Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Hinduism Influence on Japanese Culture

by Hajime Nakamura, Japan Times, Tokyo, January 26, 1992

Strange to say, those manuscripts found in Japan are much older than those preserved in India. The first materials on which the Indians wrote letters were palm leaves and strips of birch bark: both materials are very fragile and easily perish in the Indian climate. Thus, it happens that the majority of manuscripts which India now possesses date back only a few centuries (or, at the earliest, 1,000 years or so). A few manuscripts found in India, however date back to the 11th or the 12th century. Except for those recently found in eastern Turkestan on the silk route of Central Asia, the oldest Indian manuscripts are to be found in Japan, and belong to the first half of the 6th century.

Except for India, there are few countries in the world where as many students are learning Sanskrit as in Japan.

Hajime Nakamura 1912 - 1999 Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

This year being the birth centenary year of Professor Hajime Nakamura (1912-1999), I reproduce his popular essay, which appeared in the English newspapers 20 years ago. Professor Nakamura was a leading Japanese scholar of Indian religions and had written on the influence of Indian ideas and thoughts in Japanese culture. He was affiliated to the University of Tokyo for long, first as a student and graduating in 1936 from the Faculty of Letters, and then as an academic: an associate professor (1943-1953) and professor (1953-1973).

Why do I provide this essay? Since I landed in Tokyo in 1986, I have noticed that when a big political prig from Sri Lanka visits Japan, he (or she) makes much fuss about the similarities between Sri Lanka and Japan as both being the lands of Buddhism. The leading offenders in the past were J.R. Jayewardene and Lakshman Kadirgamar. One should excuse the temerity of these two departed souls now, because their Christian upbringing was devoid of basic knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Buddhism practiced by folks in Japan and folks in Sri Lanka vary tremendously in style and rituals. One cannot attribute this difference to the traditional bifurcation of Theravada or Hinayana (Sri Lankan) and Mahayana (Japanese). As Prof. Nakamura points out in this essay, the Mahayana Buddhism of Japan had more Indian (Hindu) influence in it. This fact had been ignored by many past historians. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph, I offer this essay as a tutorial to the Sri Lankan political prigs who plan their future visit to Japan.

In this essay, Professor Nakamura provides brief descriptions of many Hindu demi (or mini)gods, who have been enshrined into the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon prayed by Japanese. Prof. Nakamura mentions about Daikoku (who is, Mahakala, another name for Lord Shiva, the mightiest god in the Hindu pantheon). Two omissions deserve mention here.

Tagata Shrine near Nagoya Japan
Tagata Shrine near Nagoya, Japan

First, Mahakala literally means, ‘great timer’ (Maha=great; kala=time). There is another demi-god in Hindu pantheon, Yama (Yaman) or Ema (Eman) called kala (or in Tamil, kalan), the Lord of the Hades. In Tamil, Kalan literally means, ‘Timer’ (the one who measures the time). In Tokyo suburbs, there is a temple for Yama! It is called Hojoin Temple. In 1988, there was a news item about Mr. Jikai Iwamoto, the head priest of this temple, who for business purposes had computerized the edicts of Lord of Hades into 12 optional slots (each for a different prayer request) to threaten the young kids. I provide a scan of this news clip (that I have saved for its humor value) nearby.

Secondly, Prof. Nakamura passingly mentions about the links (or influences) of Hinduism with the other Japanese religion, Shintoism. Lord Shiva is also represented in Hinduism for phallic worship, as ‘sivalingam’ (literally, siva’s phallus). In fact, Tamils have numerous surnames with ‘lingam’ as the suffix. Examples include, amirthalingam. anandalingam, bhaskaralingam, Dharmalingam (or Tharmalingam), jeyalingam, mahalingam, muthulingam, nirmalingam, pothalingam, punyalingam, ramalingam, rasalingam, sangaralingam, shantilingam, sivalingam, sundaralingam, swamilingam, yogalingam. In some Tamil surnames, the ‘lingam’ appears as the prefix as well such as lingarasa, lingamani, lingamoorthy; or simply, the lingam stands alone, without any adoration. For pious Tamil Hindus, lingam is a holy name. But crass Tamil Christians (like Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole) had poked fun on this naming tradition. On this lingam onamastics prevalent among Eelam Tamils alone, I can write a separate paper. Phallic worship is also prominent in Shintoism religion as well. Tagata Jinja (a Shinto shrine) at Komaki, near Nagoya city is a popular item among tourists from other countries for its phallus worship and festivals.

