Worship of Devi Saraswathi in Japan

Worship of Devi Saraswathi in Japan

Dr Jayanthi Manohar

An invitation to present my paper in the 14th World Sanskrit Conference in Kyoto, Japan gave me an opportunity to look at the history of Japan. I started with the writings of Dr Subhash Kak and Dr Lokesh Chandra which dragged me deep into the divine bond between India and Japan. Hinduism played a very significant role in moulding Japanese character and culture. Esoteric import of Vedas and tantric rituals are the basis for the Shingon or esoteric principles of Buddhism in Japan. It is evident that the 'Shingon' (True Word) sect of Buddhism originated in India much before it was introduced in China in the 8th C.E. They also perform Homa (Goma), Vedic fire rite with the ghee flown in from Australia. Homa remains vital to religious practices in Japan. It consists of mantra, mudra and mandalas.

It is interesting to study about how both Vedic and post Vedic Indian thoughts have reached Japan during different periods and have got assimilated into their psyche. I have traced the flow of knowledge through Saraswathi in Japan here. A comprehensive study reveals that the powers of Lakshmi and Parvathi are amalgamated in Saraswathi even though 'Sri' and 'Mahadevi' are worshipped separately in many shrines.

Japanese people in general do not know the Indian origin of deities whom they worship because they are introduced to Japan through China with Chinese names. The divine bond between India and Japan goes back to several Centuries. During the past 1200 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 (Dharma-patha) went from Rajagriha of India. It is believed that the first Indian to set his foot in Japan was Bodhisena, a Buddhist monk. He was born of a Brahmin family of Bharadvaja Gotra, in India. He went to China and lived in the Wu t'ai shan Mountain receiving a mystic inspiration from Manjushri Bodhisattva. At the request of several Japanese who were in China for diplomatic negotiations and for study, Bodhisena came to Japan along with other Buddhist monks from China in 736 A.D. He was cordially received by the Japan's Imperial Family, and was appointed Head Priest called as Baramon (Brahman) archbishop. There is also a record of another Indian ascetic going from India via Champa to Osaka, then to Nara, along with "Brahmin Bishop" and taught Sanskrit to the Japanese. His monastery and tombstone, with a written eulogy, still exist in Nara.

There seems to be a mixture of both Buddhism and Shinto religions in Japan today. Many Shinto deities in Japan incorporate Buddhist attributes. Many Buddhist deities in Japan incorporate Shinto attributes. The deities are seen everywhere. We can even see a small shrine on the rooftop of a modern building. People pray to propitiate god before the shrine when a building is commissioned. Cars and personal Computers also have their own gods. Anda-myojin Shrine in Tokyo is considered as the guardian of computers. People pray for both God and Buddha.

Prof Yamaguchi Hiroichi, a well known historian records that there are about 80,000 Shinto shrines today and there are also equal number of Buddhist shrines all over Japan. He also traces a period in the history of Japan when Shinto gods were known as manifestations of Buddha and other Buddhist deities. Popular Hindu gods who are widely worshipped in Japan are Indra (Taishaku-ten), Varuna (Sui-ten), Yama (Emma), Agni (Ka-ten), Mahakala (Daikoku-ten), Saraswathi (Benzai-ten), Ganesa (Sho-ten or Kangi-ten), Brahma (Bonten), Vayu (Hu-ten), Vaisravana or Kubera (Bishamon-ten), Mahesvara (Makei-shura-ten), Isana (Ishana-ten), Nilakantha (Shokyo-Kannon), Prithvi (Ji-ten), Surya (Nit-ten), Chandra (Gat-ten), Narayana (Naraen-ten), Kartikeya (Kumara-ten), Lakshmi (Kichijo-ten), Skanda (Marishiten, Idaten).

What surprised me most in Japan is their tradition of creating huge idols of Vedic deities like Indra, Agni, Varuna etc. Even though it is believed that the Vedic gods are placed in the shrines of Buddha as guardian deities, the role of main deities like Saraswathi, Mahadevi, Lakshmi, Ganesha and Indra etc., in the divine path of Japanese spiritual journey tell us a different story. Devi Saraswathi has the most venerable status in Shinto as well as Buddhist shrines.

