A few hundred Japanese, mostly middle-aged women, congregate in the courtyard of the Asakusa Shrine in central Tokyo. The five-storey pagoda is ornate and immaculate, not least because it was rebuilt in the 1970s. A bespectacled monk sits at a stall as worshippers paid a few yen to burn incense or ritually rinse hands with spring water.
This is the Shoten-cho part of the Japanese capital, famous for its many temples and shrines. Less known is that Shoten, the Noble God, is the Hindu deity Ganapati. And there are temples to Sarasvati and Shiva to be found amid these crowded streets. In the 1830s, say scholars, over 100 Ganapati temples could be found here.
Few Japanese and fewer Indians realize most deities worshipped in Japan are of Indian origin. “A majority of Japanese gods are actually Indian gods,” was a common line of the former Japanese Ambassador to India, Yasukuni Enoki. Hindu deities were imported wholesale from the 6th century onwards. Between “These Indian deities were introduced from China into Japan as Buddhist deities with Chinese names,” writes Sengaku Mayeda of Japan’s Eastern Institute. Thanks to the centuries and translation hurdles, the names and appearances of the gods have become localized to the point of anonymity.
An example is Shichifukujin, the popular Japanese sect of the Seven Deities of Fortune. This pantheon includes Sarasvati, Shiva and Vaisravana – under their Japanese names of, respectively, Benzaiten, Daikokuten and Bishamonten. Some names are direct Japanese translations. Daikokuten means “great head god”, a direct translation of one of Shiva’s names, Mahakala.
The absorption of Indian imports was probably eased by the common animist base of indigenous Shintoism.
Temples to Brahma, Kubera and other Hindu-derived deities are scattered all over Japan. The Shibamata and Katsushika wards of Tokyo have Indra temples. Many will show these gods on either side of a Buddha image. The suffix “ten” derives from deva and was once a way to denote a god with Indian origins.
Religion is a declining force in Japan. The country is half atheist. But, said one Japanese official when I asked him, troubled economic times has made the temple popular among the young again.