Japan’s Seven Lucky Deities
Known as the Fukujin deities, the Seven Lucky Gods are strongly believed to be grantors of good luck and fortune. What is important to remember about these deities is that they are not necessarily known to work together, they all work individually but are just worshiped as a group because of their very mutual and similar influences. Also, because of these similarities, a lot of people confuse one with the other. So, historians and professors in Japan have grouped them together and called them collectively as the Seven Gods of Fortune.
These deities include Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Jurojin, Hotei, and Kichijoten. Each has a special capability and an imagery making them unique from one another. Ebisu is known to be the god of prosperity, wealth, and abundance. He is usually depicted to wear fishermen’s costumes and is depicted to hold fish in one hand. Bishamonten is the god of fortune in war, he is believed to bring luck and safety during battles. He is depicted to be dressed in an armor while holding a spear in his hand.
Daikokuten is the god of commerce and prosperity. He is usually depicted with a bag of very valuable objects of different kinds. He is known to be a great demon-hunter. In some legends, he is believed to be a female as Daikokunyo or the God of Dark Heavens. Fukurokuju is the god of wisdom, longevity, and happiness. He is actually a real person, in contrast to other members of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Jurojin is the god of the elderly and is also based on a real person from ancient times. he is believed to have lived a very long life, making him popular in literature earning him a god-like character. Hotei is the god of children and popularity. Just like Fukurokuju and Jurojin, Hotei was a real person whose death was recorded in 916 AD.
There are two women in the Seven Lucky Deities. One of them would be Benzaiten who is the goddess of talent, beauty, and music. She is believed to be a very beautiful woman – a patron of artists, geishas, dancers, and more. Another woman deity would be Kichijoten - she is the goddess of prosperity and is believed to have been based on the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
Who is Benzaiten?
Benzaiten is a Japanese Goddess who is known to be the goddess of beauty, reason, wisdom, and wealth. Along with this, she is also the goddess of music, arts, and dance. She grants wishes and prayers not only for wealth and prosperity but for many other things as well. This includes inspiration, talent, love, and romance. Her popularity has grown significantly because she is the patron deity of those who are in the arts – geishas, writers, dancers, singers, and more.
Other than these, she is also believed to be a water goddess which is why she is also believed to be a protector of different islands in the country. Also, this is the reason why many of the shrines and temples dedicated to her are located near the sea. She is believed to have powers that can purify a man’s mind from the darkness and evil of materialism in the world.
Because she is a water god, she has become known to be the goddess of anything that flows – not just water. She is the goddess of reason – words, language, speech, and eloquence. She is also the goddess of continuous knowledge.
The different names of Benten in Japan
Her real name is Benzaiten however, she is also known by many different names. One of these, a more common and popular name, would be Benten. In some places in Japan, she is known by another name. These include Benza-tennyo (a longer form for Benten) and Benai-ten.
According to legends, she is also known to take on many forms. For instance, the Kanagawa period has influenced a great deal of change in the Japanese culture and religion. This has resulted to the merge of the Shinto god Inari (God of Rice) with Benten. This new form is known as Uga Benzaiten.
However, in some legends, it is believed that the god of rice (Inari) took Benten as a wife and thus called her Uga Benzaiten. In some of Japan’s mythology, this unification of Inari and Benten resulted to the fertility and harvest Kami known as Ugajin. This ugajin is represented as both male and female whose body is a snake. It is known that Benzaiten has a strong association with snakes and Inari has a strong association with the harvest.
In some cases or stories, it is believed that Inari can take in different forms and one of them is known as Dakini or Dakiniten. Inari is a bearded old man who can transform himself into a woman or a fox. This particular goddess is a transformation as well of Benzaiten. This means that a Shinto deity known as Dakini or Dakiniten is interchangeably Inari or Benzaiten.
Typical imagery of the Goddess Benzaiten
The goddess Benten is depicted as a beautiful woman – the embodiment of love, beauty, and wisdom. She is closely associated with white snakes and serpents. It is known in Japanese culture that white serpents are a sign of good fortune, however, many have forgotten the reason why this is so. It is because of the fact that Benzaiten is seen accompanied by a large white snake. Since Benzaiten is a goddess of luck and fortune, this has strongly associated the white snake with luck.
However, this association seems to be a misinterpretation of her sea dragon companion. More appropriately, she must be depicted as a beautiful woman accompanied by a large dragon called Hakuja. The origin story of this sea dragon is that she is married to a sea dragon from the Island of Enoshima. This dragon used to be wicked but she has used her purification forces to change her husband. Because of this, the sacred snakes have become her messengers and companions.
Benzaiten is also often depicted holding a mandolin (known as biwa in Japan) or a lute (a type of Japanese musical instrument). There are times when she is seen adorned with a magical jewel which could grant any person’s desires. It is unknown, however, what kind of jewel this is.
