-minded Christians and Muslims who were not familiar with the achievements of actual present-day science. Obviously, an important aspect of this criticism was the protest against cultural colonialism on the part of religious and academic professionals, who referred to the Christian-centered understanding of religion as a basis for their judgement of non-Christian religions. In order to achieve the goals of their opponents’ criticism of their conceptual apparatus, the ideological leaders of Uats-din had to become professional experts in Religious Studies and acquire relevant skills in discourse.

For example, Daurbek Makeev does his best to transfer his activities from the field of religious activism into the sphere of academic practices. Now he takes the floor at various academic conferences. He writes some of his texts in collaboration with Zaur Tsoraev, Ph.D, who teaches philosophy at the North-Ossetian State University (Vladikavkaz). Speaking on local television, Daurbek does not introduce himself as a religious activist, as he did a decade ago, but as a scholar in Religious Studies who writes academic books and articles.

A traditionalist Iron-din priest gives an interview to a local TV channel at the mountain Ossetian shrine Rekomy dzuar ©Sergei Shtyrkov, 2018

Makeev’s academic discursive style is close enough to the political traditionalist utopia sought by the European New Right (de Benoist, 1981) and Mircea Eliade’s phenomenology of religion. Thus, Makeev’s main methodological presupposition is that every little detail in a folk epic song or ritual has a deep meaning going back to some ancient conditions of mankind when it was not yet destroyed by destructive modernization. In this case, an academic reconstruction of that lost meaning has to return the initial sense of social and personal harmony to modern life.

Besides, Makeev is sure that religion exists for real as a universal phenomenon for all of humanity (meaning that it is outside of our social imagination). And if it is so, then this phenomenon can and must be defined as a universal phenomenon. We find this definition in a book (in a paragraph on “Religion and Religious studies”) of the Russian scholar of religion Evgeny Torchinov (1956–2003), who proceeded from works by the Czech-American psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (b. 1931), one of the co-founders the transpersonal psychology. Torchinov was a renowned expert on a non-Abrahamic religion – Buddhism. This circumstance made Torchinov’s opinion particularly important to Makeev, since it guaranteed that this view of things would not be Christianity-centered.

The scientist [Torchinov] set himself the goal to derive a common defining feature of all existing religions. The implementation of this task required not only theoretical knowledge of religious cultures, religious studies, theology, psychology, but also some practical religious experience. Based on a huge amount of material, he came up with a general definition that sounds like this: it is “a complex of ideas, beliefs, doctrines, elements of a cult, ritual and other forms of practice, based on the certain transpersonal experience and suggesting a reproduction of this basic experience” (Makeev 2017, 19 cited Torchinov 1998, 64).

To make the concept of transpersonal experience clearer for their readers who are not so familiar Makeev gives a citation from the Russian Wikipedia on defining the term “transpersonal psychology”.

Transpersonal psychology is a field in psychology which studies transpersonal experience, altered states of consciousness and religious experience, connecting current psychological conceptions, theories and methods with traditional Western and Eastern spiritual practices. The main ideas of Transpersonal psychology are based on is non-dualism and mind expansion beyond the usual limits of Ego (Makeev 2017, 20).

Those references to transpersonal psychology are neitherincidental nor accidental because they broaden the general perspective for religious creativity in the spirit of New Age spirituality, which at the same time can be considered as an academic practice of re-describing well-known phenomena (Ossetian ritual practices in our case) in terms of Comparative Religion and (or) Science of Psychology. Let us read a detail of Makeev’s typical (re)description of the ritual feast (kuyvd).

Spirits at a kuyvd are used to enter artificially into the state of mind expansion and non-dualism, that is, into the state of transpersonal experience. That was not the state of hallucinations at all. That was the state of natural relaxation and light inhibition of a cascade of uncontrolled vain thoughts (such a state can be reached without liquor as well). The ancient priests used spirits only for sacred repasts at feasts prayers for definition of landmarks in reaching states of mind expansion and non-dualism. This state of natural relaxation and inhibition by it from vain thoughts facilitates concentration and intensifies praying wishes (Makeev 2017, 134).

The search for new (?) deep meanings in old practices is very characteristic for some trends in New Age spirituality and ethnic traditionalism overlapping in forms of new paganism or other nativist religious or “not-religious-but-spiritual” movements. We can see how “hidden wisdom of ages” is represented in terms of an ultra-modern and simultaneously anti-modern project of total re-representation of the whole world (and reframing religious phenomena) in order to avoid control by modern institutions such as “traditional” religions and “traditional” academic regimes of truth.

References

de Benoist, Alain. Comment peut-on être païen? Paris: Albin Michel, 1981.

{Makeev} Макеев, Д. Б. Æсс дин. Народная религия. Владикавказ: ИПЦ «Литера», 2017.

{Torchinov} Торчинов, Е. А. Религии мира. Опыт запредельного. Трансперсональные состояния и психотехника. СПб: Петербургское Востоковедение, 1998.


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