Very few Indian scholars can match him in his knowledge of Indian civilization, culture and Hinduism. A Ph.D in Indian philosophy, Hinduism and Tamil literature from the University of Madras where he studied from 1981 to 1987, he is fluent in Tamil, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Pali.
To boot, he has translated the dialogue of many Tamil films into Japanese and introduced Tamil cinema in Japan when he took the Rajnikanth starrer Muthu to his native country in 1998.
“That film was popular in my country and the Japanese love Tamil cinema,’’ says Prof Yamashita who was recently in Toronto to pursue his work on the Tamil diaspora.
Speaking to newseastwest.com, he explained how he got fascinated by eastern cultures (India) very early in his student life, how he learnt ancient languages and how he has become one of the top foreign experts on India’s civilization and the influence of India on the world.
Q: What fascinated you about India that it became your lifelong subject?
A: I was very interested in original Indian civilization, philosophy and culture very early in my student life. The way to know original India is Sanskrit. So I learnt Sanskrit as well Pali and Tibetan. At college, I studied Indian philosophy and Buddhism and finished my MA on these subjects from Tohuku University before coming to India.
Q: Why did you choose the University of Madras to study Indian culture and civilization?
A: I knew Sanskrit is the vehicle of Indo-Aryan culture. So if you are well versed in Sanskrit, you can understand Indo-Aryan culture or the Vedic culture which is limited to north India.
But to understand south India, I needed to know Tamil – which is the oldest of all south Indian languages. So I went to Madras University. In fact, to understand the older phases of south Indian culture, I needed a thorough knowledge of Tamil. You must know that Dravidian culture played a major role in the emergence of devotional Hinduism or Bhakti in India. Bhakti first emerged in south India in the seventh-century Tamil Nadu. From the south, it spread to north India. So in that sense, Tamil is a very important language.
In fact, even the language of the Indus Valley scripts is considered to be Dravidian as per computer analyses, though the scriptures are yet to be deciphered.
Q: How did religion (Hinduism) become part of your research of Indian civilization and culture?
A: As I said, I was interested in the development of Indian civilization and culture – which obviously includes Hinduism. I am a scholar of Tamil culture in my study of Indian civilization. Since Hinduism spread to many parts of the world, many countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam represent the older phase of expansion of Hinduism. So I have learnt Thai and Indonesian languages to access sources of study in these languages.
And then there is the growth of the Indian diaspora in the western world in recent decades – which represents the modern phase of expansion of Hinduism abroad. So I have studied German and French to access foreign sources on the growth of Hinduism overseas.
Q: Why is the Indian diaspora your area of interest?
A: Well, I am a student of the growth of Indian civilization from ancient times to today. Since Hinduism has grown so much overseas in recent decades, I am fascinated by its story. As I am a scholar of Tamil culture, my thrust is also on the Tamil diaspora, particularly from Sri Lanka. In order to study the Tamils overseas, I have been to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Germany – and now Canada.
Q: So what are your conclusions about the Tamil diaspora in Canada and elsewhere?
A: As part of my study, I interact with the Tamil people wherever I go. Here in Toronto, I visited temples and interacted with priests and worshippers. The Tamils have adjusted very well in the new environment. In fact, the Tamils have globalized the Hindu priest because they don’t have a priestly class and depend on priests from their native lands (Sri Lanka or even India).
The Tamils in Canada have much more devotee presence in temples than other countries because of their large concentration here. But countries such as Germany have a very small Tamil diaspora, so their younger generation is not going to temples.
Q: So you are focussing only on Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in Toronto.
A: Yes, I realized the importance of Sri Lankan Tamils in globalizing Hinduism. They have spread out into many countries in recent decades, thus taking Hinduism with them in a big way. In fact, they have played much bigger role than other Hindu groups in globalizing Hinduism. That’s why I came to Canada to study the Tamil diaspora. They have fascinated me.