Benzaiten is one of Japan’s most complex and popular syncretic deities who has long ago been conflated and associated with other divinities from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Japanese pantheons. Her many forms range from a two-armed beauty playing music to an eight-armed martial deity holding weapons and a divine representation of the supreme Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu. Benzaiten is also an agricultural deity invoked for rain and harvests. This patronage earns her a place as one of the shichifukujin (‘Seven Gods of Fortune’) which includes Ebisu (patron of fishermen as well as the god of prosperity and wealth in business), Daikokuten (patron of cooks, farmers and bankers as well as the god of commerce and prosperity), Bishamonten (patron of warriors and the god of fortune in battles), Fukurokuju (patron of chess players and the hermit god of wisdom, luck, wealth and happiness), Jurojin (the cheerful god of longevity), Hotei (patron of children and barmen as well as god of popularity), and Benzaiten herself who serves as the patron of warriors, artists, writers, dancers and geisha.
Although a quick glance of some of Benzaiten’s aspects, such as her role as protectress of a city and her relationship with culture, may remind people of ancient Greece’s goddess of wisdom Athena, Benzaiten’s character is very closely based on the Indian goddess Sarasvati, who is celebrated both as a river and a goddess. The tradition of Sarasvati or Benzaiten as water goddess has not been lost in Japan as thousands of Benzaiten’s places of worship are often located near water – the sea, a lake, a pond or a river. Philologist Sir William Jones describes Sarasvati also as the goddess of eloquence, learning and writing – in short, of culture. She is adored as the patroness of the fine arts, especially of music and rhetoric, as well as the inventor of the Sanskrit Ianguage and of the sciences which writing perpetuates. The seven notes in music, an artful combination of which constitutes music and variously affects the passions, are also believed to be her earliest creation.
Benzaiten, the Eloquent Goddess
The history of Japan’s city of Enoshima began when the Buddhist monk Kokei (977 – 1049 AD), a priest of the dominant Tendai sect in the mid-Heian period, wrote a tale in Chinese letters in 1047 AD about the creation of Enoshima and the city’s relationship with Benzaiten. The Enoshima Engi, a history of the temples and shrines on Enoshima, which Monk Kokei completed two years before his death, presented the goddess both as a protector of the state and as a savior of the people. Enoshima villagers were haunted for a thousand years by a destructive five-headed dragon that had its lair in a nearby swamp. Aware of the people’s suffering, Benzaiten caused the island of Enoshima to rise from the sea in 552 AD to serve as her home, keeping the islanders away from the dragon, as well as enabling her to live on the island herself and be at hand to help the people when needed. Seeing her for the first time, the dragon fell in love with the goddess and asked her to be his consort. Widely known for her gentle yet persuasive eloquence, Benzaiten rejected the proposal and made the dragon understand that he had done a terrible thing in plaguing the villagers. Rejected, but not discouraged, the dragon devotedly faced south toward the island of Enoshima where Benzaiten lived and turned into a hill known today as tatsu-no-kuchi yama (‘Dragon’s Mouth Hill’).
An anonymous 10th-century Noh play entitled Chikubushima portrays a court official of the late 9th century who is undertaking pilgrimage to the island to make his offerings to Benzaiten. When he arrives at the lake shore, he sees an old fisherman and a young woman setting out in a fishing boat. The court official calls out and asks if he can accompany them. They agree and, when they reach the island, the fisherman guides the court official to the shrine where he is dazzled by its beauty. However, when the woman walks towards the shrine, the official is offended by the visit of such an ordinary woman of low class to such a sacred site. The old man gently rebukes him and says that the goddess does not discriminate the social status as well as the gender of those who comes to visit her as Benzaiten is a woman herself.
It then becomes apparent that the old man and the young woman are not human. The young woman disappears behind a door into the shrine and reemerges as the goddess Benzaiten herself. The old man dives into the ocean and Ryujin, the Dragon King of the Sea, appears before the haughty official before returning to his own palace under the water, having served his mistress in taking her back to her temple safely.
The Journey of a Goddess
The Sanskrit term Sarasvati refers to both a goddess and an ancient sacred river in India’s Vedic mythology. Sarasvati is a Sanskrit fusion word of saras (‘pooling water’, also translated as ‘speech’), and vati (‘she who possesses’). This combination therefore both means ‘she who possesses pooling water’ or ‘she who possesses speech’. Therefore, being the personification of this sacred river and of water in general, Sarasvati came to represent everything that flows such as water, music, poetry, writing, learning, eloquence and wisdom. In the Rig Veda, Sarasvati is described as the best of the goddesses, the: “inciter of all pleasant songs and inspirer of all gracious thought.” Sarasvati’s name appears most prominently in the Suvarṇaprabhasa Sutra (‘Sutra of Golden Light’), which includes an entire parivarta (chapter) dedicated to her. It is through this text that Sarasvati was introduced into China and then into Japan.
