Local Divinities and Buddhism

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There is no single Buddhist term that covers the same semantic area as the English word divinities or its equivalents, such as deities, gods, and supernatural beings. In fact, Buddhist cosmology recognizes several kinds of divine or semidivine beings, all endowed with superhuman faculties: buddhas and bodhisattvas; former disciples of the Buddha (śrāvakas); saints of various kinds (arhats in particular); angelic figures (gandharva, kiṃnara); "gods" proper (Sanskrit devas; Japanese kami; Burmese nats); anti-gods (asura); various kinds of ghosts; demonic and monsterlike figures (preta, yakṣa, rākṣasa); mythological animals (nāga, garura, mahorāga); and devils and other denizens of hell. Each of these classes has its own place in cosmology and its role in soteriology.

Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist saints are not gods, but they are often worshiped as such. A major doctrinal distinction separates buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other saintly figures from all other superhuman entities in that the former are situated outside of the realm of transmigration. Gods, spirits, ghosts, and the like, in contrast, are still prisoners of the law of karma and will accordingly be reborn in the future in different shapes until they attain the supreme liberation. Even though Buddhist cosmology attributes a clear preeminence to the Buddha and other enlightened beings, local deities still play an important role in the life and the liturgy of Buddhists in many parts of the world.

Buddhism and local deities: approaches and problems

The role and status of divinities within the Buddhist tradition is complicated. Deities are often seen as something essentially different from "true" Buddhism (however defined). Negative views consider the worship of local gods as a deluded, superstitious practice. In general, however, divinities are treated as skillful means (upĀya), as a concession to popular beliefs that can be useful to guide the unenlightened toward salvation. Only in some cases are there specific attempts to give doctrinal legitimacy to local deities as full-fledged components of the Buddhist universe.

Despite the ambiguous doctrinal position of deities in the Buddhist system, it is important to emphasize that interaction with local divinities was a key factor in the diffusion of Buddhism, both inside and outside of India. Unfortunately, little information is available on the relationship between Buddhism and local deities in premodern times. Wherever Buddhism is the dominant or state religion, folkloric practices and traditions concerning local deities have often been downplayed as mere "superstition." Nativist movements in East Asia, in contrast, have tended to reduce the role of Buddhism in their countries and to emphasize instead the autochthonous tradition, with the result of often rendering invisible the connections between Buddhism and local divinities.

The difficulty of describing the relationship between Buddhism and local deities has also affected scholars. Buddhologists, on the one hand, tend to focus more on the translocal (orthodox doctrines and rituals), rather than on the local (actual Buddhism as it is practiced in specific historical and cultural contexts); as a consequence, they have paid little attention to local deities. Anthropologists, on the other hand, focus on contemporary cultural situations, without much emphasis on the history of the relationship between Buddhism and local cultures. Furthermore, the dominant tendency for many years among scholars of religious phenomena was that of privileging separate traditions, based on an emphasis on textualized doctrines and "faith," rather than on living religiosity, which often cannot be reduced to canonical, doctrinal scriptures.

Buddhist appropriation of local deities: motifs and models

From the beginning, Buddhism appears to have dealt with Indian deities in positive terms by incorporating them within its own system, rather than by ignoring or persecuting them. In fact, according to the Buddhist interpretation, the Indian gods need the appearance of a buddha among the humans before they can be taught the way to attain salvation; in this way, the Buddhists made deities into subordinates of the Buddha and, by extension, his emissaries.

