Goddess of all that flows: water, music, arts, love, wisdom, wealth, fortune
Member of the Seven Lucky Gods
Benzaiten with a lute (biwa) seated on a white dragon
Other namesBenzaitennyo (弁才天女)
Daibenzaiten (大弁才天)
Benten (弁天)
Myōonten (妙音天)
Bionten (美音天)
Sarasabakutei (薩羅婆縛底)
Sarasabattei (薩羅薩伐底)
Sarasantei (薩羅酸底)
Japanese弁才天, 弁財天 (shinjitai)
辯才天, 辨才天, 辨財天 (kyūjitai)
Gadgadasvara Bodhisattva (assumed traits of)
Kisshōten (assumed traits of)
Ichikishimahime (conflated with)
Ugajin (conflated with)
MantraOṃ Sarasvatyai svāhā
(On Sorasobateiei sowaka)
Animalssnake, dragon
Symbolslute (biwa), sword, cintāmaṇi
Daikokuten (some traditions)
Hinduism equivalentSarasvatī
Durgā (eight-armed form)
Lakṣmī (via Kisshōten)

Benzaiten (shinjitai: 弁才天 or 弁財天; kyūjitai: 辯才天, 辨才天, or 辨財天, lit. "goddess of eloquence"), also simply known as Benten (shinjitai: 弁天; kyūjitai: 辯天 / 辨天), is a Japanese Buddhist goddess who originated mainly from Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of speech, the arts, and learning, with certain traits deriving from the warrior goddess Durga. Worship of Benzaiten arrived in Japan during the sixth through eighth centuries, mainly via Classical Chinese translations of the Golden Light Sutra (Sanskrit: Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra), which has a section devoted to her.[1]

During the medieval period onwards, Benzaiten came to be associated or even conflated with a number of Buddhist and local deities, which include the goddess Kisshōten (the Buddhist version of the Hindu Lakshmi, whose role as goddess of fortune eventually became ascribed to Benzaiten in popular belief), the snake god Ugajin (the combined form of the two being known as 'Uga Benzaiten'), and the kami Ichikishimahime. Due to her status as a water deity, she was also linked with nāgas, dragons, and snakes. Apart from being a patron of music and the arts, she was eventually also worshiped as a bestower of monetary fortune and was reckoned as one of the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichifukujin).

Benzaiten is depicted a number of ways in Japanese art. She is often depicted holding a biwa (a traditional Japanese lute) similar to how Saraswati is depicted with a veena in Indian art, though she may also be portrayed wielding a sword and a wish-granting jewel (cintāmaṇi). An iconographic formula showing Benzaiten with eight arms holding a variety of weapons (based on the Golden Light Sutra) meanwhile is believed to derive from Durga's iconography. As Uga Benzaiten, she may also be shown with Ugajin (a human-headed white snake) above her head. Lastly, she is also portrayed (albeit rarely) with the head of a snake or a dragon.


Saraswati in Buddhism

Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma

See also: Saraswati and Durga

The goddess Saraswati (Sanskrit: Sarasvatī; Pali: Sarassatī) was originally in the Rigveda a river goddess, the deification of the Sarasvati River. She was identified with Vach (Skt. Vāc), the Vedic goddess of speech, and from there became considered to be the patron of music and the arts, knowledge, and learning.[2][3][4] In addition to their association with eloquence and speech, both Saraswati and Vach also show warrior traits: Saraswati for instance was called the "Vritra-slayer" (Vṛtraghnī) in the Rigveda (6.61.7) and was associated with the Maruts.[5][6][7] She was also associated with the Ashvins, with whom she collaborates to bolster Indra's strength by telling him how to kill the asura Namuchi.[5] In a hymn in Book 10 of the Rigveda (10.125.6), Vach declares: "I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion. I rouse and order battle for the people, and I have penetrated Earth and Heaven."[8][5]

Saraswati, like many other deities of the Hindu pantheon, was eventually adopted into Buddhism, figuring mainly in Mahayana texts. In the 15th chapter of Yijing's translation of the Sutra of Golden Light (Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra) into Classical Chinese (Taishō Tripitaka 885), Saraswati (大辯才天女, pinyin: Dàbiàncáitiānnǚ; Japanese: Daibenzaitennyo, lit. "great goddess of eloquence") appears before the Buddha's assembly and vows to protect all those who put their faith in the sutra, recite it, or copy it. In addition, she promises to increase the intelligence of those who recite the sutra so that they will be able to understand and remember various dharanis. She then teaches the assembly various mantras with which one can heal all illnesses and escape all manner of misfortune. One of the Buddha's disciples, the brahmin Kaundinya, then praises Saraswati, comparing her to Vishnu's consort Narayani (Lakshmi) and declaring that she can manifest herself not only as a benevolent deity, but also as Yami, the sister of Yama. He then describes her eight-armed form with all its attributes — bow, arrow, sword, spear, axe, vajra, iron wheel, and noose.[9][10]

Eight-armed Benzaiten surrounded by the goddesses Kariteimo (Hariti) and Kenrōchijin (Prithvi) and two divine generals (c. 1212)

I respectfully honor the goddess Nārāyaṇī,
who has sovereignty in the worlds.
I now sing the praise of that venerable one,
as it was formerly pronounced by the hermits.

