Gozu-Tennō 

牛頭天王

Main Shrines

Yasaka Jinja                 八坂神社

Kyōto-shi, Higashiyama-ku, Gion-machi Kitagawa 625  

京都府京都市東山区祇園町北側625

Gozu-Tennō is another example of a god of Hindi origin who eventually came to be worshipped in Japan in both Buddhism and Shintō under the pre-Meiji “Shinbutsu Shugo"  (syncretism of kami and buddhas) system. At some point during his assimilation into Japan he came to be closely associated with Susano-o, so closely in fact that they are often considered one and the same. In another interpretation, Gozu-Tennō is the Honji Suijaku (本地垂逆 original substance, manifest traces) of Susano-o. His Sanskrit name is Gavagriva, and he was the guardian deity of the Jetavana-vihāra (temple), the second temple to be dedicated to the Buddha, located in Shravasti in modern day Uttar Pradesh.

Gozu (牛頭) literally means "ox-head," and the name has two, possibly relevant, geographical connotations.  The Kotobank Dictionary tells us that there is a Mt. Ox-head (牛頭山) in Southern India which produces a species of sandalwood with unparalleled fragrance lauded in Buddhist texts and stories as the raw material

From the National Nara Museum

for the finest incense.  It is also used for making images and in cremations, and it is said to have medicinal properties, and these provide a link to Gozu-Tennō. Korea is the other geographical connotation. In an episode not mentioned in the Kojiki the Nihon Shiki says in an aside that after Susano-o's second banishment: "... and he was driven into banishment. At this time, Sosa no wo no Mikoto, accompanied by his son, Iso-Takeru no kami, descended to the Land of Silla, where he dwelt at Soshimori." (Aston p57). Kawamura (Japanese) speculates that the name Soshomori may in the Korean language of the time have meant "Ox-head" or "Ox-neck," but given the time we are talking about, pre-history, this is speculation at best.

His beginnings in Japan are unclear, but by the early Heian period he was seen as both a transmitter of epidemics and offering protection against them. Jetavana is loosely transliterated into Japanese as Gion (祇園), and as Gozu-Tennō became increasingly widely worshipped in Japan shrines by the name of Gion proliferated. However, along with the enactment of the Shin-butsu Bunri (forced separation of Buddhism and Shintō) in 1868 Gozu-Tennō was singled out as an example of corrupting Buddhist influence which had to be rooted out from Shintō, which perhaps explains why he is not very popular today. Along with this, the Gion shrines were forced to change their name and drop the worship of Gozu-Tennō. The most important of them was the one in Kyoto’s Higashiyama-ku, and when it decided to change its name to Yasaka Jinja and its main deity to Susano-o many other Gion Jinja followed suit. Interestingly there are still some shrines called Gion Jinja, my database contains 22, although this number is probably on the low side. The same proviso applies to the number for Yasaka Jinja, 879. As well as Yasaka and Gion, Susano-o is enshrined in Hikawa and Tennō Jinja. Kamata puts the total number of jinja where Susano-o is enshrined at 5,938.

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© Rod Lucas 2016-2019

All text and photos by Lucas unless otherwise stated