With the countless number of gods recognized by Japan’s native religion, Shinto, and the deities recognized in Buddhism, it comes to no surprise that countless statues, icons, images, and tales are scattered throughout the entire country.
Over the years, some of the entities from both religions have been adapted to fit the culture of the Japanese community, blurring the lines between folklore and faith. Among the many gods that now stand as separate icons from the religion they originated, Bishamonten serves as the most intriguing one in Japan, given his associations with Hindu and Taoist beliefs, as well.
Overview of Bishamonten – Other Names and Characteristics
Bishamonten was initially introduced to Japan as a Buddhist deity. Throughout the years, the continuous use of Bishamonten as a character in mythology and folk religion has transformed him to become an iconic entity, slightly independent from the teachings of Buddhism.
He is known by those outside of Japan as Vaisravana, a name derived from the Sanskrit term Visravana which means “to hear distinctly” in English. Other interpretations of his Sanskrit name include being a son of Vishrava/Kubera (a Hindu god) and being Vishrava/Kubera himself.
Other names of which Bishamonten is referred to in different countries include:
China – Duowen Tian, Pishamen Tian
Korea – Damuncheon, Bisamuncheon
Vietnam - Đa văn Thiên, Tỳ Sa Môn Thiên
Tibet - rnam thos sras
Mongolia - Bayan Namsrai
Thailand – Thao Kuwen, Thao Wetsuwan
As Vaisravana, he is often depicted as a figure with a yellow face, carrying a parasol or umbrella to symbolize his sovereignty. A mongoose with jewels coming out of its mouth is also sometimes included in the portrayal of Vaisravana. According to Hindu beliefs, the mongoose serves as a foe of the snake, an animal closely associated with hatred and greed, while the jewels represent generosity.
As Bishamonten, or simply Bishamon, he is often represented as a god of war and the punisher of evil. Instead of carrying an umbrella, he is typically portrayed with a small pagoda in one hand and a spear in the other.
The Japanese community also refers to Bishamonten as Tamonten, which literally translates to mean “he who listens to many teachings” in English, for his role as the guardian of Buddhist temples and structures.
Bishamonten and the Four Heavenly Kings
The Four Heavenly Kings refers to the four different gods of Buddhism. According to the religion, each god is designated to watch over one of the four cardinal points of the world. These four gods may be collectively referred to using any of the following terms:
Sanskrit – Caturmahārāja/Chaturmaharajas/Chaturmaharajika (The Four Great Kings); Lokapāla (The Guardians of the World)
Sinhalese - Satharawaram Dewi (The Four Bestowed Gods/The Four Privileged Gods)
Chinese – Tianwang (The Heavenly Kings); Si Tianwang (The Four Heavenly Kings); Si Da Tianwang (The Four Great Heavenly Kings)
Korean – Cheonwang (The Heavenly Kings); Sacheonwang (The Four Heavenly Kings); Sadae Cheonwang (The Four Great Heavenly Kings)
Japanese – Shitenno (The Four Heavenly Kings)
Vietnamese - Tứ Thiên Vương (The Four Heavenly Kings)
Tibetan – rgyal chen bzhi (The Four Great Kings)
Mongolian – Tengeriin dörwön xaan (The Four Kings of the Sky)
Thai – Chatumaharacha/Chatulokkaban (The Four Great Kings)
It is believed that these four gods exist to protect the world from all kinds of evil and are capable of commanding different supernatural entities to aid them in their duties. The importance and functions of each god are as follows:
Bishamonten or Vaisravana
English Translation: The one who hears all things.
Function: The chief or leader of the four kings or gods, the protector of the north, and the commander of rain.
Color: Yellow or green
Symbol: Umbrella, stupa, mongoose, pagoda, or spear
Designated Cardinal Direction: North
Other Names: Vessavaṇa (Pali), Kuvera (Pali), Vaishravaṇa (Sinhala), Thao Kuwen (Thai), Wetsawan (Thai), Wetsuwan (Thai), Duō Wén Tiānwáng (Chinese), Damun-cheonwang (Korean), Đa Văn Thiên (Sino-Vietnamese), Namthöse (Tibetan)
Zochoten or Virudhaka
English Translation: The one who can make all things grow.
