Nepali Times Asian Paints
Shamanism, Korea's spiritual core

Bowls of fruit are laid out on the altar. There are also bottles of whiskey and a meter-high stack of Marlboro cigarette cartons. With a grin, Korean shaman Tae Eul says his gods like to drink and smoke.

You'd be mistaken if you thought tech-savvy South Koreans only worshiped smartphones and the latest cars -- many believe in an ancient, animistic spirituality. At the center of Korean shamanism is the mudang, or shaman, the medium between the material and spirit world.

"People hear about me through word of mouth," explains Eul, from inside his temple on the slopes of Korea's Mt Samgak. "I try to figure out how the energy of the universe flows through, then the gods show the way."
The 38-year-old shaman says that even if he wanted to stop being a mudang, he couldn't -- the spirits control him now. Inside his mountain temple, a robed Eul asks a Korean woman to light candles and bow in front of an altar as he summons the gods of the mountain and sky and calls out to her ancestors.

Amid the crashing of cymbals and the blaring of a horn, Tae Eul stands barefoot on knife blades that somehow do not puncture his skin. He spins in circles waving a sword in one hand and a silk scarf in the other.

After the ceremony is complete, Tae Eul says his client will be fine. The gods have opened a door for her to solve her financial problems, he says, and will make sure she'll spend her money more wisely and have a luckier future.

Shamanism is the indigenous faith of the Korean people and despite centuries of influence from other religions, it still appears in many aspects of modern life there. Tae Eul says that many of his clients are not necessarily believers in shamanism. Some are often devoutly religious in other faiths.

In Korea, religious beliefs are not always mutually exclusive. For example, a mother might pray at a church, then a Buddhist temple, and then visit a mudang all in hope of bringing good luck to her family. It's this intrinsic search for spiritually divined good luck that keeps the nation's 50,000 mudangs in business, says David Mason, author of Sacred Mountains, a book on Korean shamanism.

"He adds: Koreans are still shamanic believers at the core of their psychology and then layers of Buddhism or Confucianism, then Christianity and modern scientific thinking as the outer layers."

First broadcast on Asia Calling

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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)