Ideology and Religion in Ancient Korea
(Vol.43. No.4 Winter, 2003 pp.10~29)
Na Hee La
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The ancient Korean people believed that to build an ideal society it was necessary to maintain harmony between the world of humans and that of the gods. In ancient Korea, such a worldview was transmitted through myth and reinforced through religious rituals led by shamans who communicated with gods. Shamans provided information about the divine world. Based on the information, people formed their worldview and bestowed values to it. Therefore, the shamanistic worldview and shamans played a significant role in seizing and maintaining power in ancient Korean society. Moreover, those groups wanting to seize and strengthen political power also sought to monopolize myth and rituals. Between the fourth and sixth centuries, the communal structure of ancient Korean society began to disintegrate, as social specialization developed rapidly with increased agricultural productivity. It was during this period that Buddhism was first introduced to Korea. Those who sought a new social order and who became increasingly aware of both the self and the individual turned to Buddhism for answers.
Keywords: worldview of ancient Korea, shamanism, shaman, divine kingship, myth, rite, Buddhism
Types: Articles
Subject: Religion , Anthropology
About the author(s) Na Hee La (Na, Hui-ra) is Reseach Professor of Institute of Humanities Science at University of Ulsan. She received her Ph.D. in Korean History from Seoul National University in 1999. She has authored many books and articles including Silla-ui gukga jesa (The State Ritual of Silla) (2003) and "Godae hanguk-ui saengsagwan-yeonghon-gwan-eul jungsim-euro" (The Outlook on Life and Death in Ancient Korea: Focusing on a View of the Soul) (2003). E-mail:
The Predicament of Modern Discourses on Gender and Religion in Korean Society

Ideology and Religion in Ancient Korea



Na Hee La






The ancient Korean people believed that to build an ideal society it was necessary to maintain harmony between the world of humans and that of the gods.

In ancient Korea, such a worldview was transmitted through myth and reinforced through religious rituals led by shamans who communicated with gods. Shamans provided information about the divine world. Based on the information, people formed their worldview and bestowed values to it. Therefore, the shamanistic worldview and shamans played a significant role in seizing and maintaining power in ancient Korean society. Moreover, those groups wanting to seize and strengthen political power also sought to monopolize myth and rituals.

Between the fourth and sixth centuries, the communal structure of ancient Korean society began to disintegrate, as social specialization developed rapidly with increased agricultural productivity. It was during this period that Buddhism was first introduced to Korea. Those who sought a new social order and who became increasingly aware of both the self and the individual turned to Buddhism for answers.


Keywords: worldview of ancient Korea, shamanism, shaman, divine kingship, myth, rite, Buddhism





To live meaningfully, one must be able to explain oneself and the world in which one lives. It is in this process of explaining about that and drawing conclusions that a worldview, or an ideology, is formed. And with it, people form a perception of their life, adapt to, and make changes the world.

What worldview guided ancient Korean society? To ask such a question is to ask how the ancient Korean people understood and explained the world and the human beings. Considering that a worldview is formed based on reality and acts as the motive behind people's mode of life, to answer the question requires not only an understanding of the spiritual world of the ancient Korean people, but also a look at the reality from which the worldview was formed. Moreover, it helps understand the development of ancient Korean society. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the ideology (or the worldview)[1] of ancient Korean society, particularly, how such a worldview, with the development of a political entity (state), could be established as an ideological foundation of ancient society. This paper also examines why such a worldview could not be sustained as the influential ideology at certain historical stages.



The Worldview of Ancient Times


In any society, people either have or try to have a narrative system to explain their identity and destiny, and the world including nature and human beings. Such a narrative system eventually coalesces into a system of rituals to be preserved and transmitted to posterity. From these two systems, members of society obtain a common identity. Systems of both narrative and rituals, as well as a system of social relations, which is formed based on them, constitute the three elements required to create a religion, according to Emile Durkheim. The three elements were more closely linked when the social differentiation had not advanced far during the ancient or primitive society. Therefore, the worldview of ancient Korean society can be understood through the elements constituting religion.