Function: The king and protector of the south, the commander of wind, and the one who causes roots to grow well.
Designated Cardinal Direction: South
Other Names: Virūḷhaka (Pali and Sinhala), Thao Wirunhok (Thai), Virúlaka Nat Min (Burmese), Zēng Zhǎng Tiānwáng (Chinese), Jeungjang-cheonwang (Korean), Tăng Trưởng Thiên (Sino-Vietnamese), Phakyepo (Tibetan)
Jikokuten or Dhrtarastra
English Translation: The one who maintains all things in the world.
Function: The king and protector of the east, the god of music, harmony, and compassion, and the protector of all beings.
Symbol: Pipa (a Chinese four-stringed musical instrument)
Designated Cardinal Direction: East
Other Names: Dhataraṭṭha (Pali), Dhrutharashṭa (Sinhala), Thao Thatarot (Thai), Daddáratá Nat Min (Burmese), Chí Guó Tiānwáng (Chinese), Jiguk-cheonwang (Korean), Trì Quốc Thiên (Sino-Vietnamese), Yülkhorsung (Tibetan)
Komokuten or Virupaksa
English Translation: The one who can see all things.
Function: The king and protector of the west, the eye of the four kings or gods, and the guide who brings unbelievers back to the teachings of Buddha.
Symbol: Serpent, stupa, or pearl
Designated Cardinal Direction: West
Other Names: Virūpakkha (Pali), Virūpaksha (Sinhala), Thao Wirupak (Thai), Virúpekka Nat Min (Burmese), Guăng Mù Tiānwáng (Chinese), Gwangmok-cheonwang (Korean), Quảng Mục Thiên (Sino-Vietnamese), Chenmizang (Tibetan)
Bishamonten and the Seven Lucky Gods
Using the different deities of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism as a basis, Japan was able to develop its own group of gods known as The Seven Lucky Gods or Shichifukujin during ancient times. These gods are believed to be able to grant people with good luck for different things.
According to historical records, the worship of these gods dates back to more than a millennium ago. The seven gods came into existence one after the other, as needed by the different classes of the Japanese community:
Ebisu was the very first god of the Seven Lucky Gods recognized by the Japanese community and is the only deity with a purely Japanese origin. He is believed to be the god of business, wealth, prosperity, and abundance of produce. In addition, he also serves as the fishermen’s patron, which is why he is often portrayed with a fishing rod in one hand and a fish in the other.
Daikokuten initially served as the god of prosperity, commerce, and trade. Throughout the years, many other roles have been associated with him such as serving as the patron of bankers, farmers, and cooks. He is often depicted with a smile, short legs, a hat, and a bag filled with important objects. Interestingly, Daikokuten is also sometimes represented as a woman called Daikokunyo.
Bishamonten, as discussed, is the chief of The Four Heavenly Kings. Century after century, his character was gradually adapted into the Japanese culture as a separate deity associated with war and protection.
As part of The Seven Lucky Gods, Bishamonten serves as the god of fortune (in war), authority, and dignity. He is believed to protect all beings who practice good behavior and continuously abide by his list of rules. For sacred and important places, he acts as the protector of the complex and keeps evil spirits from entering the vicinity.
Benzaiten also originates from Hindu beliefs and serves as the Japanese equivalent of Saraswati, a Hindu goddess. She is the only female god of The Seven Lucky Gods, excluding the female version of Daikokuten. Other names that may be used to refer to her include Benzaitennyo, Bentensama, and Benten.
With a few adaptations from Buddhist beliefs, Benzaiten is believed to feature several attributes such as a skill in music, a talent in art, and beauty. As such, she is typically represented as a beautiful woman with an obvious sense of grace and wisdom and serves as the patron of geishas, dancers, writers, and artists. A biwa (traditional Japanese flute) and white snake are often included in her portrayal.
Fukurokuju is said to have originated from Chinese influences. According to ancient tales, he walked the earth as a reincarnation of Hsuan-wu, a Taoist god, during the Song Dynasty. He is regarded to be the god of happiness, wealth, longevity, luck, and wisdom. Out of all the seven gods that make up the shichifukujin, Fukurokuju is believed to be the only one capable of resurrecting the deceased.
