Vegder's Blog

August 23, 2010

The 7 Propitious Gods: The Evolution of a Goddess – Benzaiten 弁財天


Detail from a Kuniyoshi print showing the goddess
Benten with children.

Gods come and gods go. Some seem to die out completely. Others linger in our literature and arts, but certainly don’t hold the force they once did among their worshipers and true believers. Those ubiquitous Greek gods are a case in point. Not only did they die out, but were supplanted  by a single unit – a monotheistic god – pick your version – over which there were multiple interpretations and even more numerous conflicts – which have never been thoroughly resolved. The battles go on.

My point? If you want to study the history of any god [fill in the blank] you have to prepare yourself for a lot of confusion filled with totally contradictory ‘information’. Ask one expert and you get one interpretation. Ask another expert and expect something new or different. I am telling you this because I have decided to try tackle the topic of the Seven Propitious Gods of Japan. Tackle is the right word. Tackling these subjects is like trying to catch a greased pig. Maybe you could do it but not I. Me? I always end face down in the muck with the escaped piggy laughing all the way home. So gird your intellectual loins and get ready to deal with a lot of difficult material. Difficult? Did I say ‘difficult’? Non-nonsensical would probably be more appropriate.


The image of the 7 gods was posted at commons.wikimedia
by Steve of Nagoya. Benzaiten is easy to spot in this group.

If you want to study certain Japanese gods it might be a good thing to start by looking at India. Loads of them come from there. Take Sarasvatī – lets start with her. It would seem that at its origin Sarasvatī was the spiritual embodiment of a river by that name – “the earliest example of a goddess who is associated with a river in the Indian tradition”. Frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda she was strongly identified with fertility and cleansing.

(Below is an image of this Hindu goddess posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Christina Kundu.) There is a carving of her at Ellora where she is standing on a lotus – a symbol to distinguish her from her other two sacred sister rivers – but we don’t have an image we can show you. The others stand on either a tortoise or a crocodile.

Not only do gods appear and disappear but sometimes they just get confused with one another. Toss a couple closely related gods into the blender and voila you have a whole new concept. So it was with Sarasvatī, who according to David Kinsley, in time was identified to the Sarasvatī River and began to take on the attributes of another deity, Vāc, the goddess of speech. Steven Darian in his The Ganges in Myth and History notes that the Sarasvatī as goddess of speech is the “inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thoughts.” In fact, she may have been the mother of the Vedas.

When two religions meet each other for the first time the result is syncretism. When two gods do the same and are put in the cultural blender… Well… I don’t know what that is called in English. In Japan it is referred to as the honji suijaku (本地垂迹) where a local Shintō deity was thought to be a manifestation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. It was easier that way and made more sense of this foreign import. Benzaiten probably existed in some form long before anyone ever heard of Sarasvatī – a Hindu deity who would have ridden the cultural coattails of the Buddhist invasion.

One thing I do know is that in time Sarasvatī “…is primarily a goddess of poetic inspiration and learning. She becomes associated with the creator god Brahma as either his daughter or wife.” Sarasvatī is also associated with purity and healing. At one point she is said to have healed Indra.

This goddess played other roles too. “For the burning of the dead , prayers and offerings were addressed to Yama – the god of death – and to Sarasvati. After the ceremony, the mourners departed to wash themselves and offer libations of water to the dead.” Since eventually the Ganges replaces the Sarasvatī in Aryan consciousness it became the goal of every devout Hindu to die at Benares where the body would be burned by the river, the living would bathe in the sacred waters and after four days the bones of the deceased would be thrown into the river. On the flip side, couples would pray to the river for the birth of a child. There are even myths of the river giving birth herself. In one case, an ascetic prayed along her banks for 12 years when she appeared before him as a beautiful young woman. Unable to contain himself they made it together and she gave birth to a son who sired a line of descendants one of which eventually married the Ganges and they, too, had children. In another case an ascetic was wandering through the woods when he encountered a beautiful wood nymph or apsara. He became so aroused that he spilled his seed in the Sarasvati and from that came a fetus and in time a child.

Kinsley points out that the river Sarasvatī is linked to is no ordinary river. “Early Vedic references make it clear make it clear that the Sarasvatī River originates in heaven and flows down to the earth.” Along with the Ganges this river represents ever flowing streams of celestial grace. A few early sources claimed that the Ganges begins at the Milky Way. Yet, despite Kinsley’s belief that the Sarasvatī had no earthly manifestation some archeologist/historians do identify it with the Ghaggar River which, if it could be found on maps, would be located to the northwest of Delhi/New Delhi region. (I dare you to try to find it on a map. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough or maybe it just sucks trying to find smaller rivers on maps.) Others think it might have referred to the Harahvati in Helmund Valley in Afghanistan. Even others say why not both of them. One ancient text indicates that the Sarasvatī starts in the Himalayas “flowing from a fountain at the foot of… a fig tree.” Similar accounts say the Ganges flows down steps of  rubies and corals at the base of a giant jujube tree. Believe it or not some say that both rivers come from the same source. Is that the kamandalu or water jug of Brahma? If it is then the waters flow down to the fountain at the fig tree, too. Among the sacred rivers some ancient writings said that the Sarasvatī was visible only “to the spiritually enlightened.” Even the Ganges came to bathe in the waters of Sarasvatī to rid herself of the impurities from all of the pilgrims who bathed in her waters.