A cult called ‘Seven Deities of good fortune’ (Shichifukujin) arose in 16th C.E. in Japan. Taking the tour (yatra) of ‘Seven Deities of good fortune’ around new year is observed by many people even now. Saraswathi is the only female deity among them. She is also worshipped as main deity in many temples. Saito Gesshin, a historian has listed 131 shrines of Saraswathi in his book ‘Toto Saijiki’. Philip Franz Von Siebold, a German scholar has also written that there were 131 Shrines dedicated to Goddess Saraswathi and 100 to Lord Ganesha in Tokyo itself in 1832.

Seven lucky Gods of Japan - Ebisu, Daikoku (Shiva, Mahakala), Benzaiten (Saraswavthi), Bishamonten (Vaisravana or Kubera), Fukurokyu, Hoteil and Juroujin. Here, 'zai' in Benzaiten means wealth wherein in other contexts it means 'talent'.
Devi Saraswathi who enjoys the high venerable status in India right through the Vedic period is extremely popular in Japan. She is known by various names such as Benzai-ten (Goddess of talent and wealth), Benteu, Benten (Goddess of Speech), Sama, Benzamini, Myo-ongakuten, Meoongten, Myo’on-ten (goddess with sweet voice), Daiben, Dai-Benzai-ten (goddess of great intelligence), Dai-bentenno, Bio-ten, Ku-doku, Mio-on-Tennio etc. The Indian concept of Saraswathi being the consort of Brahma is also retained in Japan. Saraswathi gives inspiration to writers and painters. (Chodayitri sunrutanam .. prachetayati ketuna .. Rig.1.3.12). She is the goddess of music, wealth, fortune, beauty, happiness, eloquence and wisdom. She is considered as extremely beautiful lady, and ideal form of feminine beauty. Saraswathi is also worshipped in Japan as the Goddess of River and her image is generally installed in temples besides a river or lake or pond, and a snake is assumed to be the messenger of Benzai-ten. This concept of the goddess, is linked up with her personification with the famous Vedic river Saraswathi. Her figures are seen in many of the paintings in different forms in Japan. Japanese classical theatre NOH has a drama dedicated to Saraswathi.

Saraswathi's sketches sanctify kitchens in rural areas of Japan even now, says Lokesh Chadra, Director of International Academy of Indian Culture. Japanese treated her as sa-rasavati or the ‘goddess of the taste.’ He also says, “Japanese couples who desire to have a beautiful daughter pray to goddess Saraswathi even to this day.”

Chapter 7 of an important Buddhist Sutra called ‘Suv’ (Suvarnabhasottama Sutra-Golden Light Sutra), is devoted to Devi Saraswathi. She is worshipped here as the Goddess of wisdom and supremacy. Emperor Shomu (724-749) had ordered the recitation of this Sutra in all the provinces in the year 741 C.E. to protect against calamities, deadly diseases and sorrow. He had also ordered that each province should build a 17 storied stupa and write out ten copies of the Sutra. In the annals of the Todaiji temple in Nara, it has been stated that the worship of Saraswathi and Lakshmi was first introduced in 722 C.E. and continued down the centuries. It is interesting to note that while in India Saraswathi is always depicted as a charming goddess of music, fine arts, and learning holding a veena with her both hands, in Japan she is depicted both as serene (shantha) form as she holds Veena and the violent (krodha) form, she has eight arms that hold weapons: bow, arrow, sword, trident, axe, vajra, chakra and noose. We are reminded of her description as " Vritraghni - slayer of demon Vritra " in Rigveda (6.61.7). A painting of the eight-armed Saraswathi, dating to 1212 is preserved at the University of Fine Arts, Tokyo.
Saraswathi as Benten with a lute is envisaged as a beautiful lady, but Benten with a sword is a brave lady of whom the people are frightened. There is an image of Benten in war-like posture, in Enoshima, holding a sword in her hand with a serpent and tortoise sitting at her feet and two Deva kings standing on either side. There is a hymn to Saraswathi in this Suv Sutra: "May Goddess Saraswathi protect us in the field of war". Many Japanese Generals used to pray to her to defeat their enemies with this hymn.

