Saraswati meets Buddha

Do you know that Saraswati, the goddess of learning, has hundreds of shrines dedicated to her in Japan?

Are you aware that Siddham, the 5th century Sanskrit script which has disappeared in India, is still in use in Japan, and the Ganesha temple in Tokyo is the oldest temple to have witnessed 1,000 years of continued worship?

A Saraswati or Benzaiten shrine in Ginkakuji, Tokyo. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

And we thought Japan was all about the Buddha! At ‘Hindu Deities and Indian Culture in Japan,’ an exhibition of photographs by Benoy K. Behl at National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, 82 photographs of sculptures, paintings, shrines, ritualistic practices shot across museums and temples in Japan weave a beautiful narrative around Hindu deities actively worshipped there.

Behl, an art historian and filmmaker known for his extensive engagement with heritage, took these images during the course of a Japan Foundation Fellowship last year.

While images of Saraswati (Benzaiten) dominate the collection on display, there are also pictures of Agni (fire god Katen), a temple of Indra (Shibamata Taishakuten in Japanese), Brahma (Bonten), Lakshmi (Kichijoten) and Ganesh (Shoten), revered by the believers in Japan. Between the seventh and eighth centuries, Japan adopted the eight-armed Saraswati as defender of the nation. “There is an entire sect associated with it which is called the Benzaiten sect. Also, it is interesting to note that Saraswati is depicted and venerated not only with the veena, but also remembered for her association with water. Saraswati is originally the personification of the river by that name. Therefore, she is also worshiped in pools of water in Japan,” says Behl. But what about their facial features and form? That seems to change a bit in every painting and figurine. “Deities in Japan are not real figures. They are personification of ideas. Their Lakshmi isn’t heavily ornamented and the first Lakshmi you see in Indian art (in a Buddhist Stupa) is a Gajalakshmi, which again is not heavily ornamented,” explains the art historian.

The four directional kings whom we know as dikpalas, and Apsara, Chandra or the moon (Gnatoo), also feature in the exhibition. A film on the same subject by Behl, commissioned by the Ministry of External Affairs, is also a part of the exhibition. “It features 50 most important priests of Japan who were kind enough to allow me to shoot in their temples, which are otherwise very conservative. I think my background in Buddhist art helped and all of them opened their doors for me. I shot Japanese priests doing havans… you know, they perform havans more often than us,” says Behl. Particularly interesting is an image of priests singing Sanskrit hymns and performing homa. “Today’s Himalayan Buddhism is of a later development and has lost the typical havan or homa. I was delighted to find and record the continuance of the tradition of homa in some of the most important Japanese Buddhist sects, who call it goma. Sanskrit sutras are also chanted on the occasion and it is much like the havan we are all familiar with. Also, the 5th century Siddham script, which has disappeared in India, is still in use in Japan. At Koyasan, they have a school where Sanskrit is taught with Siddham.”

Behl goes on to establish the arrival of Buddhism in Japan with the image of a Nagarjuna figurine shot in Gokokuji temple in Tokyo. Nagarjuna is deeply revered in the country as an intellectual and teacher who established Vajrayana Buddhism. Then there is a shot of a screen painting depicting Bodhisena — a Buddhist monk from India — being received in Japan by Gyoki Bodhisattva who then took him to Nara.

“There are deep meanings in Japanese practices which take us back to early developments of philosophy in India. Besides the Buddha, so many ancient Indian deities and practices are preserved in these temples.

An Indian feels quite at home in Japan,” says Behl.

Posted by on March 20, 2016. Filed under State. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.