What was the content of the worldview that guided the ancient Korean people in their interpretation of the world and in their mode of living? In learning about how people of the ancient times understood the world, no other description offers a more reliable picture than the world of myth.

In the Dangun myth[2] of Old Joseon (10 B.C.-2 B.C.), the earliest historical account of the region that includes Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, the world is one in which there is harmony and communion between the world of gods and the world of mortals. The myth also shows the communion between the world of gods and world of nature, represented by the tiger and bear. Dangun, the veritable leader of the human world, is borne out of an intercourse between a god and a bear who had just transformed into a woman.

Unlike the Dangun myth, the founding myths of the kingdoms founded after 1 B.C. (Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje) provide a more detailed narrative of the role humans played. The people in the myths are no ordinary people; they are divine heroes and the descendants of gods, possessed of supernatural powers. These myths focus on how the divine actions of these heroes helped to transform the world of mortals into ideal societies.

The myths containing the narrative of the founding of a kingdom or the origin of the government justify the political status of the ruling class. Nevertheless, even such a political status is, in the end, based on the common worldview shared by the people of the period. Accordingly, the worldview reflected in the founding myth of ancient Korea represents the common worldview shared by the ancients in Manchuria and the Korean peninsula.

Korean founding myths show that the humans cannot exist alone, but live in and more clearly identify themselves through harmony with the worlds of gods and nature. Such a view of the world overlaps with the shamanistic view that an ideal human world is attainable through a direct interaction with the supernatural. Since it is the supernatural world that essentially rules the natural world, a perfect human life can be obtained by appealing to the supernatural world in all human affairs.

The ancient Koreans believed that a person is made up of body and soul, and that the soul continues to live on even after the body ceases to exist. Before the introduction of the Buddhist view of the soul, the ancient Koreans believed the soul of the dead, like the living, to be a material entity in need of all the necessities of life-food, clothing, and shelter. Therefore, when a high-born person such as a king or an aristocrat passed away, people built a large tomb and placed material goods for the dead to use in the after life.

Since conditions of survival shape the present life, the ancient Korean people believed that, in order to meet the conditions, it was necessary to be in constant communion with the supernatural world, which ruled over the human realm, and to continue to invoke the assistance of gods. Therefore, a religious specialist who could communicate with the supernatural, in addition to a religious ceremony led by that religious specialist, were considered indispensable.

The concept of the supernatural possessed a significant place in how the ancients understood the world. The further one goes back in history, the stronger the tendency for people to rely on the supernatural to explain things or phenomena that are beyond human comprehension. Thus, a better insight into the thoughts of the ancient Korean people can be attained by looking at the objects of worship and the content of their prayers.

The Heavenly God (cheonsin) was considered to be an supreme god, responsible for prosperity and fertility and in charge of all important human affairs, including human destiny. Since heaven was thought to be connected to earth through mountains and trees, the Heavenly God sometimes appeared before humans in either forms of mountain or tree. The legend of the Samgi mountain god (who is said to appear in the Eastern morning sky in the form of a gigantic forearm cutting through the clouds) shows that, in ancient Korea, the mountain god was also conceptualized as the Heavenly God (or the Sun god) who was symbolized by sunlight.[3] Hwanung (the son of Heavenly God who, according to the Dangun myth, comes to earth through mountain trees) was sometimes referred to as the tree god. Sometimes, the sun or the moon was worshipped as the Heavenly God. In Goguryeo, Jumong, the founder of Goguryeo, was believed to be the son of Heavenly God, or of the sun or the moon.[4] In one Silla legend, it was said that when light disappeared from the sky people were able to bring it back by offering a sacrificial rite to the sun and the moon.[5] Other objects of worship included the water-god and animal-god. Ancestors, who provided more concrete explanation and proof of human origin, were also important objects of worship. The world outside the human world was considered by the ancient Korean people as not a world completely disconnected from humans but one within which people needed to constantly hold communion.