Many stories about the establishment and the diffusion of Buddhism involve the conversion, subjugation, or control of local deities. Discreet but crucial interventions by the Indian gods accompany the spiritual career of Śākyamuni Buddha as told in classical narratives such as the Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha) or the jĀtaka tales. The scriptures often present the Buddha as the teacher of gods. One of the earliest sūtras, the Ekottarāgama (Numerically Ordered Collection) describes a famous scene in which Buddha ascends to heaven and preaches to Indra and the other gods of the classical Indian pantheon, who were gathered together with the Buddha's mother, Queen Māyā. In some cases, gods were reluctant to convert, which made recourse to violent methods necessary. Particularly famous is the subjugation of Maheśvara (Śiva), in which a bodhisattva entered the samādhi of adamantine anger and killed Maheśvara; the latter was then resuscitated as a buddha in a distant world system. On special occasions, the Buddha did not object to transforming himself into a frightening and powerful demon in order to subjugate other demons. Stories also recount the conversion of hostile local deities, which then turned into protectors of the dharma and its adepts. Early tales of interaction with divinities have set the standard for subsequent strategies employed by Buddhists to spread their teachings in foreign lands.

Buddhism was often propagated by monks traveling with traders. These monks addressed the political and economic elites of the new lands they visited. Their goal was to replace (or, at least, restructure) the preexisting cosmology and its related pantheon with the Buddhist worldview, with the Buddha on top. However, the spread of Buddhism among the commoners was to a large extent the work of saintlike figures who went around subjugating territorial guardian spirits, while at the same time establishing monasteries, schools, and other infrastructures, and preaching the Buddhadharma.

In an important sense, then, the diffusion of Buddhism in a country often began with the taming of local deities, usually described as hostile, violent, and dangerous. This practice started in India and was based on scriptural precedents. A number of local deities and spirits were thus included in the Buddhist pantheon as protectors of the dharma. The nāga (serpents/dragons), symbols of water and fertility, were worshiped by the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent prior to the Āryan invasions. Particularly well known are the conversion of the nāga Apalāla in northwestern India and the subjugation of the nāgas by MahĀmaudgalyĀyana. The nāga cult also spread in Southeast and East Asia. YakṢa and yakṣinī, evil spirits (ogres) of forests and uncultivated plains, were subjugated by the Buddha in Sri Lanka in order to spread the dharma there. Asura (anti-gods) are often a model for local deities, such as the nats in Myanmar and deified warriors in Japan. Garuḍa, mythical birds who were the enemies of the nāgas, turned into the flying vehicle of ViṢṆu before they were included in the Buddhist pantheon. Rākṣasa, cannibalistic evil spirits, became protectors of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarika-sŪtra). Some of these deities, in spite of their intrinsic violent character, even became important foci of devotion, such as Mahākāla, the yakṣinī Hārītī, Kubera, and Hayagrīva. Still other divine beings became guardians of local images, stūpas, and monasteries.

In general, there were a few common strategies for the Buddhist conversion of local deities throughout Asia. Deities were first converted, sometimes violently (subjugation), either following their own request or after a confrontation. This step signaled the supremacy of Buddhism over local deities. Even when local spirits were not directly incorporated but marginalized (as happened in Tibet, where indigenous deities were subdued by erecting monasteries on specific parts of their bodies), there was still the need for propitiation, thus further emphasizing the fundamental evil nature of preexisting local deities and the importance of Buddhism to control them.

On a second stage, converted deities became protectors of the dharma, its adepts, and its facilities. In this way, deities were able to perform their usual, pre-Buddhist tutelary functions, but within a larger, translocal cosmology, and in a different soteriological framework. Later, we sometimes observe the formation of new, post-Buddhist local deities, distinct from but related to Buddhist divinities. Examples include Hachiman and Inari in Japan, Bon deities in Tibet, and certain kinds of spirits in Thailand, such as the winjan. In some cases, local deities came to be envisioned as manifestations (avatāra) of translocal, usually Indian, gods. For example, the supreme nat spirit in Myanmar, Thagya Min nat, is identified with Inda (Indra). Japanese Shintō kami were also considered manifestations of Indian deities. In China certain local gods of a strong Daoist flavor are closely related to, if not completely identified with, Buddhist figures; such is the case of the goddess Mazu and her close relationship with the bodhisattva Guanyin (Avalokiteśvara).

