[KS] Name used for "god" in Korean language

Donald Baker dbaker at interchange.ubc.ca
Sun Jul 27 17:20:40 EDT 2008

That is a very complex question to answer.  Traditionally, there has  
been no single word for God, though "shin" was commonly used for gods.  
Sillyeong was another term that could be used to refer to a god,  
though it could also mean the spiritual side of a human being. Buddha  
as God was simply called Buddha (often "something-something yeorae")   
Catholics introduced the term Lord of Heaven (Cheonju) for the Supreme  
Being.  Donghak used the Catholic word along with the word Sangje,  
taken from Chinese tradition. (They didn't, however, use another name  
for the supreme God taken from Chinese, Okhwang Sangje, the Jade  
Emperor though that is used in some popular religious traditions  
today). Later on Donghak also started referring to God as Hanullim, a  
vernacular version of Lord of Heaven. When Protestant missionaries  
arrived, they created a new term, Hananim (the One),with some  
preferring the alternative Haneunim (Heaven), which they incorrectly  
believed had been a popular term of the Supreme Being before the  
arrival of Christianity. The lack of a consensus on what name to give  
to God has led to different religions in Korea using different terms,  
though the spread of Christianity has made Hananim increasingly but  
mistakenly seen as the original Korean term. (For more on the problem  
of a Korean name for God, see my Hananim, Hanŭnim, Hanullim, and  
Hanŏllim: The Construction of Terminology  for Korean Monotheism,”   
Review of Korean Studies , vol 5, no. 1 (June, 2002).  pp.105-131.

By the way, my understanding is that you can generally tell the  
theological orientation of a Korean Protestant by listening to what  
name they use for God. More conservative Christians call God Hananim.  
More liberal (in a Korean context, anyway) Protestants use the term  
Haneunim. That is also the term Roman Catholics and Anglicans use,  
when they are not using the term Cheonju.

I would assume that Christians in North Korea used the same names for  
God Christians in the south use. The same is probably true of  
Buddhists across the DMZ as well as followers of Cheondogyo. I have  
seen no evidence that the terms those various religious communities  
use for their God have diverged since 1945.

As for shamans, they might mention the Jade Emperor or to a Buddha  
but, in general, they are more interested in gods and ancestors than  
in God. The frequent assertion that worship of Haneunim was a  
significant part of shamanism or even of the broader Korean folk  
tradition finds no support in any pre-modern documentary material.  
(There are some ancient references to Korean worship of Heaven, but  
heaven in those references is a god of heaven, alongside a god of the  
earth and other gods, not Heaven as Supreme Being.)

It is most likely that a reference to the Great Leader as a god used  
the word "shin."  In traditional Korea, an exceptional human being  
sometimes was viewed as a "shin" after his or her death. In fact, in  
the traditional Korean of viewing the universe, the line between human  
and "god" is not all that wide. I very much doubt, however, that North  
Koreans refer to the Great Leader as Sangje, as "yeorae," or as a Lord  
of Heaven (or even as Hananim, the Supreme One). If I am mistaken, I  
would love to be told so.



On 27-Jul-08, at 11:30 AM, erichwein at hotmail.com wrote:

> 1. What is the word in Korean for "God"? (Transliteration, please)
> 2. Is this an original Korean word, or one introduced by Christian
> missionaries?
> 3. Is it the same word used in traditional Korean folk religion (e.g.
> shamanism) and in Buddhism?
> 4. Is the same word used in both North and South Korea?
> 5. In North Korea, is the same word for "God" used both in reference
> to the Christian God (e.g. in worship services of the Korean Christian
> Federation) and in reference to the "Great Leader"? (Explanation: I am
> told that the word "god" is not used in reference the the GL. However,
> on several occasions my interpreters in the DPRK did use the word
> "god" in reference to KIS. This may have been a wrong translation.
> Example: Referring to the young age at which KIS founded the PKA, one
> interpreter told me, "That is why I consider him a god.")
> 6. If not, what distinguishes the two words/concepts used?
> Thanks for any clarifications you can render.
> Erich Weingartner

Donald Baker
Department of Asian Studies
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2  Canada
dbaker at interchange.ubc.ca

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