From the desk of Paul Sivert…
We define the practice of Shamanism as a family of traditions whose practioners focus on voluntarily entering altered state of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirits traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entitles in order to serve their community. This definition comes from Roger M Walsh, MD and PhD, from his book The Spirit of Shamanism. Recently in a presentation to a group of senior medical students from the University of Maryland I was asked, “Is Shamanism a religion?” My answer to their inquiry was that Shamanism is not a religion. However, it does seem important to compare and contrast “Shamanism” and “religion”.
Four major components of a religion are: a history with a salvific individual, a theology, the holy text, and ritualistic practice. When we examine major world religions such as Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism, we can identify the leader of each of these religious movements. The leader gathered a following of disciples or students that brought support, structure, and further development to their religious beliefs.
Shamans, by contrast, do not have a following. A Shaman is interested in practicing their spiritual healing techniques but generally is not interested in forming a group of people to perpetuate a theology or religious structure.
The presence of a holy text is easily identifiable in many world religions, such as the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Shamanism does not honor one definitive divine source document for its beliefs. Traditions of spiritual healing practices have been handed down usually by word of mouth throughout generations. As with the major religions Shamanism was developed and practiced long before there was written word. Many Shamans in the recent past did not write down their practices.
Another aspect of religion is theology. Religion has a system of beliefs and “talk” about the divine which forms the basis for beliefs. Sometimes these beliefs spring from the holy text of the religion and in other situations they are manifested in other forms. The system of beliefs lead to the practice of religion, the final component of religion.
The practice of religion is the internal and external regular organized ritual expressions of the religion by its practitioners usually with an identified leader of the religion presenting or presiding over ceremony. Some examples are mass, marriage ceremony, and ordination of the religious leaders. Like many religious leaders Shamans are generally called in a spiritual encounter, and initiated by themselves or others to practice the rituals/ceremonies that come from the theological beliefs of the traditions.
Though not a religion, Shamanism is an application of beliefs. These beliefs are spiritually based and applied to the Shaman’s healing work. This is perhaps its greatest commonality with religion, as most religions also have an element of spirituality which propels one to help others. Shamanism is an application of religious tradition which has some religious elements but it does not contain the essential components of religion.