Essay Proper

Although Japan is far from India geographically, the two countries have close cultural relations and contacts in other areas. Cultural relations between the two can be traced back to very early times. Without Indian influence, Japanese culture would not be what it is today. As most Japanese profess the Buddhist faith, they have generally been influenced by Indian ideas.

Yama temple in Tokyo

Prior to the introduction of Western civilization, Buddhism was the basis for Japanese culture. Buddhism has infiltrated many aspects of daily life of the Japanese. Although Buddhism is but one of many things that originated in India, we should not overlook the fact that Indian philosophy and culture have been introduced along with the Buddhist faith into these four islands of Japan.

It is indeed amazing how Buddhism has gradually been introduced to these distant islands, thousands of miles away. Crossing so many deserts, valleys, fields and seas in various countries, the Buddhist faith finally reached the easternmost lands of Asia.

Buddhism came to Japan through Korea in the latter half of the 6th century. In 552, through the agency of the King of Pekche (Kudara), in southern Korea, the royal gifts of a statue of Buddha, the Sutras (Scriptures) and banners were presented to the Japanese Emperor, with a message to the effect that the Buddhist Dharma (doctrine), the most excellent of all doctrines which would bring immeasurable benefits to its believers in Japan, had been accepted in all countries lying between India and Korea.

The question of whether the new faith should be accepted was taken up by the ruling class, which was then divided into two factions struggling for political supremacy. The one which looked with favor on the new faith defeated the other.

The new religion began to be widely professed, partly due to the arrival in Japan of missionaries, magicians, the Scriptures, and various accessories for rituals, etc. Buddhism received its first imperial patronage from Prince Shotoku (574-621), who became regent to the Lady Emperor Suiko in 593. (The Japanese call a lady who reigns in her own right an Emperor: an Empress being the consort of a male Emperor). He drew up Japan’s first Constitution, proclaiming the ‘Three Treasures’ (triratna), i.e. The Buddha, The Dharma (doctrine) and The Sangha (the Order), to be the ultimate objects of faith, and single-minded devotion to them to be the fundamental factor of an upright life.

At government expense, he built Buddhist temples, pagodas, seminaries, hospitals, dispensaries and asylums for the aged and the destitute. Horyuji Temple, built by him near the city of Nara, is the oldest wooden building in the world.

Under his reign (593-621) the Japanese came into direct contact with Chinese Buddhism. He sent students to China to study Buddhist doctrines. From his time onwards, the influence of Buddhism continued to be conspicuous almost without interruption to the close of the Tokugawa regime (1868). Although Buddhism was persecuted at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration it has since recovered to a great extent.

Over the past 1,200 years, Indians have visited Japan from time to time. It is said that in the period of Emperor Kotoku (645-654) a seer called Hodo (Dharmamarga or Dharmapatha) came from Rajagraha of India. However, we are not quite sure whether the description in the annals is true or not. Probably the first Indian to come to our land was Bodhisena, a Buddhist monk. He was born of a Brahmin family in India. His clan (gotra) was Bharadvaja. Receiving a mystic inspiration from Manjushri Bodhisattva, he went to China and lived in the Wu t’ai shan Mountain. At the request of several Japanese who were in China for diplomatic negotiations and to study, Bodhisena came to Japan along with other Buddhist monks from China and Indo-China in 736. He was cordially received by the Imperial family, and was appointed archbishop. People informally called him Baramon (Brahmana) archbishop. He always recited the Buddhavatamsaka-sutra, and was versed in magical formulae. When the famous statue of Buddha (Daibutsu), the biggest in the world, representing Vairochana Buddha, was cast and installed in the city of Nara, then the capital, he officiated at the consecration ceremony as the head of the monks. He passed away in 760.

