Never forget your indebtedness to ancestors                                  – A Shinto teaching.

At a time when the actions and utterances  of a growing number of people affiliated to various religions tend to degrade the vision of religion in the minds of many thoughtful people, it may be of some interest to reflect occasionally on the more interesting and beautiful aspects of religions. This should not be difficult because though every historical religion has its dark sides, all of them have more than a few positive elements also.

 Hinduism is an integral part of India, Judaism of Israel, and Islam of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, etc. The West is distancing itself more and more from Christianity: for the better because this has led to its intellectual and spiritual emancipation; and for the worse in that some see as its path to cultural suicide. 

In this context, consider Shinto which is part of the religious framework of  Japan. Shinto is an ancient religion whose etymology has been traced to Chinese words meaning ‘The Way of the Spirits’. Since the 8th century CE, Shinto and Buddhism have been the integrated religion of the Japanese people.

Shinto recognizes the existence of many Kamis (神: spirits, deities) which manifest themselves in Nature, sometimes even as human beings. So it encourages the worship of rivers and mountains and all of Nature. There are  Shinto shrines all over Japan, many adorned with origami (paper of the spirits) which people visit regularly during their life.

I recall visiting the Meiji Jingu (shrine)  in Tokyo in 1961 with my friend Professor Takahiko Takabayashi of Kyoto University. He explained to me that the Shrine, dedicated to the late Japanese Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken had been renovated recently, after it suffered bombardment during the War. It is located smack in the middle of a huge forest with more than a hundred thousand sturdy trees and countless plants.

Coming to the theology, the chief of the Kamis is Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess. I was surprised that it was a goddess since from own cultural upbringing, Súrya was a male deity. Only some years later did I discover that though many cultures regard the Sun as Divine not all consider it to be masculine. Sekhmet and Hathor of ancient Egypt, Saulé of ancient Latvians, Söl of Norse mythology, to name a few,  were all Sun-Goddesses. Some twenty years ago I came across a book by Patricia Monaghan which argues that there were more goddesses than god representing the Sun.

Be that as it may, the imperial family of Japan is said to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, the emperors of his lineage were of the solar dynasty also. According to the Shinto sacred history, the first emperor of Japan was Jimu Tenno. Ametesaru gave a round mirror  called mochi to  his grandson, to be included in the royal treasures.

In modern Shinto calendar, 11 January is a celebratory day. It is known as Kagami-Biraki. The term has been roughly translated as  the ‘breaking of (the New Year) rice cake’.

When steamed rice is pounded hard, it becomes what is called mochi in Japanese. It is made to set in the form of a small circular mirror. When this is warmed, it becomes hard gluten which cannot be easily broken. The word kagami means a mirror, and bikari refers to its breaking or opening.

This is also a festival for celebrating martial arts, which are part of the Samurai tradition in Japan. Jujutsu is an ancient Japanese martial art. It is said that as early as in the third century BCE, there used to be combative competitions between unarmed participants. These were known as hikara-karube. Over the centuries various schools and systems of the marital art emerged. Like Yoga from India Judo has spread all over the world in recent years.

Cultural diversity is wonderful as long as cultures don’t become intrusive and demand to be integrated into other cultures. This is one of the challenges the world is facing today: the transformation of the melting-pot ideal to the salad-bowl ideal in modern multicultural societies. This transformation can further enrich or completely dilute the original culture of nations that foster multiculturalism. It is too early to tell what will happen in the long run.

January 11, 2016


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