Sometimes known BENTEN, also BENTEN SAMA and DAI BENZAITEN
The only female member of the Shichi-Fuku-Jin or Gods of Good Fortune.
She is the Goddess of learning and speech, the transformation of SARASVATI, and her attributes are the Dragon and HAKUJA, the white serpent sometimes shown with the appearance of an old man with white eyebrows and a crown.
She is also the Goddess of Love, and is particularly worshipped at Enoshima, (in connection with this temple, see the Story below of the taming of the dragon) and in the islands of Chikubushima, Miyajima (ltsukushima).
Benten has fifteen sons: the fifteen youths (iugo Doji) Aikio, Hanki, Hikken, Guiba, Inyaku, Jusha, Keisho, Konsai, Kwantai, Sanyo, Sensha, Shusen, Shômo, Tochiu, and Zensai.
Benten is variously depicted with eight hands, vajra hilted sword and chakra, rope, axe, bow and arrow, as the Happi Benten, and the Kongo mio Benzaiten, or merely as Dai Benzaiten with the sword and Tama.
Her worship replaced that of Itsukushima (daughter of Susano-o, the Japanese Storm God), subsequently to the introduction of the Shingon sect by Kobodaishi.
Benten is also called Kotokuten (Kung Te) or Goddess of meritorious works and Ako mio-on-ten, Goddess of the marvellous voice.
A popular story of Benzaiten says that Bunsho, daughter of Shimmiyosu Daimiojin prayed to Benzaiten to grant her male heirs. One day she gave birth to 5oo eggs, and afraid least some monster might issue from the eggs, she had them placed in a basket and put in the Rinzugawa river near by.
A fisherman lower down rescued them from the stream, and set them in warm sand to hatch; great was his astonishment a few days later, at finding instead of chicks, a crowd of boys.
The poor man asked the advice of the head man, who advised him to seek help from the charitable lady Bunsho, and thus the boys were returned to their progenitor, educated as befitted their station, and their mother was deified.
Benzaiten’s connection to Sarasvati Devi from Hindu mythology
Benzaiten’s Sanskrit name is Sarasvati Devi, which means: “flowing water” or “eloquence,” and her character has remained the same in Japan; only the Japanese paint her in their own fashion, for so far as the outside appearance goes, the identity between Sarasvati and Benzaiten is hardly recognizabie.
John Muir in his Original Sanskrit Texts, V. 339, says of her:
“Sarasvati is a goddess of some, though not of any great, importance in the Vedas. She is celebrated both as a river and a goddess. She was primarily a river deity, as her name ‘watery’ clearly denotes; and in this capacity she is celebrated in a few separate passages . The Sarasvati thus appears to have been to the early Indians what the Ganges is to their descendants.”
The tradition of Sarasvati or Benzaiten as water goddess is not lost sight of in Japan, for we see her temples very frequently in isolated islands or in caverns on the sea-coast.
That she was also the goddess of eloquence, learning, writing, in short of general culture, is told by Sir W. Jones who says (Works, vol. XIII, p. 315):
“Sarasvati Devî is adored as the patroness of the fine arts, especially of music and rhetoric, as the inventress of the Sanskrit language, of the Devanagari characters, and of the sciences which writing perpetuates; so that her attitudes correspond with those of Minerva Musica in Greece or Italy, who invented the flute and presided over literature.
In this character she is addressed in the ode; and particularly as the goddess of harmony, since the Hindus usually paint her with a musical instrument in her hand. The seven notes, an artful combination of which constitutes music and variously affects the passions, are feigned to be her earliest production.”
Benzaiten in Japan is also the popular goddess of beauty.
In stories of ancient Japan we read that when a mother wished to have handsome daughters, she went to the temple of Benzaiten, and confining herself in a special room or cave, she fasted and prayed with all her heart, generally for a period of seven days. In case her urgent wish was granted, the goddess manifested herself in a dream, and the child thus favored always surpassed all others in beauty and wisdom.
As Benzaiten is associated with water, she is often represented as standing or sitting on a dragon or sea-serpent, and sometimes assumes the shape of her sacred animal.
In Hindu mythology she is pictured as riding on a peacock. In Japan as well as in India she holds a musical instrument in her hand, but the Japanese common sense hesitated to let her have more than two arms, while the fertile Indian imagination depicts her with four arms, though she looks more human than some other Hindu deities.
The Taming of the fierce dragon by Benzaiten and creation of the Island of Enoshima
The island of Enoshima, which is part of the land of Sagami of the Tokaido (Eastern Sea Route) district of Great Japan, was created by deities of the eight classes. This island is sacred to the goddess Benzaiten.
A careful investigation into the antecedents of Enoshima island reveals that there once was a large lake, with a perimeter of 40 li (20 km or 12.5 miles), lying between Kamakura and Umitsuki county on the borders between the three lands of Boshu, Musashi, and Sagami. The lake was called Fukasawa.
