Various forms of Saraswati or Benzaiten in Japanese Buddhist temples. Photo: Benoy K Behl
An idol of Saraswati or Benzaiten in Rokuhara-Mitsuji, Kyoto. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Saraswati's Veena at the entrance of Enoshima Jinja, Kamakura. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Idols of Yama or Emma in Japenese Buddhist temples. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Ganesha Temple also known as Matsuchiyama Shoten in Tokyo. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Sculptures of Ganesha or Shoten at the National Treasure Museum in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Hawan or Homa called Goma in Japan at the Takahata- Fudo Temple in Tokyo. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Paintings of Agni, the God of Fire, or Katen, seen in Japanese temples. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Sculptures of Laxmi or Kichijoten seen in Japenese museums. Photo: Benoy K Behl
An idol of Geruda or Karura at Daiyuzan-Saijoji, near Odawara. Photo: Benoy K Behl
An idol of Mahakala or Daikokuten Unryun seen in Sennyuji temple in Kyoto. Photo: Benoy K Behl
Think Shiva and Sushi have nothing in common? Japan worships them both
If you're Indian, you naturally believe Saraswati, Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Shiva are names only those of us in India recognise.
But maybe you should ask a Japanese. Or better still, show them a photo of one of our popular Hindu gods.
Because very few Japanese and even fewer Indians realise that many deities worshipped in Japan are of Indian origin.
At least 20 Hindu deities are actively worshipped in Japan even today. In fact, there are hundreds of shrines to Goddess Saraswati alone in that country, along with innumerable representations of Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Garuda, Shiva and others.
"The Indian deities were introduced from China into Japan as Buddhist deities with Chinese names,"writes Sengaku Mayeda of Japan's Eastern Institute. Down the centuries, and thanks to translation hurdles, the names and appearances of these gods have become localised.
This fascinating reality led art-historian, photographer and filmmaker Benoy K Behl to spend three months in the spring of 2015 visiting and documenting almost 50 temples worshipping Hindu deities in Japan.
His rare body of work on the subject was exhibited at the Indian Museum in Kolkata from January 11-21.
In his research, he wrote "There are deeper civilisational connections between India and Japan that can be traced to early developments of cultural philosophy in India. In many ways, the philosophic understanding is most well preserved in Japan. Japan has not had the breakdown of cultural norms which India suffered when a colonial education system was created. Therefore, most Indians learnt about our own culture from the Western point of view."
Catch spoke to Behl about his incredible project and the role of Indian heritage in Japan. Here are the edited excerpts:
How and why did you decide to document the similarities between Japanese and Indian culture?
I have done a lot of work on the immensely strong links between the culture of India and all other Asian countries, Japan being one of them. I've been going to Japan for almost 25-30 years. And I am very aware of the fact that there are enormous links between the two countries. In fact one of the former Japanese Ambassadors to India, Yasukuni Enoki, said all the people of Japan should be aware that the foundation of Japanese culture is on Indian culture.
In many ways, I find that Japan has preserved ancient Indian traditions even when they may have changed here in India. As an instance, in Japan, Saraswati is depicted and venerated not only with the veena but also remembered for her association with water. You may remember that Saraswati was originally the personification of the river by that name. Therefore, she is worshipped in pools of water in Japan.
Why do you think there is such intertwining in our two cultures?
The people of Japan are as surprised as you probably are to discover this cultural closeness. You know the concept of religion is a very colonial construct. According to me, Hinduism and Buddhism have many commonalities. For instance, we know that the Kushanas were great Buddhist kings, as many stupas were built in their time.
But many researchers believe that the Kushanas worshipped Hindu deities. As a matter of fact, there is not a single Buddhist monument from ancient India that was made under the rule of kings who worshipped Buddhist deities - it was kings who worshipped Hindu deities who made these! According to ancient inscriptions, Hindu kings worshipped Shiva, Buddha, Mahavira. What I am trying to say is that there was no distinction between these two religions in ancient times. They were considered the same thing.
In fact in Japan, where the colonial influence has been relatively lower, these distinctions between the two religions have not been made. These are all Buddhist temples in which deities of Indian origin are worshipped. Buddhist temples only because in the modern day and age we call them so. In fact, the constitution of Japan which was the earliest written constitution in Asia, was based entirely upon Sanskrit manuscripts. The script of Japan, the Japanese alphabet, Kana, is created on the phonetics of Sanskrit. There was a great ethical vision that spread from India in ancient times and was embraced by many, many countries of Asia.
How did you go about documenting this project?
What made this work possible was that the Japan Foundation gave me a fellowship to take it forward. Everybody told me that it would be impossible for me to carry out this work because the temples of Japan do not encourage or allow photography inside the shrines, particularly of the deities, and the chief priests of the temples certainly do not talk very easily to the people. They are very conscious of the fact that knowledge can be misunderstood. And a misunderstood translation of knowledge is a complete destruction of knowledge.
I was very fortunate. I wrote to almost 50 temples in Japan seeking permission to shoot and interview the priests and much to my surprise each one of them replied positively. And I was able to shoot and carry out interviews at all 50 temples. It took me about 3 months to document them in the spring of 2015.
Benoy K Behl has also made two documentaries on this subject. You can check them out here:
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