The influence of Indian religion on Japan

Kangiten, the Japanese incarnation of a popular Hindu god, Ganesha.

Hinduism is one the oldest religions in the world, and was around thousands of years before the time of Jesus, let alone the first religion of Abraham, or even the first dedicated monotheistic religion. Surely, then, it would be no surprise that such a religion would have spread far and wide over the course of its development and evolution. Hinduism as a religion is not commony practiced in Japan, and is considered a minority religion, with only 4,000 registered Hindus living there. Nevertheless, Hinduism has played a very significant and important role in shaping Japanese culture.

Buddhism, which shares a common root with Hinduism, came to Japan in the 6th century AD from China, where the Buddhist teachings had been translated into Chinese, via the Korean peninsula. Buddhist missionaries would introduce gods from Hinduism to Japan, as well as Buddhist ideas, most of which were ultimately born from Hindu thought. Hundreds of Hindu deities were adopted into the Chinese and Japanese Buddhist pantheons, and nearly all of them have a Hindu counterpart, and many of these deities are still popular. Here’s some examples.

First is Benzaiten. In Hinduism, Saraswati as the goddess of rivers, beauty, and the arts, such as music. In Japan, she become a lucky goddess, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune to be exact. Worship of her came to Japan in the 6th-8th centuries through Chinese translations of the Sutra of Golden Light.

Benzaiten, the Japanese counterpart to the Hindu goddess Saraswati.

Another god of fortune is Bishamonten, who is also a god of war and warriors in Japan, in contrast to his other depictions in Buddhism, where he is called Vaisravana, in which he is a more pacifist figure. Bishamonten comes from Vaisravana, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, who himself originates from a Hindu god of wealth called Kubera.

Shiva has also entered the Japanese pantheon, mainly in the form of Daikokuten, another lucky god of happiness of wealth. He is said to be combination of the Shinto god Okuninushi and the Tibetan and Mongolian Mahakala, and he most likely entered Japan from Mongolia. Daikoku’s status as a god of wealth possibly originates from Mahakala’s association with Kubera, indicated by reports from Chinese pilgrims of seeing Mahakala placed in Indian temples carrying a bag of gold. And there is a white form of Mahakala who is sometimes seen as a god of wealth.

Shiva’s son, Ganesha, also appears in the pantheon, brought to Japan in the 9th century by the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and images of him have been throughout Japan. He is known there as Kangiten or Shoten, and is worshipped as a god of bliss, endowed with great power and beleived to confer happiness to couples and devotees, as well as conjugal blessings. He is also said to be a manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. There is a popular temple at Futako Tamagawa in Tokyo, in which figures of Ganesha are displayed more prominently than those of the Buddha.

Indra, king of the gods in Vedic mythology, appears as Taishakuten, and a deity presiding over the Four Heavenly Kings.

Yama, the lord of the departed, appears in Japan as Enma, or Enma Dai-O.

I can go on with many more examples of Hindu gods adopted in Japanese Buddhism. Shinto adopted Hindu gods alongside Buddhism, despite Japan’s efforts to separate itself from foreign religions, including Indian religions, during what is called the Meiji Restoration, and many Hindu gods became Shinto gods, or Shinto gods adopted characteristics and links with Hindu gods.

A komainu guarding a temple in Japan.

Some Hindu symbolism also appears in temple iconography. For instance, many Shinto shrines in Japan are guarded by lion-dogs called Komainu, which resemble Chinese guardian lions, who ward off evil spirits. A common characteristic of these statues is that there are pairs of two identical statues, but with one’s mouth open and the other’s closed. This pattern is Buddhist in origin, but is laced with Hindu symbolism. The one whose mouth is open is uttering the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced “a”, while the one whose mouth is closed is uttering the last letter, pronounced “um”. Together, they represent the beginning and end of all things and form the sacred syllable in Hindu thought, the Aum. The same is true of a pair of fierce, muscular guardian gods called Nio (or Kongorikishi), where one’s mouth is open (often he is called Agyo), and the other is closed (called Ungyo).

The influence of Indian ideas was noted by the Japanese scholar, Hajime Nakamura (1912-1999). He stated 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”.

Ultimately, Hinduism is one of the most important religions for Japanese culture, for its ideas were carried on the back of Buddhism’s arrival to Japan, many centuries ago.

Here is a good website on Buddhism in Japan if you want more information:

6 thoughts on “The influence of Indian religion on Japan

  1. I disagree that Buddhist thought originated from Hindu thought. Rather, Hindu thought originated from Buddhist thought.
    Contemporary Hinduism wasn’t around 2,500 years ago. The Vedic religion of the time period did not teach reincarnation, karma, etc. Jainism did. Buddha’s refutation of doctrines like reincarnation was concerning itself with Jain doctrines, because the Vedic religion did not teach reincarnation back then.
    Buddhism did incorporate Hindu deities. But to say Buddhist thought originated from Hinduism is wrong. The Brahmins incorporated Buddhist and Jain ideas and Hinduism assimilated them.

      1. Yes, the Vedic religion did. Deities and the caste system did come before Buddhism and Jainism. But doctrines such as reincarnation and karma originated from the Shramana tradition, a movement which Jainism and Buddhism were a part of.

  2. Reincarnation and Karma did NOT originate in any particular religion, these were theories floating around amongst the ascetic groups in ancient India. These ascetics were “proto-Jains”, Hindus, as well as mixed and uncategorized, and Buddha spent a good deal of time with them before moving out alone. I’m not saying Buddha copied the concepts – he rationalized/ analyzed them on his own before validating them. Now, since Hinduism is a conglomeration of sub-religions and any uncategorized groups are somehow traced to one of its sub-schools and placed under Hinduism, it is considered by many that these were originally Hindu concepts. Also, the early Hindu Upanishads do mention these concepts while later Upanishads show the Buddhist and Jain influence on the style of interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s