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Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan from Korea in 552 a.d. when an image of Buddha and some copies of Buddhist scriptures were brought to the Japanese court by a representative of the Korean king of Paikje.

Study of Sanskrit Buddhist Scriptures

The study of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures became quite extensive in Japan since the last decade of the 6th century and was an important part of Japanese cultural life. The find of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts in old Brahmi characters preserved intact in Horyuji, the most ancient monastery extant in Japan, and some other monasteries is a pertinent point. In fact the manuscripts are older than what we have in India i.e. 6th century as compared to 10th century in India. The patronage of Empress Suiko 592-628 to Buddhism was a factor of great significance so far as the spread of the Dharma and the study of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures are concerned.

It is said that Dosho 700 a.d. went to China to study Vijnaptimatrata i.e. Buddhist idealism as well as the Buddhist system of logic under Hiuen Tsang. He returned to Japan in 661 and began to teach Buddhist logic from the Genkoji temple. There were others too who went to China to study Buddhist logic, returned to Japan and started teaching locals.

The scope of studying Buddhist scriptures was expanded during the Nara period, as it included the study of Vinaya as well as the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, the Satyasiddhi of Harivarman, the works of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, besides works on Buddhist idealism like Dharmapala’s Vijnaptimatratasiddhi and the Avatamsaka. These have been designated as the ‘Six Schools of Ancient Capital’. The first three belong to the Hinayana school and the last three to the Mahayana.

Bodhisena a great Buddhist from India visited Japan in 736 on a special invitation from Emperor Shomu, used to teach Sanskrit and the Hua-yen (Gandavyuha-Sutra) in different monasteries of Japan. Another scholar Dharmabodhi is said to have visited Japan in the first half of the 7th century. The visits of these two men throw light on Indo-Japanese cultural relations in the first millennium after Christ.

In addition to important Buddhists texts like Bhadracarinama Arya-Samanta were studied the Sanskrit dharannis, stotras, gathas and grammars. Sanskrit studies received a great impetus from Jogan who was a great Sanskritist himself. He wrote a book Shittan-sanmitsu that is an authoritative text on Sanskrit studies in Japan.

Japanese Alphabets India’s Contribution

Japanese like Korean also suffered from the handicap of not having a national script for the first few centuries of the Christian era. The Chinese language and its written characters had obtained vogue in the land, particularly among the official class. The extant of chronicles of Japan covering the period 686 to 784 and the first great anthology of Japanese poetry Manyoshu 760 a.d. were written in Chinese. But Chinese was unsuited for the Japanese language, as the latter was phonetic while the former was ideographic.

The Japanese language like Sanskrit is inflectional. Its rules governing syntax, morphology, phonology and semantic structure follow a pattern of its own. The forty-seven letters of the Japanese alphabet are said to have been devised by the Japanese Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi 774-835, after the Sanskrit alphabet. The arrangement of the Japanese syllabary based on the Sanskrit system is also attributed to the influence of Bodshisena in Japan, which, according to Riri Nakayama, ‘will continue as long as the Japanese language continues to exist’. It has been pointed out that the old Japanese song ‘Iroha-uta’ which contains all the 47 Japanese letters, is a liberal translation of a Sanskrit Buddhist hymn in the Mahaparinirvana-Sutra. The Indian script known as Siddham, called His-t’an in Chinese and Shittan in Japanese gained currency in Japan for writing Sanskrit from the 8th century. It was introduced by Kobo who was responsible for bringing Mantrayana Buddhism from China to Japan.

Some details of the Siddham script have been preserved in Bonji-shittanjimo-narabi-ni-shaku-gi, a text written by Kobo. The title of the text signifies ‘Sanskrit and Siddham scripts and the explanation of their designations’. It describes the origins of the Indian scripts, the explanation of different dharanis. More important than Kobo’s work was the text Shittan-zo (Siddham Ratnakara) written by An-nen in 880 a.d. The work narrates at the beginning what is known from the original Chinese sources about Sanskrit and the Siddham script. The author examines the transliteration of Sanskrit words in Chinese characters and compares the phonetic value of both. Lastly, he discussed all the letters of the Siddham script. Each of the letters of this script is deemed to be a bija and identified with a deity.