You are good fortune, success, and peace of mind,
intelligence, modesty and glory.
You are the mother, able to generate beings.
Brave fierce [one] (勇猛, Durgā), you constantly practice great energy. [...]

In the battlefields, you fight and are always victorious.
You foster and raise [people], you bring [them] under control, and [your] heart is compassionate and forbearing.
You appear as the eldest sister of Yama.
You always wear a blue wild-silk garment. [...]

Lions, tigers, and wolves always surround [you]:
cows, goats/sheep, and cocks, besides, obey you.
Shaking large bells and emitting sounds,
the multitudes of the Vindhya mountains all hear the echo.

Carrying a trident, a round topknot on the head,
on the right and on the left always holding sun and moon banners;
the dark [fortnight] of the moon, on the ninth and eleventh [lunar] days,
during this time, one should honor you.

Manifesting as the younger sister of the great god Vasu (Vāsudeva),
seeing battle, [your] heart is always grieved.
Among those who look at all sentient beings
the goddess is the most victorious and unsurpassable one.[...]

Your face is like the full moon.
The learning you are endowed with constitutes the abode on which one relies.
[As] eloquence (辯才 / Sarasvatī) you excel like High Peak (高峯, Vālmiki),
[and as] memory you are just like Island (洲渚, Dvaipāyana). [...]

Among women, you are like Mountain Peak (山峯, Pārvatī).
Like ancient hermits, you stay long in the world.
As a young goddess, you are always desireless.
The real words are just like [those] of the great lord of the world (Prajāpati). [...][11]

Benzaiten with eight arms holding a bow, an arrow, a sword, a spear, an axe, a single-pronged vajra, a wheel, and a noose

It has been observed that Kaudinya's paean to Saraswati in Yijing's translation is derived from the Āryāstava ("praise of she who is noble"), a hymn uttered by Vishnu to the goddess Nidra (lit. "Sleep", one of the names applied to Durga) found in the Harivamsha.[11][12] As the Golden Light Sutra is mainly concerned with the protection of the state, it is not surprising that the fierce, weapon-wielding Durga, who was widely worshiped by rulers and warriors alike for success in battle, provides the model for the appearance assumed by Saraswati, characterized as a protectress of the Buddhist Dharma, in the text.[13] Bernard Faure notes, "[t]he emergence of a martial Sarasvatī may also have obeyed a more fundamental structural logic, inasmuch as Vāc, the Vedic goddess of speech, had already displayed martial characteristics. [...] Already in the Vedas, it is said that she destroys the enemies of the gods, the asuras. Admittedly, later sources seem to omit or downplay that aspect of her powers, but this does not mean that its importance in religious practice was lost."[14]

Five deities of the western quarter of the Outer Vajra section of the Womb Realm Mandala. From left to right: Chandra (riding on geese), Kumara (riding on a peacock), Saraswati (holding a lute), Narayani, and Narayana (riding on Garuda).

Saraswati is also briefly mentioned in the esoteric Vairochanabhisambodhi Sutra (Taishō Tripitaka 848[15]) as one of the divinities of the western quarter of the Outer Vajra section (外金剛部院, Jp. Gekongōbu-in) of the Womb Realm Mandala along with Prithvi, Vishnu (Narayana), Skanda (Kumara), Vayu, Chandra, and their retinue. The text later also describes the veena as Saraswati's symbol.[16][17] The Chinese translation of this sutra renders her name variously as 辯才 (Ch. Biàncái; Jp. Benzai, lit. "eloquence"),[18] 美音天 (Ch. Měiyīntiān; Jp. Bionten, "goddess of beautiful sounds"),[19] and 妙音天 (Ch. Miàoyīntiān; Jp. Myōonten, "goddess of wonderful sounds"[20]).[21] Saraswati in the Womb Realm Mandala is portrayed with two arms holding a veena and situated between Narayana's consort Narayani and Skanda (shown riding on a peacock).

