Benzaiten is one of the deva guardian gods in Buddhism. It is the name given to the Hindu goddess Saraswati when she was incorporated into Buddhism and Shinto.
The kanji (Chinese characters) representation based on sutras is '弁才天,' but in Japan the character 'zai' (才) can also be written as a character meaning money (財), and this led the goddess to become worshipped as a goddess of wealth and expressed as '弁財天.'
Benzaiten was originally a Buddhist god but is considered a Shinto god in Japan. She is also known as Benten, and is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. In Buddhism, she is considered to be the same god as Myon-bosatsu (Bodhisattva of music).
Temple halls that have Benzaiten as their principal image are given names such a Benten-do, Benten-sha.
The original name 'Saraswati' is the Sanskrit name of a sacred river. She was originally a river goddess in ancient India but became a music goddess due to the association with the sound of flowing water, and is broadly worshipped as a goddess of fortune as well as arts and sciences. Representations of the goddess are generally classified into those with two arms and those with eight arms. The eight armed representation is derived from the 'Daibenzaitennyo-hon' (chapter 15) teaching of the "Konko Myosai Sho-kyo" (Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra), and the eight hands hold objects including a bow, arrow, hoko (long-handled Chinese spear), kanawa (iron ring) and lasso. The two armed representation depicting the goddess playing a biwa (Japanese flute) can be seen in the Womb Realm Mandala of the Mandala of the Two Realms used in Esoteric Buddhism. However, the two armed image seen in the Womb Realm Mandala is not the goddess image that became widely worshipped in Japan but the bodhisattva form.
Spread to Japan and the Making of Images
Worship of Benzaiten had already begun by the Nara period, and the eight armed standing statue (modeled statue) housed in the Hokke-do hall (Sangatsu-do Hall) of Todai-ji Temple is highly valuable as Japan's oldest such work despite extensive damage. Heian period representations of Benzaiten are almost unheard of, and Kamakura period works are extremely rare.
The Benzaiten statue (two armed seated statue) at Shirakumo-jinja Shrine in Kyoto is unique as it is the same bodhisattva form playing a biwa that can be seen in the Womb Realm Mandala. This statue is said to have been worshipped by biwa expert Daijo daijin (Chancellor of the Realm) FUJIWARA no Moronaga, and has an early Kamakura period style, and is considered to be the oldest two armed Benzaiten statue in Japan. Other statues known to date from the same period consist of that at Koki-ji Temple in Kanan-cho, Osaka Prefecture (two armed seated statue) and that at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine in Kamakura (two armed seated statue) which is inscribed with the year 1266. There are many examples of early modern statues depicting Benzaiten as both the eight armed seated form and two armed form playing the biwa.
In the middle ages, worship of Benzaiten syncretized with the Shinto and indigenous Japanese water god Ichikishimahime no Mikoto (or the Munataka Sanjojin (three goddess enshrined at Munakata-jinja Shrine) and Ugajin (unknown descent.
Both native Japanese and imported gods.)
to became commonly enshrined in Shinto shrines. In the early modern period, Benzaiten became considered one of the so called 'Seven Gods of Fortune' and was syncretized with Ugajin, the god of agriculture and cereals and many images were made depicting her as Ugajin (an elderly form with the head of a human and the body of a serpent). Due to her original role as an Indian river goddess, she is often enshrined in places deeply connected to the water such as watersides, islands and ponds. Enoshima-jinja Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture (now enshrining the Munataka Sanjojin), Hogon-ji Temple in Chikubu Island, Shiga Prefecture and Daigan-ji Temple (Hatsukaichi City) on Itsukushima Island are referred to as 'The Three Great Benzaiten of Japan,' and all face the sea or a lake (there are different opinions that claim other temples and shrines comprise the 'The Three Great Benzaiten of Japan').
Tenkawa-jinja Shrine in Nara Prefecture originally enshrined Benzaiten but it is well known that the shrine now enshrines her as Ichikishimahime no Mikoto. Sites enshrining Benzaiten were built throughout Japan as the worship of Benzaiten spread, but many of these strongly Shinto Benten-sha halls became Shinto shrines as a result of the separation of Buddhism and Shinto during the Meiji period.
In addition, it became common to write the 'zai' (才) character of Benzaiten using a character meaning money (財), and she came to be worshipped as a goddess of wealth and expressed as '弁財天.'
Zeniarai Benten Shrine in Kamakura (now officially named Ugafuku-jinja Shrine) is a typical example of this phenomenon as it is believed that washing money in the spring within the cave in the shrine precinct will cause many times the amount to come to the bearer. As described above, worship of Benzaiten since the early modern period has taken on a complicated form in which Buddhism, Shinto and folk beliefs have merged.
Description in Kanji (Chinese Characters)
The kanji representation of the name 'Saraswati' is 'Benzaiten' (辯才天) but, for the reasons stated above, the 'zai' (才) character is also written using the character meaning money (辨財天). Two characters of ben '辯' and '辨' are pronounced the same but have different meanings, so 'benzai' could mean either 'eloquence' (in speech and ability) or 'the accumulation of wealth' depending on the characters used.
After the war, the toyo kanji (kanji for general use) reform meant that the two traditional ben '辯' and '辨' characters were replaced by a single simplified character '弁' that is now generally used to write the name Benzaiten '弁才天' or '弁財天.'
Major Shrines and Temples Enshrining Benzaiten in Japan
Hogon-ji Temple (Nagahama City, Shiga Prefecture; one of the Three Great Benzaiten of Japan)
Daigan-ji Temple (Hatsukaichi City) (Itsukushima Island, Hiroshima Prefecture; one of the Three Great Benzaiten of Japan)
Ryuan-ji Temple (Mino City, Osaka Prefecture)
Enoshima-jinja Shrine (Enoshima Island, Kanagawa Prefecture; one of the Three Great Benzaiten of Japan)
Tokai-ji Temple (Kashiwa City) (Fuse Benten) (Kashiwa City, Chiba Prefecture)
Kanei-ji Temple (Taito-ku Ward, Tokyo Prefecture)
Ugafuku-jinja Shrine (Zeniarai Benten Shrine) (Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture)
Tenkawa Daibenzaiten-sha Shrine (Nara Prefecture)
Fukazawa Zeniarai Benten (Tonosawa, Hakone-cho, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture)
Saifuku-ji Temple (Kagoshima City) - Japan's largest wooden Buddha statue
Please refer to Munataka Sanjojin for shrines enshrining Benzaiten (Ichikishimahime no Mikoto).