Rites and rituals, considered absolutely necessary by ancient societies to attain human goals through communion with the gods, were performed in different ways on several levels. Private rituals (for personal wishes or well-being) and public rituals (for the well-being of the entire community) were both performed with grandeur. In Buyeo, Dongye, and Han, a public ritual was performed nationwide each year at the beginning and the end of the farming season.



Information, Value, and Power


How did such a religious worldview become prevalent in ancient Korean society? The question may be approached in terms of information, value, and power. Information about the world and people helped to form a certain view of the world, based on which values were created to guide action. In other words, one who provided information about the world and thus help created value could have power over the way people thought and behaved. The question of who provided the information is closely connected with the how power is produced and maintained. In ancient society, where the narrative about humans and nature was limited, the religious worldview provided information about the world. In this sense, religious specialists such as the shaman became significant in their role in value formation through the information they give about the world.

The Chinese character mu () was used for shaman in ancient Korea. However, a question can be raised whether the Chinese character mu used in ancient China, Korea, and Japan referred to the same concept of shaman as used in anthropology and religious studies today. The word "shaman," which originated in Northeast Asia, was referred to by the character mu in China, and mu in ancient China was known as someone who, much like a shaman, communicated with gods by dancing and singing. Given the similarities, both shaman and mu may be considered to be religious specialists having the same functions.

According to records from ancient Korea, the shaman gave advice to the king on important matters of the state, performed divination and fortune-telling, provided information about the causes of death and illnesses, procured remedies, and administered various rites and rituals. That a shaman was involved in deciding on important matters of the state and society showed how earnestly people accepted the shamanistic worldview that the welfare of society depended on the will and power of the supernatural. Because of the capacity to communicate with the other world, the shaman was believed to be able to provide information about the matters of the world and people. As a bridge between the supernatural world and the human world, and by giving information about the other world and delivering the will of gods, the shaman helped to consolidate and add value to people's worldviews. The role of shaman, as one who helped determine causes and offer solutions for many human misfortunes - llness, death, a bad harvest, and foreign invasions - by explaining the will of gods, was considered by the people to have absolute significance for their survival. Thus, people also expected their leaders, who were responsible for the people's well-being, to have the shamanistic powers.

In the Dangun myth, the founding myth of Old Joseon, "Dan-gun" was the title for the leader who was expected to have the functions of mu (shaman). The name "Dangun" is similar in sound to "tengri," the Mongolian word for Heavenly God or mu, and "dan-gol," the title for shaman in what is presently the Jeolla-do region. In both Goguryeo and Silla, the founding king or his descendants were sometimes portrayed as having a close connection to mu. Jumong (the founder of Goguryeo), as a descendant of god, exercised divine powers, for example. Using a whip, he divided a river to make an escape path when the enemies were in close pursuit and used supernatural powers to revive a dead bird.[6] Similarly, when Hyeokgeose, the founder of Silla, came down from heaven to earth, a horse played an important role of transporting him. In the shamanism of Northeast Asia, the horse is sometimes used as means of transportation to the spiritual world. Upon his death, Hyeokgeose was said to have undergone a process of physical disintegration before rising to heaven, much like a shamanic initiation ritual.[7] Talhae, believed to be the founder of the Seok royal house of Silla, seized the throne by revealing his blacksmith lineage. It is widely known in scholarly circles that blacksmiths and shamans were closely connected. Using his magical powers, Talhae was able to bend people to his will, and he was worshipped as a mountain god when he died.[8]

As descendants, or as persons having some kind of relationship with the supernatural world, the founders of dynasties were believed to have the powers to hold communion with gods. Such attributes were given to the mythical founders because the ancients believed that kings should have such powers. Kingship in ancient Korea was hereditary. Although it was not always hereditary in practice, the succession to the throne was, in theory, supposed to have passed down to the descendants of the mythical founder. The descendants of the founder were, therefore, believed to have inherited supernatural powers.