Symbolic touching of Genitals at Tagata Shrine
Symbolic touching of Genitals at Tagata Shrine

The Sanskrit lore has been kept in Japan for nearly 1,400 years in the colleges attached to the great Buddhist temples. It was Kukai, posthumously called St. Kobo (774-835), who started the study of Sanskrit letters, known as Shittan, a Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit word siddham, with which ancient Indian inscriptions and works often begin. Some Sanskrit texts in the Chinese script have also been brought to Japan. In some Japanese temples, very ancient manuscripts in Sanskrit are preserved intact. They must have been brought from India or Central Asia to China, and thence to Japan.

Strange to say, those manuscripts found in Japan are much older than those preserved in India. The first materials on which the Indians wrote letters were palm leaves and strips of birch bark: both materials are very fragile and easily perish in the Indian climate. Thus, it happens that the majority of manuscripts which India now possesses date back only a few centuries (or, at the earliest, 1,000 years or so). A few manuscripts found in India, however date back to the 11th or the 12th century. Except for those recently found in eastern Turkestan on the silk route of Central Asia, the oldest Indian manuscripts are to be found in Japan, and belong to the first half of the 6th century.

Except for India, there are few countries in the world where as many students are learning Sanskrit as in Japan. Thousands have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Sanskrit and Pali languages. There are many universities teaching these languages. A large number of books in these languages have recently been published, some of which are in no way inferior to those published in India, Europe or the United States.

As Buddhism originated in India, most of the Japanese regard India as, so to speak, their spiritual motherland and they feel a fraternal love for the Asiatic peoples with whom they share a common spiritual civilization. They are deeply interested in Indian culture and wish to know about the background of Buddhism. Probably that is why so many Japanese students are engaged in the study of Sanskrit and Indian culture.

It is indeed a matter for regret that very little is known abroad about the works of Japanese scholars due to the lack of knowledge among foreigners of the Japanese language. Although people in Japan do not know Sanskrit, they are familiar with the Indian siddham letters. One finds in wooden tablets written in siddham letters. In Japanese temples, there are images of Buddha, Boddhisattvas and other godlike beings with siddham inscriptions beneath them. These siddham letters are called ‘seeds’ (Bija), each identifying a single divine being. In feudal times some Japanese warriors went to battle, clad in helmets which had inside certain Sanskrit characters symbolizing benediction (mangala) for victory.

Japanese letters were no doubt constructed on the basis of Chinese characters. Yet there is a great difference between the two; the Chinese characters are ideographic, whereas the Japanese letters are phonetic like Indian letters. In a sentence Japanese letters are arranged in the same order as in Sanskrit and Hindi. According to a legend, the Japanese letters were invented by St. Kobo, who also introduced Vajrayana into Japan.

A famous Japanese song, ‘iroha-uta’, which is made up of all 47 Japanese letters, is nothing but a free translation of a Buddhist poem written in ancient India. The Sanskrit original of the poem runs as follows:

‘Sarve Samskarah anityah Utpadavyayadharminah,

Tesam vyupasamah sukham, avadad mahasramanah’

One of the popular Japanese games played at New Year festivities is played with cards called ‘iroha karuta’. A pack consists of 48 cards – each with a short saying, beginning with one of the 48 letters.

Even Indian legends were introduced into Japanese literature. One of them is the legend of Rsyasrnga, the rshi who had never seen a woman and was seduced by Santa, the daughter of King Lomapada. This legend, which is very famous in the Mahabharata and other literary works, was incorporated into the Buddhist scriptures, and conveyed to Japan. The Japanese preserved the figure of the saint under the name Ikkaku Sennin, i.e., Ekasrnga (Unicorn). The well-known kabuki drama Narukami, was derived from this legend.

Along with Buddhism, the worship of other Indian gods was introduced into Japan. These gods began to be worshiped later in Buddhist ritual. Indra, originally the god of thunder and then the most popular of all gods to be found in the Rg-veda, is adored by people here under the name of Taishakuten (literally, Emperor of Gods or Shakra).