Here is a picture of the Ghaggar River posted by NoiSe84 at commons.wikimedia. Not very inspiring, is it? But I bet it would be if you were parched and lived a few thousand years ago.

But what about the Japanese Benten?

In a 1922 publication by the Field Museum in Chicago it says that Benten is sometimes “…identified with a Shintō deity, Ukemochi no Kami, protector of food.” They go on to describe a Hokusai print in their collection which shows an interior gathering of the 7 gods. “In the background, in the raised recess, there is a covered stand surmounted by a coiled white snake [see below] having the head of an old man. This peculiar form of serpent is often pictured on the crown of Benten; therefore one must assume that the artist, Hokusai, had identified the two deities, as one and the same. In Buddhist paintings Benten usually wears as a crown a Shintō or torii beneath which the white snake is coiled.”

When everyone around her was getting divorced…

One of the most important outcomes of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the Emperor was (re)installed as the supreme ruler of the land, was an effort to purify Shintoism. This meant disengaging it from Buddhism. Disentangling might be a better word. Shintō shrines had Buddhist statuary, altars, monks and rituals and Buddhist temples were  sprinkled liberally with Shintō kami, priests and rites. “…Shinto priests who served concomitantly as Buddhist priests were ordered to yield their Buddhist ranks and positions, give up their Buddhist robes, and let their hair grow out.” (Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World 1852-1912 by Donald Keene, p. 137) Keene continued: “For more than a thousand years, most Japanese had believed simultaneously in both Shintō and Buddhism despite the inherent contradictions between the two religions.” The separation was known as the shimbutsu bunri (神仏分離).

“In that anti-Buddhist movement, Buddhist temples were removed from Shinto shrine precincts, and, it could easily be expected, the deities enshrined within would also go. For the most part the buddhas did leave their temples, but Buddhist deities known for this-worldly benefits were allowed to remain and even took up residence in the shrines supposedly rid of Buddhism. [¶] The famous nude Benten… at Enoshima Shrine is one such example that is fairly typical of the complexities of assimilation.” Originally a river goddess which was “…adopted into the Buddhist pantheon…” she was described in the Sutra of the Golden Light. Of the 3 most important Benten shrines in Japan “…Enoshima is associated almost exclusively with Benten…. [P]rior to the Meiji period Benten at Enoshima had her own separate temple, Yoganji, belonging to the Shingon Buddhist sect. Benten is not even the main deity of Enoshima Shrine but is associated with it because of the correspondence between her and Ichikishimahime no Mikoto, one of the three female kami enshrined there. Ichikishimahime no Mikoto was one of Susanoo’s daughters, known for her beauty. When Buddhism was disestablished from Shinto… Yoganji Temple was removed but not Benten. Without the Buddhist temple, an even greater degree of assimilation of Benten into Shinto was possible, and her presence is now being described as part of ‘pure Shinto.’ ” (Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan by Ian Reader and George Tanabe, Jr., pp. 155-156)

John Donne (ジョン・ダン: 1572-1631) said No man is an island (誰も島ではない?), but he didn’t say anything about women

Benten, a.k.a., Benzaiten shrines are often located on islands. Some are just off the coast of Japan, some are in large inland lakes and others are placed on spots of dry land in ponds where shrines are constructed called Benten-dō. All of these are associated with water. There is Chikubushima (竹生島) in Lake Biwa, Biwa like the musical instrument the goddess is often seen playing. (Below is a photo of Chikubu Island posted at commons.wikimedia by 663highland.)

(The following passages are from a book entitled Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan by by Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri.  That is why when you are reading the name Sarasvatī here you should be thinking Benten or one of her other various Japanese names.) During the middle Heian period “…Sarasvatī became associated with goddess Asaihime no Mikoto, the deity enshrined in the Shinto sanctuary on Chikubushima Island.” The shrine was mentioned in a ‘book of statutes’ in 968. “In the literature of the later period , this deity has been referred to as Ugakami.” Later “The worship of Sarasvatī in Chikubushima may have started around 834.” We know this from a miraculous cure of an eye ailment in the monk Ennin who said the Hindu deity came to him in a dream, gave him some medicine for his ailment, and left a statue of herself to be installed in the shrine at Chikubushima. It was. But that wasn’t the only miracle. A 9th century poet had writer’s block and it is said that Sarasvatī appeared to him and gave him the second line n a dream. [Personally I could use some of her help right now.] Sometime around the 12th century a new cult developed around Sarasvatī where devotees prayed for her powers to bring rain. They met irregularly at first, in fact, hardly ever, but in time it became an annual event and a new, small statue of the goddess would be installed in the shrine.

