(Note: If you are only interested in pictures, skip past this and hit “Continue Reading”)
This is a historical phenomenon, which entertains and fascinates me to no end. Buddhism had a huge impact on all East Asian cultures, especially on their pantheons of deities. On first glance it might seem odd that a reform movement, which rejected many of the core tenants of Vedic religion would transmit a belief in Vedic deities. This apparent oddity is a misunderstanding of Buddhism’s “atheism,” and a misunderstanding of what a “Deva” actually is. Most forms of Buddhism, while rejecting the concept of all-powerful gods or creator deities, openly accept the existence of powerful supernatural beings. This includes yakshas (nature spirits) rakshasas (demons) gandharvas (celestial musicians) nagas (supernatural snakes) and many other beings, including Devas (deities.) In Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, Devas are created beings that roam around the universe seeking the divine, albeit very powerful ones with much greater spiritual capabilities than humans. Hindu traditions tend to accord Devas much more power and divinity than Buddhism, and worship them as manifestations of The Supreme. In the Buddhist pantheon, the Devas have generally converted to Buddhism and now serve as his protectors, the protectors of his teachings, or as helpers to mortals who are trying to achieve enlightenment.
The reader should be aware that in Japanese mythology and theology the below deities freely interact with native Shinto deities, and deities imported from China. I am isolating the Indian derived deities for the purpose of this bog post, but do not be deluded into thinking that they are unintegrated with the rest of Japanese mythology.
The more popular of these deities are used in non-esoteric Mahayana Buddhism (the bulk of Buddhist sects in Japan.) However, most of these are relatively obscure deities because they are only used in the Shingon school, an esoteric (tantric) school of Buddhism. As such, the bulk of these Devas achieved full development in Japan around the late 700s or early 800s, as a result of the rise in popularity (especially amongst the political elite) of esoteric and Shingon Buddhism.
Last note: There are a lot of different names involved here, because (among other reasons) Sanskrit and Japanese don’t transliterate very well. For deities in which two names are listed, the first is Sanskrit, and the second is Japanese. In cases where, for some reason, I’ve listed many names, I will specify with an (S) or a (J) which language it is from.
(S) Ganesha/ (S) Vinayaka / (J) Binayaka / (J) Shoten/ (J) Kangiten: Ganesha was one of the first Indian deities to transit to Japan, and as in India, is one of the most popular in both esoteric and non-esoteric sects. Perhaps this is because his association with worldly prosperity has been retained, or perhaps amplified into a general association with pleasure. Thus, actors, geishas, gamblers, restaurant proprietors, etc offer him worship. Shoten has retained the association for removing obstacles, although his ancient association with creating obstacles which has long since been expunged from the Hindu tradition is still mildly active in Japan for reasons which will become clear later.
He is often depicted in (implicitly erotic) embrace with another elephant headed figure. In that iconography, his name is “Kangiten” or “Binayaka.” This is an allusion to a Japanese myth about Kangiten’s “evil” origins, wherein his mother, Uma births 1,500 evil children onto her left (collectively called Binayakas), the first of which was Binayaka. On her right side she births 1,500 good children the first of which was Avalokiteśvara/Kannon (the Bodhisatva of compassion) incarnated as Idaten (Skanda or Murugan in India.) In order to win Binayaka over to goodness, Idaten reincarnates as a female binayaka and becomes Kangiten’s wife. The bliss generated by their union turns Kangiten good. According to this myth therefore, the embracing Kangiten figures actually represent Kangiten in sexual union with his brother reincarnated as his wife/sister. There are other myths, which seek to explain this iconography, but all of them involve some sort of gender reversal, usually by means of reincarnation. There is a huge corpus of Japanese Ganesha myths, which do not exist at all in India, but the initial one just mentioned seems to almost reference Ganesha’s actual historical development in India. Ganesha probably evolved from the set of demons called Vinayakas/Binayakas who were known for erecting obstacles and creating divisions between allies. However, they were easily appeased. So easily appeased in fact that over time they evolved into positive forces, and merged into one deity—Ganesha.
However, the aforementioned Japanese myths all seem to be trying to explain the dual figured Kangiten iconography by posing, as it’s mythological basis. The real basis lies elsewhere, probably in the translations of Amoghavajra, a half Indian half Sogdian monk living in China in the early 700s. He was a founder of the “Chen-Yen” school of esoteric Buddhism (a precursor to the Shingon school,) and his translations of various tantric texts entail repeated references to the “dual-bodied Vinayaka” which is an obstacle removing and prosperity inducing deity described as looking exactly like modern embracing Kangiten figures, including the erotic embrace. There was also a pre-Buddhist Japanese deity named N-io, which took the form of a male and female in embrace, which could have contributed, or facilitated the popularity of the embracing Kangiten figures.