Yuri, who claimed to be the son of Jumong, proved his claim to the throne by displaying his special power of leaping to great heights. Similarly, in the Turkish Empire, the person who jumped the highest became the heir to the throne.[9] The ability to jump high is one of the most important powers of shamanic ecstasy. Display of shamanic powers to prove oneself as the legitimate heir to the throne shows a close connection between shamanism and politics in ancient Korea. The importance of shamanism can also be found in the Silla dynasty, from which Chachaung, one of the several titles used to refer to the highest ruler in Silla, found its origin from the word "mu."[10]

By being a bridge to the supernatural world, and providing information about the other world, the shaman shaped both the personal and social values of the ancient Korean people. Such values were also regarded as having absolute significance. Because of the power to shape and maintain values, the shaman and the reverence people paid to the shaman were important for the creation and maintenance of political power.



Concentration on Myths and Rituals


As ancient Korean society grew more complex, political power tended to shift toward a certain direction. This shift was an outcome of growing conflict among members of society over limited resources. The question of who should wield power depended on who had more information about the world and who could provide it. Having a monopoly on information and production of value, however, was not the only way to gain political power; political power could also be won through military or economic activities. In ancient societies, where religion ruled the mind and heart of the people, military and economic activities were closely linked with religious activities. In Buyeo and Goguryeo, people sought divine counsel before launching a military campaign, performing sacrificial rites and divining the outcome of the war using the hoof of a slaughtered cow.[11] The Huns took survey of their economic state for the coming year at an annual public ritual, an example of how religious activities were closely linked with economic ones.[12] The dominant group maintained their political authority and power to monopolize the production of information and values.

In ancient society, myth functioned as a systematic narrative giving information about the world. Without a writing system, myth was orally transmitted from generation to the next. Knowing the myth of a group was a form of proof that one belonged to the group. Myth helps to validate and strengthen a social system. For these reasons, the people in possession of power or aspiring to possess it tried to utilize myth in such a way that it would justify their authority and glorify their rule. Indeed, founding myths were well-suited for such purposes.

As illustrated above, kingship in ancient Korean society invariably manifested as divine kingship, as it is the case with Dangun of the Dangun myth, Haemosu, Jumong, and Yuri of Goguryeo's founding myth, Bak Hyeokgeose of Silla, and King Suro of Gaya.[13] Possessing supernatural powers as the descendants of Heavenly God, the mythical founders were believed to be able to travel between heaven and earth, and were responsible for the outcome of harvests and weather conditions. The material wealth and welfare of a nation, upon which also depended the well-being of a people, were believed to be contingent on communicating with gods so that nature would take the course most beneficial to humans. The king, by extension, was believed to be the religious leader of the highest order, whose function was to communicate with the gods. In exchange for well-being, people delegated to the king the task of preventing starvation and natural disasters, and gave him political authority.

The king, therefore, had to assume responsibility for a potential bad harvest due to weather or problems affecting the welfare of the people by performing religious rituals such as a sacrificial rite. When the king failed to meet his obligations, he was dethroned or even murdered. According to an ancient Chinese historical text, Buyeo had such customs.[14] Such a practice was also found in the early period of antiquity, when religious authority and political authority were quite closely linked. As the society became more complex, military, economic, and other powers began to gradually offset the incompleteness of political power.

The notion of divine kingship, on the other hand, functioned to more firmly reinforce the political power of already established authority, after having been gained by certain political groups. The founding myth of Goguryeo, recorded in the extant literature, seems to have been compiled in the late fourth century, when Goguryeo was establishing a centralized territorial state. It strongly reflects the political intention of the royal house in power at the time, who claimed Jumong as its founder. The myth of King Dongmyeong (on which the founding myth of Goguryeo is based) was originally a myth shared by several branches of the Buyeo line. Buyeo, Goguryeo, Baekje, and other kingdoms founded by the Buyeo people all held rites for King Dongmyeong, and several branches in the five pro-vinces of Goguryeo even believed King Dongmyeong to be their mythical founder and performed rituals to him. Eventually, the Gyerubu royal clan, which was establishing a centralized territorial state, exclusively claimed the myth of King Dongmyeong as their own, especially for its utility as a foundation myth. Thus, Gyerubu appropriated the divinity of King Dongmyeong that had been considered to be the mythical ancestor of all Goguryeo and monopolized the right to perform rituals by prohibiting other groups from holding rituals for King Dongmyeong.

