This Goddess is the most superb speaker and can make the most subtle distinctions.
-Lotus Sutra, Chapter 40
Benzaiten (弁才天, 弁財天) is the Japanese Goddess of love, beauty, eloquence and music, as well as a sea Goddess.
Her name is wrote in Kanji two ways: 弁才天, meaning “Dispenser of Heavenly Wisdom,” and 弁財天, meaning “Dispenser of Divine Wealth.” Often, it is shortened to simply Benten.
Her name was originally rendered in Kanji as 辯才天, meaning “Dispenser of Wise Words.”
Other names include Benzaitennyo (弁才天女, meaning “Goddess who dispenses wisdom”), and as a kami (a type of god or spirit in the Shinto religion), she is known as Ichikishima-hime-no-mikoto (市杵島姫命, “Heavenly Princess Ichikishima”).
Another of her names is Myoonten, or “Goddess of Wonderful Sounds.”
According to the monk Kokei (977-1049), Benzaiten is depicted as the third daughter of the Dragon-King of Munetsuchi, the lake that lies at the center of the world in some Buddhist cosmologies.
However, her background changes depending on the context, though most accept her Indian origin.
In many tales she is the slayer of Vritra, a serpent from the ancient Indian text the Rig Veda.
Her husband was a wicked dragon whom she reformed, and she is often shown riding one. Dragons and their smaller relatives snakes are sacred to her and snakes are often her messengers.
She is said to prevent earthquakes and is worshipped on islands, especially the island of Enoshima.
She is both a Buddhist goddess and a Shinto kami (a type of god or spirit), sometimes at the same time depending on the context.
She is a form of the Indian goddess Sarasvati, the Indian Goddess of music and wisdom, and the spread of Buddhism brought her across the Himalayas into China, where she took on different properties before arriving in Japan.
Sometimes shown with eight arms, Benzaiten is also linked to Kwannon or Kwan Yin, the sometimes female, sometimes male Bodhisattva of compassion in Buddhism.
She is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune who have appeared as a collective in story and art since the 1400s, and who sails on the Takara-bune, the Treasure Ship, and she is the only reliably female member of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Traditionally, a picture of the Takura-bune placed under the pillow on New Year’s Eve will bring a lucky dream.
She is also mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, one of the most influential and venerated Buddhist Mahāyāna sūtras, a broad genre of Buddhist sutra scriptures that are accepted as canonical, and often depicted holding a biwa, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, very appropriate for the goddess of music, just as Saraswati holds a veena.
Benzaiten brings luck and good fortune, persuasion and seduction.
Most commonly associated with luck and wisdom and dispensing wise words and fortune to those she blesses, she is a joyous figure, muse to artists of all varieties, and her blessings are sought by farmers hoping for a bountiful harvest, merchants hoping for good yields, and women hoping for success in love.
During the Edo period (1603-1868) Benzaiten, a goddess of all that flows including wisdom, music, water, love, knowledge, wealth, and the march of time itself, was especially popular with jealous women hoping to gain favor over their rivals.
She commonly appears as a woman dressed either as a courtesan or nun, carrying her biwa and sometimes cloaked in various Buddhist halos and other holy symbols, both physical and spiritual. Beyond that, depictions are varied depending on the time period.
Historically, worship of Benzaiten arrived in Japan during the Asuka period (538 to 710), mainly via the Chinese translations of the Sutra of Golden Light, which has a section devoted to her.
She was present at least by 552, as a comet in that year was associated with her bringing good fortune to Japan. With the rise of Buddhism in the Imperial Family, Benzaiten’s worship also rose.
She gained popularity not just with the nobles but the peasants as well, and she he also became a popular urban deity, particularly with court musicians and courtesans.
During the Tokugawa era (1600-1868), Benzaiten came to be associated with wisdom, an important virtue to the ruling samurai class. With the rise of State Shinto during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), Buddhism was demonized as a “foreign religion,” yet Benzaiten’s cult did not suffer, given how deeply embedded she was in Shinto traditions and the wider Japanese culture.
Benzaiten, perhaps more than any other figure in Japanese religious life, represents the syncretistic mixture of influences that define Japanese religion.
Some shrines and temples dedicated to her specifically include Itsukushima in the Seto Inland Sea, Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, and Chikubu Island in Japan’s central Lake Biwa, known as Benzaiten’s Three Great Shrines.
And today, she remains a popular figure in Japanese spiritual life. Some temples have even taken to selling “modern” representations of the goddess as an anime character.
Images from web – Google Research