Enoshima Benzaiten is the Japanese Buddhist goddess who has origins in the Hindu goddess Saraswati. Bumping into Indian gods in Japan is not that rare given the cultural export of Buddhism from India. In Hindu tradition Saraswati holds a musical instrument veena and so does the Japanese version Benzaiten, holding a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute.
Enoshima is a beautiful island just an hour long drive from Tokyo and enshrines one of the three great Benzaiten in Japan. I have seen many Benzaiten shrines across Japan, but this is my favourite spot, an island with a beautiful and somewhat mystical feel to it. I went to the Enoshima Island (lost count) this golden week holiday (One week of national holidays in Japan) VERY EARLY in the morning to beat the crowds. The beautiful biwa right there at the red gate, “torii”, entrance.. (Directions: By train: 20 minutes by foot from Odakyu Dentetsu Katase-Enoshima Station (one hour from Shinjuku or by car Google Map here) My understanding of Saraswati or Benzaiten : Lets take a look at the words for this…
- In Sanskrit, the word Saraswati comes from the root verb “saras” meaning “flow”
- Humans, unlike animals have an enlarged brain giving them the power of imagination and thoughts
- Thoughts or imagination is like the “flow” of water. Very fluid
- Even in days of abundance humans can imagine or fear drought and go into depression
- Saraswati helps us remind that imagination and thoughts should be channelized and one should watch out if he is falling prey to too positive or negative thoughts
- The musical instrument veena is symbolic to show that the string in the instrument needs the right tension. If too tight, it will snap, if too loose then no music can come out of it
- The right control, a delicate balance is the reason why Saraswati is associated with knowledge and learning
- Saraswati and Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows: water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension, knowledge
Now with regions, cultures, the stories change and the myths associated with the Enoshima Benzaiten are quite different although the principle is the same. The island has a myth of a five-headed dragon. The dragon was responsible for the hardships in the surrounding area, and the benevolent goddess Benzaiten eventually came from above to soothe the dragon’s rage. Along with her coming, she raised a large landmass from the ocean to serve as her dwelling. The raised landmass is what is ENOSHIMA. The below image shows opening celebration of Benzaiten Shrine at Enoshima in Soshu a print made by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige.The dragon, wooed by Benzaiten’s beauty and benevolence, fell in love with her, but she rejected his proposal as punishment for the adversity he had brought to the humble fishing communities. The entrance has this Benzaiten statue, but I was interested in seeing the actual shrine on the top. I continued climbing the stairs, long winding road…The early morning had NO ONE AROUND, but the shrine was already open at 08:30 a.m. I paid around 150 yen (around a dollar) for the entrance fee and made my way inside… This is one of the three Great Bentens in Japan!!!! The others are Miyajima (Itsukushima) Shrine in Hiroshima and Chikubushima Shrine in Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture, all located near water (with the principle we described earlier of “flow”). Hetsunomiya the first shrine …..Just left side of the first Hetsunomiya shrine, is the octagonal shrine is quite a unique construction.I entered the octagonal shrine near Hetsunomiya and saw both the Benzaiten statues. The left hand side naked statue in white color, Myoon-Benzaiten is popularly known as “Hadaka-Benzaiten”, or “Naked Benzaiten” in English. Made in the Kamakura period, the expresses feminine symbolism. Prior to the 12th century, Benzaiten’s Hindu origins as a water goddess were largely ignored in Japan. In the 11-12th century she got connected with onflated with Ugajin (snake-bodied, human-headed Japanese god of water) and this changed her popularity from a trickle into a flood. It was not until the Meiji Restoration period of 1868, when “ShinButsu Bunri” where Buddhism suffered a blow in the 19th century in Japan and the white Benzaiten statue was completely put in an unmaintained state that even children used these as toys… Post the World War two when Buddhism saw a revival due to freedom of religion practices, that the statue was reworked and enshrined here.The other statue is the Happi Benzaiten (Colored wooden Benzaiten Statue). With an effigy of Ugajin (God of harvest and fertility) above her head, Happi-Benzaiten holds a bow, arrow, sword, precious stone, wheel, spear, pestle, and key in her eight arms. This is the oldest statue of Hapjpi-Benzaiten.
Access to this Benzaiten shrine – Admission Times: 8:30 to 16:30
Admission Fee: Adults ¥150, 13-18 yrs ¥100, Under 13 yrs ¥50Since Benzaiten is connected with water she called upon to end droughts or deluges and thereby ensure bountiful harvests. Her sanctuaries are nearly always in the neighborhood of water — the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond — while her messengers and avatars are serpents and dragons. Now the dragon story where the dragon tried to woo the Benzaiten and she refused, still finds a place in her octagonal shrine. Beautiful painting of the dragon on the ceiling of the shrine..Next shrine is the Nakatsuno-miya. There is a camera stand here where you can place your smartphone or a standard SLR where you can take your snap or this snap below.There is a dragon also near Nakatsuno-miya where water flows out of its mouth…JAPANESE CULTURE MIXED UP SARASWATI AND LAXMI : After Saraswati gained immense popularity across the nation she started inching out other Hindu goddesses. Hindu mythology has a very clear division of Laxmi (Goddess of wealth and beauty) and Saraswati (God of talent and knowledge). In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the spelling of her name was changed, with the character zai 才 (meaning talent) in 弁才天 replaced with its homonym zai 財 (meaning wealth) 弁財天 and she subsequently became one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. With the addition of wealth and fortune to Benzaiten’s earlier roles, her popularity skyrocketed and she eventually supplanted Kichijōten (Skt. = Lakṣmī). The two goddesses, even today, are confused and conflated.
Before I head back, I walked over to the last shrine Okutsuno-miya. Beautiful morning and a good hike already done…. My visit to the Benzaiten shrine this time was also a “refreshing” one, no wonder it is one of the powerful Power-spot in JapanEnoshima in 1206 was turned and founded into a shrine by the 3rd shogun of Kamakura Bakufu. The buildings of the shrine were later rebuilt in 1657 and these same buildings are what we see today. A dip in the history on the first day of the golden week vacation… bliss…….I bought two water bottles on the way back, took one last snap and headed home…..