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Bonds of faith

Thursday, 03 September 2015 | Benoy Kumar Behl

Culture historian and photographer Benoy Kumar Behl documents the lesser known Hindu deities who are still worshipped in Japan. He writes about Indian culture and its impact on the people of Japan

Around 4,000 years ago, deities were created in Indian thought. These embodied the world of nature around us and provided us a deep connection to the forces which control our existence.

By the beginning of the first millennium BC, great philosophic ideas, which were to last forever, were being crystallised in the Indian sub-continent. The material world around us was seen to be maya or mithya — an illusion. The high purpose of life was to lift the veils of this illusion to see beyond. To break the spell of the transitory world of sansara.

In this age, numerous thinkers gave up the  luxuries of the materialistic world to search for the truth. The best-known renunciator of the period was Gautama Sidhhartha known as the 4th or the 7th Buddha, or ‘Enlightened One’. Till today millions continue to follow Buddhism.

Worshippers meditated on the Buddha and hoped one day to gain true knowledge. In the meantime, the culture of the deities, who personified the forces around us, continued. These kept us in deep harmony with the natural order, of which we are a part. The deities helped us to live in the world with a true sense of reverence and harmony.

Most people are not aware that at least a score of Hindu deities are very actively worshiped in Japan. In fact, there are hundreds of shrines of Saraswati alone. There are innumerable representations of Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Garuda and other deities. In fact, even the ones we have practically forgotten in India, such as Vayu and Varuna are still worshiped in Japan.

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. (One may recall that Saraswati is originally the personification of the river by that name). Therefore, she is also worshiped in pools of water in Japan.

The 6th century Siddham script is preserved in Japan, though we do not use it in India.Beejaksharas of Sanskrit in this script are regarded as holy and are given great importance. Each deity has a Beejakshara and these are venerated by the people, even though most of them cannot read it.

Many links in the development of Vajrayana Buddhism can be found in a study of Japanese Buddhism. Today’s Himalayan Buddhism is of a later development and has lost the typical havan or homa. I was delighted to find and to record the continuance of the tradition ofhoma in some of the most important Japanese Buddhist sects, who call itgoma. Sanskrit sutras are also chanted on the occasion and it is much like the havan which we are familiar with.

Several words in the Japanese language are from Sanskrit, which was also the basis for the formation of the Japanese alphabet Kana.

In the supermarkets, a major brand of milk products is calledSujata. The company personnel are taught the story of Sujata who gave sweet rice milk to Buddha, with which he broke his period of austerity, before he gained Enlightenment.

There are deep meanings in Japanese practices which take us back to early developments of philosophy in India. In many ways, the philosophic understanding is most well preserved in Japan. The country 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. The dominant and admired language was English which still continues till today as most of our books and education in schools and universities are rooted in the English vision.

Our relationship with Japan is far closer than Indians seem to be aware of. It is time to understand this and to build upon it. It is time, in fact, for the world to learn from the peaceful and civilised outlook which is rooted in ancient India and in the culture of countries like Japan. It is about time that we stop destroying ourselves and the world around us, through unthinking and uncaring commercialism.

People of ‘modern’ outlook need not be concerned that looking to ancient culture will lead to less economic development. In fact, culture provides the discipline, meaning and concentration in life, which makes us truly successful in all that we do. What’s more? It also leads to good health and happiness. Japan is one country where Buddhism is flourishing in all its facets.

Here, technology and transcendence are living together. The deep-rooted spirit of Buddha’s teachings energises the Japanese people. Buddhist temples are numerous and large numbers of people visit them every day. Besides the Buddha, there are many ancient Indian deities and practices that preserved in these temples. An Indian feels quite at home in Japan.

The research and most of the photographs in the exhibition at the Japan Foundation, were taken by me with the support of a Japan Foundation Fellowship, in Spring 2015. I am deeply grateful for this valuable support which was provided. I am also deeply grateful to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, who sponsored the making of my film on the subject of Indian Deities Worshipped in Japan.

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