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Goddess Benzaiten: For ages, the Japanese have worshipped this Buddhist manifestation of the Hindu deity Maa Saraswati

Both Benzaiten and Saraswati of Japanese and Indian mythology respectively are regarded as the goddess of eloquence, intellect, speech, knowledge, and music.

Saraswati Puja or Basant Panchami is celebrated on the first day of spring. Goddess Saraswati is worshipped on this day and the day also marks the start of the spring season. People across India worship the Hindu deity, who is the goddess of knowledge, language, music, and all other art forms.

On this day, people also begin preparing for Holi, which falls forty days after Basant Panchami. This day is also considered very auspicious for a variety of other endeavours, including marriage, engagements, mundans, and more.

Yellow colour is associated with Saraswati because it represents knowledge and also denotes mustard fields, which are associated with the advent of the spring season. Moreover, Saraswati, the consort of Brahma, is said to have been born on Basant Panchami – the fifth day of the lunar month of Magh (which falls in January-February) and that is why yellow is the colour of the day since it represents the season Vasant or spring, thus, yellow flowers and sweets are offered to the goddess as part of the puja rituals, while devotees adorn themselves in shades of the same colour.

Goddess Saraswati’s pictures show her wearing a white sari and sitting on a white Nelumbo nucifera lotus. Saraswati is mostly associated with the colour white which signifies the purity of knowledge. Her white sari symbolizes that she is the embodiment of pure knowledge. Because the lotus is a symbol of Supreme Reality in Hinduism, the white lotus represents Supreme Reality.

Saraswati usually uses a swan as her vehicle. The swan is believed to have a sensitive beak that allows it to distinguish milk from a mixture of milk and water. As a result, the swan signifies the ability to distinguish between good and evil. A swan’s ability to stay and swim in water without being influenced by waves is another distinguishing attribute. The use of a swan as her transport demonstrates Maa Saraswati’s firm judgement, without becoming attracted to or influenced by the waves of the world or illusions (Maya) on the path to Divine Spirit.

While these are some fascinating insights about the Hindu festival and Goddess Saraswati, another noteworthy fact is that Goddess Saraswati is revered not only in India but also in Japan. In fact, the Japanese Buddhist goddess Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows: water, time, knowledge, and music, has origins in the Hindu goddess Saraswati and shares a lot of the same characteristics.

Over time she evolved into a Buddhist goddess and is now included as the only female amongst the Seven Gods of Fortune also known as Shichi Fukujin. Both Benzaiten and Saraswati of Japanese and Indian mythology respectively are regarded as the goddess of eloquence, intellect, speech, knowledge, and music.

Worship of Benzaiten arrived in Japan during the 6th through 8th centuries, mainly via the Chinese translations of the ‘Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra’ or the Sutra of Golden Light, which has a section devoted to her. She is also mentioned in the Lotus Sutra and often depicted holding a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute, just as Saraswati holds a veena.

Like Goddess Saraswati is seen seated on a white Swan, Japan Benzaiten is seen seated on a white Dragon. The Japanese goddess is said to be closely associated with dragons and snakes. Her connection to snakes is possibly derived from Saraswati who is said to have killed a dreaded demon named Vritra. In the ancient Rigveda, Vritra was depicted as a serpent or dragon.

In Japanese Folklore too there are a series of tales known as the Enoshima Engi that tell of a horrifying five-headed dragon called Gozuru and how it terrorized the village of Koshigoe (near present-day Enoshima) until Benzaiten intervened to put an end to Gozuryu’s evildoings.

Japanese deity Benzaiten seated on a white dragon (source: Pixels)

Apart from this, she is also depicted with eight arms as the slayer of demons. She holds objects such as a bow, arrow, trident, wheel, sword, key, and sacred jewels in her eight arms. It is said that Japanese Generals used to offer prayer to Goddess Saraswati before embarking on war.

Furthermore, just as the goddess Saraswati is shown wearing white clothes, the majority of Benzaiten idols in Japan are also totally white.

Benzaiten or Benten is one of numerous Vedic gods and goddesses who made their way to Japan via ancient and mediaeval Buddhist books and teachings, adopting local forms. These are a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.

Just as Saraswati became Benten, Goddess Lakshmi became Kichijoten or Kisshoten in Japan. Similarly, the god of wealth- Kubera- became Bishamon and Shiva’s Buddhist form Mahakala- became Daikokuten.

Hindu god Ganesha is also an inspiration for the Japanese god Kangi-ten, of the Shingon and Tendai schools of Japanese Buddhism. He is also known as Binayaka-ten, derived from Vinayaka, Ganabachi (Ganapati) and Ganwha (Ganesha). He, like Ganesha, is the remover of obstacles and also bestows material fortunes, prosperity, success and health. Kangi-ten, like Ganesha, is also depicted as elephant-headed, but as a male and female pair.

Left: Ganesha. Right: Japanese god

These deities are widely worshipped in Japan with multiple shrines devoted to them. Moreover, many books are written on the worship of Hindu gods in Japan and even today, it is claimed that Japan encourages a deeper study of Hindu gods.

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