Syllables for gods

Print edition : October 16, 2015

Siddham, 5th century Sanskrit script, Gokokuji, Tokyo. On Japanese tombs you find the Sanskrit alphabet. The Japanese cannot read this alphabet but still use it to respect the dead. The 5th century Siddham script, which has disappeared in India, is still in use in Japan. At Koyasan, they still have a school where Sanskrit is taught with Siddham. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Sanskrit Beejakshara, Inoji Yama temple, Kyoto. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Sanskrit prayers and pronunciation in Japanese, Gokokuji, Tokyo. The mantras are in Sanskrit as the Japanese feel that translating them will destroy their effectiveness. The pronunciation given in Japanese helps the priests to chant the mantras. The Japanese wrote Sanskrit through simplified Chinese characters, which developed into the Japanese alphabet Kana. Accordingly, the structure of sounds of Sanskrit and Japanese Kana are almost exactly the same. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Sanskrit Beejakshara, Sensoji, Tokyo. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Esoteric Ganesha, or Shoten, Unryun, Sennyuji, Kyoto. Ganesha is an important part of the Esoteric, or Tantric, tradition of Japan. The Japanese pray to him in Sanskrit, with the mantra Om Kri Gyaku Un Swaka. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Beejakshara of Amitabha, Sanboin Hall, Daigoji, Shiga Prefecture. In Japan, they also use the Sanskrit letters for writing the sacred syllables or Beejakshras, which have the power of mantras. Every Buddhist monastery in Japan has a seal with a Beejakshara to use as a short name of the monastery. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Esoteric Ganesha, or Shoten, National Treasure Museum, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Kamakura. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Matsuchiyama Shoten, Ganesha Temple, Tokyo. This may be the oldest temple to Ganesha in the world that has been in continuous use. Ganesha has been worshipped here for the last one thousand years. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Ganesha, or Shoten, temple near Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Kamakura. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Lakshmi, or Kichijoten, Bishamonten or Kubera group, Heian period, 8th-12th century, Kurumadera Temple Museum, Kyoto prefecture. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Lakshmi, or Kichijoten, Horinji Temple, Nara prefecture. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Hariti Onjoji Museum, Shiga prefecture. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Lakshmi, or Kichijoten, 12th century, Daigoji, Shiga prefecture. Photo: Benoy K Behl

Lakshmi, or Kichijoten, Ninnaji Museum, Kyoto. In 768 C.E., the office of the Prime Minister decided that the worship of Sri, or Lakshmi, would be carried out in every temple in the country. Scrolls of Lakshmi were distributed for worship to all temples. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Lakshmi, or Kichijoten, Onjoji Museum, Shiga prefecture, national treasure. Worship of Lakshmi is done in Japan to ensure the peace of the land, wind and rain in good season, good harvests, joy of the people, and the good of all sentient beings. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Agni, or Katen, 12th century, National Treasure from Toji, courtesy Kyoto National Museum. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Agni, or Katen, Meguro Ryusenji, Tokyo. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Agni, or Katen, screen painting, Daigoji, Shiga prefecture. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Brahma, or Bonten, Kofokuji Museum, Nara. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Indra, or Taishakuten, Kofokuji Museum, Nara. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Indra, or Taishakuten, 8th century, Koonji Museum, Saijo, Ehime. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Indra, or Taishakuten, Tsumyoji, Kyoto. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Indra, or Taishakuten, Shibamata Taishakuten Indra Temple, Daikyoji, Tokyo. About two million people visit the temple every year. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Brahma, or Bonten, Todaiji Temple, Hokkedo Hall, Nara. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Mahakala, or Daikokuten Unryun, Sennyuji, Kyoto. The appearance of Mahakala is transformed in Japan, where he is presented as a deity of abundance. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

In many ways, Japan has preserved ancient Indian traditions, even when they may have changed in India. The 6th century Siddham script is preserved in Japan though it is not used in India. The “Beejaksharas” (seed syllables) of Sanskrit in this script are regarded as holy and are given great importance. Each deity has a Beejakshara, and these are venerated by the people even though most of them cannot read them. In fact, Beejaksharas are found in almost all Japanese homes. The Siddham script is also found at Japanese tombs, to respect the souls of the dead.

Many words in the Japanese language are from Sanskrit. Sanskrit was also the basis for the formation of the Japanese alphabet “Kana”.

In supermarkets, a major brand of milk products is branded “Sujata”. The company personnel are taught the story of Sujata, who gave sweet rice milk to the Buddha when he broke his period of austerity before he gained Enlightenment.

In the words of Yasukuni Enoki, former Ambassador of Japan: “More than 80 per cent of Japanese gods are originally Indian. Most of the Japanese don’t know this because these gods reached Japan with Chinese names.”

There are deep meanings in Japanese practices, which take us back to early developments of philosophy in India. In many ways, the philosophic understanding is most well preserved in Japan. Japan has not had the breakdown of cultural norms that India suffered when a colonial education system was created. Therefore, most Indians learnt about their own culture from the Western point of view. The dominant and admired language was English, and it remains so to this day. Obviously, all books and education in schools and universities in India are rooted in the English vision.

I did the research for and took most of the photographs used in this feature in spring 2015 with the support of a Japan Foundation Fellowship. I am deeply grateful for this valuable support.

I have also made a film for the Ministry of External Affairs on the subject of “Hindu Deities Worshiped in Japan”. My partner Sujata Chatterji is the assistant director of the film.

Benoy K Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer who is known for his tireless and prolific output over the past 36 years. He has taken over 46,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 132 documentaries on art and cultural history. His exhibitions have been warmly received in 54 countries around the world, and he holds the record, in the Limca Book Records, for being the most travelled photographer.

The vastness of Behl’s documentation presents a wide and new perspective in understanding the art and culture of India and of Asia. He has been invited to lecture by most of the important universities and museums around the world that have departments of Asian art. His landmark book The Ajanta Caves is published by Thames & Hudson, London, and Harry N. Abrams, New York. It is in its fifth print run.

This is the second part of a three-part feature.

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