A fierce, evil dragon, a dragon-king with five heads on one body, frequently made this lake its lair.
This dragon had a prominent snout, whiskers on its chin, its eyes emitted piercing rays like the sun at daybreak, and its torso was surrounded by black clouds.
For more than a thousand years, from the time of the Emperor Jinmu (traditional dates 660-585 BC) to the time of Emperor Anko (453-456 AD), the evil dragon, accompanied by the spirit of the wind, demons, mountain spirits, and other spirits, wreaked calamities throughout the land. Mountains and hills crumbled, releasing floods and causing damage resulting in plagues and revolts.
At this time, the five-headed dragon first appeared at the water gate of Tsumura Village in the valley of South Hill (the hill south of the lake) and began to devour children. From that time named this place Hatsukuhisawa (“Swamp Where the Dragon First Began to Devour People”) and called the steep hills to the west Eno. This swamp was the water gate to the waters of the lake and an estuary of the Southern Sea [Sagami Bay].
A village elder lived at the base of the valley. He had 16 children, all of whom were swallowed by the poisonous dragon. Grieving and anguishing, he left his old home to move to a location to the west, which was then called “Elder’s Mound.”
The evil dragon then spread out through the villages , swallowing and devouring children. Terrified, the villagers forsook their homes to move elsewhere. The people of that time named the new location Koshigoe.
By this time the dragon’s swallowing of people had taken place throughout the eight lands [of the Kanto region in Eastern Japan]. Children whose parents had been swallowed grieved, and parents whose children had been swallowed lamented. The sounds of weeping and wailing continued without ceasing throughout the villages. Children were left without mothers and husbands without wives.
Thereupon, the people of the eight lands, high-born and low-born, came together to discuss what to do. It was decided to offer a [female] child in sacrifice to the dragon. The wailing and lamentations of the people, high-born and low-born, continued without ceasing.
In the 13th year (552 A.D. by traditional dating) of the reign of Emperor Kinmei, dark clouds covered the sea at the watergate (entrance) to the lake from the estuary of the Southern Sea (Sagami Bay) at Eno. The clouds lasted from around 8:00 pm of the 12th day to 8:00 am of the 23rd day of the fourth month. Large earthquakes shook the earth day and night.
Then the goddess appeared above the clouds, with servants at her left and right. The myriad spirits — dragon-spirits, the spirits of water, fire, thunder, and lightning, as well as mountain spirits, ghosts, spirits of the dead, and demons — made great boulders descend from above the clouds and rocks and sand spurt up from the bottom of the sea. Lightning bolts flashed, and flames flickered amidst the white-tipped waves.
On the 23rd day of the month at the hour of the dragon (around 8:00 am) the clouds disappeared, the haze dispersed, and an island was seen to have emerged in the sea amidst the blue waves — a new mount made by the spirits.
Twelve cormorants descended to perch on the island. This is why it then was also dubbed “Island to Which Cormorants Come”.
Displaying her exquisite, brilliant charms, the goddess descended into the Golden Grotto. It was none other than Benzaiten, the third daughter of the dragon-king of Munetsuchi, manifesting herself in the flesh.
Manifesting herself in the flesh, the goddess, the third daughter of the benevolent dragon-king of Munetsuchi, the elder sister of Lord Enma (also Yama), ruler of the Underworld, the younger sister of [Dragon-]King Baso, descended upon that island. Adorned with a long jade pendant and a blood-red ornament, and making a strumming [or slapping] sound, she shined like the autumn moon enveloped in mist and sparkled like spring flowers dripping with dew.
Upon seeing the charms of the heavenly goddess, the five-headed dragon of the lake wanted to tell her of his deepest desire. Riding the waves, he came to the island and sought to tell her of his love.
The goddess replied, “I have made a pledge of compassion and pity [for all creatures]. But you mercilessly and rapaciously end their lives. In body and heart we are complete opposites. And that is all the more reason that your desire makes no sense!”
The dragon spoke, “I will follow your teachings. From now on, I will refrain forever from harboring a heart set on destruction and from harming living beings. Instead, I ask you to make me compassionate, able to follow and carry out your will.”
The goddess then consented. Thereupon, the dragon pledged to follow her teachings and faced south, becoming a large hill.
The people of that time named the hill “Tatsu-no-kuchi-yama” (Dragon’s Mouth Hill). It was also called “Benevolent Spirit-Guardian of the Dead Children.”
This is the island transformed and created by the goddess Benzaiten, using her expedient powers [to lead beings to the truth] in order to save sentient beings from the savagery and evil of the dragon. As a goddess who manifested herself as a savior, she is thus is known as the beneficial spirit enshrined at Enoshima.
Legend in Japanese art; a description of historical episodes, legendary characters, folk-lore myths, religious symbolism by Henri L. Joly
Original Sanskrit Texts by John Muir