Ganesha, the global traveler! Besides His more celebrated attributes, He could well be called the Peripatetic One, given His large footprint in other lands and religions. How and why did this happen? Because He is the Lord of Adaptibility who defies quick definition. His multiple and often contradictory qualities make it easy for Him to cross cultural and religious borders, synthesize local sentiments and assume new forms. This traveler has many tales to tell.
Early Buddhists brought Ganesha to Japan. Ganesha worship gained ascendance during the time of Kukai, the 9th century founder-sage of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism. Known as Kangiten or Binayaka-ten, Ganesha was worshipped as a principal deity in Shingon Buddhism; the sect’s rituals and beliefs bear a close resemblance to those of the Hindu Ganapatya cult, who consider Ganesha to be the Supreme Being. Among other Japanese Buddhist sects, Ganesha is a minor deity, varyingly known as Daishokangi-ten or Ganabachi.
In Japanese Buddhism, Kangiten’s blessings are sought primarily for material progress, followed by enlightenment. Sacred offerings to this ‘God of Happiness’ include “bliss-buns” prepared from dried flour, honey and yoghurt besides fresh fruit, radishes and wine. These are distributed to worshippers much like the Hindu practice of giving prasad.
Ganesha assumes 30 distinctive forms in Japanese iconography, often as a dual entity. One erotic form, specific to Shingon Buddhism, features two embracing male and female forms with elephant heads and human bodies. These are rare idols, worshipped with secret rituals inside temples. Typically, they are made of metal as they must be immersed in oil during worship. Gumyo-ji, an 8th century temple in Minami, Yokohama has one such image. Often, Japanese temple doors feature two long-robed, elephant-headed figures in an embrace.
Young Japanese popularly worship Kangiten as a symbol of conjugal bliss. Many entrepreneurs, especially those whose business involves food and drink, worship Ganesha as Shou Ten, a benevolent obstacle-remover and enhancer of wealth.