The most iconic feature of his portrayal is the size of his head, which is often as big as his body. His Chinese origins are also given proper recognition by the traditional Chinese garments often used for his images. A scroll and cane are often present in his hands to symbolize wisdom, while animals such as a deer, a crow, or a turtle often accompany him to represent longevity.
Jurojin serves as the god of longevity and the elderly. He is believed to be the incarnation of nankyokusei or the southern polestar. Similar to Fukurokuju, Jurojin is said to be based on an actual person who lived many centuries ago. In fact, both gods can be traced back to the same Taoist god.
Likewise, the portrayal of Jurojin is easily recognizable by the shape of his head, which is typically built to be incredibly long. He also features the same symbols as that of Fukurokuju, i.e. a cane, a scroll, and an animal symbolizing longevity. The main difference between the two gods is that Jurojin is often depicted with a long white beard and a visibly cheerful outlook.
Hotei, also known as Budai, is regarded as the patron of barmen and diviners, the protector of children, and the god of popularity and fortune. According to legends, he lived as a Zen priest known as Kaishi who exhibited actions and an appearance that were contradictory to their moral settings.
As such, he is usually portrayed as a fat, bald man with a smiling face and a curly mustache. Given his massive size, he is often presented with his upper body left exposed. His shoulders carry a large bag believed to be filled with all the fortunes that may be granted to those who practice his virtues.
In the Butsuzozui compendium, a collection of Buddhist images, Fukurokuju was replaced by a goddess known as Kichijoten or Kisshoten. She is said to be an adaptation of Lakshmi, a Hindu goddess, and carries the Nyoihoju gem, a jewel capable of fulfilling wishes, in her hand.
With Benzaiten and the female version of Daikokuten, the Tridevi, a Hindu concept that forms a triad of distinguished goddesses, is represented along with the other members of The Seven Lucky Gods.
Bishamonten Statues/Images in Japan – Tobatsu Bishamonten, Kannon Guardians, Etc.
In Japan, Bishamonten comes in five different forms which include his roles in The Four Heavenly Kings and The Seven Lucky Gods. The other three forms of Bishamonten are known as:
Tobatsu Bishamonten is regarded as the protector of Japan’s cities and the king of the north. He is believed to be responsible for repelling foreign invaders.
In images, paintings, and other mediums, he is often depicted to be standing on the palms of Jiten, the goddess of earth, and accompanied by a couple of demons called Niranba and Biranba. He typically features two arms and one head but he sometimes also exhibits twelve arms and four heads.
The Nara National Museum houses the oldest Tobatsu Bishamonten statue of Japan.
Bishamonten of the Twelve Deva Protectors
The Twelve Deva Protectors, or Juniten, serve as the protectors of Esoteric Buddhism. In this case, Bishamonten acts as the king of the north and is often shown with a stupa in his left hand. He and the eleven other guardians are frequently featured in mandala paintings such as the Juniten Mandala, the Anchin Mandala, and the Taizokai Mandala.
Bishamonten of the 28 Kannon Guards
Bishamonten also serves as one of the 28 Kannon Guards, who protect the 1,000-armed Kannon. Kyoto’s temple known as Sanjusangendo houses life-size statues of these 28 Kannon guardians as well as the main statue of the 1,000-armed Kannon that measure 11 feet in height. Bishamonten’s main function as a Kannon guardian is to protect the laws of Buddhism.
Other Forms of Bishamonten – Tattoo, Amulets, Etc.
Outside of religious structures, Bishamonten also exists in other mediums such as small wooden statues, amulets, and tattoos. The statues and amulets are often kept in houses to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck into the household and those who live in it.
The tattoos, of course, exist on the skin of people who believe in Bishamonten, or at least one of his many forms. Most Bishamonten tattoos are done as detailed as possible to properly pay tribute to the deity. The four elements are also often included in the design, along with animals that symbolize power and strength.
Depending on the way Bishamonten is depicted in the tattoo design and on the belief of the bearer, the interpretation of Bishamonten’s depiction lies on a grey area. However, the most common reasons why people get a Bishamonten tattoo include protection, good health, wealth, and prosperity.