Indian Influence on Japanese Stories

A considerable portion of the cosmogonical and mythological literature of Japan bears traces of Indian influence. Hajime Nakamura observed ‘ Some stories of ancient India were very influential in shaping Japanese stories by providing them with materials. In the process of shaping, however, Indian materials were greatly modified and adapted in such a way as would appeal to the mentality of common people of Japan in general’ quoted from Lokesh Chandra and others – India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture.

Post Wheeler also said ‘Many fragments of the Japanese myth-mass were unmistakably Indian. The original homeland of the first man and women of Japanese mythology is said to have been in the Earth-Residence-Pillar i.e. Mount Meru of Indian mythology. There is another story of Buro-no-Kami whose identity has been established with the deity called Brave-Swift-Impetuous-male. This Kami may be none other than the Indian deity Gavagriva, the Ox-head deity. The story recounts in the style of the jatakas how the deity punished the heartless rich brother and rewarded the king hearted poor brother. In India one of the names of the moon is Sasanka (lit. having a rabbit in the lap) and there is an ancient Indian legend why it is so called. The belief prevalent in ancient Japan that there lived a rabbit in the moon was probably an outcome of the Indian influence.

The story of the monkey and the crocodile mentioned in the Jataka appears in a slightly modified form in Sasekishu, a medieval Japanese collection of popular stories. The story is referred to in a work by Nichiren 1222-82 a.d. and also in Konjaku-monogatari. Another Puranic story of the sage Rsyarnga is likely to have reach Japan in the trail of Buddhist legends. A famous medieval Japanese drama Narukami has been based on this story.

These instances clearly illustrate the nature and extent of Indian influences on Japanese stories.

Indian Influence on Japanese Classical Works

Japanese classical works also reveal a great deal of Indian influence both Buddhist and Brahmanical.

The works of some important poets of the first phase of classical Japanese literature extending from 784 to 1100 show considerable Buddhist influence. The greatest work of Japanese literature namely The Tale of Genji shows Buddhist influence too. During the second phase from 1100 to 1241 some of the works bear Buddhist thought due to the efforts of the Buddhist sects to bring the religion closer to the common man. Shinram 1175-1262 wrote many articles like Tannisho in easy Japanese for the comprehension of his rustic followers laying stress on the veneration Amitabha Buddha. The work of Dogen 1200-1253 gave regular discourses on Buddhism, his texts Sho-bo-gen-zo is recognized as authoritative texts on the essence of the True Doctrine in Japan.

The last phase of Japanese Classical literature was from 1241 to 1500. A poetess of this age was Chikako 1300 a.d., some of whose writings exhibit the influence of Zen Buddhism.

Japanese literature is also replete with instances of the influence of the Indian Theory of Karma and the transmigration of the soul. Although Buddhist deities like Buddha, Maitreya, Amitabha and Vairocana predominate Japanese literature; Hindu gods are also quite well known.

God Indian Name Japanese Name
1. Seagod Varuna Suiten
2. King of Gods Indira Taishakuten
3. God of Success Ganesha Shoten
4. God of Wealth Kuvera Bishamon
5. Goddess of Learning Sarasvati Benten
6. Goddess of Fortune Laksmi Kichijoten
7. Mahesh Shiva Daikoku
8. Divine Architect Visvakarman Bishukatsuma

In the annals of the Todaji temple, it has been stated that the worship of Sarasvati and Laksmi was first introduced in 722 a.d. and continued down the centuries. In Bessom Zakki (Description of Gods) written in the 12th century written in the Siddham script, a corrupt Sanskrit mantra reads:  ‘Sarasvatai svaha namo sarasvatyai mahadevyai svaha, namo bhagavati mahadevi sarasvati sidhyatu mantrapadami svaha’. A description of Sarasvati occurs in the voluminous text Asabasho by Shocho 1205-82 and the rituals connected with her worship have been recorded by Ryoson 1279 to 1349 in Chapter CXLIX of his Byaku-hokku-sho (The White Jewel of Indian Tradition). The adoption of these Hindu deities into the Buddhist and Shintonist pantheons of Japan indicate the influence of India on Japanese religions as well as the syncretic character of the religious systems of Japan.

The survey made above reveals the immense contribution of India to the theology of Japanese Buddhism as well as to Japanese literature. The present indications are that the texts utilized were all written in Sanskrit, probably in the Siddham script, and there was no intrusion of Pali, unlike in the Buddhist countries of South-East Asia.

Shintoism has been designated by some scholars as the Japanese version of Hinduism – Chaman Lal.

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