It is a welcome surprise that Hindu deities are accorded the pride of place in Buddhist temples in far off Japan. Our deities are being regularly worshipped by the locals. Their seriousness of intent can be seen from the fact that elaborate Havans as prescribed by Hindu scriptures are conducted in 1,200 temples.
In fact, Vayu, Varuna and Kamadeva - deities long forgotten in our urban cities - continue to be worshipped in Nippon till this date. The pujas are being conducted in temples situated in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Koyasan by Japanese priests who chant Sanskrit shlokas. Interestingly, these priests don't understand Sanskrit but can utter our country's ancient language flawlessly as Japanese alphabet kanta is created from the phonetics of Sanskrit.
These religio-cultural symbols of Indian heritage have now been brought alive in a seminal film "Indian deities worshipped in Japan" by Benoy K. Behl, a filmmaker-cum-historian, who has been researching the cultural connections between India and Japan, for over two decades. The Japan Foundation honoured Behl recently by screening his film as well as beaming his lecture on its Facebook.
Earlier, the Foundation gave Behl, a Delhiite who is meticulous when it comes to research, a Fellowship which helped him study this engrossing yet lesser known subject in a comprehensive way.
After completing his research, Behl knocked on the doors of the present Union Government. "I suggested to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, that we should make a film about this subject," reveals Behl. The intent was to foster a people-to-people relationship between Japan and India.
The film gives viewers a glimpse into the interiors of important temples of Japan. This film needs to be seen as a blossoming of cross-cultural exchange between the two Asian nations.
Normally, video shooting is out of bounds in the hallowed temples of Japan. The reticent Chief Priests don"t give their nod. While Behl was planning on how to take forward his labour of love, professors from around the world cautioned him that he would not be allowed to film in any of the major temples in Japan.
Fortunately, Behl's patience and perseverance made him succeed. He wrote to the chief priests of 50 Buddhist temples in Nara explaining the rationale behind his prospective film. Fortunately, all 50 agreed for the shootings and even obliged him with interviews.
However, making the film was fraught with difficulties. The filmmaker had to interact with priests but he was not conversant with Japanese. Luckily, there was a silver lining as his background of research and documentation of yoga internationally proved to be very helpful. "Swami Sitaramananda, Senior Acharya of Sivananda International Yoga Ashrams and Centres put me in touch with an interpreter in Tokyo, named Keiko Ito. Another practitioner of Sivananda Yoga, Chisato Nakayama came all the way from Hokkaido to Nara and Kyoto to help. It was wonderful to see the way Keiko and Chisatio provided assistance every day, from morning till night, in the true spirit of karma yoga," says Behl.
The duo were so dedicated to the project that it was a learning experience for Behl.
The film is expected to boost tourism as some Hindu devotees would like to witness pujas being solemnised by Japanese priests on Hindu deities in Buddhist temples in Japan. The film focuses on the less ignored fact that a number of Hindu deities are actively worshipped in Japan. "In fact, there are hundreds of shrines of Saraswati alone. There are innumerable representations of Lakshmi, Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Garuda and other deities," says Behl, who is an authority on the subject.
Preservation is the key
In India, there has been constant evolution and change. On the other hand, the Japanese have valued ancient knowledge and have preserved its philosophical dimensions, well into the modern age.
In many ways, Japan has preserved very ancient Indian traditions, even when they may have evolved in India. Explaining this through a valid example, the historian says in Japan, Saraswati is depicted and venerated not only with the Veena, but also remembered for her association with water. "Therefore, she is also worshiped in pools of water in Japan. The most important lake in Japan is named after Saraswati’s Veena, nameed Biwa in Japanese."
Ancient India was the originator of great ethical traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Japan is to be credited with the continuance of ethical values in modern times.
The Ministry of External Affairs contributed immensely in the making of this film. On YouTube itself on the Channel of Public Diplomacy, the film already has garnered over 2,25,000 views. This is most unusual for a serious film about an academic subject. "The Government of India have given a most meaningful support to this glorious subject," says Behl, who as visiting professor in colleges across the globe will deliver lectures on his film post-Coronavirus. This message-oriented film establishes the spiritual and cultural link between the people of India and Japan.