Ganesha, the Indian god of wisdom, who has a head of an elephant and the trunk of a human being, is worshipped under the name of Sho-den (literally, Holy God), in many Buddhist temples, as one who confers happiness upon his votaries, especially in love affairs. In Japan we very often find figures of two Ganeshas, male and female, embracing each other (Mithuna). A sea serpent, worshiped by sailors, is called Ryujin, a Chinese equivalent of the Indian naga. Hariti and Dakini, Indian female demons, are also worshipped; the former under the name Kishimojin, and the latter retaining its original name. Bishamon is a Japanese equivalent of the Indian Vaishravana (Kubera), the god of fortune. Bishamon was worshipped by warriors in the feudal times for victory.

Not only Japanese Buddhism, but Shintoism also, has been considerably influenced by Indian thought. Although syncretism with Buddhism was denounced by the state in the days of the Meiji restoration, we find a strong Indian influence still remaining in present-day Shintoism. The following are some interesting examples.

Suiten (water god) is a Shintoist name. But the god, widely worshipped by people in downtown Tokyo, was originally Varuna (water god in India) and was introduced into the Buddhist pantheon by esoteric Buddhism, and then adopted by Shintoists, though Shintoists may hesitate to agree with this explanation.

Kompira, a god of sailors, is worshiped at Kotohira shrine, in Kagawa prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. Kompira is a corrupt form of Kumbhira, a Sanskrit word for a mythological crocodile in the Ganges.

Benten (literally, goddess of speech) is the Chinese and Japanese equivalent of Sarasvati. Along the sea coast and around ponds and lakes, one often finds shrines of Benten where her image is installed. Some of these images look very erotic and coquettish.

Daikoku, a god of fortune (literally, god of great darkness or blackness) is a favorite god with the common people. The name is the Chinese and Japanese equivalent of

Mahakala, another name for Shiva, the mightiest god in the Hindu pantheon, though Daikoku is clad in Japanese robes and has a benign and smiling countenance.

Visvakarman, maker of the world in the Rg-veda, was also esteemed as the god of carpenters in the royal court in ancient times under the name of Bishukatsuma as is mentioned in the historical work ‘Eiga monogatari’.

Sanskrit characters are observed even in Shintoistic rites. The traditionally dressed climbers of Mount Ontake, which has been worshipped as a divine being, and the climbing of which has been practiced as a kind of religious observance, put on traditional white robes. Sometimes Sanskrit characters (siddham) of an ancient type, much older than Devanagari characters, are written on these robes. They sometimes wear white Japanese scarfs (tenugui) on which the Sanskrit character ‘Om’, the sacred syllable of the Hindus, is written, although the climbers themselves cannot read it.

Some of the textiles remaining in the Horyuji monastery and the Shosoin treasury at Nara have Persian designs, showing the influence of that country on Japan during the 7th and 8th centuries. A unique example of the Indian Gupta style of painting will be seen in the fresco painting of the Golden Hall of the Horyuji temple. This can evidently be traced to the same original source as the wall paintings of the cave temples of Ajanta in India. The most primitive paintings in Japan are found on the walls of chambers of burial molds built in Kyushu in the prehistoric period. They consist mainly of totemic symbols and geometric patterns in red, green, white and yellow.

In the middle of the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced through Korea, and the new style of painting was brought in with many other new crafts. The most prominent example of early Buddhist paintings is found on the panels of the Tamamushi-no-zushi shrine which was built in the reign of the Lady Emperor Suiko (592-628), and is still preserved in the Horyuji temple, near Nara. Tamamushi is the name of Chrysochroa elegans Thunberg (Buprestidae) which was used as the materials for decoration. The painting by the litharge techniques shows landscapes, and Buddhist figures whose faces and limbs are slender and whose coloring is quite simple. These are said to be the characteristic features of the Chinese school of Six dynasties.

