Benzaiten is a Japanese water goddess of fertility and flow—of rivers and waters, language and poetry, music, dance, and abundant wealth and good fortune. Benzaiten is the only female figure within “The Seven Lucky Gods” (known as the Shichi Fukujin) of Japanese Shintōism, and most often appears with a white snake as her headdress. Dragons and serpents are her messengers and avatars, and she herself can appear as a white snake. Benzaiten is one of Japan’s most widely venerated deities.
In Shintō, snakes are considered as a minor type of Dragon and share many of the mythological traits of that creature. As in Chinese mythology, Japanese dragons are associated with water (especially rivers) and although they are powerful and potentially frightening, Chinese and Japanese traditions honor them as benevolent, just, and wise. Dragons and snakes are the bearers and guardians of the sacred wish-granting jewel that represents enlightenment and sacred wisdom, and snakes are understood to be Dragons’ messengers in the world of humans. Thanks to their ability to continually shed their skin and be reborn, these serpents are known as shapeshifters in Japanese mythology and can live to be thousands of years old, able to walk between the underworld, heaven, and the human world. Shintō priests and practitioners will always try to avoid harming a snake if they come across such an animal in daily life—in fact, encountering a live snake is considered an extremely lucky omen, while encountering a dead one is considered a sign of misfortunes to come.
Benzaiten, sometimes simply called Benten, is a syncretic goddess who blends elements from Hindu, Buddhist, and native Japanese Shintō beliefs. Her many forms range from a two-armed beauty playing music to an eight-armed martial deity holding weapons to a monstrous three-headed snake to a divine representation of Amaterasu, the supreme Shintō sun goddess. Benzaiten is especially associated with the Shintō kami spirit Ugajin, a white human-headed serpent guardian of the rivers who bears a strong connection to the element of water, thunder, and lightning. Ugajin was a harvest and fertility kami represented both as a male and a female, and depicted with the body of a snake and the head of a bearded man or woman. Ugajin represented rivers, fertility, and agriculture, and thus was closely associated with Japan’s central kami Inari, god of rice. Ugajin often appears crowning Benzaiten within a torii, or sacred gate signifying the transition from profane to sacred space.
Benzaiten is also closely associated with another river goddess, Saraswati, a goddess who personifies both the river from which she draws her name and all other things that flow, including music, poetry, writing, learning, eloquence, wisdom, and the performing arts. When Saraswati was introduced to Japan in the 7th century CE she was adopted into Japan’s Buddhist pantheon as Happi Benzaiten, an eight-armed weapon-wielding defender of the nation. Around 1333 CE, as native Shintō kami beliefs blended with Japanese Buddhist representations Happi Benzaiten became re-associated with water and adopted Ugajin’s serpent powers, thus evolving into Uga Benzaiten. This change was reflected in a change in the spelling of her name, with the character zai 才 (meaning talent) replacing its homonym zai 財 (meaning wealth). Her association with Ugajin’s serpent powers of water, wealth and abundance increased and Benzaiten skyrocketed in popularity, subsequently becoming one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods.
Today, Benzaiten is usually depicted as a heavenly woman crowned with a white serpent, playing the biwa (a Japanese lute-like instrument) to represent her mastery of the arts, and honored as a river goddess of fertility and abundance, mistress of serpents, guardian of the sacred wish-granting jewel, patroness of the arts, and defender of Japan itself. Because of this power over dragons and snakes, she is also called upon to end droughts and floods and thereby ensure bountiful harvests and abundance for those who honor her. Benzaiten’s primary attribute is compassion, or amiability, and jealous women in particular pray to her in order to ease the raging fire that sets them against their sisters and the men who inflame their passions.
Benzaiten is also associated with white foxes, who in Japanese culture are similar to snakes in their ability to navigate the underworld, heaven, and earth. Foxes, like serpents, carry dual meanings, symbolizing both life and death, the underworld and heaven, good and bad fortune. Foxes act as messengers between the worlds, and along with dragons and serpents, are carriers of the powerful Shintō wish-granting jewel. This jewel that signifies the bestowal of blessings and the end of all suffering, for it grants wishes, pacifies desires, and brings clear understanding of the Dharma, thus representing the mixture of both Shintō and Buddhist beliefs. Benzaiten’s three avatars—dragons, foxes, and snakes—are all often depicted carrying this jewel.
Every major city in Japan has a shrine or temple dedicated to Benzaiten, often appropriately located near a body of water such as a lake, pond, river or the sea. Many of her shrines, called benten-do or benten-sha, are still active today. Among the thousands of sanctuaries devoted to her, the three temples most widely known today are located on the islands of Chikubushima, Itsukushima, and Enoshima. They are collectively known as the Three Great Benten Sanctuaries (Nihon Sandai Benten), and at these temples Benzaiten grants wishes and protects those who ply the waterways. Benzaiten’s main ritual, the annual Lotus Festival, still takes place at her temple at Chikubushima in mid-summer and dates back to Japan’s medieval period when Shintō priests would pray to her for rain and a bountiful harvest. Benzaiten is also frequently worshipped on New Year’s Eve, because according to legend, the Seven Lucky Gods embark together on their Takarabune treasure ship to bring happiness to everyone. On this night, Japanese tradition tells children to put a picture of the seven aboard their treasure ship, or a picture of the mythological Baku (eater of nightmares), under their pillow. A lucky dream confers luck for the whole year, but only if the dreamer does not tell anyone about their dream—if so, the dream will forfeit its power. Benzaiten’sshrines have been active for thousands of years, and her visionary protection and abundance remain legendary and influential in modern Japan.
Benzaiten is a complex and powerful goddess blending the myths and symbols of three different cultures in Asia. She represents the best of serpent wisdom—adapting, camouflaging, and thriving through the power of water with flowing elegance, wisdom, abundant wealth, and compassion. As one of the The Seven Lucky Gods, Benzaiten bestows her blessing of good fortune on Japan to this day.