excerpted from Altai Bilik by Altai wisdom-keeper N.A. Shodoyev,
translated by Joanna Dobson

“The cradle of Eurasian peoples,” Altai served as a dynamic crossroads on ancient migration routes and sustained close ties with all the great empires and civilizations of Eurasia. Altai is the original homeland of more than thirty Turkic peoples who emigrated throughout Asia as along the branches of a huge tree.

In ancient times Altai served as a common name for all the main mountainous systems located at the heart of Asia, including Tibet, the Himalayas, Karakorum, Sayan, and others. To this day the understanding of “twelve-faceted Kin-Altai” remains alive in folk memory. Kin-Altai translates as “Altai, the Earth’s umbilical cord.” This metaphor conveys the notion that Altai connects the earth with the cosmos and the universe, providing nourishment to the planet—just as a mother provides a child with essential nourishment via the umbilical cord.

The unified image of “twelve-faceted Kin-Altai,” was later reduced into separate parts, but even so, Altai to this day remains a many faceted concept incorporating Gobi Altai, Mongolian Altai and Rudni Altai (Kazakhstan) as well as Russian Altai. At the heart of Asia, Altai is a key source of Asian spirituality; a cradle of religions. Here in Altai in the heart of the indigenous people, the ancient wisdom of rich historical memory has been preserved. This phenomenon and the content of this wisdom is what we know as the Bilik.

A dynamic worldview
The most precious thing a man may possess is wisdom. If the folk wisdom that is accumulated over centuries—reflected in history and held in human memory—continues to develop, made manifest in the thoughts and actions of even a few individuals, then this is surely a treasure in the light of which all material wealth must fade.

At this time of great change, the search for sacred knowledge is intensifying. Whereas some turn to cosmic information, messages from the stars and prophecy, others look to the earth, renewing the ancient knowledge of long forgotten peoples, saving it from oblivion. In contrast, scientists and philosophers are overcoming the limitations of official lines of scientific understanding and developing approaches to an integral understanding of the world that has previously been lost to the past. In the sphere of ecology, science is attempting to rethink the laws of interaction between man and nature. In physics, the theory of the ether as a unified energy with a material basis that connects all constituent parts of the universe, including man, is now re-emerging. In all spheres of human activity, the pull towards the natural foundation of life, towards the unification of man with nature is everywhere seeping through and the necessity for a new spiritual worldview is clearly evident.

The Bilik is like a contemporary myth that abides in the soul of the Altai people, automatically endowing them with a holistic worldview. It is a myth that is constantly evolving. It simultaneously incorporates ancient wisdom while embracing contemporary science. The content of the Bilik is constantly being re-assimilated philosophically and serves as a prism, through which solutions to contemporary problems may be found.

The Altai Bilik is a nation’s ancient and sacred treasure. Due to its figurative form, having been passed from generation to generation in oral culture, history and behavioral codes, the Bilik has been maintained by the contemporary Altai people, at least in its most essential form. This knowledge exists today in the people’s memory, traditions, customs, and views rather than in written form. As in the past, the way of life and peculiarities of a people’s world view are defined consciously or unconsciously, by their historical roots reaching down through time to ancient Altai.

Aspects of this knowledge have been preserved in cultural monuments, museum pieces, cult signs, and rock carvings. The myths and legends of the Altai people continue to live in the consciousness of the older and the younger generations, not yet being consigned to the category of lifeless, literary monuments.

The Bilik contains within it a particular and wise perception of the universe, Nature and human society that draws on the collective experience of centuries. It reveals a profound relationship to life, a deep understanding of natural energies and rhythms and a keen feeling for the dramatic contradictions of our time.

The Altai word Bilik combines several ideas that over the centuries have developed from one common root. Bilik conveys the meaning of the words knowledge, cognition, wisdom, and science. With the separation of rational science from common, holistic Knowledge the word Bilik was replaced by bilim, illustrating the internal wisdom of folk language. The suffix -im in the Altai language is used as a third person plural verb ending and so Bilim conveys the sense that the Bilik is linked with action and with “doing.” We all face the choice of living a life of routine service, simply acquiring knowledge without truly assimilating it, or treading the difficult but spiritual road to wisdom through experiential cognition of the world.

There are few corners of Russia, indeed of the world, where a native people has succeeded in preserving its indigenous culture, its intimate links with Nature, and a worldview inherent in the specific environmental characteristics of its geographical landscape. In Altai, this has been possible due to the unique properties of the natural environment, which for the time being, have protected this region from the intrusion of the standards of contemporary civilization. The natural world has installed in the Altai people an integral perception of the world and a way of life based on the heart as well as the mind.

One has to acknowledge, however, that the deep crisis taking place in Russia in the material and spiritual arenas of life as well as in traditional value systems often manifests in Altai in even more acute and critical forms. Problems include destruction of the traditional way of life, a precarious material existence in contrast with the potential opportunities of contemporary technology and the penetration of the cult of money. The influence of foreign culture and political manipulation all ultimately undermine the original culture and way of life of the indigenous Altai people.

Despite all the aforementioned problems there is hope that the spiritual energy of Altai and ancient wisdom of the Altai people will find the key to these most complex of contemporary problems. One encouraging sign is the extraordinary brilliance of spiritual and healing abilities and clairvoyance becoming evident in a large number of individuals in Altai. A renewal of Tengri and White Faith is taking place; people gather together for public prayer meetings and observe national festivals. Ecological and awareness-raising movements are also being formed. This type of work is being carried out by the descendants of Altai prophets, shamans, yarlikchi (supporters of White Faith), and folk tellers who have the ability to communicate with the subtle worlds. Through their actions ancient knowledge is being concentrated, transformed, and directed towards the search for solutions to contemporary problems.

At the present time the Altai Mountains, which spread through Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, are once again opening up to the world, absorbing new ideas, knowledge and technology, and receiving scientists, researchers, spiritual seekers, and tourists from different corners of the planet.