Academic Relations between India and Japan in Early 20th Century

  • This paper was presented by the author at Indo-Japan Conference on Enduring Ties between India and Japan, 26th-27th Oct. 2002. It gives details of the in-depth ties between people of the two countries.

Japan is the land of devotion to action, grandeur of thought and depths of philosophy expressed in the beauty of gardens, Haiku poetry, painters’ brush and vibrations of Zen. Devotion of the Japanese people for Buddhism makes them tread on the footsteps of Kobodaishi leading to the heights of Shikoku hills. They climb with great effort to visit the places that are sacred to their hearts but offer prayers only from the outside of the halls of worship because doors of the temples are opened for the monks on very special occasions.

They are kept closed in order to preserve the treasure for the coming generations with loving care. The devotees don’t mind, they stand and recite Sanskrit sutras.

Sanskrit for them is the divine language. It is the sacred language for all the Asian countries, the language that carried the higher levels of thought and light of wisdom.

Thousands of Buddhist sutras written in Sanskrit were translated into Chinese and from China they were taken to Japan first during the period of Prince Shotokutaishi. He drafted the Seventeen Article Constitution, first in the world, based on the philosophy of ‘bahu-jana-hitaya’ and ‘bahu-jana-sukhaya’. On the auspicious occasion of its promulgation the Sanskrit dharani of Usnisavijaya was brought from India. Its manuscript in Gupta script is still kept at the Horyuji monastery.

In the early ninth century, the great monk scholar, Kobodaishi brought a number of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures from China. He also invented a new script for Japan, Hiragana on the basis of Sanskrit sound sequence. He was the first Japanese to give training for writing Sanskrit dharanis and seed syllables.

Siddham characters, known as Shittan in Japan, became dear to the hearts of the Japanese. Monk Kobodaishi must have written a lot in Sanskrit but only 40 pages in his handwriting are preserved. After him the Japanese scholars continued to visit China and Chinese regularly came to Japan. This resulted in a continuous flow of Sanskrit texts from China to Japan.

The monk scholar Ennin brought a Sanskrit dictionary from there. Sage Jiun Sonja, the last of the traditional Sanskrit scholars of Japan undertook an encyclopedic work of Sanskrit texts in 1000 fascicules, Bongaku-shinryo in the 18th century. Tradition says that Goddess Sarasvati had herself appeared to the sage to initiate him into the mysteries of the divine language.   

In recent past the Japanese scholars Bunyui Nanjio and Kasawara had gone to Oxford to study Sanskrit because the universities of England and Germany had become outstanding centers of Sanskrit studies. But the dream of the Japanese to study Sanskrit in India came true when Late Prof RaghuVira began to invite them to study and undertake research in collaboration with him. He was the first Indian to work on the higher levels of academics for exploring and deepening cultural ties among the Asian countries. The ambitions of Japanese scholars for learning Sanskrit worked at deeper levels to bring India and Japan closer in 1930s.

The history of Indo-Japanese cultural friendship goes back to the 1934-5 when Late Prof. RaghuVira, a great Indologist, philosopher, visionary, linguist and cultural activist began to teach the Japanese language in Lahore in Pre-partition India. He sent invitations to scholars in Japan to work in fields of Buddhism. His students from Japan undertook research in India and on going back worked for the enhancement of our friendship.


Prof. RaghuVira was fascinated by Sanskrit dharanis in Japan when he listened to their recitation by the Japanese in England. They were partly clear, partly unclear; partly correct partly incorrect. Prof. RaghuVira was amazed, he had a question in his mind, as how and when did they reach Japan, who carried them and in what form. He went to see an exhibition of Sanskrit manuscripts from Japan brought to England.

A manuscript of Ushnishvijaya-dharani from the Horyuji monastery was the earliest among them. Till then, this was the earliest known Sanskrit manuscript in the world. He so was full of enthusiasm that soon he began to study the Japanese grammar written by Chamberlain to learn the language.

On coming back to India he began to teach the Japanese language. The British govt. got suspicious. Prof. RaghuVira was put behind bars as the govt. was sensing some conspiracy behind his Japanese language teaching program. But this could not put any hurdles on his way he went on and on.

In 1933 he met Prof. Suenaga of the Kanazawa University, Tokyo in Poona. He was the first Japanese Sanskritist in India. Both of them had long meetings to discuss the future plans. Prof. Suenaga was so impressed by the vision of Prof. RaghuVira that he decided to accompany him to Lahore. In Lahore he began to translate the great epic Mahabharata into Japanese in collaboration with Prof. RaghuVira. During his stay there he advised him to establish an international center, where foreign scholars could come and undertake research on various fields of Indology.

