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Notes on the History of the Shamanic in Tibet and Inner Asia

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Historical treatments of the shaman have often been crippled by dubious and untestable assumptions on the nature of shamanic religion. Anthropological investigations in their turn have seldom dealt with historical issues in any depth. The first part of this contribution attempts to point out the advantages and dangers involved in applying an anthropological perspective to historical issues. A broad definition of the shaman is proposed which is anthropological in intent, while avoiding some possible errors in method.

The second part of the article begins by documenting the “shamanic sickness” — widely acknowledged in the ethnological literature — in the careers of several tertons (major figures in the history of Tibetan Buddhism), illustrating that the shamanic role was not limited to the healing and divination that are usually associated with Inner Asian shamans. Buddhist derivations for the names of shamans in modern non-Buddhist cultures are presented; these argue for an association between Buddhism and the shamanic in early Inner Asia that went deeper than the mutual borrowing of cultural forms commonly supposed to have taken place.

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