Chikubushima’s Sarasvatī was even invoked to take sides in the life and death struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Helen Craig McCullough describes the visit of Taira no Tsunemasa, know to be a fine poet and musician, to the shrine. The monks gave him their lute to play and the goddess was so charmed that she appeared to Tsunemasa as a white dragon which hovered above his sleeve.  (Note the similarity to the white snake mentioned below.) He took this as a good sign and wept for joy as he composed this poem:

That she has appeared
in plainly visible form –
might it signify
the goddess’s acceptance
of my prayers at her shrine?

He might have been heartened temporarily, but in time the Minamoto won.

On the origin of the shrine Chaudhuri writes that “…on the first day of the serpent of the fourth month of the sixth year of Emperor Kinmei (544), Sarasvatī appeared in the palace and told the emperor: ‘I am Sarasvatī of Chikubushima. I am another manifestation of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. When in heaven, I am the spirit of the sun. When on earth, I am the spirit of wealth and social standing. In Japan I am the spirit of Chikibushima Island. On the first day of the serpent of the month of serpent I descend on the earth and bestow happiness to people. On the first day of the hog of the month of hog I ascend to the heaven and nurture the heavenly beings. You shall receive and worship me on the day of the serpent, and send me off on the day of the hog. You are my descendant. I will remain in Chikubushima Island and will protect you for a long time.’ The emperor was very happy with the dream. He built a Sarasvatī shrine in Chikubushima, and started worshipping her.”

Philip Nicoloff in his Sacred Kōyasan… notes that there was a Nō play entitled Chikubushima. The setting: a court official of the late 9th century is making a pilgrimage to the island to make vows to the goddess. He commandeers an ordinary fishing boat owned by an old man. He has a woman as his assistant. When they reach the island the fisherman guides the court official to the shrine where he is dazzled by its beauty. When the woman enters the official  is offended by the visit of such an ordinary woman of low class to such a sacred site. The old boatman points out to the official that Benten, the goddess of this island, encourages the visit of women. At this the female visitor is revealed to be the beautiful goddess herself. The old boatman transforms into “…the Dragon God or snake divinity of the lake and dives into the water. Later he returns to perform a special dance. The snake is most likely a further manifestation of Benzaiten herself.

The Benten Shrine at Ueno

In a 2002 article in the Japan Times Sumiko Enbutsu wrote about visits to Ueno Park in the winter – with an emphasis on the visits to the shrines housing the 7 Propitious Gods in the area.”The pond dates from the 1620s, when the area was landscaped as a ‘religious paradise’ annexed to Kan’ei-ji Temple…” Lotuses were added to the shallow waters and an island was built to house a shrine dedicated to Benten. “In those early days of the Edo Period, while Kan’ei-ji basked in its prestige as the shogun’s prayer temple exclusive to the Tokugawa family, the pond was open to the public and much admired for its seasonal beauty.” By the middle of the 18th century interest in Benten caught on.


Above are two prints of Shinobazu Pond. The one at the top is by Eisen and below is a Kunisada. Both are details of the originals because  I have omitted their decorative borders.

At the beginning of the article Enbutsu mentions the fact that Shinobazu in the winter is a bird lover’s delight. There are “Pintail and wigeons [which] arrive early in September, followed by shovelers, mallards, pochard and tufted ducks arriving by November. Along with the resident gallinules, spot-billed ducks and cormorants — and the perennial sea gulls from Tokyo Bay — the pond’s waterfowl population swells to thousands during the coldest months.” However, the numbers have diminished in recent years because the fine people at the Ueno Zoo realized that they really shouldn’t be feeding migratory birds. Sumiko also notes the view of the shrine with its distinctive green roofing. The photo shown below on the far right gives us both elements: birds and green roof. It was posted at commons.wikimedia by Chris 73.

In an earlier article from 2000 Enbutsu noted the development was always encroaching on this area. “The historic pond has often been threatened by greedy developers, who most recently in the 1980s planned to build a large parking garage underneath it. Dedicated efforts of local citizens forced the proponents to withdraw the project and the pond was saved.”

Below is a detail of a Hiroshige print of the Benten shrine as it appears in Shinobazu Pond at Ueno in Edo, today’s Tokyo. Next to it is a great photo of the shrine as seen through blossoming trees. It was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Fg2.

This image of Bentendo and gulls was posted at commons.wikimedia by Chris 73.