The Origin of the Goddess Benten
Benten in the Hindu Religion
The goddess of wisdom, love, and beauty is believed to have originated from the Hindu religion. It is believed that Benzaiten is based from the Indian goddess named Sarasvati. Just like Benten, she is the goddess of music and arts. She is also the goddess of learning and wisdom. A part of the trinity or Tridevi, she is believed to have been essential in the maintenance of peace and balance in the world – similar to how a mandala symbolizes balance.
This goddess is often depicted with a total of four arms, she is also depicted holding a book, a musical instrument, a waterpot, and more. She is believed to symbolize meditation, spirituality, and reflection. The pot of water is a symbol of her ability to purify a man’s mind to welcome new knowledge, a somewhat reflection of how Benten has the ability to purify the mind from the darkness of material desire. Since both are goddesses of music, both are depicted holding a form of a string instrument.
Benten in the Shinto Religion
It is without a doubt that separating the beliefs and historical records of Shintoism and Buddhism is a hard task. This is why many of the deities found in the Buddhist traditions also appear in Shinto traditions. This is also why a lot of people are confused with the different deities in Japan – because they can be just the same god but represented by different names.
For instance, Benzaiten is known as Ugaijin or Uga Benten in the Shinto religion. This is after the unification of the rice god called Inari and the wisdom goddess Benzaiten. This combination has led to the god or goddess of fertility and harvest – a deity of dual gender. One of the shrines that are dedicated to Ugaijin is Kamakura’s Zeniarai Benzaited Ugafuku Shrine.
Benten in the Buddhist Religion
Different deities reached Japan at the same time Buddhism was introduced to the people of Japan in the late 5th century. Magical stories and legends about these gods and goddesses were told by Buddhist monks and missionaries to engage the Japanese to listen to the ideologies and teachings of Buddhism. One particular fantastic story brought by the missionaries would be the story of Benzaiten and Amaterasu.
The Buddhist legends about Benzaiten can explain how she is associated with the sea. This is due to the idea that Benzaiten is the third daughter of Munetsuchi or the dragon king. This is also one of the reasons why she is closely associated with sea dragons. There are also stories that point to an evil dragon devouring children and Benzaiten descending to the Earth to become the children’s protector. In Buddhism, Benten is depicted to have eight hands (instead of four from Hinduism) making her associated with Tara Bosatsu and the seated Nyoirin Kannon - one of the 33 forms of the important Buddhist deities. She holds books, keys, jewels, swords, musical instruments in her hands. But with two of her hands are always joined in prayer.
Benten Shrines in Japan
Enoshima Jinja – Known as the Enoshima Benten, this is one of the three largest Benten Sanctuaries in Japan. It was established during the Edo-era and has been preserved well through the centuries. It is believed that the dragon that Benzaiten transformed to become her husband originated from the Island of Enoshima near Kamakura.
During the modern times, this place has transformed from a place of worship to a popular tourist destination. It has museums that house many artifacts and the place is a sight to behold. This particular temple holds a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji.
Itsukushima – Also one of the Three Great Benten Sanctuaries in Japan. This place is located in Miyajima and is also known as the Miyajima JInja in Hiroshima. This place is best known for its floating torii – or a torii gate located in the middle of the water during high tides. This place is a great place to visit not only for its sacred origins but for the wonderful sights as well.
This particular shrine has been awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status and it is believed to have been built in the late 7th century. It is one of the most beautiful temples dedicated to the deity, Benzaiten.
Chikubushima – Located in Lake Biwa in Hayazaki of the Shiga prefecture, this is one of the only Benzaiten shrines located near a lake as most are located near the sea. It is the oldest Benzaiten sanctuaries in Japan and is also considered as one of the Three Great Benten Sanctuaries. Before Benzaiten became the central deity of this temple, they worshiped the water kami.
They depict Benzaiten to have eight arms. A pair playing the Biwa instrument, one holding a sake cup, the other a sake flask. She holds her magical jewel in one hand, a key on another. Two of her hands are depicted to be joined in prayer.
Tenkawa dai-Benzaiten Shrine – This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Japan because the place looks majestic during the winter season. This particular temple is located in Tsubonouchi, Tenkawa-mura in Nara prefecture. It is normally visited by entertainers, artists, dancers, and more because it enshrines Benzaiten.
Traditions related to Benzaiten
Since Benzaiten is closely associated with monetary fortune, it is a tradition to literally cleanse money through washing. It is through this cleansing that the money will be able to reproduce itself and increase in number. It is also a way to wash away impurities as Benzaiten is believed to have powers of cleansing darkness from material desires. There are also coin washing traditions in many Benten shrines – if they do this during the spring time, their money will double.