The idea appealed to Prof. RaghuVira. Soon he wrote letters to several scholars of world fame for joining hands in the noble endeavor. Prof. Sunaga was the first Japanese to donate for the cause. He donated Rs.50/-. An academic institute began to take form. It was named ‘International Academy of Indian Culture’ in English and ‘Sarasvati Vihar’ in Hindi. Prof. Suenaga was busy translating the great epic. The work was enormous and ambitious but Professor fell ill and he had to go back to Japan without completing.   

Thus International Academy of Indian Culture was founded by Late Prof. RaghuVira in 1934 in co-operation with several other scholars. Prof. N. Fukushima from the Imperial University, Tokyo was one of the members of the Academy. Dr. A. C. Woolner, Vice Chancellor, University of Lahore, Punjab, was the first President. Maharaja of Mysore, His Highness Shri Shri Krishnaraja Wadiyar Bahadur, Raja Saheb of Aundh, Shrimant Bala Saheb Pant Pratinidhi and Raja Saheb of Miraj Senior His Highness Shrimant Sir Balasaheb Patwardhan were the patrons. Prof. Dr. Louis Renou, Paris, Prof. Dr. R. L. Turner from London, Sir D. B. Jayatilak from Colombo, Sir Richard Burn from Oxford, Dr. V. S. Sukathankar from Poona, Prof. Dr. S. K. De from Dacca were the members of the executive. Prof. RaghuVira was the Director and convener. Later other professors also joined the Academy as members, e.g. Prof. Sylvan Levi, Sir John Marshall, Prof. Sten Kono, G. Tucchi, Prof Winternitz etc.

Prof. RaghuVira was the first Indian to create scholarships for the foreign students to come to India and study at the International Academy of Indian Culture. Foreign universities and governments were intimated. In response to his invitation the Japanese Govt. sent two state scholars, Mr. Shodo Taki from the Taisho University and Mr. Chikyo Yamamoto from the Koyasan university. They arrived on September 29 1936. During the first term both of them were given a course in Indian philosophy by Prof. RaghuVira.

Mr. Shodo Taki began to work on an unknown Tantric dictionary, the Uddhara Kosa of Daksinamurti. It is the first work to give an insight into the secrets of the darkest sections of Indian literature, the Tantra.

Tantras once flourished all over India and beyond, up to the farthest limits of the Buddhist world. It provides a key to the monosyllables that conceal the whole world in them. The monosyllables are no longer gibberish. They have a meaning. Their combinations as mantras or dharanis are not merely a string of isolated items, but they form an organic whole. It is at once a primer and a reference book indispensable by the scholars of Tantrism.

Mr. Shodo Taki finished editing it under guidance and in collaboration with Prof. RaghuVira, in 1938. His work was sent to Prof. Otto Schroder of Kiel, Germany and Prof. Louis Renou of Paris for examination. On their warm appreciation and recommendation Mr. Shodo Taki was granted the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Sanskrit on the 29 January 1939. The project containing text, exegetical notes, appendices, Sanskrit and English glossary, was published by the International Academy of Indian Culture as Vol. No. 4 of the Sarasvati Vihar series in June 1938.

After a stay of two years and four months he left Lahore for his motherland, Japan.

Mr. Yamamoto began statistical studies of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Indian sculpture. In the summer term he also went through a course in Indian philosophy. He carried on field work for a detail study up to the last day of his sojourn in India that was February 1940. He also worked under the guidance and co-operation of Prof. RaghuVira. The research project extended over three volumes.

It contained the result of his study of all the important museums and sites between Kabul and Colombo. It was an absolutely new approach to the study of sculpture. Different schools had been studied in their minute details. An accurate objective basis for comparative study of the various schools had been established. He covered different aspects of sculptor’s techniques and aesthetics.  The work was published as Vols. 5,10,11 of the Sarasvati Vihar series entitled ‘The Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas in Indian Sculpture (from Central Asia and Afghanistan to Ceylon and Java)”.

The project was submitted for examination to R.B. Dayaram Sahni, the Late Director General for Archaeology in India. Mr. Yamamoto was granted the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, in Indian Art and Archaeology on the 22nd November 1939.

Dr Chikyo Yamamoto worked on Ramayana in China in collaboration with Prof. RaghuVira. Two texts were discovered from China - Jataka of an Unnamed King and Nidana of King of “Ten Luxuries”. The first was translated into Chinese from an original Indian text by K’ang-seng-hui in 251 AD and the second by Kekaya in 472 AD. No trace of the Sanskrit originals is left in India or anywhere else. Both the works were translated into English. The first is the 46th story of Roku-do-jik-kyo, Six Paramita collection sutra, No. 152 of the Taisho edition of the Chinese Tripitaka. The second story is No. 203 in Taisho Tripitaka. Both of them were published by the academy as No. 8 of the ‘Sarasvati Vihar Series’ at the Arya Bharati Press in Lahore.