Another perspective, as seen below, is of the shrine is seen from the Yushima Tenjin Shrine looking to the northeast. This too is from the Brooklyn Museum collection of Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo.

The Benten Shrine at Shimoda

Below is a detail of a 1937 print by Hasui of that site.

The Benten Shrine at Inokashira

Below is a view of the Benten Shrine at Inokashira from a cropped image of a print by Hiroshige from the series 100 Views of  Edo. It is from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It is dated to the 4th month of 1856.

There is a tale of a wealthy family named Suzuki which prayed at this shrine because they were unable to conceive.Their prayers were answered and a baby girl was born. She was so beautiful as she grew up that she ended up with many different suitors. When her parents said that one man should be chosen their daughter asked if she could go to the shrine and thank the goddess for all of the blessings she had bestowed. Her parents didn’t see why not and actually thought that was a good idea. However, they did not want her to go to the shrine alone so they sent a male servant to accompany her. At the shrine she asked the man to return home so she could pray alone. He told her that he couldn’t do that, but she insisted. When she thought he had gone she jumped into the pond and turned into a giant serpent and swam away. The servant was hiding nearby and saw the whole thing and reported this to her parents who realized that their baby girl had been the goddess herself and that she had to leave them because there was no way she could marry a mortal.

At the left below is a detail from of another print by Hiroshige posted at commons.wikimedia by Amacja. This one dates from the mid-1840s. On the left is a detail of one of Hasui’s versions of that same site. It was published in 1928.

The Sasaki Benten Shrine at Shinagawa

Below is another Hiroshige from the 100 Views of Edo series. This, too, is from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. I have cropped the image somewhat.

The museum notes state that the building in the lower left is a brothel. Their on-line entry says: “The center of attention, however, is the small shrine nestled among the pine trees and accented by its bright red torii (gate) and lantern. Dedicated to Benten, the goddess of water, music, and literature, this shrine was known as Susaki because of its location at the end of a narrow spit of land, or susaki, that extended out from the mouth of the Meguro River here where it emptied into Edo Bay. The symbolic function of a Benten shrine as protector of rivers is nicely expressed in this view.”

The Benten Shrine near the Hanada ferry

As you can see from the cropped Hiroshige print shown below there is a Benten shrine hidden among the trees not far from the lighthouse. It takes a keen eye and usually a second glance because the image is dominated by the hairy leg. However, the shrine is clearly there right above the hem of his garment. (This too is being shown courtesy of the fine folks at the Brooklyn Museum.)

The Benten Shrine at Tomonatsu

Below is a detail from another Hasui print.

The Benten Shrine at Enoshima

After the establishment of a shrine at Chikubushima others started popping up in similar locations in other areas. Chaudhuri says that Minamoto no Yoritomo visited Enoshima on the 5th day of the 4th month of 1182. “The monk Monkaku established a temple dedicated to Sarasvatī, and worshipped the deity to tantric rites for the success of Yoritomo [against his] archenemy Fujiwara no Hidehira.”  A different story says that there was once a village, Koshigoe (腰越), beleaguered by a five-headed dragon which was eating their children. “Suddenly one day in 552, dark clouds gathered over the sea near the village, and presently an island appeared from the sea. This is the island of Enoshima. Sarasvatī descended on this island from Heaven and settled down. One day the evil dragon saw beautiful Sarasvatī and immediately fell in love with her.” The goddess agreed to allow the dragon to have his way with her if afterward he would accept the way of Buddha. The dragon agreed and true to his word turned into a hill.

Legends are legends, and who know where-in-the-hell people come up with this stuff, but they do. Edward Smith Bridges wrote in 1879 in his Round the World in Six Months that Benten’s arrival, not to mention the arrival of the island itself, occurred during a storm – a humongous storm. (Bridges said that it was his guide which told him this one.) “Nearly two thousand years ago, the coast of Sagami was visited by the most fearful storm that had ever been seen – the waves rose and rose until they seemed to touch the sky. Then suddenly, a burst of exquisite music fell on the ears of the terror-stricken people: the heavens opened, and a lady of divine beauty was seen. The waves subsided like magic, the island of Enoshima rose from the water, and the lady alighted upon it. All the inhabitants fell upon their knees and worshipped her, and she was called Benten. Before the creation of Enoshima, the neighboring coast had been ravaged by fierce dragons, but, at the entreaty of the people of the people, the goddess caused them to disappear. In most of her statues and pictures, she is represented with a dragon by her side.” At least in this Bowdlerized version there is no child-eating or dragon-goddess sex.

In 699 the goddess appeared to a famous ascetic in a cave at Enoshima. She was sporting 8 arms. From 728 to 734 a famous monk read a sutra. Sarasvatī attended all of these readings and repaid the monk with food. In 814 Kūkai had a vision of her and created a statue of the goddess. This kind of stuff went on for centuries. In fact, at the end of the Edo period a particularly devout follower fell in love with her statue and “remained there for a number of days.” Finally the statue gave in and they did it together.

