About
Japanese God

Bishamonten

Bishamonten (毘沙門天) is a Japanese warrior god, protector of Buddhist temples, worshipers, and their offerings. He is the only one of the Seven Lucky Gods associated with war and violence.

By Gregory Wright5 min read • Last updated on Sep. 3rd, 2021
Bishamonten, Japanese God of War (3:2)
  • Bishamonten frequently holds a spear in one hand, indicating his warrior status, while his other hand typically holds a pagoda, which holds the gifts of the faithful.

  • Bishamonten began life in India as the Buddhist deity Vaisravana, who gained recognition by protecting the Buddha as he spread his teachings and enlightenment.

Bishamonten is a Japanese god of war and a Buddhist protector of shrines and holy places. One of the Seven Lucky Gods, he protects the great treasure pagoda of Buddhist offerings and gives these out to faithful believers. He is a Japanese form of the Indian god Vaisravana.

#Etymology

Bishamonten (毘沙門天), or simply Bishamon (毘沙門), can be translated as “Guardian of the One-Hundred Million Heavenly Gates.” This is derived from the Chinese reading of the same characters (Pishamen Tian), which is an alternate name for him in Chinese. He is also called Tamonten (多聞天), which means “listening to many teachings,” relating to his role as protector of the places where the Buddha preaches.

While his original Indian name, Vaiśravaṇa, is a title in Theravada Buddhism, in Japanese Buddhism it is the name of the god.

#Attributes

Bishamonten is a warrior, an armored war god wielding a spear in one hand and a pagoda in the other. This armor is not typical for Japanese warriors, indicating his continental origins. His facial expressions, which vary depending on the artist, are sometimes excited and other times stern and discerning. He is unique among the Seven Lucky Gods: he is the only warrior, and the only one who engages in violence.

The violence surrounding Bishamonten relates to his role as the guardian of worshipers. Although he is primarily described as presiding over places where Buddhists meet and worship, or where an important bodhisattva (a revered Buddhist figure on the path to enlightenment) preached, Bishamonten protects the faithful wherever they are. He also protects the donations they give at places of worship. The pagoda he carries in one hand symbolizes the Divine Treasure House, a many-layered pagoda full of golden gifts given by the faithful and with which Bishamonten rewards his followers. He is a god of fortune as much as he is a god of war.

Bishamonten has many statues dedicated to him at Buddhist temples, as well as at shrines of the Seven Lucky Gods, whose worship is most prominent at the New Year. It is said Bishamonten lives halfway down the summit of Mount Sumeru, an important peak in Buddhist spiritual cosmology that has no direct earthly correlation.

#Mythology

Bishamonten began life in India as the Buddhist deity Vaisravana.

#Vaisravana

In Theravada Buddhism, Vaisravana is as much a divinity as a title. Different figures fill the role. Vaisravana, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, rules the North, where he oversees the world’s wealthiest cities, which are inhabited by divine beings. Vaisravana is also the defender of the Buddha, whom many sought to destroy for his pure teachings and enlightenment. Anywhere the Buddha preached, Vaisravana defended him and continues to protect those places. At these locations in India and Nepal, trees represent his vigilant presence.

Vaisravana began to take on more godly attributes as his stories spread through China, where one of his names became Pishamon Tian. Mahayana Buddhism spread the worship of Pishamon Tian, causing his stories to reach Japan, where he became Bishamonten. Due to his association with wealth and protection, he quickly entered the group known as the Seven Lucky Gods (also called the Seven Gods of Good Fortune) and became one of Japan’s most revered gods, particularly during the Warring States period (1467-1600).

Today, Bishamonten remains a prominent part of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and religious holidays in general.

#Other Mythology

Although he is derived from Vaisravana and his East Asian forms, in Japan Bishamonten is more closely linked to the Shinto war god Hachiman. At times the two are interchangeable, but they are understood to be different. Hachiman is Japan’s most well known war god, often depicted alongside Bishamonten at the gates of Buddhist temples.

Bishamonten appears prominently in popular culture, including:

  • In the video game Yo-Kai Watch, Bishamonten is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune.

  • In the manga Noragami, the character named Bishamonten is depicted mostly in alignment with the mythological figure, with the exception that she is a woman and the god of soldiers.

  • In the Megami Tensei media franchise, Bishamonten is a recurring demon.

  • In the manga RG Veda, Bishamonten is something of a villain and is married to Kichijoten, a fellow member of the Seven Lucky Gods who also originates in India.

  • In the video game Fate/Grand Order, Bishamonten is the name of a sword-wielding figure that makes characters stronger in battle.

#References

Bibliography

  1. Chiba, Reiko. Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1966.

  2. Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: The Kami Way. Translated by William Woodard. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1962.

Citation

Wright, Gregory. “Bishamonten.” Mythopedia, September 03, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/topics/bishamonten

About the Author

Gregory Wright Profile Photo

Gregory Wright

Writer and Historian

Gregory Wright is a writer and historian with an M.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of Texas at Austin

More in Japanese Gods
Izanagi, Japanese God of Creation (3:2)
Japanese God

Izanagi

One of Japanese mythology’s divine creators, father of the islands of Japan.

By Gregory Wright  •  8 min read
Benzaiten, Japanese Goddess of the Flows (3:2)
Japanese Goddess

Benzaiten

Japanese goddess of luck and wisdom, kami of all that flows, from water to time.

By Gregory Wright  •  7 min read
Ame-no-Uzume, Japanese Goddess of the Dawn (3:2)
Japanese Goddess

Ame-no-Uzume

Japanese goddess of the dawn, who saved the world from eternal night.

By Gregory Wright  •  5 min read
Raijin, Japanese God of Thunder (3:2)
Japanese God

Raijin

Chaotic but popular Japanese god of thunder, lightning, and storms.

By Gregory Wright  •  7 min read
Fujin, Japanese God of the Wind (3:2)
Japanese God

Fujin

Japanese god of the wind, frighteningly powerful and neither good nor evil.

By Gregory Wright  •  6 min read