South Indian faces & traces in eighth-century Japan: The life & legacy of Bodhisena

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

Abstract / Description of output

The cultural highlight of eighth-century Japan was the eye-opening ceremony in 752 for the Great Buddha at Tōdaiji Temple. On this occasion, the Great Buddha’s pupils were painted in, thereby enlivening the statue and transforming it into a religious icon. According to temple records, the one who carried out this action was a brahmin monk from South India named Bodhisena.

This chapter discusses the historical evidence documenting Bodhisena’s journey to Japan, rise to the most prominent position over Japan’s monastic community, and involvement in the eye-opening ceremony. In particular, this study highlights how his disciple, the Chinese monk Xiurong, used Chinese literary and religious allusions to argue that Bodhisena was comparable, if not superior, to early Indian and Central Asian Buddhist proselytizers to China. The paper also explores Indian cultural elements in Japan both during and preceding Bodhisena’s arrival, including in the masked drama known as Gigaku as well as Rinyūgaku, a style of music and dance purportedly from modern-day Vietnam but reflecting Indian influence. It additionally considers Bodhisena’s role and function in later medieval tales known as setsuwa, especially concerning his relocation to Japan, encounter with the Japanese monk Gyōki, and association with bodhisattvas. This work engages with larger themes related to Japan’s conceptual and geographical perception of India at this time, what was meant by Bodhisena’s coming from “South India”, and the cultural capital that this country of origin gave Bodhisena in his life and legacy.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGeographies of Exchange between India and Japan
EditorsSushila Narsimhan, Parul Bakshi
Place of PublicationNew Delhi
PublisherManak Publications
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9789391897956
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2024
EventThe KIZUNA India-Japan Study Forum: Discovering India-Japan Civilizational Ties and Southeast Asia Connectivities - MOSAI and India International Center , New Delhi, India
Duration: 10 Feb 202311 Feb 2023


ConferenceThe KIZUNA India-Japan Study Forum
CityNew Delhi

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Bodhisena
  • India
  • Japan
  • Buddhism
  • Todaiji
  • Gyoki
  • Nara
  • brahman
  • monk


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