March 8, 2013

Benten: Japanese Goddess of Eloquence

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , , , , at 11:26 am by Babs

Benten is the Japanese/ Buddhist goddess of love, beauty, eloquence, wisdom, arts and music, knowledge, good fortune, and water.  She is the protectress of children and the patroness of geishas, dancers, and musicians.  Originally she was a sea goddess or water goddess, on whose image many local deities near lakes were based.  Later she became a goddess of the rich and was added to the Shichi Fukujin.  The island of Enoshima rose up especially to receive her footsteps.

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.  Benten is originally of Hindu origin and is associated with Sarasvati, the Indian goddess of music and wisdom, and is sometimes shown with eight arms.  Benten is also linked to Kwannon or Kwan Yin, the sometimes female, sometimes male deity of compassion in Buddhism.

Benten is most often portrayed as a beautiful woman, riding a dragon while playing on a stringed instrument.  She has eight arms and in her hands she holds a sword, a jewel, a bow, an arrow, a wheel, and a key.  Her remaining two hands are joined in prayer.  It is often related that when a dragon devoured many children, she descended to earth to stop his evil work thus gaining her the title of protectress of children.

Benten is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune who sails on the Takara-bune, the treasure ship.  Traditionally a picture of the Takura-bune placed under the pillow on New Year’s Eve will bring a lucky dream.  Benten brings luck and good fortune, persuasion and seduction.

Alternate names: Benzaiten, Benza-tennyo, Benzai-ten

Origin India.  Sanskrit Sarasvati.

Shinto Association: Kami Itsukushima Hime

Member of the TENBU

One of Japan’s Seven Lucky Deities

Associations: The Naga (Snakes & Dragons).  Benten is often depicted in artwork surrounded by white serpents or crowned with a white serpent.  At other times she appears with a sea dragon.  Images of her are also sometimes accompanied by a large white serpent with the head of an old man.  This latter entity is called Hakuja, considered her companion.  Even today, when many of the myths surrounding Benten are mostly forgotten, the Japanese believe that seeing a white snake is an open of great luck, but not many will remember why.  Furthermore, in modern Japan, Buddhism and Shinto continue to share deities despite earlier and aggressive government attempts to divide te two into distinct camps during the Meiji Era of State Shinto.  For example, the Japanese have merged Inari, the Shinto god/ goddess of rice, with Benten, the goddess of art and music.  The composite deity is called Uga Benzaiten.

In Japan, the worship of the Goddess Kichijouten has been largely supplanted by Benten worship.  The sea goddess, the sole female among the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, invariably has Her temples and shrines in the neighborhood of water ; the sea, a river, or a pond.  She is the patroness of music, the fine arts (dancing, acting, visual) and good fortune in general.  She is often shown carrying a biwa (Japanese mandolin) or playing a lute.  She is often represented as a beautiful woman with the power to assume the form of a serpent, of shown seated  on a dragon or serpent and playing a lute.  In fact, the snake is almost always associated with Benten, who was originally a Hindu deity (Sarasvati) who represented learning, music and poetry.  Such artistic learning and wisdom often bring prosperity, hence her inclusion in the Japanese group of seven luckies.  She also has a jewel that grants desires.  Some say it is a jade, while others say it is a pearl.

In India, she was named after an Indian river with the same name (Sarasvati).  She arrived in Japan soon after the introduction of Buddhism to this island in the 6th century, and her worship was based largely on her attributes as described in the Sutra of Golden Light.

On days of importance to the serpent in Japan, one can find many festivals at the numerous Japanese shrines and temples dedicated to Benten, in which votive pictures with serpents drawn on them are offered.  It is also said that putting a cast-off snake-skin in your purse/ wallet will bring you wealth and prosperity.  Finally, during the Kamakura Period, artists for the first time began to create “naked” sculptures of Buddhist and Shinto deities.  The object of their artistic talents was often Benten, although other deities, like Jizo Bosatsu, were also sculpted in the nude.

Benten’s Children

In early Buddhism in India, Benten is associated with 16 children said to be incarnations of the various Buddhist deities who symbolize the crafts for which she is the patroness.  At Hase Dera in Kamakura, a cave with 16 life-size statues, all female, is found on the ground level of the temple.

One story is that 15 princes and 1 princess set out from Japan, which at that time was still part of the ancient continent of Mu, to populate the world.  They went to various parts of the globe and apparently their names are even similar to the names of the various continents and countries.