By presenting local deities—and the social organization and power relations that support them—as manifestations of chaos and violence, these narratives emphasize the civilizing, ordering, and beneficial nature of Buddhism, its institutions, and its representatives. Even though the initial disruption was actually caused by Buddhist monks who questioned, altered, or destroyed local cultural practices represented by local deities, such an emphasis on order and peace was not simply groundless propaganda. In many cases, Buddhist missionaries came from more advanced cultures and brought with them new technologies, ideas, and representations that were structured in a translocal and more encompassing worldview. The inclusiveness of Buddhism, its capacity to integrate different and contrasting elements inside its own superior system was represented by the inclusion of previously anti-Buddhist forces and mutual enemies, such as Maheśvara and the asuras, or on a different level, nāgas and garuḍas.

Buddhism and local cults

Local deities in countries where Buddhism spread are usually regarded as manifestations of an animistic worldview. The term animism, however, cannot effectively represent the variety and complexity of cultures in which Buddhism penetrated. Local deities range from souls of individuals, spirits of the dead, ghosts, and other postmortem demonic entities, to local and tutelary deities of various kinds. These entities are envisioned as forces concerned with health, fertility, and prosperity (or lack thereof). The Buddhist intervention restructured all these multifarious forms into a system, more or less coherent, that was based (at least, to an extent) on Buddhist doctrines. For example, in present-day Myanmar a combination of Pāli Buddhism, nāga cults, and nat animism has been attested in the Pagan area since the tenth to eleventh centuries; analogous situations exist in Thailand and Laos. In premodern Japan, local deities were incorporated into the Buddhist cosmology and liturgy as manifestations of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and classical Indian gods. In other areas, such as China and Tibet, a division of labor arises between the Buddhist clergy and ritualists of other traditions (e.g., Daoists or Bon adepts, and traditional specialists).

While not directly related to the quest for ultimate liberation (be it configured as nirvĀṆa or the attainment of Buddhahood), local divinities played an important role in merit-making and in securing protection, two areas, distinct but closely interrelated, that roughly correspond to karmic and apotropaic Buddhism as defined by Melford Spiro. Merit, often expressed as concrete, material benefits rather than in purely spiritual terms, could be conceived of as a form of protection from illness, evil spirits, and natural calamities often caused by supernatural entities. On the other hand, invoking protection from local divinities could result in benefits that were not much different in practice from those resulting from the performance of purely "orthodox" Buddhist devotions.

Buddhism dealt with local spirits in numerous ways, ranging from discursive structuring (definition of their status and attribution of a specific place within the Buddhist cosmology and soteriology), to ritual interaction, to mere noninterference. Discursive structuring seems to operate in general only on the main principles, but it does not work in detail. For example, in the case of Thai "village cosmology" the relationship is unclear between thewada (from the Sanskrit devatā), gods that are considered to be situated outside the cycle of rebirth (in itself a heterodox idea), and local spirits known as phī. Ritual interaction takes many forms, from the reading of Buddhist scriptures that took place in front of the Japanese kami until the anti-Buddhist persecutions of 1868, to the celebrations of festivals for the protectors of Thai monasteries (Chao Phau). In the case of noninterference, Buddhists leave certain issues concerning local spirits to traditional figures such as shamans, storytellers, diviners, and so forth. In fact, in most Buddhist cultures a number of such traditional specialists deal with local deities, spirits, and ghosts. In some cases, they form distinct and independent professional and social groups, such as kami priests in premodern Japan, Bon priests in Tibet, and certain shamanlike specialists in China and Southeast Asia. Most of the time, however, traditional specialists of local sacred affairs are not religious professionals, but perform their services as a side business in addition to their ordinary, secular professions.