Founding myths have the function of rationalizing the socio-political relations of the time when the myth is created. In many founding myths of ancient Korean kingdoms, there were several cases in which people participated in the founding through marriage to the founder or in the form of sovereign-subject relationship. In the Dangun myth, there were a bear and a tiger who wished to become human. After the bear became a woman, she had sexual intercourse with Hwanung, and Dangun is born out of that union. In the myth of Jumong, Oi, Mari, and Hyeopbu appear as helpers in founding of the kingdom; in the myth of Hyeokgeose, six chiefs were mentioned to have honored Hyeokgeose as the king; and nine elders were said to have accepted Suro as the king in Gaya's founding myth. Group members who were involved in building and managing the state identified their own ancestors as central figures in these myths of foundation, which helped further justify their rule. Founding myths that showed these people in a cooperative relationship with the mythical founders, functioned to remind the people living at that time that the relationship between the royal house and the descendants of these founding helpers was still valid.

The myth was reinforced by the use of ritual. Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla held regular ceremonial rituals for their mythical founders, and the first rite performed by a new king was a form of coronation ceremony to legitimize his accession to the throne.

The content of the founding myth of Silla is particularly illustrative of the proceedings for the ritual. That it includes a greeting party (six chiefs and others) for the descent of the founder Hyeokgeose, and that the proceedings are expressed in terms of performance, shows that the myth itself reflects a ritual. The description of people greeting the god by singing and dancing in the myth of Gaya is a depiction of the ritual itself. In the Dongmaeng festival, a ritual in Goguryeo that took place every October, the founder and his mother were worshipped as divine rulers?n itself a reenactment of Goguryeo's founding myth. In summary, the founding myths of ancient Korean kingdoms of Silla, Gaya, and Goguryeo were reenacted in rituals to remind the participants of who their founders had been.

A myth comes to life when it is reinforced and transmitted to members of society through rituals repeated over time. Therefore, a ritual was an occasion for people to give praise to their mythical founder and to remember the sanctity of royal authority. In particular, the reenactment of the founding myth during coronation ceremony was to show that the new king, thereby, inherits the sanctity of the founder. That six representatives selected the king in Silla's founding myth was a reflection of the actual political process in which the king was chosen when all the clan representatives came to an agreement. The regular reenactment of myth also highlighted the power structure within the ruling group. The social structure found in the myth, in turn, reflected that found in actual society, which   gained justification from the myth. In other words, in the process of reenactment during ritual, people were inculcated with the message that the actual social structure was fundamentally linked to that found in myth, and was thus sacred, which justified the existing political order.

Ancient rituals were also part of the political process. The Huns were known to have held political debate, make political decisions, and review economic conditions and state of affairs during public rituals. In Silla, political debates, the appointment of new government officials, and the giving of administrative orders took place during a ritual at the shrine for the founder (sijomyo). The political decisions made during the ritual were considered a covenant between gods and humans, hence absolute; and the ruling group used the ritual as the most efficient means to induce consensus from the people.

In the late fifth century, when the monarchy gained stability with the Kim royal house seizing the throne and centralizing government power, Silla's system of national rituals underwent drastic change. In stead of the shrine for the founder, the ritual for the founder of the dynasty now took place in the divine palace (sin-gung). Myo (shrine) designates a place to commemorate the dead. Accordingly, sijomyo seems to have been a shrine built in connection with the death of the founder. Offering memorial for the founder at a place linked to death seems to attribute the human characteristic of mortality to the founder. Sin-gung (the divine palace), on the other hand, was a shrine built at the place where the mythical founder is believed to have descended from heaven.[15]Thus, by holding the memorial for the founder at sin-gung, the notion of mortality was replaced with immortality, by placing emphasis on "supreme heaven" and "birth/ creation." With the elevation of the status of the founder, the Silla royal house could now take pride in having inherited the sanctity of Heaven and its supreme authority.

