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How Japan worships Goddess of Learning

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

By Shailaja Tripathi

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?

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.

Source: The Hindu

Next Story

Donald Trump Negotiates Trade Deal With Japan

Trump to negotiate the trade deal with Japan

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Donald Trump.
To Lower Drug Costs at Home, Trump Wants Higher Prices Abroad. (Wikimedia Commons)

The US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday he is negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with Japan and that his country would only re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) if its member countries offered him a deal he could not refuse.

“I don’t want to go back into TPP. But if they offered us a deal I can’t refuse on behalf of the US, I would do it. In the meantime, we are negotiating, and what I really would prefer is negotiating a one-on-one deal with Japan,” Donald Trump said at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

However, Abe stressed his country’s position towards the TPP, saying that it “is the best for both countries,” although he acknowledged the US’s interest in a bilateral trade deal, Efe reported.

Trump said that should his country reach a trade agreement with Japan, there will be talks about the possibility of ending tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, a move that Washington introduced in March to a number of countries, including Japan.

Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Trump added that his primary concern at the moment is the “massive” trade deficit with Japan, which amounted to “from $69 billion to $100 billion a year.”

In fact, the trade deficit with Japan last year stood at $69 billion, far from the $100 billion that the US President claimed, according to the official figures by the US Department of Commerce.

The two leaders made these announcements in a joint press conference at the tycoon’s private club Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where Abe arrived on Tuesday to have meeting with Trump on his four-day visit to the US.

Also Read: China And Russia Accused of Manipulating Their Currencies By Trump

Last week, the White House announced that Trump had asked the US foreign trade representative Robert Lighthizer and the economic adviser Larry Kudlow to “take another look at whether or not a better deal (with the TPP) could be negotiated.”

However, Trump has shown little interest in negotiations that would further complicate the matter, since the other 11 countries that negotiated the original TPP, with the then Barack Obama administration, have already signed their own multilateral deal, the so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), or TPP-11.

Shinzo Abe
FILE IMAGE- Shinzo Abe.

On the other hand, during this four-day visit Abe has a special interest in getting an exemption for Japan from the 10 per cent and 25 per cent tariffs that the Trump administration imposes on aluminum and steel imports, respectively.

Trump has granted a temporary exemption until May 1 to Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and the European Union.

Also Read: White House Denies Any Direct Talks Yet Between Trump And Kim

Japan has been left out of the exempted countries despite being one of the US’s major allies, and for that reason Abe is trying to make use of his visit to secure a place on that list, although Japan barely produces aluminum and the amount of steel exported to the US stands at only around 5 percent of its total steel exports.  IANS