Why Folk Religions Are Booming in Lithuania

Why Folk Religions Are Booming in Lithuania

By Fiona Zublin


Because cultural crossover happens in the strangest places.

By Fiona Zublin

In Lithuanian, the word darna means harmony and coherence, and for Lithuanian pagans, that’s a religious tenet as well — the balance of the world. It also superficially resembles the word dharma, Hinduism’s cosmic order. And a link with Hinduism — real or imagined — is what a neo-pagan community in Lithuania is riding on to boost the membership of its faith by lending it ancient mystique and legitimacy.

The linguistic similarity between darna and dharma is likely a coincidence — scholars say the two don’t necessarily share an etymology. But for Lithuania’s Romuva community, which traces its traditions back to ancient folklore, it’s evidence of a connection to India, Hinduism and Sanskrit that’s become a part of their Romuva identity, along with its pantheon of gods and fairly standard pagan rituals. 

That’s key, because for some the connection “proves that Lithuanian or Baltic culture is as old as India’s old spiritual traditions,” says Egle Aleknaite, a researcher at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunus, Lithuania, who was herself part of the Romuva community as a teenager. Sanskrit and Lithuanian are linguistically linked, and late-19th-century national soul-searching for a distinct Lithuanian identity — separate from Prussian or Russian culture — led to some popular theories linking Lithuanians to ancient Indian cultures. Aleknaite explains that the connection, for some believers, lends Romuva an ancient legitimacy, proving it’s more than a “primitive, shamanic religious tradition” through the connection to Hindu beliefs. And that connection is particularly important now.

Romuva has the advantage of being very much respected and established ever since the period of Lithuania gaining independence.

Michael Strmiska, Global Studies professor, SUNY

Pagan communities exist all over Europe, but in Lithuania, folk religions are booming. Between the census in 2001 and that in 2011, numbers of people identifying as part of a “Baltic faith” jumped from 1,270 to 5,118, a more than fourfold increase. There are no official numbers available on how many of those people identify as Romuva, and OZY’s questions to Romuva community elders went unanswered. But Michael Strmiska, a global studies professor in the SUNY system, says the group appears to be growing — though there’s no way of determining how many of those participants are casual. Strmiska explains: “Romuva has the advantage of being very much respected and established ever since the period of Lithuania gaining independence when Romuva emerged as a bastion of traditional Lithuanian culture and identity, including traditional paganism.” 

Romuva is also notable, says Aleknaite, for its pursuit of official religious status. Not all folk religions in Lithuania care about being recognized as a traditional religion, preferring to be seen as spiritual movements, but for the Romuva — the most visible of the country’s pagan groups — such a designation would offer state assistance for religious instruction and the right to teach their beliefs in schools. It would also offer symbolic significance: Most scholars see the group as a neo-pagan faith, one established in the late 20th century, while the Romuva point to folkloric sources for many of their traditions and festivals to support the claim that their faith is a continuation of ancient Lithuanian beliefs and thus well surpassing the requirement that a “traditional” faith be at least 300 years old.

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A Hindu priest officiates a Romuva ceremony in Lithuania.

Source  Mantas Masalskis/CC

Romuva founder Jonas Trinkūnas, who died in 2014 and was replaced by his wife, Inīja Trinkūnienė, as community leader, established a folklore association in the 1960s called Ramava, disguising the more traditional pagan term from Soviet authorities who nonetheless banished him from the university. He found work chiseling names on tombstones, continued his research and eventually outlasted Soviet distrust and repression of pagan beliefs. He founded what would become modern Romuva in 1988, two years before Lithuania became the first nation to break away from the Soviet Union — though Romuva didn’t self-identify as a religious organization until 1991. The appeal to religious elders of of a connection to an ancient religion like Hinduism, Strmiska theorizes, is that it may help move Lithuanian paganism beyond the folkloric nature traditions on which it is based and into a rich philosophical and ritual territory that only a few religions, including Hinduism, have reached. 

And there couldn’t be a better time than now for the community to gain sympathy from India in its attempts at portraying historic ties. Traditionally, it is the Hindu nationalist movement in India that has supported theories of ancient connections with the Baltic peoples — of course, with their own agenda of portraying Hinduism as a globally influential religion — according to research by historians Douglas Spitz and William Urban published in the Journal of Baltic Studies in 1993. India is today ruled by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which in 2016 also invited hundreds from the Roma community of Europe for a cultural event in New Delhi and claimed historic links with them. 

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A Romuvan wedding.

Source Mantas Masalskis/CC

Strmiska describes the establishment of an international pagan community with the first World Congress of Ethnic Religions in Lithuania in 1998. There, a few participants of Indian background were a signal of paganism’s connections outside of Europe’s traditional communities — though, Strmiska writes in an essay in Religious Diversity in Post-Soviet Society, some of the Hindu participants spoke with vitriol against Christianity that wasn’t reflected in other religions’ addresses.

This may reflect a divide between the Romuva imagination of its Indian connections and Lithuanians’ interest in actual Indians or Indian culture. “Lithuania is not that multicultural compared to the UK or France, and usually people who are interested in searching for connections of this type, they aren’t interested in real people, real Hindus,” explains Aleknaite. “People who are interested in those links are mostly interested in images or ideas they find in books. It is part of the Western image of a spiritual other.”