The change in the ritual was also an outcome of a trend toward a more abstract and metaphysical concept of god. To consolidate different clans of the kingdom and to expand monarchical power, it was necessary to win the loyalty of the clans. To this end, it became necessary to develop a mode of thought that would consolidate the clans' different modes of thought by transcending them all. The implementation of a new state ritual reflected the changes in the political situation of the late fifth century that took place with the restructuring of the ruling system and centralization of political power.

The Silla royal house, unlike that of Goguryeo, did not have enough power to make a claim on the sanctity of Heaven. Undoubtedly, the monarchical power was stronger than ever before. Yet, the aristocrats deposed King Jinji in the late sixth century, and Queen Seondeok died during a revolt, in the mid-seventh century, led by the aristocrats who opposed her reign. When Queen Jindeok, the successor to Queen Seondeok, passed away, the aristocrats designated a representative from their class as the heir to the throne, but their plan failed when Kim Chun-chu, the grandson of King Jinji, seized the throne with help of Kim Yu-sin's military force. Such influence exerted by the aristocracy in selecting the heir to the throne shows that the power of the royal house did not exceed that of the aristocracy in Silla; that both the monarch and aristocrats looked to Heaven to justify their power shows the nature of power structure at the time. In the founding myth of Silla, the six representatives who honored the founder Hyeokgeose as their king are also said to have descended from Heaven. Accordingly, the royal house's attempt to emphasize the sanctity of the ritual for the founder, by making the concept of Heavenly God more abstract with the construction of sin-gung, failed to differentiate the monarch from the aristocracy. The royal family, thus, had to look for other means to set itself apart from the aristocracy.



The Decline of Ancient Ideology and the Acceptance of Buddhism


The shamanistic worldview that the human world could only exist in harmony with the world of gods and nature, and that human beings could more clearly identify themselves, and obtain an ideal society by holding communion with the other world, was the ideology that guided the thought and behavior of the ancient Korean people. The idea of divine kingship founded on the shamanistic worldview functioned to legitimize the authority of the ruling powers. Such a view offered an explanation for the different social roles and the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and provided, for a certain social category, a worldview that is complete in itself. Since the god worshipped by a certain group was god only to that group, the people from outside the social category did not have the same rights and duties.

However, changes in the society also brought changes in the people's view of the world. The degree of changes may have varied among different kingdoms, but the sustained progress in agricultural productivity since the fourth century in particular brought about many drastic changes. Increased agricultural productivity led to rapid social differentiation, and the communal characteristic of the existing social structure began to disintegrate. With these changes came centralization of government rule, in which the central government rather than the community exerted direct power over individual members of the society. Individualization in agricultural production increased with the establishment of individual household as an agricultural unit and the rights over the arable land. Such social conditions led people to question about the nature of human being and existing social order. Moving away from the community people now began to consider the individual.

It was at such times that Buddhism as a new belief system was introduced to Korea via China. At the very foundation of Buddhism is a thorough awareness of the human being. To the question as to how to live a happy life, free from the sufferings stemming from the imperfections of human life, Buddha teaches us that such a life is possible through existential awakening and practice based on a correct understanding of the world. Shamanism and Buddhism are similar in that both are in search of happiness; however, if shamanism has a strong tendency to find the solution in the other worldly being and the world, rather than within the self, Buddhism gives concrete tasks of achieving self-awakening and following a way of living based on that self-awakening.

The disintegration of the existing communal character of the social order caused people, who had by then become intellectually more sophisticated and socially freer from the restrictions of the existing order, to understand human beings as individuals and to look for a new social order. The new worldview presented by Buddhism provided an answer as well as consolation to those people distressed over the sudden changes in the social order. And it was these people who became the central force in planting Buddhism in Silla.