Money-Washing Tradition

In the Konkomyo-saisho-o-kyo Sutra in Japan, she is said to protect those who possess this sutra and to help them acquire all sorts of material gain.  The Zeniarai Benten Shrine in Kamakura City is devoted to the goddess Benton.  At this shrine, believers “wash” their money in water to make it reproduce and increase.  But there is another deity, known as Fudo Myou-ou, who can work the same miracle.

This money-washing tradition is easy to understand for Benten.  She is the goddess of fortune and shrines/ temples devoted to her are always located near water.  She is associated with the Naga who guard treasure.  But why Fudo Myou-ou?  His real symbol is fire.  His aureole is almost always the flames of fire.  He is also the main honzon for Goma, a fire ceremony still popular today in which defilements are symbolically burnt away.  So why would people wash money under Fudo’s protection?  Because he washes away impurities?  Maybe, perhaps, because drawings of Fudo show him standing on a rock rising fromt he sea?  For example, the drawing at Daigoji, Kyoto and the famous 1282 drawing by Shinkai of Fudou standing on a rock rising from the sea.  More over, Kurikara, and Fudou are found often near ascetic practice places, such as small waterfalls.  Perhaps this is the reason.

Zeniarai Benten Shrine is a popular shrine in western Kamakura, where people flock in order to wash their money (zeniarai means “coin washing”).  It is said that money washed in the shrine’s spring, will double.

Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura government, ordered the shrine’s construction after a god appeared in his dream and recommended him to build the shrine in order to bring peace to the country.  Because the dream occurred on the day of the snake, in the month of the snake of the year of the snake, the shrine was later dedicated to Benten because of her association with snakes.    Zeniarai Benten Shrine is a nice surviving example of the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto.  Many other shrines were stripped of their Buddhist connections when the Meiji government attempted to emancipate and separate Shinto from Buddhism.

The money washing takes place in a cave.  Kami are Shinto sacred spirits that are the objects to pray to for blessings and grace and to worship for their spirituality.  The kami can take various forms including the forms of natural elements like trees, rocks, mountains, the wind, and the sun.  The also take the form of national heroes and protectors of family clans or abstract things like fertility.

Kami are the only things that have great influence on daily life.  The kami of natural phenomena are worshipped: kami of the seas, kami of the rivers, kami of the thunders, kami of the rains, kami of the mountains.  It is important to perform rites for kami since although they usually guard and bless people they can also get angry an bring misfortunes upon them.  The kami are neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  In Shinto mythology, the kamiah that gave birth to the land of Japan failed at first and had to ask for help from other kami in heaven who told them to search for the answers through the practice of divination.  There are no absolutes or perfect kami.

The people worship the divine spirits, Shinrei, because they have great influence in their lives and they are in awe of the Magatsuhi Kami who bring evil into the daily living.  Some of the most widely recognized of the Shinto gods and goddesses were Amaterasu, Benten, Daikokuten, Ebisu, Futotama, Hachiman, Inari, Inazuma, Izanagi, Izanami, Okuninushi, Sengen, Susanowa, Tenjin, and Toyouke.

Many of these ancient Japanese Shinto kami goddesses and gods are living myths today.  Amaterasu was a highly revered Japanese Shinto sun goddess.  The daughter of the Creator god Izanagi and goddess Izanami, Amaterasu was known as “She Who Shines in the Heavens”, “Illustrious Goddess”, and “Ruler of the Plain of Heaven”, and the Japanese Imperial family was descended from her.  Written about in the Kojiki and Nihongi Japanese Sacred Texts, she has been revered since at least 600 ACE.

Benten was a beautiful Japanese goddess of the arts, good fortune, knowledge, language, water, wealth, and wisdom.  One of the Shichi Fujukin, “Seven Japanese Shinto Happiness Beings”, Enoshima Island rose from the waters to receive the footsteps of Benten.  There are many sanctuaries dedicated to Benten like the popular Zeniarai Benten Shrine in western Kamakura.  She was revered in both Japanese Shinto and Buddhist traditional practices.  Benten was also the protectress of children, dancers, geishas, and musicians.  Benten is often depicted holding a “Biwa” instrument in her hand.

As an Archangel Bentael Benten serves as an Archangel of the Forth Ray of Wisdom Integration.  She brings radiant concern, cheerful encouragement, and considerate understanding to the Fourth Ray of Wisdom Integration.  The Sacred Site focal point of Archangel Benten is the Zeniarai Benten Shrine, Kamakura, Japan.  She shows, steers seekers of concrete comprehension with realistic determination, as they proceed, step by step, from devoted kindness assurance to merited influential development.

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