Alice Getty in her The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography tells us that Benten in her Japanese, 8-armed tantric form holds a sword, spear, ax, bow, arrow, lasso, thunderbolt and the Wheel of the Law. Others have said she holds a jewel and a key.

One of the highlights of a visit to Enoshima seems to be a statue of a naked Benten reclining while nonchalantly playing her biwa. “For more than 1,000 years, there has been a shrine dedicated to her on the island. It is in the octagonal treasure house of the Hoanden Hall that the naked image of Benten is now located. The shrine was used by sailors and fishermen who came here to pray to the water-loving goddess for a safe passage and a good catch.” (Japan Times, Bill Willis, April 27, 2003) One of my laments  is that the old sand causeway so visible in the ukiyo-e images which I so love has been replaced by rather pedestrian, non-descript concrete bridges. Another assault on my sensibilities would be the use of an escalator to ascend the hillside instead of the climb on foot. While both are practical additions I am not sure practical is always the best route. (Below on the left is from a Hiroshige fan print. It is the ‘before’ image. On the right below is the ‘after’ as it is today. It was posted at commons.wikimedia by Lover of Romance.)

Whenever I am lamenting cultures encroaching modernizations I can’t but help think of the lyrics from a Gilbert and Sullivan song which referred to “…the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this, and every country but his own…” In my defense: I am not a Luddite in any way shape or form – I love the Internet, jet travel and the convenience of the microwave – and yet there are times when old things should be allowed to remain that way, unadulterated,  without modernity’s crass intrusions. Enoshima seems to be a case in point. There – I have said it.

Also, Koshigoe, mentioned above, the village of eaten-children-fame, has another distinction – a Nichiren miracle. “On a certain day, he was taken out to the village on the strand of the bay, beyond Kamakura, and in front of the lovely island of Enoshima. This village is called Koshigoye. At this time, Nichiren was forty-three years old. Kneeling down upon the strand, the saintly bonze calmly uttered his prayers, and repeated ‘Namu mio ho ren ge kio’ upon his rosary. The swordsman lifted his blade and, with all his might, made the downward stroke. Suddenly a flood of blinding light burst from the sky, and smote both the executioner and the official inspector deputed to witness the severed head. The sword-blade was broken in pieces, while the holy man was unharmed.” Hojo Tokoyori, the Lord of Kamakura, was startled by the flash of light followed by the peel of thunder coming out of a cloudless sky. Hojo sent messengers to stay the execution. His son, Tokimuni, showed mercy on Nichiren and exiled him to Sado Island – the subject of our next post.

The Caves at Enoshima

Below are two images from prints by Kuniyoshi (on the left) and Hiroshige. Both show details from 2 panels while both are actually triptychs.

Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925) wrote in one of his journals about a visit to one of these caves. “The cave seemed to be an immense fissure in the rock, which had been rounded out by the waves in former times when the land must have been submerged; now the waves reach only to the entrance…. About one hundred and fifty feet within was a Shinto shrine covered with gilt, which reflected the few rays of light which came from the entrance., making a striking effect in the dark cave. The shrine was nearly ten feet high and as wide, carved in the most elaborate way. It was an odd place to find a shrine, this dark, damp cave…” There was a narrow passage into the darkness behind the shrine. At the far end was an old, moldy, rotten partition. When they looked through the slats they could see a “…polished circular metal mirror about twelve inches in diameter, and this represented a Shinto shrine.” While returning to the mouth of the cave they noticed another arm of it receding into the darkness. When they followed that path they came to a similar partition and again through the slats they saw a polished mirror and Shinto shrine. “The passage was hardly wide enough for two to walk abreast, and along the walls were symbolic figures – coiled dragons wrought in the stone and other emblems of mythology.”

White snakes – the purpose of this entry will become clear later, but for now here is a picture posted by Jakub Hałun at commons.wikimedia.org. It is of an albino Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora).

In ancient India the serpent of the deep dwells on a river in the underworld sometimes associated with Sarasvatī. Serpents and Benzaiten are also linked in certain Japanese myths. Karen Tate in her Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations says that the founder of the Zenairai Benten Shrine mentioned in the next section established this place because he had a dream in year, month and day of the snake.

In 1917 Maude Rex Allen recounted a Chinese tale which had been accepted by the Japanese. According to the legend of the white snake, Haku-ja in Japan, it was originally a woman who Buddha had changed into a snake so “…that under this form she might expiate, during a succession of years, the sins of her previous states of existence.” After 1,000 years Buddha let her give birth to a star which reigned over literature and allowed her to take human form again. In time she was made a good spirit and dwelt among others of her kind.