The Sutra of GoIden Light is a text with a complicated history. It started from the practice of confession of sins in Buddhism, which can be traced back to the earliest period within the lifetime of the Buddha. During the posadha, held every fortnight, monks would confess their transgressions. Confessions were also made throughout the rainy season, as well as on the final day of three-month retreat periods. Rites of confession gradually developed into much more than acknowledgment of transgression of monastic roles and then identified as the Sutra of GoIden Light. Then came chapters 7 to eleven where various deities, including the goddess Sarasvati herself, promise to uphold the sutra, listing the numerous benefits that devotees will enjoy. For those in more powerful positions in society, caiurmahtiruja (‘The Four Great Kings’) prophesies the continued reign and prosperity of those who upholds the Sutra of Golden Light, thus indicating its importance as one of the principal Buddhist texts for the protection of the state.
Monks often played a considerable role in Chinese politics. A Tang dynasty Chinese Buddhist monk Yijing (635 – 713 AD) returned to Luoyang in 695, after spending over 20 years in India and south-east Asia, where he was assigned to the most powerful dynastic monastery at the time. His assignment, among others, reveals his political involvement with Empress Wu Zetian (624 – 705 AD). Gaoseng Zhuan (‘Biographies of Eminent Monks’), a compilation of biographies of monks in China, from the introduction of Buddhism to China up to the Liang Dynasty, tells us that Dharmaksema (385 – 433 AD), a Buddhist Monk from Central India who was renowned for his learning and eloquence, was invited to Liangzhou where the Emperor sponsored his translation of sutras, including the Sutra of Golden Light. As China was the model followed in Japan, it is therefore understandable that the Sutra of Golden Light was then well-known and upheld in Japan as a text for the protection of the state.
Transformation of Benzaiten’s Image
It was likely that the oldest existing Japanese statue of Benzaiten is an eight-armed weapon-wielding clay version dated to 754 AD, depicting her as a goddess of war was a result of her being mentioned in the Sutra of Golden Light relating to her promise to uphold the sutra – thus protecting her devotees and the state. However, the identity of Benzaiten has been subject to change over the course of Japanese history. The formal introduction of Mikkyo (Esoteric Buddhism) to Japan in the early 9th century stressed her role as a goddess of music and portrayed her in the esoteric Taizokai (‘Womb Realm’) Mandala as a two-armed beauty playing a biwa (lute). In 11th to 12th centuries, Benzaiten’s water deity aspect was associated with an obscure local snake deity known as Ugajin, who has the body of a snake and the face of an old man or woman. A deity of water and good fortune, Ugajin was likely derived from other food-related deities in Japanese creation myths, especially one named Uga no Mitama (‘the spirit of the rice in storehouses’), the deity of grains. A popular form of Benzaiten known as Uga Benzaiten is commonly crowned with an effigy of Ugajin. Ugajin is a purely Japanese convention which links Benzaiten to Shinto and to Ugajin itself, therefore highlighting Benzaiten’s role as an agricultural deity providing rain, protecting harvests, and bringing prosperity.
The evolution of Benzaiten’s image did not mean that Benzaiten was completely released from her role as the goddess of war. Her name was later invoked by Yoritomo Minamoto (1147 – 1199 AD), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, who sought her divine assistance to defeat the Fujiwara clan. After Yoritomo’s victory over the Fujiwara Clan in 1189, Benzaiten gained a reputation for fulfilling the wishes of her worshipers which, strangely, actually attracted more samurais to worship her. In the Muromachi period (1392 – 1573), an important change in Benzaiten’s name was introduced, with the character 才 (zai, ‘talent’) replaced with its homonym 財 (zai, ‘wealth’). In 1600, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542 – 1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, visited Benzaiten’s temple in Enoshima and made it the official prayer hall for the Tokugawa family. Iemitsu, the third shogun of Tokugawa, conferred the shuin (red seal) status on Enoshima in 1648 which granted a special status to religious associations in the Edo period. The red seal acknowledged the right to income from religious activities and elevated religious representatives to higher social status positions similar to those of minor shogunal lords.
These transformations gave rise to social tensions which led to the local fishermen, among others, feeling disadvantaged and finding themselves at odds with the Iwamoto clan over the unequal distribution of income and benefits from pilgrimages. The temple complex was finally opened to the public in the middle Edo Period (1603 – 1868). In 1871, when the new Meiji leaders declared Shinto a state rite, the deities became part of the state. Consequently, the Buddhist Yoganji temple in Enoshima was removed and the goddess Benzaiten was enshrined as a native Shinto deity of wealth and good fortune.
Celebrating Benzaiten with Music and Recitation
As they had other strong deities such as Hachiman, the syncretic divinity of archery and war, later Japanese generations gradually lost interest in Benzaiten’s warrior/protector goddess aspect. Benzaiten once again became a goddess of eloquence and music, patronized by professional poets and musical artists and protected by Buddhist monks in their temple grounds. An event in 2008 at the shrine of Myoon Benzaiten (‘Brightly Sounding Benzaiten’) in the Demachi area of Kyoto, consisted of real people playing lutes as green tea was served. Following this, a number of monks from the nearby Zen temple Shokokuji performed a sutra recitation of the great Prajñā (‘Insight’) sutra in front of an artistic scroll depicting Benzaiten herself, with her musical instrument – any memories of weaponry long forgotten.