Itsukushima shrine in Japan is popular among Japanese and foreign tourists. Its a place of devotion as well as sightseeing. The deity which is enshrined here is considered a manifestation of Benzaiten. Goddess Benzaiten is actually the Japanese counterpart of goddess Saraswati, an Indian (Hindu) deity. In Japan, there exist numerous such deities of Hindu origin.
In this article, I have tried to find out how the Hindu gods and goddesses travelled all the way to Japan.
The birth and spread of Buddhism
During the 5th century BCE Siddharth Gautam, who was born to a royal family in Lumbini (Nepal), left his family and assets behind, in search of enlightenment. He attained nirvana while meditating under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya (India) and later started preaching his principles and virtues of life to his disciples. Siddharth Gautam came to be known as Buddha and his teachings formed a new dharma which was called Buddhism.
From its place of origin in North India, Buddhism spread to the East and South Asian countries. During 3rd century BC, king Ashoka of Kalinga made great efforts to spread Buddhism to far off lands.
Buddha preached his disciples orally, hence there were no initial written records of his teachings. Later, his teachings were written down in the form of canonical scriptures or sutras. Whenever Buddhism was introduced to a new territory, it was accepted with some local modifications in accordance with the culture of that land. This could be a reason why Buddhism was divided into different sects and schools.
Buddhism was introduced to China during the 1st century CE, when Buddhist monks from India travelled to China through the silk route. Sutras were translated into Chinese and Buddhism was slowly absorbed into the Chinese culture.
Some parts of China were already familiar with Indian mythology and Hindu deities. However, Buddhist cosmology which incorporates some elements of Indian (Gandhara) mythology, further influenced Chinese Buddhism and culture. Since, Indian deities (dēvatā) were included in Buddhist mythology, they also hold an important status in Chinese Buddhism. Later, when China introduced Buddhism to Japan via Korea, the gods and goddesses of Indian origin were regarded as Buddha’s protector.
According to Buddhist cosmology, there are thirty-one realms in which beings are reborn unless they attain nirvana. These realms vary from blissful and heavenly planes to painful and hellish planes. It is one’s karma that decides in which realm they should be reborn. These realms are again divided into three different worlds – Arupa-loka (immaterial world), Rupa-Loka (material world) and Kama-loka (world of desires). The Indian deities were thought to be existing in different realms and were also subjected to samsara.
A brief history of Buddhism in Japan
According to Kojiki (Chronicles of Japan), Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 552 CE during the Asuka period. Until then, Japanese people had practiced and believed in the philosophy of Shinto. Since, the Japanese regarded Buddha as a banshin 蕃神 (God coming from another land), they had to devise a way to fit the teachings of Buddha in their society.
It was clear that Buddha was different from the Shinto gods and goddesses. Hence, the Japanese invented a concept called Shinbutsu Shugo 「神仏習合」, in which Buddhism and Shinto could coexist in harmony.
The concept of karma and rinne (samsara) in Buddhism, led to the believe that Buddha could liberate humans and gods who suffered from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Therefore, during the Nara period (710-794 CE), temples called jingu-ji 神宮寺 were built, that served as a common place of worship. Jingu-ji were dedicated to a local deity , but the complex encompassed both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. It was then believed that all Shinto deities were a manifestation of Buddha.
Jingu-ji thrived until the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE). Most of these buildings were demolished as a consequence of shinbutsu bunri 神仏分離 (the act of separation of Shinto from Buddhism). This movement was aimed at restoring the national importance of Shinto by separating it from Buddhism.
Buddhism started to lose its power and status. Its only way of survival was to adapt to the current scenario. Modernization of Buddhism kept it somehow alive until World War II. Post World War, Buddhism started to gain followers. Though secularism caused a steady decline in the interest in religion as a whole, ‘funeral Buddhism’ became widely accepted.
As mentioned earlier, Hindu deities were incorporated into Buddhist cosmology. In Japan, these deities were seen as protectors of Buddha, they are called tenbu 天部 (celestial beings). Actually, tenbu are more than just protectors of Buddha. These deities are characterized by their individual qualities. Although these gods and goddesses appear to look different than their Indian counterpart, their supreme power remains similar. Tenbu are grouped into categories but some are also worshiped independently in Japan.
Some important groups of tenbu are as follows,
The 12 Devas (juniten) 十ニ天 – These are the 12 wrathful looking dharmapala (protector gods). Juniten includes the deities of eight directions, deities of heaven and earth and the sun and the moon deities.
Taishakuten or Indra – ruler of the east.
Katen or Agni – ruler of the south east.
Enmaten or Yama -ruler of the south.
Rasetsuten or Rakshasa – ruler of the south west.
Suiten or Varuna – ruler of the west.
Fuuten or Vayu – ruler of the north west.
Bishamonten or Vaisravana – ruler of the north.
Izanten or Ishan – ruler of north east.
Bonten or Brahma – ruler of heaven.
Jiten or Prithvi – ruler of earth.
Nitten or Surya – Sun god.
Gatten or Chandra – Moon god.
The 12 Heavenly Generals (junishuusho) 十二神将 – They are the protectors of Bhaisajyaguru (Buddha of medicine). Junishuusho are associated with healing or cure. They are sometimes referred to as yasha or yaksha – warriors and caretakers of hidden natural treasures. They are also associated with the 12 months and 12 Chinese zodiac animals.
Kubira or Kumbhira – associated with rat.
Basara or Vajra – associated with ox.
Mekira or Mihira – associated with tiger.
Anchira or Andira – associated with rabbit.
Anira or Anila – associated with dragon.
Sanchira or Shandilya – associated with snake.
Indara or Indra – associated with horse.
Haira or Pajra – associated with sheep.
Makora or Mahoraga – associated with monkey.
Shindura or Kinnara – associated with rooster.
Shotara or Catura – associated with dog.
Bikara or Vikarala – associated with boar.
8 Legions (hachibushu) 八部衆 – The 8 guardian spirits of Buddha.
Tenbu or Deva
Ryu or Naga
Yasha or Yaksha
Kendatsuba or Gandharva
Karura or Garuda
Magoraka or Mahoraga
Four heavenly King (shitenno) 四天王 – The four heavenly protectors of the four directions.
Jikokuten or Dhritarastra – king of the east.
Zojo-ten or Virudhaka – king of the south.
Komoku-ten or Virupaksha – king of the west.
Tamon-ten or Vaisravana – king of the north.
The 28 legions assigned to the thousand armed Kannon and the Nio guardians at a Buddhist temple gate are also Hindu deities. Three out of the seven lucky gods are also of Indian origin. Similarly, there are many groups of tenbu which include almost all Hindu deities like Lakshmi, Shiva and Ganesha. These gods and goddesses had travelled far east from their place of origin and on the way they were absorbed into the cultures of many Asian countries.