Premised on living a life based on human awareness, Buddhism emphasizes human dignity and equality. The idea of equality in Buddhism appealed particularly to minor government officials and rural intellectuals who were in search of a new social order. Even for the royal house that aimed to establish a monistic government system with the monarch at the center, Buddhism provided the ideological base to unify all the people in the territory by introducing the idea of citizenship. That Buddhism is based on rigorous self-discipline and a single leadership without any connection to any particular local ritual was enough to appeal to the royal house that sought to centralize governing power. Such appealing characteristics of Buddhism led Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla to make Buddhism the official state religion between the fourth and sixth centuries.

The social and political ethics of Buddhism is based on the notion of benevolence. The spirit of benevolence goes beyond the self and one's own group, extending to other people, groups, as well as other organisms. As stated above, the worldview prior to the introduction of Buddhism focused on obtaining conditions favorable for survival through communication and harmony between the human world and the supernatural realm. However, such a worldview had little to do with respecting life and the rights of others and other organisms and lacked the universal application to social categories other than one's own. Concerns for the life and rights of other people, groups, and organisms came only when the survival of one's self and group is secured. The Buddhist notion of benevolence, however, went beyond the self. In this sense, Buddhist teachings had a universal appeal. It seemed that this universality in Buddhism had the greatest appeal for the ancient kingdoms in search of a centralized government system for their extended territories, with its power to unite people of different origins under a single ideal. By applying such social ethics to the principle of life, people were able to expand their outlook on the world.

The proclamation of the laws prohibiting burial of the living with the dead and unjust killing during the reign of King Beopheung, in the early phase of Buddhism as the state religion of Silla, are all examples in which the Buddhist idea of benevolence is applied to social practice. Buddhism provided a rational interpretation of the government rule and neutralized the oppressive and violent aspects intrinsic to ruling at a time when the government was expanding both its territory and powers. As people gained self-awareness, the demand for ethical practice increased. There were demands for ethical practice in governing and for an ethical explanation for political ideology. And the political ideology based on the Buddhist idea of benevolence was able to meet the demand.

In the sixth century, the Silla royal house was in search of an ideological underpinning to give the royalty more political power than to the aristocracy and found an answer in Buddhism. According to the Buddhist doctrine, the Heavenly God is finite beings wandering in the world of delusions and also subjected to transmigration. Buddha is the only being who has attained nirvana that freed him from the fate of transmigration. Such Buddhist teachings provided the theoretical basis for not only weakening the spiritual foundation of an aristocracy claiming to be the descendants of the Heavenly God, but also to show the superiority of the monarch to the aristocracy. Despite violent protest of the aristocracy that tried to maintain its vested interests legitimized by the existing order, the royal house made Buddhism the official religion and claimed a kinship to Buddha, proclaiming its superior status to any other groups.

Changes in ancient Korean society between the fourth and sixth centuries also demanded changes in the then-existing worldview. The dissolution of the communal social order led by the progress in agricultural productivity, and the social and political circumstances that demanded a centralized political system, paved the way for the Buddhist worldview teaching that equality and universality based on individual human awareness and practice. The Buddhist idea of equality and universality continually replaced the existing self-determined and exclusive communal worldview. The followers of Buddhist teachings were no longer those whose existence became evident only by the will of god or through different relations within the society to which they belonged. On the contrary, they were beings who were able to break out of the fetters of social order through their self-awareness and practice, and who could also determine their own place in the universe.

However, the Buddhist worldview did not become the sole belief system that replaced all existing worldviews. In fact, ancient people selectively responded to the Buddhist worldview, which newly had emerged as an alternative to the shamanistic one. In other words, the ancient Korean people became exposed to plural worldviews through the introduction of Buddhism, and were able to choose the worldview that reflected their social, political, economical, and intellectual positions. Thus, if there was only one given worldview before, the Buddhist worldview presently offered the ancient Korean people an alternative to choose from. With various worldviews available, people deliberated as to what made an ideal world and how to attain it. This was the beginning of a meaningful, albeit agonizing quest, in search of a principle to guide their life to that end. The search for a model for the ideal world and for answers to life becomes more earnest and meaningful when confronted with different choices of worldviews.