The description of deities (Besson-zakki), written by Shinkaku in the 12th C.E. gives her mantra as, svaha / namo sarasvatyai mahadevyai svaha/ namo bhagavati mahadevi Sarasvati / siddhyantu mantra-padani svaha// A description of Saraswathi occurs in the voluminous text 'Asabasho' written by Shocho (1205-82) and the rituals connected with her worship have been recorded by Ryoson (1279-1349) in Chapter CXLIX of his work 'Byaku-hokku-sho' (The White Jewel of Indian Tradition). She is known as the patroness of writers, composers, musicians and painters. The record says, the court musicians who played the biwa remained single due to the fear of losing Saraswathi's blessings after marriage. A well known poet Miyako no Yoshika (824-879) visited the shrine of Saraswathi in Chikubushima for inspiration and he was blessed by her with a line of his poem in his dream. Many such anecdotes remind us the story of our great poet Kalidasa who was blessed by 'Mahakali' to compose poetry.

In the recent past, in 1934, lady Chiben Sonnyo founded ‘Saraswathi sect' ('Benten-shu'). She realised suddenly that Saraswathi had descended in her body, and started writing in Sanskrit which she had never studied. One more miracle recorded in 834 C.E. is worth mentioning here. Saraswathi appeared in a dream of Ennin who was suffering from an eye disease and gave a medicine and her wooden image. He woke up to find the image and the medicine that cured him. Devi Saraswathi is worshipped for getting good health, wealth, power and knowledge even now in Japan. Several hagiographies, hymns and Sutras are written for the worship of Saraswathi and there is a record of benefits that accrue there from.

Japanese people appeared religious as I observed during my visit. All the shrines that I visited were filled with both young and old devotees. Japanese people in general believe that the Hindu deities (known to them as chinese) if worshipped properly, bestow quick material benefits and other favors in their day to day life. Japan is often described as a nation where tradition and modernity exist in harmony. It is a common sight to see young boys and girls clad in western outfits praying in shrines by lighting agarbathis etc.

I thank Prof. Subhash Kak and Prof.Lokesh Chandra who have written profusely about the divine bond between India and Japan along with Japanese scholars, Dr Yamamoto Chikyo, Dr Hajime Nakamura and number of historians. There is still a lot more scope for studying in order to understand how great ideals are conceived in our sacred land which reached farther shores from time immemorial. The study of worship of Devi Saraswathi in particular gives many clues to trace the influence of Vedic concepts in Japan.

Etymological meaning of Saraswathi is 'the one that flows' (pools/rivers). Vedic sages have praised Devi Saraswathi who bestows the flow of speech, wisdom and strength -power in unequivocal term as "Devitame - the highest deity". They also named the river around which Vedic religion flourished as Saraswathi (Ambitame - best waters-mighty river). She is associated with fertility of lands, well being of people in general and gives strength to combat with enemies both in the spiritual as well as material worlds. We can also observe that divine powers represented by Devi Lakshmi (wealth) and Parvathi (strength) were associated originally with Devi Saraswathi. My study of worship of Saraswathi in Japan reveals that all these Vedic concepts have been adopted there since many centuries by common people and by people with spiritual pursuit. Saraswathi is worshiped as the highest benevolent deity in all most all the countries where Indian thoughts have gone. In Tibetan, Saraswathi is Yang Chenmo, or when her musical aspect is emphasized, she is Piwa Karpo. In Mongolian she is Keleyin ukin Tegri, in Chinese she is called Tapien-ts'ai t'iennu or Miao-yin mu.

Hajime Nakamura (1912 - 1999), a well known Japanese scholar has remarked that: "India is culturally, Mother of Japan. For centuries it has, in her own characteristic way, been exercising her influence on the thought and culture of Japan." He has also told that: “Without Indian influence, Japanese culture would not be what it is today. As most Japanese profess the Buddhist faith, needless to say, they have generally been influenced by Indian ideas to a great extent."

Sanskrit language has been kept in Japan for nearly 1,400 years in the colleges attached to the great Buddhist temple. Several Sanskrit texts in the Chinese script had also been brought to Japan. They have some very ancient Sanskrit manuscripts preserved in Japanese temples which were brought from India or Central Asia to China and from there to Japan. It is really surprising to note that some of the manuscripts found in the Japanese temples are much older than those preserved in India.
Most of the Universities in Japan are having Sanskrit studies even now. I felt happy to see many young students learning different Shastra texts of Sanskrit with great interest and presenting their papers in the 14th World Sanskrit Conference held in Kyoto in September 2009. I have carried back home with pride the great admiration and respect in the eyes of scholars and aged Japanese people in general about India.

Dr Jayanthi Manohar is a Research Scholar,Documentary film maker and Executive Trustee of Amritavahini. This article was submitted to the Heritage Trust.