Benzaiten: The Muse of the Seven Japanese Lucky Gods
Benzaiten (辯才天) is one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese Mythology. It is considered as a Japanese Buddhist goddess with Hindu origins. She is believed to be based on the Hindu goddess Saraswati.
Also called Benten, she is revered as both the Japanese goddess of love and the Japanese goddess of music. Another interesting influence that Benzaiten is believed to have is that she is the goddess of everything that flows, some of which include time, words, music, speech, water, and—to a certain extent—wisdom and knowledge.
This conglomeration of elements and attributes gives the impression that Benzaiten is a worthy entity to be revered as the Japanese goddess of love. Most of the traits attributed to her come with a romantic feel to them.
These characteristics just go to show that Benzaiten, being the sole goddess among the Seven Lucky Gods, has established herself as one of the entities with broader influence.
Who is Benzaiten in Japanese Mythology?
Benzaiten is one of the more familiar syncretic entities in Japanese mythology, as her existence is rooted in both Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and characteristics. There are numerous gods and goddesses in Japanese mythology who are considered syncretic entities because their origins transcend one religion, thus encompassing a broader cultural significance.
When Saraswati killed the three-headed Vritra, her close resemblance and identification with Benzaiten became all the more pronounced. Hence, Benzaiten has been consistently associated with dragons and snakes in Japan. This event also serves as the basis and inspiration for one of Benzaiten’s earlier illustrations as a brave warrior in Japanese mythology and literature.
Given that Saraswati is believed to be the origin of Benzaiten, two primary qualities were carried over to the Benzaiten goddess status; these are wisdom and music. Music is an integral part of Benzaiten’s existence, as her statues and illustrations are almost always portrayed with her playing a traditional biwa—a Japanese short-necked lute. This lute is the Japanese version of Saraswati’s musical instrument, which is called the veena.
Benzaiten is one of the most celebrated Japanese goddesses, with various shrines located throughout Japan’s many prefectures. These include the shrines in Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa, Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, and Itsukushima Island in the Seto Inland Sea.
These are widely known as the Three Great Benzaiten Shrines of Japan. You may also notice that the shrines dedicated to her are closely associated with bodies of water because she is revered as the goddess of everything that flows. Aside from the harmony of her music, the eternal flow of water is strongly identified with her.
Benzaiten’s goddess status was not widely popular in earlier centuries. In the 9th century, she was only known and acknowledged as the Japanese goddess of music and was illustrated as a beautiful woman playing the lute. In the 12th century, her existence and Hindu-inclined origins were almost completely ignored in Japan, particularly as a goddess of water. However, her existence was combined with a Japanese kami named Ugajin, a human-headed, snake-bodied god of good fortune, water, and agriculture.
That moment of conflation allowed Benzaiten to propel her popularity to the next level. In fact, between the 12th and 13th centuries, she achieved independent recognition and was honored with esoteric Buddhist rites.
During this time, Benzaiten was often depicted in the image of a warrior. Hence, samurais prayed to her for success on the battlefield. However, this image faded over time. The current heavenly representation of her playing the lute is considered the most popular and remains her standard form as a goddess and as a member of the Seven Lucky Gods to this day.
Benzaiten & the Role of the Seven Lucky Gods
Benzaiten is the only permanent female member of the Seven Lucky Gods, especially in more recent literature and art. The other female members cited in historical books and illustrations are Kisshōten, who replaces either Fukurokuju or Jurōjin and Daikoku, who is sometimes depicted in feminine form.
In cases in which Benzaiten, Kisshōten, and the feminized Daikoku are together, they represent the Japanese mythology interpretation of the Hindu Tridevi, which refers to the triad of the goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati.
Being the goddess of everything that flows, she is sometimes slightly confused with Ebisu in terms of influence. Ebisu is known as the god of the sea. On the other hand, Benzaiten is considered the goddess of water and its flow and behavior. Ebisu is the patron of fishermen, as he is responsible for the dwellers of rivers, lakes, and primarily seas. In contrast, Benzaiten is worshipped by farmers, who call on her for rain and a bountiful harvest in the future.
Fun Fact: A Goddess of Many Forms
Being a syncretic entity, Benzaiten has been known to have representations in different forms. Unlike other gods with a unique and what some might call a “signature” look, Benzaiten’s representation is a journey in itself because there are several phases and various shapes and sizes.
The earliest illustrations show that she is a warrior and a weapon-wielding deity with eight arms. These representations are also what her statue looks like in one of her major shrines located in Lake Biwa.
Some consider the stark contrast between a brave, weapon-wielding warrior and a poetic, lute-playing goddess as highly unusual. Actually, if you look at it closely, there is an intricate connection between the two. A warrior and a musician share a common vein—finding a rhythm in movement. There is a shared pattern of choreography and melody in both aspects.
The most skilled warriors follow a certain attack principle, just like how the most exceptional musicians follow a pattern of delicate melodies and harmony. Saraswati also follows the same pattern, especially in her warrior form when she defeated the three-headed Vritra. One of the main differences between Saraswati and Benzaiten is that the latter has more physical representations than the former.
Benzaiten is also known to look like a three-headed snake, in relation to her influence as a river goddess, especially after her conflation with Ugajin. Another prominent representation is Benzaiten as the supreme Sun goddess. However, despite all these extremely diverse variations of her depiction, her most famous form is that of a lute-playing woman. Thus, Benzaiten is the patron of the artistic and the brave—the artists, poets, writers, geishas, dancers, singers, and, of course, samurais.
Despite all of these variations and forms, Benzaiten is consistently known to be a very wise, brave, and romantic entity. She is even considered to have a stoic demeanor, enduring hardships while maintaining a very endearing disposition. The contrast in her ability to wield weapons and play a delicate instrument is one of the most interesting details about her. No wonder she is celebrated in terms of both power and grace.
Benzaiten is one of the most loved syncretic entities in Japanese mythology. Her association with Saraswati was not well-received initially, but she eventually made her way towards becoming one of the most prominent and well-known goddesses in Japan.
- Benzaiten, in Japanese mythology, is the only permanent female member of the Seven Lucky Gods.
- She is the direct representation of Saraswati, and she has believed to possess two direct influences: wisdom and music.
- She is the Japanese goddess of love, wisdom, music, and happiness, aside from being the goddess of everything that flows.
- She is the patron of most art-inclined professions, such as poets, writers, geishas, dancers, and singers. She is called upon by farmers for rain and a good harvest.
- She is known to have several forms, including an eight-armed deity, a three-headed snake, and even the supreme Shinto sun goddess. However, her most popular form is her playing a traditional biwa—a Japanese short-necked lute.
- When illustrated with Kisshōten and the feminized Daikoku, they represent the Japanese mythology interpretation of the Hindu Tridevi.
- She is adored and worshipped as an independent goddess, and she is one of the goddesses with major shrines all over Japan.
While Benzaiten is often worshipped and celebrated independently with the wide distribution of her shrines throughout Japan, she is also one of the key elements in the Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage in Japan that occurs during the first seven days of the new year. The various pilgrimage routes are scattered throughout the country, but the most popular route is also the oldest, the Miyako Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage in Kyoto.
Her various representations also add a poetic flair to her persona as a Japanese goddess. When interpreting this in a modern way, you can surmise that Benzaiten shows that you can wear all sorts of hats, as a single representation should not define you. You can be whatever you want, as long as you move forward with confidence and grace.
Benzaiten’s unique set of influences has a profound impact in modern times. Being the goddess of everything that flows, we should be reminded that life has its own rhythm and flow that we should follow and appreciate. We should also cultivate the inner artist inside us while being brave enough to live our true selves, one chapter at a time.