Encyclopedia of India Historical Geography was another ambitious task undertaken by Dr. Chikyo Yamamoto in collaboration with Prof. RaghuVira. Fan Fan Yu is a Chinese dictionary of the Indian geographical names compiled in 517 AD from literature and accounts of travelers. It contains the names of kingdoms, countries, cities, towns, villages, monasteries, shrines, mountains, rivers, ponds, islands, gardens and forests. It begins from the earliest and goes up to the 12th century AD. The dictionary was transcribed into Devanagari and rendered into Sanskrit for the first time. Corrections were suggested for badly handed down names and meanings were supplied. It was to appear in several volumes but could not be published so far due to financial constraints.

Chikyo Yamamoto left for a tour to Eastern India on his way back to Japan. In Japan he was offered the post of Assistant Professor at the Koyasan University. Later he joined as a curator at the Koyasan Museum. Throughout his life he was constantly in touch with the academy. He paid several visits. Later International Academy of Indian Culture published more books by him.

Throughout their stay at the academy both the scholars were allowed the benefit of free board, lodge and tuition. Every year they used to go on tours with Prof. RaghuVaira to visit important Indian Buddhist places. On the eve of departure Mr. Yamamoto presented Taisho Issaikyo edition of the Chinese Tripitaka, along with several other books as his gurudakshina to Prof. RaghuVira.

Hideo Kimura from the Ryukoku University was another great scholar of Sanskrit who had come to India. Prof. RaghuVira affectionately used to call him Hrdaya Kumara. He had translated the two works by poet Kalidasa: Ritu-samhara and Meghaduta into Japanese.

Prof. Genjun Sasaki from the Otani University was another Japanese scholar who worked at the Academy. He prepared a Sanskrit-Chinese catalogue based on the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra. He was so impressed by Prof. RaghuVira during his stay that when he went back he introduced Hindi programs on the Japan Radio. He was very much upset after the news of India’s partition because Lahore had gone to Pakistan where his dear teacher’s institute was situated. He kept on trying to know about his whereabouts. In 1954 he came again to the academy fro research.

The Japanese scholars who had come and stayed under the affection of Prof. RaghuVira loved India to the deepest of their hearts. India was another home for Shodo Taki. He was sad when all his books on India were burnt during the World War. Once he wrote in a letter that whenever he closes his eyes he beholds the flowing rivers and mountains, temples and monasteries, ancient monuments of India.

When he had gone back to Japan, he delivered a number of lectures on India and its culture, religion and philosophy. Prof. Shoson Miyamoto, an eminent scholar of Indian philosophy in Japan and director of Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist studies and Prof. Hajime Nakamura were also associated to Prof. Raghu Vira. They had visited the academy in 1954. Whosoever used to come to India, tried to meet him or else their visit to India was incomplete.

Teaching the Japanese language was seen as a tool to understand the Japanese mind, their character behind amazing achievements and patriotism. When the Academy was shifted to Nagpur in 1946, the Japanese studies were once again resumed. Prof. RaghuVira’s daughter Dr. Sudarshana Devi Singhal and son Dr. Lokesh Chandra began to teach Japanese language. A large number of Indians joined as students from various fields. They were ministers, advocates, secretaries, justices, principals and teachers. The programs of the academy included viewing of films on Japan, playing Japanese music and lectures on Japanese culture.

Prof. Raghu Vira was very famous in the Japanese scholarly world. He had uninterrupted connections with them. Whosoever required anything from India on any subject he was there to help them. If he required any book from Japan it was made available to him. For example once Prof. N. Tsuji sent some books to him but he sent them back after studying. Once Soichi Adachi asked for some books on Sanskrit prosody to the then Governor of Madhya Pradesh, HE Pattabhi Sitaramaiya. The request was directed to Prof. RaghuVira and he responded immediately.

A number of Japanese scholars visited the academy in Delhi, stayed there, studied and took part in teaching also. It is matter of detail study as how far the academy founded by Late Prof. RaghuVira has worked for the deepening of our friendship. His son Prof. Lokesh Chandra has continued the unfinished task and it is carried on further by others. He outstands as a visionary, a philosopher, art historian and an expert on Buddhism. Interaction with a number of Japanese organisations and scholars are a part of the program of the Academy founded by Prof. RaghuVira, an important step towards enhancement of the academic relations of the two countries.

Authoris Dean, Centre of Indology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New Delhi.

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