How Indian Deities permeate the Japanese cultural scenario

Many are not aware that several Hindu deities are actively worshiped in Japan. There are hundreds of shrines to Saraswati alone. There are innumerable representations of Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Garuda & others, writes eminent expert Benoy K Behl.

Updated On
New Update

Saraswati, Rokuhara Mitsuji, Kyoto. Pic. Benoy K Behl

Over the past 46 years I have been documenting and researching the monuments and art heritage of all the countries of Asia. I began to research in Japan in 1993, when I noticed that there are deep relationships between the culture and the deities which are worshipped in Japan and in India. 

The Japan Foundation very kindly gave me a Fellowship to take this study further. With this Fellowship, I have taken 2,000 photographs documenting the Hindu deities in Japan, as well as the use of Sanskrit in Japan. It is wonderful for me to see that the philosophic culture of ancient India is so well preserved in that distant country. 


I would also like to say that the experience of spending 32 days in Japan this time was absolutely wonderful. The people of Japan are so consistently polite, gracious, courteous and helpful, that it keeps a smile on your face all the time. It is this happiness and joy which is actually the most important thing for every human being. One's work may get done, but this sense of joy and grace is far more important. 

Every single day that I and my colleague Sujata Chatterji were in Japan, we were filled with the happiness of meeting wonderful people, who were extremely kind to us. 50 of the most important temples of Japan and their Chief Priests opened their doors fully and very kindly to me and I was able to document this subject in considerable detail. 

Hindu Deities

Most people are not aware that at least a score of Hindu deities are very actively worshiped in Japan. In fact, there are hundreds of shrines to Saraswati alone. There are innumerable representations of Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Garuda and other deities. In fact, deities we have practically forgotten in India, such as Vayu and Varuna are still worshiped actively in Japan.

In many ways, I find that Japan has preserved ancient Indian traditions, even when they may have changed here in India. As an instance, in Japan, Saraswati is depicted and venerated not only with the Veena, but also remembered for her association with water and the abundance of the natural order. (One may recall that Saraswati is originally the personification of the river by that name.) Therefore, she is also worshiped in pools of water in Japan. There are several scores of temples to Saraswati in Japan, where she is worshipped with her Veena. 


At the same time, there are innumerable shrines where a pool of water is worshipped as Saraswati. Sanskrit

Siddham, the 6 th century Sanskrit script is preserved in Japan, even though we do not use it in India. The only place in the world where we can today study Sanskrit in the Siddham script, is in Koyasan in Japan.

‘Beejaksharas’ 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 it. Therefore, the Sanskrit script is present and venerated even today in practically every home in Japan.


Many links in the development of Vajrayana Buddhism can be found in a study of Japanese Buddhism. Today’s Himalayan Buddhism is of a later development and has lost the typical ‘havan’ or ‘homa’. I was delighted to find and to 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’ which we are all familiar with. In fact, Sanskrit sutras are also chanted by monks who cannot read the Sanskrit script. 

This is possible because the Japanese alphabet ‘Kana’ was modelled on the phonetics of Sanskrit. This was

done because the sounds of the original Sanskrit were considered sacred by the Japanese. Language and Names

Very many words in the Japanese language are from Sanskrit. In the supermarkets, a major brand of milk products is called ‘Sujata’. The company personnel are taught the story of Sujata who gave sweet rice milk to the Buddha, with which he broke his period of austerity, before he gained Enlightenment.

Japan and India

Our relationship with Japan is far closer than Indians seem to be aware of. It is time to understand this and to build upon it. It is time, in fact, for the world to learn from the peaceful and civilized outlook which is rooted in ancient India and in the culture of countries like Japan. It is about time to stop destroying ourselves and the world around us, through unthinking and uncaring commercialism.

People of “modern” outlook need not be concerned that looking to ancient culture will lead to less economic development. In fact, culture provides the discipline, meaning and concentration in life, which makes us truly successful in all that we do. What is more, it also leads to good health and happiness.

Japan is the one country where Buddhism is flourishing in all its facets. Here, technology and transcendence are living together. The deep-rooted spirit of Buddha’s teachings energies the Japanese people. Buddhist temples are numerous and vast numbers of people visit them every day. Besides the Buddha, so many ancient Indian deities and practices are preserved in these temples. An Indian feels quite at home in Japan. This is one of the finest examples of the spread

and continuance of Indian culture.

The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India assigned me to make a film on the subject of ‘Indian Deities Worshipped in Japan’. They also translated this film into Japanese, to be shown  in Japan before the visit of the Honorable Prime Minister of India.


I hope that this exercise and this project will lead to much more mutual understanding and cooperation between the people of Japan and of India. The shared culture of India and Japan is perhaps the best example of the spread of Indian culture to other countries. 

A seeming miracle in the story of man is the spread of ideas, across vast oceans and over high mountains, even to distant lands. The warm acceptance of the ideas of life in far-away places is a great indication of the sameness of the human condition everywhere. The spread of the ideas of Indian deities and of Sanskrit from India to Japan is one of the greatest examples of the sharing of culture in the world.