In the 8th century, painting underwent new and noteworthy development under the influence of the Indian chiaroscuro style, introduced from the Tang dynasty of China. The best example of this style will be seen in the famous fresco of the Horyuji temple. The style closely resembles the wall paintings of the cave temples of Ajanta in India. The figures in this painting are rotund and human, while those of the preceding period were romantic and transcendental. However, the best and most representative example of this period will be found in the figure of Kichijoten, the goddess of beauty, the Japanese equivalent of Indian Laksmi. The picture is painted in rich colors on hemp cloth.

In the 9th century, a new style of painting was brought in with the introduction of Chinese esoteric Buddhism. In the later Heian period (794-1192) the pictures representing Amida (amitabha) and his attendant Bodhisattvas, all descending from the heavenly pure land, were most popular. The Buddha altar of a Buddhist temple is called Shumidan (viz. Sumeru throne). The name has been derived from the highest mountain in Indian mythology.

The court dance and music (called Bugaku or Gagaku) introduced into Japan 1,200 years ago from India, directly by Bodhisena, the Indian monk and Fu Ch’e, a Vietnamese, are preserved in their original form to this very day. The original form is not preserved in present-day India, nor in other Asiatic countries. It is a unique cultural asset found only in Japan and is one of the wonders of the world. The Japanese are justly proud of this art which they have preserved through the centuries. From the time it was first introduced into this country, the court dance and music was given careful attention and protection by the Imperial Household. This art has been preserved through centuries as a ceremonial dance which is performed on various national celebrations and for visiting foreign diplomats. The formal stage for this art is found in the Imperial Palace.

The names of some pieces of the music can be traced to Indian originals, e.g: bosatsu, is the Japanese corruption of bodhisattva; bairo of Bhairava, karyobin of Kalavinka – a sonorous, sweet voiced bird. The dancers all wear red masks and a peculiar costume. Biwa, a Japanese musical instrument, is the corrupt form of the Sanskrit word vina. Originally this musical instrument came to China from India or thereabouts, but by the time of the T’ang dynasty it seems to have assumed the air of being a Chinese instrument. It was used already in the Nara period.

The custom of cremation was also introduced to this country from India. The rituals of our ancestor worship have been tremendously influenced by Indian customs, some of which can be traced back even to those practiced before the Aryan invasion by Indian aborigines such as the Dravidians, Mundas etc. They offered water, flowers, rice cakes and incense to their ancestors. Historical records show that an Indian drifted to the shore of Aichi prefecture in AD 799 and taught the people how to cultivate cotton. An ethnology scholar has pointed out that there is evidence that an Indian community existed in the Shima district in Mie prefecture.

Even with regard to the ideas and ideals that inspire and guide the Japanese in their daily lives, Indian influence is quite noteworthy. One of the virtues conspicuous among the Indian is forbearance. A humanitarian tendency which marks the Japanese national character can be traced to the Buddhist conception of maîtri (compassion). Indian influence can be traced even in the tastes and pleasures of the people. The kinds of incense favored by the people of China and Japan, were in part supplied by India, Indochina, China, Malay, Arabia and other western countries. Some specimens of them have been preserved in the Imperial Shosoin repository as national treasures. The enjoyment of good incense with a calm mind has come to be a sort of accomplishment for educated Japanese.

The sugoroku (backgammon) game was played in the Imperial court in the Nara period. In the Shosoin repository, besides the sugoroku set in shitan wood, ‘red sandalwood’ and marquetry, some six ivory dice and 85 backgammon pieces of rock crystal, amber and glass have been preserved. There is also a dice box of shitan wood decorated with gold and silver paintings. While playing, players shook two dice from the box on to the board, to move their pieces in the game. This game is very popular among common people even now, especially on the days of the New Year festival. No one knows when and where the backgammon game was invented. According to Wei-shu, sugoroku was a Hu game imported into China quite long ago. Hu at that time meant a country somewhere near India. It perhaps entered China in the late Wei period (presumably in the 5th century). The dice used in sugoroku is a six faced cube numbered 1 to 6. It is extremely interesting to note that the dice is marked similarly throughout the world from ancient times. Among the findings of the ancient Indus civilization one will find dice of exactly the same form as are used nowadays in Japan.

When such instances mentioned above are considered, it cannot be denied that India in her unique way has exercised a great influence on Japanese thought and culture.