Benzaiten as a kami

Benzaiten is a female kami to Shinto with the name Ichikishima-hime-no-mikoto (市杵島姫命).[22] She is also believed by Tendai Buddhists to be the essence of the kami Ugajin, whose effigy she sometimes carries on her head together with a torii (see photo above).[23] As a consequence, she is sometimes also known as Uga (宇賀) Benzaiten or Uga Benten.[24]

Bīja and mantra

सु (su), Benzaiten's seed syllable (bīja) in Siddhaṃ script

The bīja or seed syllable used to represent Benzaiten in Japanese esoteric Buddhism is su (सु, traditionally read in Japanese as so), written in Siddhaṃ script.[25] Benzaiten's mantra meanwhile is as follows:

Sanskrit Japanese (romanized) Hiragana
Oṃ Sarasvatyai svāhā On Sorasobateiei sowaka[25] おん そらそばていえい そわか[25]

Temples and Shrines

Benten-dō is the name for a Buddhist temple to Benzaiten, as well as often being the name for Shinto shrines dedicated to her.

Shrine pavilions called either benten-dō or benten-sha (弁天社), or even entire Shinto shrines can be dedicated to her, as in the case of Kamakura's Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine or Nagoya's Kawahara Shrine.

Benzaiten is enshrined on numerous locations throughout Japan; for example, the Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, the Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa and the Itsukushima Island in Seto Inland Sea (Japan's Three Great Benzaiten Shrines); and she and a five-headed dragon are the central figures of the Enoshima Engi, a history of the shrines on Enoshima written by the Japanese Buddhist monk Kōkei (皇慶) in 1047. According to Kōkei, Benzaiten is the third daughter of the dragon-king of Munetsuchi (無熱池; literally "lake without heat"), known in Sanskrit as Anavatapta, the lake lying at the center of the world according to an ancient Buddhist cosmological view.

Ryōhō-ji, also known as the "Moe Temple," enshrines Benzaiten. It is famous for anime style depictions of Buddhist deities[26]

Benzaiten Buddhist Temples

Benzaiten Shinto Shrines

Benzaiten is also enshrined as Ichikishima Hime-no-Mikoto at the Munakata Taisha shrine.

See also


  1. ^ Ludvik, Catherine (2007). Sarasvatī: Riverine Goddess of Knowledge. From the Manuscript-carrying Vīṇā-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Brill. pp. 1–3.
  2. ^ Kinsley, David (1998). Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. pp. 10–13.
  3. ^ Ludvik (2007). pp. 35-39.
  4. ^ Faure, Bernard (2015). Protectors and Predators: Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 2. University of Hawaii Press. p. 164.
  5. ^ a b c Faure (2015). pp. 164-165.
  6. ^ Ludvik (2007). p. 48.
  7. ^ Griffith, Ralph T.H. (trans.). "Rig Veda, Book 6: Hymn LXI. Sarasvatī". Sacred Texts. Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  8. ^ Griffith, Ralph T.H. (trans.). "Rig Veda, Book 10: Hymn CXXV. Vāk". Sacred Texts. Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  9. ^ "金光明最勝王經 第7卷". CBETA Chinese Electronic Tripiṭaka Collection (漢文大藏經). Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  10. ^ Faure (2015). pp. 165-166.
  11. ^ a b Ludvik, Catherine (2004). "A Harivaṃśa Hymn in Yijing's Chinese Translation of the Sutra of Golden Light". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 124 (4): 707–734. doi:10.2307/4132114. JSTOR 4132114.
  12. ^ "AryAstavaH - hymn to Arya". Mahabharata Resources Page. Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  13. ^ Ludvik (2007). pp. 265-267.
  14. ^ Faure (2015). pp. 168-169.
  15. ^ "大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經". CBETA Chinese Electronic Tripiṭaka Collection (漢文大藏經). Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  16. ^ The Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi Sūtra (PDF). BDK English Tripiṭaka Series. Translated by Rolf W. Giebel. Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai; Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. 2005. pp. 33, 141.
  17. ^ Faure (2015). p. 166.
  18. ^ "大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經 第1卷". CBETA Chinese Electronic Tripiṭaka Collection (漢文大藏經). Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  19. ^ "大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經 第2卷". CBETA Chinese Electronic Tripiṭaka Collection (漢文大藏經). Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  20. ^ Pye, Michael (2013). Strategies in the study of religions. Volume two, Exploring religions in motion. Boston: De Gruyter. p. 279. ISBN 9781614511915. OCLC 852251932.
  21. ^ "大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經 第4卷". CBETA Chinese Electronic Tripiṭaka Collection (漢文大藏經). Retrieved 2022-05-21.
  22. ^ Bocking, Brian (1997). A Popular Dictionary of Shinto - 'Benzaiten'. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7007-1051-5.
  23. ^ Itō, Satoshi: "Ugajin". Encyclopedia of Shinto, Kokugakuin University, retrieved on August 15, 2011
  24. ^ Ludvik, Catherine. “Uga-Benzaiten: The Goddess and the Snake.” Impressions, no. 33, 2012, pp. 94–109. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  25. ^ a b c "弁財天 (Benzaiten)". Flying Deity Tobifudō (Ryūkō-zan Shōbō-in Official Website). Retrieved 2022-05-22.
  26. ^ "Otaku Worship in Session at Ryohoji Temple". 30 January 2013.