Information and stories on Japanese Gods
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Benzaiten's Sanskrit name is Sarasvatī Devī, which means: "flowing water" or "eloquence," and her character has remained the same in Japan; only the Japanese paint her in their own fashion, for so far as the outside appearance goes, the identity between Sarasvatī p. 401 and Benzaiten is hardly recognizabie. Muir in his Original Sanskrit Texts, V. 339, says of her:
"Sarasvatī is a goddess of some though not of any great importance in the Vedas. She is celebrated both as a river and a goddess. She was primarily a river deity, as her name 'watery' clearly denotes; and in this capacity she is celebrated in a few separate passages . . . . The Sarasvatī thus appears to have been to the early Indians what the Ganges is to their descendants."
The tradition of Sarasvatī or Benzaiten as water goddess is not lost sight of in Japan, for we see her temples very frequently in isolated islands or in caverns on the sea-coast.
That she was also the goddess of eloquence, learning, writing, in short of general culture, is told by Sir W. Jones who says (Works, vol. XIII, p. 315):
"Sarasvati Devī is adored as the patroness of the fine arts, especially of music and rhetoric, as the inventress of the Sanskrit language, p. 402 of the Devanāgari characters, and of the sciences which writing perpetuates; so that her attitudes correspond with those of Minerva Musica in Greece or Italy, who invented the flute and presided over literature. In this character she is addressed in the ode; and particularly as the goddess of harmony, since the Hindus usually paint her with a musical instrument in her hand. The seven notes, an artful combination of which constitutes music and variously affects the passions, are feigned to be her earliest production."
Benzaiten in Japan is also the popular goddess of beauty. In stories of ancient Japan we read that when a mother wished to have handsome daughters, she went to the temple of Benzaiten, and confining herself in a special room or cave, she fasted and prayed with all her heart, generally for a period of seven days. In case her urgent wish was granted, the goddess manifested herself in a dream, and the child thus favored always surpassed all others in beauty and wisdom.
As Benzaiten is associated with water, she is often represented as standing or sitting on a dragon or sea-serpent, and sometimes assumes the shape of her sacred animal. In Hindu mythology she is pictured as riding on a peacock. In Japan as well as in India she holds a musical instrument in her hand, but the Japanese common sense hesitated to let her have more than two arms, while the fertile Indian imagination depicts her with four arms, though she looks more human than some other Hindu deities.