Echoes of eternity

Print edition : January 11, 2013

MAIN GATE, TOFUKU-JI TEMPLE, KYOTO. This is the largest gate of a temple in Japan and is a "national treasure". The temple was built in the 13th century and was rebuilt in the 15th century, after it was destroyed by fire.-

The Buddhist temples of Japan are the finest embodiments of the Indian philosophic view that moments of perception of beauty are akin to nirvana, when the veils of maya are lifted and we see the underlying truth of being. A visit to these temples in autumn is a sublime experience.

THE Indic philosophy of aesthetics underlies the art-making tradition of the many faiths that originated in India. It is believed that our experience when we respond to beauty is akin to the final bliss of salvation itself. The moment of our perception of beauty is considered to be one when the veils of maya or mithya (illusion) are lifted and we see the grace that is inherent in all that there is.

TODAI-JI, NARA. In historical records, the first Indian mentioned in Japan is Bodhisena, who consecrated the Big Buddha at Todai-ji in 752 C.E. He was born in south India and was invited by Emperor Shomu of Japan while he was in China. He is honoured as one of the four great saints of Todai-ji.-

Today, the Buddhist temples of Japan present the finest embodiment of this philosophic view. Here, the beauty of nature, and of art, serves to awaken sublime peace and joy within us. Truly, a visit to the temples of Nara and Kyoto in autumn is one of the greatest experiences the world has to offer.

KRISHNA, TODAI-JI, NARA. The image is made on a large octagonal lantern tower of the 8th century, dating back to the origins of the temple. A Krishna is also seen in the paintings of the Buddhist Kizil Caves in China.-

The second-most revered deity of Buddhist Japan is Saraswati. There are scores of shrines built to her, some in Tokyo itself. In many ways, the original concept of Saraswati and her association with the natural order and good fortune are very well preserved in Japan. She is often visualised as a holy body of water. Saras-wati literally means abounding in pools, lakes, or waters. It is also the name of the great river that once flowed in India. In important Buddhist temples, such as the one at Gunma, I have seen at least a dozen images of Saraswati. Lakshmi, Garuda (the vehicle of Vishnu) and Vedic deities are commonly seen in the temples of Japan. An Indian can feel quite at home in these temples.

DAIYUZAN-SAIJO-JI, NEAR ODAWARA. This is one of the most beautiful Zen temples and is located atop a hill covered with tall trees.-

The earliest image of Saraswati was not found in a Hindu temple but in a Jaina temple at Kankali Tila, near Mathura, dating to around the 1st century C.E. The earliest images of Lakshmi were seen in Buddhist stupa railings at Bharhut (2nd century BCE) and at Sanchi (2nd century BCE and 1st century C.E.). Actually, there were no religious divisions in ancient India. Inscriptions show that in practically all families, husbands, wives and children followed the paths of different deities. This was a philosophic view of life and deities were not gods. They were personifications of the qualities that are within us. The purpose of meditation and puja (adoration) was to awaken those qualities.

A SARASWATI SHRINE, GINKAKU-JI, KYOTO. Saraswati is a deeply revered deity in Japan. The 12th century Japanese Prime Minister Fujiwara no Moronaga (1138-1192) had the title Myoo-nin (Myoo is an epithet of Saraswati), as he was an expert in playing the lute.-

The transmission of Hindu deities to Japan was through two sutras: Suvarnabhasottama-sutra, the Sutra of Golden Light, and Mahavairocana-sutra. The central role of the Suvarnabhasottama-sutra in the state ceremonies of Japan was responsible for the widespread worship of the Hindu deities Saraswati and Sri (or Lakshmi), both in imperial and private ceremonies. Chapter seven of the Suvarnabhasottama-sutra is devoted to Saraswati and the next chapter is dedicated to Sri.

THE BIG BUDDHA seated on a lotus platform, Todai-ji. This is the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairochana. It is known in Japanese as "Daibutsu".-

In Japan, rituals of Sri have been conducted over the centuries to ensure peace in the realm; rain in the right season; ripening of the crops; and the happiness of all people and of all sentient beings. Lakshmi was also transmitted to Japan through China. In her Chinese avatar, she is known as Kichijo. There is a suburban district of Tokyo named after her. Yasukuni Enoki, a former Ambassador of Japan to India, was from this district and he often used to say that he came from Lakshmi Town.

GINKAKU-JI, OR "TEMPLE OF THE SILVER PAVILION", Kyoto, a beautiful Zen temple. The Dhyana tradition, known in Chinese as Chan and in Japanese as Zen, was first established in China by Bodhidharma from India in the sixth century.-

An upper temple in the Todai-ji complex in Nara has images of almost every Vedic deity. Ganapati is known in Japan as Shoten, Noble God, or Kangiten. He was introduced to Japan in 806 C.E. as a deity in the outer circle of the Garbhadhatu-mandala. The Shotengu temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo was built in the early ninth century. The locality is called Shoten-cho, or Ganapati Township. In 1832, there were around a hundred shrines of Ganapati in this area.

HONGAN-JI TEMPLE, KYOTO. Its exquisite garden and architecture evoke a sense of the sublime within us.-

Paintings in the interior of the Hongan-ji Temple complex, Kyoto. These beautiful paintings are designated as a "national treasure".-

Autumnal leaves in the garden of the Tenryu-ji complex, Kyoto.-

Garuda, in the Daiyuzan-Saijo-ji complex, near Odawara. The "vahana" of Vishnu is often seen in Buddhist temples across Asia.-

DAIYUZAN-SAIJO-JI, NEAR ODAWARA. The beautiful environment of this great Zen temple awakens joy and peace within.-

ANOTHER REPRESENTATION OF GARUDA, Daiyuzan-Saijo-ji complex, near Odawara.-

AN EXQUISITE IMAGE OF SARASWATI in the Asakusa shrine, Tokyo. In 1836, when a guidebook to the Edo area, or present-day Tokyo, was written, Saraswati was the most popular deity in the area.-

NATURE AND ARCHITECTURE merge beautifully in the Daiyuzan-Saijo-ji Zen temple near Odawara.-

BENTEN, OR SARASWATI SHRINE, Asakusa, Tokyo.-

THE POND AT EIKANDO ZENRIN-JI, KYOTO. Japan preserves beautifully the association of Saraswati with water.-

A VISITOR IN TRADITIONAL CLOTHES at the Eikando Zenrin-ji, Kyoto. The Japanese tradition of aesthetics is reflected in both the garden of the temple and the traditional dress.-

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art-historian and photographer who is known for his tireless and prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 36,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made over a hundred documentaries on art history and his exhibitions have been warmly received in 29 countries around the world. Behl has been invited to lecture by most of the important universities and museums around the world which have departments of Asian art. This feature has photographs mainly taken by him in November this year. Some of these will also be shown in an Indo-Japanese exhibition of his photographs and those of Eiichi Matsumoto, from January 5-10, at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

The exhibition is titled Buddhist Heritage of the World: From India to Japan. Behl has photographed Buddhist heritage in 19 countries/ regions across Asia and in one part of Europe which has a 300-year old Buddhist heritage.

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