Buddhist cosmology and popular religious practices concerning the afterlife

An area of religious life in which the interaction of Buddhism with local divinities is particularly intense is the one that deals with death and the afterlife (funeral ceremonies, ancestor cults, and neutralization of evil ghosts). In particular, the Buddhist cosmology of heavens and hells, together with its multiple pure lands (Sukhāvatī, Potālaka, etc.) always involves theses kinds of issues. To most Buddhists, nirvāṇa is not an immediate goal; what matters most is rebirth into a higher state of being, from which the dead can bestow blessings onto the living who honor and worship them. This is the starting point of ancestor cults, which are associated with the idea that lack of proper ritual action toward the deceased will cause misfortune and disaster. In this way, memorialization brings together merit-making in the form of ritual exchanges with an-cestors and apotropaic beliefs and practices promising protection against evil ghosts. Memorialization also fuses Buddhist classic cosmology and local divinities (in the form of ancestors, tutelary deities, and spirits of various kinds). It is not by chance, then, that in most of Asia, Buddhist monks are directly involved in funerals, memorialization of the dead (who are turned into ancestors), and control of ghosts, often associated with evil deities of classical cosmology such as yakṣa and asura, the nats in Myanmar, and the phī in Thailand and Laos. Particularly interesting in this respect are East Asian Buddhist funerary practices and their underlying cosmology of hells. Chinese Buddhists applied the bureaucratic structure of their state to the afterlife, developing the cult of the Ten Kings of hell—judges who decide the destiny of the defunct in the afterlife. This cult combines Buddhist conceptions of hell, popular Indian ideas of rebirth, Indian gods such as Yāma, Daoist deities, and Chinese popular beliefs and practices (including Confucian bureaucracy). Another cult (known as shi eguei gongyang in China and se gaki kuyō in Japan) that developed in China dealt with the so-called hungry ghosts, an East Asian version of the Indian preta, which shows concerns and fear about the spirits of those who died a "bad" death or who were not properly memorialized by their families. These funerary cults spread all over the Sinicized world in East Asia and still constitute one of the most important and enduring contributions of Buddhism to East Asian cultures.

The problem of syncretism

The term syncretism has had a long history of negative connotations as indicating a random mixture of various religious elements dictated by ignorance, superstition, or even diabolic influences. The term presupposes the existence of a "pure" form of a given religious tradition, uncorrupted by blending with other religions. For these reasons, it is difficult to use syncretism as a neutral, descriptive term. The word was redefined, however, in The Encyclopedia of Religion(1987) as referring to "connections of a special kind between languages, cultures, or religions" (vol. 14, p.218). In this form, however, it is too vague to be useful for analysis of specific cases of religious interactions. The essential problem is that religious and cultural interactions in general are not mere juxtapositions of distinct and independent elements. The case of the Buddhist impact on local divinities is particularly revealing. Certainly, some deities were abandoned and forgotten, and new ones were added. But what matters more is the systematic and pervasive restructuring of the cultural field of the sacred that the interaction with Buddhism generated. Local deities were given features of Indian gods and vice versa, thus generating new entities; but new deities were also created to deal with the new conceptual and ritual situation that had developed. Interestingly, some Buddhist deities (or some of their features) were rendered native by the phenomena of relocalization, a process that at times even obliterated their Buddhist origin. This is the case with kami such as Hachiman and Inari in contemporary Japan, of deities incorporated into the folk religions of China and Korea, and of the Bon tradition in Tibet (an independent establishment still clearly indebted to Buddhism). All these cases cannot simply be reduced to modes of juxtaposition, combination, or even connection. Various conceptual categories should be mobilized instead to describe the multifarious forms of Buddhist interaction with local divinities in shifting historical, cultural, social, and ideological contexts. In other words, rather than taking as a starting point an abstract and reified idea of Buddhism and analyzing how it deals with local deities, it appears to be more appropriate and fruitful to investigate the various roles that certain divinities play within specific Buddhist contexts. As examples, we can think of processes of state formation (with divinities protecting newly formed states and their regional divisions), social control (the symbolic order of families, clans, and local communities as represented by specific divinities and ritual interactions with them), labor and economic concerns, and semiotic practices guiding the combination of various deities (as based on formal, functional, structural, and semantic features).

See also:Folk Religion: An Overview; Ghosts and Spirits; Kūkai; Merit and Merit-Making; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism; Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings


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