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East-Asian religions are fascinating not just on their own but because of their relationship with each other. Many deities and spirits flow from one religion to another, and sometimes even “return” to their original culture, changed by the others.
This is especially true in Japan where multiple religions have coexisted for millennia. And there’s one god that probably illustrates this better than most – Bishamonten, Bishamon, Vaisravana, or Tamonten.
Who is Bishamonten?
Bishamonten can be talked about through the prism of many religions – Hinduism, Hindu-Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and Taoism, as well as Japanese Buddhism. Even though his earlier roots can be traced back to Hinduism where he originates from the Hindu wealth deity Kubera or Kuvera, Bishamonten is best-known as a Buddhist deity.
Bishamonten’s Many Different Names
Keeping track of all the names, identities, and origins of Bishamonten requires much more than an article – it’s the subject of countless books and dissertations. His original name, however, seems to have been Vaiśravaṇa or Vessavaṇa – the Hindu-Buddhist deity that first originated from the Hindu wealth deity Kubera.
Vaiśravaṇa was then translated into Chinese as Píshāmén when Buddhism moved North into China. That then turned into Bishamon or Beishiramana, and from there into Tamonten. The direct translation of Tamonten or Bishamonten in Chinese roughly means He Who Hears Much, because Bishamonten was also known as a protector of Buddhist temples and their knowledge. In other words, he was constantly standing next to Buddhist temples and was listening to everything going on in them while guarding them.
Once Buddhism made its way into Japan, Bishamonten’s name remained largely unchanged but his personality still expanded – more on that below.
One of the Four Heavenly Kings
In traditional Chinese Buddhism, Bishamon, or Tamonten, is known as one of the four Shitennō – the Four Heavenly Kings Protecting the Four Directions of the World. As their name suggests, the Four Heavenly Kings were protectors of a geographical direction and the regions of the world (known to people then) that were a part of that direction.
- The King of the East was Jikokuten.
- The King of the West was Kōmokuten.
- The King of the South was Zōchōten.
- The King of the North was Tamonten, also known as Bishamonten.
Curiously, there was also a Fifth King to go with the Four Kings and that was Taishakuten, the King of the Center of the world.
As for Tamonten or Bishamonten, as a King of the North, he was believed to rule over and protect the lands of Northern China, going into Mongolia and Siberia above it. As a war deity, he was often portrayed with a spear in one hand and a pagoda – a Buddhist container of wealth and wisdom – in the other. He is also usually depicted stepping on a demon or two, showing that he is a protector of Buddhism against all evil spirits and forces.
In Japan, Tamonten grew in popularity around the 6th century AD when he and the rest of the Four Heavenly Kings “entered” the island nation together with Buddhism.
Even though Japan is technically to the east of China, it was Bishamonten/Tamonten who became exceedingly popular in the country rather than the King of the East Jikokuten. This is likely because Bishamonten is viewed as a protector deity against demons and forces of evil which is how the Buddhists saw the various kami and yokai spirits of Japanese Shintoism such as the Tengu which constantly plagued Japanese Buddhists.
Additionally, Bishamonten was eventually viewed as the strongest of the Four Heavenly Kings which was another reason why people in Japan started worshipping him independently from the others. In China, he was even viewed as a healer deity who could cure the Chinese Emperor from any ailment of prayed to.
One of the Seven Lucky Gods
Bishamonten, Tamonten, or Vaiśravaṇa is also viewed as one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japan together with the Ebisu, Daikokuten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Hotei, and Jurojin. Bishamonten’s inclusion in this elite club is likely due to two reasons:
- As a protector of Buddhist temples, Bishamonten is viewed as a protector of wealth – both material and in terms of knowledge. Wealth deities such as him are often viewed as gods of luck and that seems to be what happened in Japan too.
- As one of the Four Heavenly Kings, Bishamonten is also viewed as a war god. Or, more specifically, as a god of warriors, a deity who protects them in battle. From there, Bishamonten’s worship easily evolved into people praying to Bishamonten for favor and luck in battle.
It should be said, however, that Bishamonten’s “inclusion” into the group of the Seven Lucky Gods happened rather late, around 15th century AD, or 900 years after he entered the island nation as one of the Four Kings.
Nevertheless, as a result of people viewing him as a luck deity, he eventually started being worshipped outside of the Buddhist religion as well, even if it was often done jokingly as people often do with luck deities.
Symbols and Symbolism of Bishamonten
As a god of many different things in many different religions, Bishamonten’s symbolism is wide-ranging.
Depending on who you ask, Bishamonten can be viewed as one or more of the following:
- A guardian of the North
- Defender of Buddhist temples
- A war god
- A god of wealth and treasure
- A protector of warriors in battle
- A defender of Buddhist wealth and knowledge
- A slayer of demons
- A healer deity
- Just a kind-hearted luck deity
The items that most commonly symbolize Bishamonten are his signature spear, the pagoda he carries in one hand hand, as well as the demons he’s often shown stepping on. He’s typically portrayed as a stern, fierce and intimidating deity.
Importance of Bishamonten in Modern Culture
Naturally, as such a popular and multi-religious deity, Bishamonten has been featured in many pieces of art throughout the ages and can even be seen in modern manga, anime, and video game series.
Some popular examples include the Noragami anime series where Bishamon is a female war goddess and a protectress of warriors as well as one of the Four Gods of Fortune. There’s also the video game Game of War: Fire Age where Bishamon is a monster, the Ranma ½ manga series, the RG Veda manga and anime series, the BattleTech franchise, the Darkstalkers video game, to name a few.
Bishamon’s role as protector of Buddhism and his links to wealth, war and warriors makes him an imposing and highly respected figure in Japanese mythology.