Hayashi Razan (林羅山: 1583-1657) tells the story of Tairo-no-Tokimasa who went to Enoshima to pray to Benten in hopes it would benefit his descendants. The goddess appeared to him as a beautiful woman, assured him of his family’s future prosperity and then turned into a giant snake and swam away. (Alice Getty in The Gods of Northern Buddhism, p. 128)

“In one of the temples of Kamakura there is the representation of a coiled snake with  a man’s head having a scraggy beard, which the common people worship as the  goddess Benten.” (Ibid.) In another case there is a three-headed Benten which has the body of a coiled snake.

Cassandra Eason says that among some Japanese “…snake skins are carried in wallets or purses to attract prosperity even today.”

As I have mentioned elsewhere women were not allowed to entry some of the most sacred sites in Japan. Since women were considered lesser beings in the Buddhist hierarchy their presence was thought to defile holy ground. For that reason they were often kept on the peripheries. Perhaps this same principle explains to some degree why there are 7 Gods of Good Fortune and only 1 of them is a female. That is only 14.2857142% people. Mt. Kōya is the center of the Buddhist Shingon sect. There are 7 routes up the mountain. Today, at the trailhead of one of them is the Nyonindō (女人堂) or women’s temple. Below is a photo of the Nyonindō as posted at commons.wikimedia by Kenpei.

In the book Sacred Kōyasan by Philip Nicoloff it says: “The forested mountain that rises immediately to the south of the Nyonindō, and which provides Kōyasan with its primary source of water, is named Mount Benten (Bentendake). On its summit, just a twenty minute climb along the Women’s Path, is Kōyasan’s most important Benten shrine. [Prior to 1872 women were not allowed to make the hike up the mountain.] Legend says the shrine was initiated by Kōbō Daishi [弘法大師: 774-835] when he buried a set of prayer beads there as a device to attract the goddess. Benten has six other shrines in the valley. Altogether the seven shrines form a protective, snake-shaped loop about the mountains most important temple halls. Water-producing snakes are a definite manifestation of the goddess.”  [¶] When we first stepped inside the Nyonindō a woman and a young man already were standing in front of Benten. They are still there, heads bowed, chanting softly and rapidly. We have seen these two worshipers before, not here in the Nyonindō but down along the Fudō-zakka trail near the Kiyome (Purification) Waterfall. On that occasion they were crouching in front of a mossy embankment chanting just as they are now. Later, when we looked for the object of their devotion we discovered a small wooden shrine about the size of a cigar box beneath a falling trickle of water. Inside the shrine was a tightly coiled ceramic white snake with the head of a bearded man. The two had placed before this snake an offering of a single hen’s egg.” [The bold type is mine.]

Coin washing at Kamakura -The Zenairai Benten Shrine – 銭洗弁天

On the 1st Serpent Day of February each year is the Zenairai Benten festival. The practice of washing money there is said to have started in 1257. Some “Worshippers offer eggs to the serpent deity at the springs, in the hope of gaining wealth. The coin-washing ceremony recognizes the role of the Serpent Goddess as the guardian of money.” (Source: Goddess in the Grass: Serpentine Mythology and the Great Goddess by Linda Foubister, p. 85)

The walkway near the shrine was originally posted at Flickr by SBA73. 
This image was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Sushiya.

Zeniarai literally means money 銭 plus wash 洗. The emphasis on money and wealth and the arts may explain why Benten’s most devoted followers were said to be “…business people, gamblers, actors, dancers, musicians and geishas.” It has been said that interest in this goddess really took off in the Heian period when it was most professional musicians who were her followers. Since jealousy was said to have been one of Benzaiten’s trait, as indicated by the white messenger snake wrapped around her, musicians remained single because if they married the goddess might resent their spouses.

“Although it is a bit out of the way, it might pay to visit [this shrine] about a 20-minute walk west of Kamakura Station. This shrine is dedicated to the goddess of good fortune. On the Asian zodiac’s Day of the Snake, worshippers believe that if you take your money and wash it in spring water in a small cave on the shrine grounds, it will double or triple itself later on. This being modern Japan, don’t be surprised if you see a bit of ingenuity; my Japanese landlady told me that when she visited the shrine she didn’t have much cash on her, so she washed something she thought would be equally as good – her credit card. Fittingly, admission is free.” (Source: Frommer’s Tokyo by Beth Reiber, p. 270)

The money-washing basin is known as kane arai Benten in Japanese.

More about Benten and gamblers – There is a story that artists of all kinds disliked being lumped together with gamblers as devotees of this goddess. So the artists begged her to rid herself of their company. The gamblers then had such a streak of bad luck that they transferred their allegiances to other gods.

There is a special name for the return to work after the New Year, Shigoto hajime (仕事始め). According to Patricia Telesco in her 365 Goddess: A Daily Guide to the Magic and Inspiration of the Goddess people should “…try divination by dice (a traditional gambler’s tool). Hold one die in your hand, ask Benten for a sign, then roll it.” The roles determine your fate for the next year from disastrous to riches aplenty.

