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Vaiśravaṇa (Sanskrit: वैश्रवण) or Vessavaṇa Pāli: वेस्सवण, Sinhala: වෛශ්‍රවණ) also known as Jambhala, is the name of the chief of the Four Heavenly Kings and an important figure in Buddhist mythology.

Name

The name Vaiśravaṇa is derived from the Sanskrit viśravaṇa "Great Fame"[1].

Vaiśravaṇa is also known as Kubera (Sanskrit) or Kuvera (Pāli), and as Jambhala (Sanskrit).[2][3]

Other names include:

  • 多聞天 (simplified characters: 多闻天): Chinese Duō Wén Tiān, Korean Damun Cheonwang (다문천왕), Japanese Tamonten. The characters mean "Much hearing god" or "Deity who hears much".
  • 毘沙門天: Chinese Píshāmén Tiān, Japanese Bishamonten. This is a representation of the sound of the Sanskrit name in Chinese (Vaiśravaṇ → Pishamen) plus the character for "heaven" or "god".
  • Tibetan: རྣམ་ཐོས་སྲས (rnam.thos.sras [Namthöse])
  • Thai: ท้าวกุเวร or ท้าวเวสสุวรรณ (Thao Kuwen or Thao Vessuwan)

Characteristics

The character of Vaiśravaṇa is founded upon the Hindu deity Kubera, but although the Buddhist and Hindu deities share some characteristics and epithets, each of them has different functions and associated myths. Although brought into East Asia as a Buddhist deity, Vaiśravaṇa has become a character in folk religion and has acquired an identity that is partially independent of the Buddhist tradition (cf. the similar treatment of Kuan Yin and Yama).

Vaiśravaṇa is the guardian of the northern direction, and his home is in the northern quadrant of the topmost tier of the lower half of Mount Sumeru. He is the leader of all the yakṣas who dwell on the Sumeru's slopes.

He is often portrayed with a yellow face. He carries an umbrella or parasol as a symbol of his sovereignty. He is also sometimes displayed with a mongoose, often shown ejecting jewels from its mouth. The mongoose is the enemy of the snake, a symbol of greed or hatred; the ejection of jewels represents generosity.

In Theravāda tradition

In the Pāli scriptures of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, Vaiśravaṇa is called Vessavaṇa. Vessavaṇa is one of the Cātummahārājāno, or four Great Kings, each of whom rules over a specific direction. Vessavaṇa's realm is the northern quadrant of the world, including the land of Uttarakuru. According to some suttas, he takes his name from a region there called Visāṇa; he also has a city there called Ālakamandā which is a byword for wealth. Vessavaṇa governs the yakkhas – beings with a nature between 'fairy' and 'ogre'.

Vessavaṇa's wife is named Bhuñjatī, and he has five daughters, Latā, Sajjā, Pavarā, Acchimatī, and Sutā. He has a nephew called Puṇṇaka, a yakkha, husband of the nāga woman Irandatī. He has a chariot called Nārīvāhana. His weapon was the gadāvudha (Sanskrit: gadāyudha), but he only used it before he became a follower of the Buddha.

Vessavaṇa has the name "Kuvera" from a name he had from a past life as a rich brahmin mill-owner, who gave all the produce of one of his seven mills to charity, and provided alms to the needy for 20,000 years. He was reborn in the Cātummahārājikā heaven as a result of this good kamma.

As with all the Buddhist deities, Vessavaṇa is properly the name of an office (filled for life) rather than a permanent individual. Each Vessavaṇa is mortal, and when he dies, he will be replaced by a new Vessavaṇa. Like other beings of the Cātummahārājika world, his lifespan is 90,000 years (other sources say nine million years). Vessavaṇa has the authority to grant the yakkhas particular areas (e.g., a lake) to protect, and these are usually assigned at the beginning of a Vessavaṇa's reign.

