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Indian deities in JapanIndian deities in Japan

By GovernanceToday
In Art & Culture
April 4, 2016

indi-japanWhenever an Indian thinks of Japan and Japanese culture, what he conjures is a highly prosperous country with very peaceful society that practices Buddhism. Whether it is the giant Buddha statue of Kamakura, shrines of Kyoto, or monks in saffron robes, all tend to strengthen this perception. What is not visible to an average Indian is that a large number of prominent Hindu deities are worshipped in Japan. In his nearly two decades long research, noted film maker Benoy K Behl found that many of the traditions that have faded in India, have been preserved zealously by Japanese and adapted so nicely in their way of life. Recently, a documentary on the subject was screened in New Delhi which underscored the rich and ancient cultural relation between India and Japan. The film “Worshipping of Indian Deities in Japan” has won the ‘Best Production House (Documentaries)’ at the 3rd Noida International Film Festival.

Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Garuda are some of the most prominent Hindu deities that are worshiped in modern day Japan. Even deities we seldom worship in India, such as Vayu, Yama and Varuna are still worshiped in the land of the rising sun. Goddess Saraswati, who is named Benzaiten in Japan, is perhaps the most popular and has hundreds of temples dedicated to her. What is amazing is that Japanese still associate Saraswati with water which is something we Indians have nearly forgotten.

Most priests of the temples in Japan confirm that various deities that are worshipped there today are basically Indian gods. They also feel that the ancient Indian monks brought with them the traditions of worshipping these deities who are controllers of certain values and functions. So it is fairly common for Japanese students to visit the Unryu-in shrine in Kyoto to pray to Ganesha, known as Shoten, for good luck. Among the other major Hindu deities that are worshipped are Lakshmi, or Kichijoten, Agni, or Katen, Brahma, or Bonten, Indra, or Taishakuten and Mahakala, or Daikokuten Unryun.  These have dedicated temples and their statues are found in multiple museums and art galleries across the country.

Tradition of Havan or Homa, or (Goma in Japanese) is also very strong in Japan which is widely practices in Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism and Homa is associated with chanting of Sanskrit sutras. The practice of Homa in these sects bears similarity with Agni worship among Hindus and with Tantric traditions. Followers of the Shingon sect perform their worship in 1,200 temples throughout Japan.

Another aspect of the cultural ties between India and Japan is linguistic. Not many people know that Sanskrit has had a strong influence on the development of Japanese Kana. When Japanese started learning Japanese from around 8th century AD, they studied it in Siddham script (Shittam in Japanese) which was the script for Sanskrit at that age. This script is still preserved in Japan and in Koyasan school Sanskrit is taught in this very script. ‘Beejaksharas’ of Sanskrit is much revered in Japan and are given great importance. Each deity in Japan has a ‘Beejakshara’ which is marked prominently in the temple of that deity.