The head of the snake –

This is a detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo. This image was taken from a posting at commons.wikimedia. Notice that Michelangelo chose to give the upper part of the snake a human form with arms. I will come back to this later. But before I leave this image I want to make clear that personally I believe that there is no way this artist had any knowledge of Benten and her so-called snake connection.

To the left is a figure of Uga-jin posted at Wikipedia by PHGCOM.

A snake with the head of a man with a beard is mentioned several times in this post. Alice Getty talks about it in her work on Northern Buddhism, but in an article published in 1940, Uga-jin: The Coiled-Serpent God with a Human Head, she questions any real connection between Benten and this figure. Getty begins the paper with hunt for information about the secret cult of Uga-jin (宇賀神). Even her discover of this god was by accident. Getty was a collector of o-fuda (御札) and ran across an image of a human-headed coiled snake. This was at Enkaku-ji at Kamakura. Supposedly it was based on a wooden sculpture, but when she asked to see it she was told she couldn’t indicating that this was a secret cult. “We nevertheless sent to ask the high priest for permission to see the image. He replied that at Enkaku-ji, there was no such image and when confronted with the ofuda he still remained obdurate as to his assertion.” So, Getty moved up the ladder and asked the Lord Abbot to let her see the sculpture in exchange for a hefty gift. That did it and she was given a brief but exhilirating glimpse. In the next few years Getty was able to track down and collect several examples for her own private collection.

Detail of a printed o-fuda image formerly in the collection of Alice Getty. I added the yellow background.

Charles Hagenauer, an expert on both China and Japan, wrote to Getty to say that he felt that the connection between Benten and the human-headed snake was ” ‘forced and without value’ and look upon Uga-jin as a perfectly independent deity whose origin is shrouded in mystery.” It is at this point that Getty’s article becomes truly interesting – as if it weren’t already interesting enough. As it turns out human-headed snake fertility gods existed in the Near East too. The author shows several examples of cylinder seals from ancient Iraq – Babylon and Mesopotamia – dating back at least 5,000 years. And yet there is no traceable link to the similar god so frequently linked to Benten in Japan. Nada. And yet Getty still maintained that there must be a connection and that Uga-jin must have arrived in Japan via China or by sea from India. Since no similar seals have been found in ancient archeological sites in the Indus valley Getty looks to southern Mesopotamia for its origin. The oldest example from ca. 3000 B.C. which she cites is a seal in the Louvre on which the god has arms – much like that of Michelangelo’s creation from the early years of the sixteenth century of our era.

There are at least two anomalies – Amun Re and Quetzalcoatl

In ancient Egypt Amun had many different manifestations. One was a figure with a human body and the head of a snake. While among the Aztec their god of creation, Quetzalcoatl (ケツァルコアトル), was occasionally represented as a coiled snake. In the case of the image from the British Museum collection seen here a human head is emerging from the spread jaws of the serpent. Besides, the god’s name, Quetzalcoatl, in Nahuatl means ‘feathered serpent’. Getty asked if the coiled snake figure is a coincidence. She doesn’t know.

Image of Quetzalcoatl from the British Museum collection as illustrated by Alice Getty.

This next image knocked my socks off – and made my feet sock-resistant for at least the next six weeks: That’s how good it is!

There is an image of the courtesan Hana-ogi at the British Museum. It is a promised gift of Professor Arthur Miller and is one of the most spectacular prints I have ever seen. The subject was one of the most successful prostitutes of her day. Educated, smart, and extremely talented. She had earned the use name of that name from previously famous women. As a result she fetched the highest fees for her services. Her whole demeanor reeked of success. Her garments were the most expensive and long before Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” Hana-ogi was a living example. That is what makes this image so appropriate. In it Benten, squatting on a cloud, is raining down golden coins on this woman. The message couldn’t be any clearer.

© Trustees of the British Museum

In 1922 Rene Grousset wrote: “A Yédo comme à Athènes, les courtisanes sont, en effet, les inspiratrices des plus grands génies. Leur intellectualisme aimable ne le cède en rien à celui de l’Aspasie hellénique.” Grousset added that Utamaro’s portrayals of these women were invaluable documents “…en même temps que des morceaux d’une sumptuosité et d’une magnificence décorative prodigieuses, comme les portraits de la courtisane Hana-Ogi…” Other print artists such as Kiyonaga also honored the beauty and elegance of women who held the name Hana-ogi long before Kuniyoshi did.

