- Other Names: 弁天 (Benten)
- Japanese: 弁財天 (Benzaiten)
Benzaiten, or Benten, is a Shinto/Buddhist goddess associated with music (esp. the biwa), snakes (esp. white snakes) and dragons, and bodies of water; her most prominent shrines are located on islands such as Enoshima (in the sea near Kamakura) and Chikubushima (in the center of Lake Biwa), and many small shrines to Benzaiten are also located on tiny islands in manmade ponds. She is one of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Originally developing out of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, Benten was adopted as a deity in many parts of China before being transmitted to Japan, where she merged with a local serpent deity, Ugajin. According to the founding myth of Enoshima Shrine, a dragon menaced the local population until one day an island (Enoshima) appeared, along with the goddess Benten; the dragon fell in love with Benten and agreed to become peaceful and benevolent in exchange for her favor. The goddess thus came to be associated with serpents and dragons, and the shrine at Enoshima came to be established.
She is often worshiped as a protector deity, and is often depicted as a figure sharing much iconography with Buddhist entities, including a fiery halo, lotus blossom seat, crown with a smaller deity's head or face, and a variety of objects held in her six or eight hands. Benzaiten is also often associated with a concept of three-in-one, and an emblem of three triangles arranged into one larger triangle (also said to represent the scales of a snake or dragon) is frequently emblazoned on banners and elsewhere at Benten shrines. Benzaiten is sometimes also said to incorporate within her three deities: Benzaiten herself and the two "demon deities" (kijin) Kangiten and Dakini; the former is an elephant-headed deity sometimes called Shôten, while the latter is a fox-riding deity associated with rulership.
Worship of Benzaiten in Japan dates back at least to the 10th century; statues of Benzaiten and other deities were already present at Tôdai-ji in Nara at that time.
In the Ryûkyû Kingdom, the kikôe-ôgimi, high priestess of the kingdom, came in the 16th century to be strongly associated with Benten, and Benten with the protection of the kingdom.
Partial List of Notable Benzaiten Shrines
- Enoshima Benten Shrine (Fujisawa, near Kamakura)
- Tsukubushima Shrine (Chikubushima, Lake Biwa)
- Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima, Hiroshima prefecture)
- Benten Hall in Shinobazu Pond, Ueno Park
- Benten-dô (Benten Hall) at Sensô-ji (Asakusa)
- Zeniarai Benten (Kamakura)
- Benten Shrine at Tsurugaoka Hachimangû (Kamakura)
- Benten cave shrine at Hasedera (Kamakura)
- Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 196.