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Nam, Hui-suk. 1991. "Silla beopheungwangdae bulgyo suyong-gwa geu judo seryeok" (Acceptance of Buddhism in the Reign of King Beopheung of Silla and Its Leading Forces). Hanguksaron (Treatises on Korean His-tory) 25.

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Seo, Yeong-dae. 1991. "Hanguk godae sin gwannyeom-ui sahoejeok uimi" (Social Significance of Ancient Korean Concept of God). Ph.D. diss., Seoul National University.

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____________. 2003. "Goguryeo-ui gukga jesa: dongmaeng-eul jungsim-euro" (On the State Ritual of Goguryeo: Focusing on the Dongmaeng Ritual). Hanguksa yeongu (The Journal of Korean History) 120.

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Na Hee La (Na, Hui-ra) is Reseach Professor of Institute of Humanities Science at University of Ulsan. She received her Ph.D. in Korean History from Seoul National University in 1999. She has authored many books and articles including Silla-ui gukga jesa (The State Ritual of Silla) (2003) and "Godae hanguk-ui saengsagwan- yeonghon-gwan-eul jungsim-euro" (The Outlook on Life and Death in Ancient Korea: Focusing on a View of the Soul) (2003). E-mail:



  1.    Ideology is used here to have a broader meaning, one interchangeable with "worldview." In the primitive and ancient societies, where social differentiation has yet to take place and without a diversity in narrative about the world and people, it would do little harm to use the word "worldview," though somewhat ambiguous, as a conceptual system shared by the members of these societies instead of using the word "ideology," a term loaded with concepts such as domination and oppression. The term "ideology" will be used once the social relations between the ruler and the ruled become clearly defined as social differentiation takes place, and when the institutionalized political order is established.

  2.    For material on the Dangun including Dangun myth, see Yun I-heum et al. (1994).

  3.    "Won-gwang seohak" (Won-gwang, who studied in the West), in Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), gwon 4.

  4.    On the stone stele at the tomb of King Gwanggaeto and the epitaph of Moduru, Jumong, the founder of Goguryeo, is referred to as son of Heavenly God and son of the sun and the moon, respectively.

  5.    "Yeonorang se-onyeo" (Դ ), in Samguk yusa, gwon 1.

  6.    The founding myth of Goguryeo can be found in several sources, but none relates the story as grand in style as in Yi Gyu-bo, "The Story of King Dongmyeong," in Dongguk Yi sangguk jip (Colleted Works of Yi Gyu-bo), gwon 3.

  7.    For the myth of Hyeokgeose, see "Silla sijo Bak Hyeokgeose (Bak Hyeokgeose, the Founder of Silla), in Samguk yusa, gwon 1.

  8   For materials on Talhae, see "Talhaewang" (King Talhae), in Samguk yusa, gwon 1.

  9.    See the article on the Turkish Empire () in Zhoushu (Record of Zhou), juan 50.

10.     See the story of Namhae Chachaung in Samguk sagi (Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms), gwon 1.

11.     For more information, see article on Buyeo in Weishu (The History of the Wei Dynasty) of Sanguozhi (The History of the Three Kingdoms), juan 30 and article on Goguryeo in Hanyuan (Collection of Writings), juan 30.

12.     See "Hyungno yeoljeon" (Biography of the Hun), in Shiji (Historical Record), juan 110.

13.     For more on the founding myth of Gaya, see "Garakgukgi" (Historical Record of Gaya), in Samguk yusa, gwon 2.

14.     See "Buyeo," in Weishu of Sanguozhi, juan 30.

15.     See "Jesa" (Sacrificial Rites), in Samguk sagi, gwon 32.