In 1915 Arthur Ficke wrote: “The names of the more famous Oiran [i.e., the highest ranking courtesan] have come down to us wrapped in glowing tradition. Hana-ōgi of the House of Ōgi-ya, the most beautiful and deeply loved courtesan of her time, moves immortal through the designs of Kiyonaga, Shuncho, Yeishi, Utamaro and their contemporaries. She was a pupil of Tōkō Genrin, and ranked as a distinguished artists in both Chinese and Japanese verse. At one time, obeying the dictates of profound attachment, she dared all perils and fled from the Yoshiwara with her lover. These facts, together with the filial piety, for which she was renowned, doubtless augmented her romantic fame. ”

A side note: Marlon Brando’s love-interest in the 1957 movie Sayonara was called Hana-Ogi. James Michener must have been thinking of the beautiful courtesans who carried that name when he published the 1954 novel upon which the movie was based.

Before we leave her for now I just want to make it clear that  a whole post… no…  a whole essay… no…. a whole book could be written about this print and what it stands for. Rarely am I this deeply impressed.

Odds and ends

On April 17, 1934 Omori Kyoko (1909-1967)  had a vision. In it she “…followed a swimming white snake that led her into the presence of the supreme goddess.”  This happened in a small village near Kōyasan where Kyoko had trained as a faith-healer. As a result she founded the sect or ‘new religion’ of Benten-shu [弁天宗]. “Kyoko is regarded as an avatar of Benten, her husband an incarnation of  Kōbō Daishi.” Her husband had been trained as a priest at Kōyasan. From their point of view Benten replaced Buddha as the central figure of their spiritual universe.

“…a white snake with the head of an elderly bearded man. This man-snake is an esoteric form of Benten known as Uga-jin. Kōbō Daishi is said once to have carved just such an image…” but he is said to have replaced the head of the old man with that of the Emperor’s wife. (Nicoloff, p. 11)

Nicoloff says that Kōbō Daishi was said to have trained at Miyajima. (See our post on Itsukushima a.k.a. Miyajima.) “He also trained at or near the location of the important Benten shrine of Tenkawa Benzaiten on the Tenno River, a site that is a two-day walk eastward from Kōyasan…” Below is a photo of the torii entry at Tenkawa-dai-Benzaiten-sha posted at commons.wikimedia by Tomago Moffle.

An even odder reference –

In a play by Chikamatsu the main character, a fisherman, and his wife discover a boat adrift with a wet, beautiful woman in it who appears to be a refugee from mainland China. She is compared to Yang Gui Fei and referred to in various ways described in classical Chinese literature. The fisherman’s wife is suspicious that her husband may have been with just such a woman when he visited China, but he assures her this is not true. “His reason for not doing so illustrates a Japanese image of China: Chinese women all look like a deity (benzaiten) and thus make him feel unworthy and tense. Though this rationale is in part an invention to assuage his wife’s unfounded jealousy…” (From: Obsessions with the Sino-Japanese Polarity in Japanese Literature by Atsuko Sakaki)

The goddess may be naked, but your nudity could offend her –

Donald Richie wrote: “Children were often naked in mid-summer and the fisherfolk of the further coasts of Chiba traditionally worked naked with only a small red ribbon tied around the member lest the goddess Benten, deity of the sea, be offended.”

As with all other posts no entry is ever finished. It is just crudely sketched out. That is why you should come back often to see what’s new.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at http://www.printsofjapan.com/.

****For a much more comprehensive site, with a ton more information about Benzaiten than you can find on this page, you should do yourself a favor and go take a look at Mark Schumacher’s material devoted to this goddess. Make sure that you have plenty of time – I say this because 1) I am a painfully slow reader myself and 2) because it has to be studied to be fully appreciated. After you have thoroughly absorbed what he has shown you then make sure you look at the rest of his web site. It is a jewel floating upon the sea of dross that is the Internet. Here is a link to his Benzaiten page. Do yourself a favor and go there.

http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/benzaiten.shtml

3 Comments »

  1. Lord Vegder-san. Thank you for this wonderful page on Benzaiten. I wanted to alert you to my own “just published” Benzaiten Guidebook (68 pages, 250 images). It can be found at the following URL: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/benzaiten.shtml Your site (this page) appears in my bibliography.

    Comment by Mark Schumacher — May 1, 2012 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

    • Submitted on 2012/05/07 at 1:57 pm
      Thanks Mark! However, considering, my efforts pale next to yours. But, all in all, I am flattered you have included me in your bibliography.

      Sincerely,

      Jerry V.

      Comment by vegder — May 7, 2012 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for your most charming, funny and thoughtful article. Like you, the print of the courtesan Hana-ogi is my favorite. If I had not known of Benzaiten, I would have thought it was Lakshmi (Kichijotennyo) who was raining down the gold coins. Only the Japanese seem to have integrated the goddess’ intelligence, skill sets & wisdom (弁才天) with her abundance and great good fortune (弁財天) so flawlessly.

    Comment by Kathy Leo — October 15, 2013 @ 1:28 am | Reply


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