What is now generally known of Shamanism is very little; and that has been perverted, like the rest of the non-Christian religions. It is called the "heathenism" of Mongolia, and wholly without reason, for it is one of the oldest religions of India. It is spirit-worship, or belief in the immortality of the souls, and that the latter are still the same men they were on earth, though their bodies have lost their objective form, and man has exchanged his physical for a spiritual nature.
In its present shape, it is an offshoot of primitive theurgy, and a practical blending of the visible with the invisible world. Whenever a denizen of earth desires to enter into communication with his invisible brethren, he has to assimilate himself to their nature, i.e., he meets these beings half-way, and, furnished by them with a supply of spiritual essence, endows them, in his turn, with a portion of his physical nature, thus enabling them sometimes to appear in a semi-objective form. It is a temporary exchange of natures, called theurgy. Shamans are called sorcerers, because they are said to evoke the "spirits" of the dead for purposes of necromancy.
The true Shamanism — striking features of which prevailed in India in the days of Megasthenes (300 B.C.) — can no more be judged by its degenerated scions among the Shamans of Siberia, than the religion of Gautama-Buddha can be interpreted by the fetishism of some of his followers in Siam and Burmah. It is in the chief lamaseries of Mongolia and Thibet that it has taken refuge; and there Shamanism, if so we must call it, is practiced to the utmost limits of intercourse allowed between man and "spirit." The religion of the lamas has faithfully preserved the primitive science of magic, and produces as great feats now as it did in the days of Kublai-Khan and his barons.
The ancient mystic formula of the King Srong-ch-Tsans-Gampo, the "Aum mani padme houm,"* effects its wonders now as well as in the seventh century. Avalokitesvara, highest of the three Boddhisattvas, and patron saint of Thibet, projects his shadow, full in the view of the faithful, at the lamasery of Dga-G'Dan, founded by him; and the luminous form of Son-Ka-pa, under the shape of a fiery cloudlet, that separates itself from the dancing beams of the sunlight, holds converse with a great congregation of lamas, numbering thousands; the voice descending from above, like the whisper of the breeze through foliage. Anon, say the Thibetans, the beautiful appearance vanishes in the shadows of the sacred trees in the park of the lamasery. (Isis Unveiled 2, pp. 615-16)
* Aum (mystic Sanscrit term of the Trinity), mani (holy jewel), padme (in the lotus, padma being the name for lotus), houm (be it so). The six syllables in the sentence correspond to the six chief powers of nature emanating from Buddha (the abstract deity, not Gautama), who is the seventh, and the Alpha and Omega of being.
SHAMANS, or Samaneans. — An order of Buddhists among the Tartars, especially those of Siberia. They are possibly akin to the philosophers anciently known as Brachmanes, mistaken sometimes for Brahmans.* They are all magicians, or rather sensitives or mediums artificially developed. At present those who act as priests among the Tartars are generally very ignorant, and far below the fakirs in knowledge and education. Both men and women may be Shamans.
* From the accounts of Strabo and Megasthenes, who visited Palibothras, it would seem that the persons termed by him Samanean, or Brachmane priests, were simply Buddhists. "The singularly subtile replies of the Samanean or Brahman philosophers, in their interview with the conqueror, will be found to contain the spirit of the Buddhist doctrine," remarks Upham. (See the "History and Doctrine of Buddhism"; and Hale's "Chronology," vol. iii, p. 238.) (Isis Unveiled 1, xl)
Ammian, in his history of Julian's Persian expedition, gives the story by stating that one day Hystaspes, as he was boldly penetrating into the unknown regions of Upper India, had come upon a certain wooded solitude, the tranquil recesses of which were "occupied by those exalted sages, the Brachmanes (or Shamans). Instructed by their teaching in the science of the motions of the world and of the heavenly bodies, and in pure religious rites . . . he transfused them into the creed of the Magi. The latter, coupling these doctrines with their own peculiar science of foretelling the future, have handed down the whole through their descendants to succeeding ages." . (Isis Unveiled 2, p. 306)