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‘Saraswati is the most revered deity in Japan, after the Buddha’: Filmmaker Benoy Behl

Adrija Roychowdhury
Saraswati or Benzaiten in Yoshiwara Jinja, Tokyo. (Photo- Benoy K. Behl)

When Buddhism was shaping up in India during the fifth and sixth centuries AD, its cultural impact could be felt in places far and beyond the Indian subcontinent. One such fascinating transfer of Buddhist practices and symbolism took place to the East Asian island country, Japan. Interestingly, the cultural exchange of religious traditions in Japan did not just result in a strong sense of reverence towards the Buddha and his doctrines, but is also visible in the large range of Hindu deities who are actively worshipped in Japanese culture, as well as in the importance given to Sanskrit in Japanese tradition.

Filmmaker and historian Benoy K Behl has been studying the transfer and preservation of Indian religious traditions in Japan for the last two decades. His research has resulted in his book Hindu deities worshipped in Japan and in his film Indian deities worshipped in Japan which will be screened at the India Habitat Center in Delhi on May 12.

In an email interview with, Behl discusses some of the findings he has made on this subject.

Can you explain how did links between India and Japan develop historically?

Indian influences of Buddhism, Hindu deities, the Sanskrit language and culture came to Japan from the middle of the first millennium, along two routes. One was through China and Korea. The other important route was through the great sea-faring Hindu kingdom of Champa in present-day Vietnam.

Who are some of the Indian deities worshipped in Japan?

Saraswati is the most revered deity in Japan, after the Buddha. Others include Lakshmi, Ganesha, Indra, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Yama, Kamadeva, Varuna, Vayu and many others.

Kamadev in Meguru Ryusendi temple in Tokyo (Photo- Benoy K Behl)

Are Indian deities in Japan worshipped in the same form as in India? If not, how are they different?

The Indian deities are worshipped with essentially the same attributes, though there are some interesting and colourful modifications. As an instance, in Japan Ganesha is offered radishes which he is very fond of.

Do non-Hindus in Japan also worship Indian deities?

These are worshipped by the Buddhists of Japan. Never forget that in ancient India there were no pisions between Hinduism and Buddhism. Every single family in ancient India whose inscriptions have been found, had in it someone worshipping a Hindu deity and someone worshipping either Buddha or Mahavira. The earliest-known images of Lakshmi and Saraswati are from the Buddhist and Jaina stupas.

Shintoism, like Hinduism, is also considered to be a way of life. Is there a connection between the two religious practices?

This is a subject whose study I am presently taking up.