When the Buddha was born, Vessavaṇa became his follower, and eventually attained the stage of sotāpanna (Sanskrit: srotaāpanna, one who has only seven more lives before enlightenment). He often brought the Buddha and his followers messages from the gods and other humans, and protected them. He presented to the Buddha the Āṭānāṭā verses, which Buddhists meditating in the forest could use to ward off the attacks of wild yakkhas or other supernatural beings who do not have faith in the Buddha. These verses are an early form of paritta chanting.

Bimbisāra, King of Magadha, after his death was reborn as a yakkha called Janavasabha in the retinue of Vessavaṇa.

In the early years of Buddhism, Vessavaṇa was worshipped at trees dedicated to him as shrines. Some people appealed to him to grant them children.

In Japan

In Japan, Bishamonten (毘沙門天), or just Bishamon (毘沙門) is thought of as an armor-clad god of warfare or warriors and a punisher of evildoers – a view that is at odds with the more pacific Buddhist king described above. Bishamon is portrayed holding a spear in one hand and a small pagoda in the other hand, the latter symbolizing the divine treasure house, whose contents he both guards and gives away. In Japanese folklore, he is one of the Japanese Seven Gods of Fortune.

Bishamon is also called Tamonten (多聞天), meaning "listening to many teachings" because he is the guardian of the places where Buddha preaches. He lives half way down the side of Mount Sumeru.

In Tibet

In Tibet, Vaiśravaṇa is considered a worldly dharmapāla or protector of the Dharma, a member of the retinue of Ratnasambhava.[4] He is also known as the King of the North. As guardian of the north, he is often depicted on temple murals outside the main door. He is also thought of as a god of wealth. As such, Vaiśravaṇa is sometimes portrayed carrying a citron, the fruit of the jambhara tree, a pun on another name of his, Jambhala (in Tibetan pronunciation Dzambala or Zambala). The fruit helps distinguish him iconically from depictions of Kuvera. He is sometimes represented as corpulent and covered with jewels. When shown seated, his right foot is generally pendant and supported by a lotus-flower on which is a conch shell. His mount is a snow lion.

Nam Te Se. (རྣམ་ཐོས་སྲས་ or རྣམ་སྲས་) is not Dzambala. Nam Te is the king, and Dzambala is one of his ranking ministers. Nam Te Se has eight ranks, and Dzambala is one of these ranks.

Tibetan Buddhists consider Jambhala's sentiment regarding wealth to be providing freedom by way of bestowing prosperity, so that one may focus on the path or spirituality rather than on the materiality and temporality of that wealth.

In popular culture

  • A character by the name of Uesugi Kenshin from the PlayStation 2 game Samurai Warriors frequently prays to Bishamon for strength on the battlefield. He also attains the title "Bishamonten Avatar" at a certain point. This game was based on historical fact.
  • In the video game series Onimusha (specifically Onimusha: Warlords), a Bishamon statue is seen in the game. The Bishamon Sword is also the ultimate weapon in the game.
  • In Atlus' video game series Megami Tensei, Bishamon is categorized into Kishin clan which includes the protectors of various pantheons. His character model is based on Japanese beliefs of Bishamon.
  • Shou Toramaru of the doujin shooter series Touhou Project is a disciple of Bishamonten, she resides in his temple. She also possesses a small jewelled pagoda, implied to belong to Bishmonten.

See also

References

  1. MW Sanskrit Digital Dictionary v1.5
  2. The Heart of the Warrior: origins and religious background of the samurai system in feudal Japan By Catharina Blomberg. Page 31. Published 1994. Routledge (UK). Philosophy. ISBN 1873410131
  3. Ruthless Compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art By Rob Linrothe (page 20). Published 1999. Serindia Publications, Inc. Art & Art Instruction. 354 pages. ISBN 0906026512
  4. Meeting the Buddhas By Vessantara. Windhorse Publications, 5004. ISBN 0904766535 pg 84
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