Genghis Khan’s was first and foremost an environmentalist. That is, his environmental awareness was at the center of his legitimacy. Indeed, the regional mode of nomadism is itself the living embodiment of environmentalism–of treading lightly on the Earth, of respect for the cycles of renewal, of respect for land and water. Genghis Khan consolidated his power on the basis of his attunement to natural laws. When the Mongolian Empire was founded in 1206, he codified the best practices of the ancient ways into a body of law, Yassa (meaning “custom” in modern Mongolian), that attempted to regulate human activity by maintaining balance with Father Sky and Mother Earth. If a particular custom seemed counterproductive, Genghis Khan discarded it.
His code of laws was a distillation of nomadic environmental wisdom, social rules that supported and fostered communal viability, and an ideological vision derived from spiritual traditions. As Dr. Shagdaryn Bira writes in his majestic and highly prescient work “Mongolian Tenggerism”: “It was a belief in the Tenggeri (Heaven-God) that inspired and motivated the unprecedented rise of the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and this belief was eventually developed to the point where it constituted a cohesive political theory that can be called Tenggerism or Heavenism.” This was further developed to a form of indigenous universalism that sought unity in the human community, promoting religious freedom and affirming the goodness of common purpose. While this body of law (for all its power and consistency) was kept largely secret and its text diffused across numerous sources (a consolidated version is still undiscovered), it was cannily observant of all relevant phenomena and was unprecedented in its universal claims. Tenggerism also lacked a consolidated text, yet, it too, brought extraordinary clarity to the aspirations of the Empire.
While drawing on ancient Shamanic sources, Genghis Khan was engaged in a very immediate way as an innovator in a rapidly changing political situation. He would forge an form of internationalism in which disparate populations could benefit from a highly connected system that rested as much on freedom of belief as on loyalty to the Great and Sacred State, to which even the practice of Shamanism was subordinate. This rapidly evolving holistic structure was prodigiously capable of absorbing entire cultures and combining the advances and talents of each to generate astounding technological and intellectual achievement. This brilliantly administered and synergistic state proved a powerful determinant in world history: without Genghis Khan’s innovations, Russia and China would not exist today and the Renaissance would most likely not have occurred–and it is possible that the more progressive seeds of today’s internationalism might still be waiting to sprout.
Each culture absorbed gained access to an efficient system of trade, an unparalleled communication network (the horseback postal service “arrow messengers”). And under the aegis of Mongolian Tenggerism, all faiths (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism) flourished in a spirit of open discourse and mutual respect. Nourished by millenia of tradition, Tenggerism was transfigured into a cohesive ideology that served as a basis for an international spiritual order. Genghis Khan himself was and is regarded as a Shaman himself, in whose person the extraordinary secular duties merged with the sacred. Through the agency of the Khan’s charisma, the Empire retained the Mandate of Heaven.
Genghis Khan was absolute in insisting that the rule of law applied to all equally, including himself. He is the first great leader to publicy declare his own subservience to law. He cautioned that this sacred principle must be maintained. He demanded that his successors do likewise or risk disunity. This warning against extra-judiciality was heeded for roughly fifty years after his death, at which point a carelessness in the application of law did indeed begin to erode the vast empire’s unity.
Today we face a similar legal fork in the road. International law gives expression to the highest awareness of human beings in terms that acknowledge interdependence among Peoples and with the environment. It affirms the sacredness of the human person and recognizes rights and duties as universal principles emanating from “higher law”. Its rapid development since 1948 still finds us much delinquent in meeting its letter with action. We see that this has brought us to an existential precipice, where mass starvation and environmental collapse loom as a result of insidious tendencies to disregard international law. International law now offers the human race something more than a mere codification of positive law. It offers itself to us now as an ethical system, a way forward, a way of inclusion, a mode of sustainable governance. And it is my belief that we must rally around it and work to uphold it or face catastrophe.
“Today, increasing numbers of people consider that modern globalization is becoming too technocratic and egocentric, and that it fails to take into consideration many serious problems of the world, such as poverty, inequality, insecurity. . . . It would seem that today’s globalization in its current form, cries out for a more fundamental and humanistic philosophy that could be acceptable to everyone the world over, regardless of religious, cultural or other differences. This, of course, represents an extremely hard task to fulfill and would require enormous effort and will from humanity. Yet, it might be argued that there is no alternative.”
–Dr. Shagdaryn Bira
My belief–and the crucial point of collaboration between Dr. Bira and myself–is that international law offers such a realization of higher will and that through developing its mechanisms and our own understanding, we may transcend our current dangers.
Infused in the concept of sustainable development is a living concept that echoes Mongolian Tenggerism, which itself affirms what the global indigenous movement is expressing with increasing urgency. It is my view that the Indigenous voice is the most unified and relevant voice in current human discourse.
Increasingly, the struggle for indigenous rights is finding common cause with the struggle for the rights of all. In the words of Tom Goldtooth: “We are all in the same canoe.”