70.0 x 33.5 cm image; 141.0 x 49.0 cm scroll
Benzaiten’s origin leads back to Sarasvatī, a Hindu deity associated with an Indian river of the same name. In Vedic times, she was worshipped as the goddess of music, poetry and of learning. Introduced to Japan via China sometime in the 7th-8th century, Benzaiten was adopted into Japan’s Buddhist pantheon as an eight-armed deity with martial power who defended the nation. With the evolution of the esoteric Buddhism ('mikkyō') in the early 9th century, her role as a goddess of music became more important and she was usually depicted in paintings and sculpture as a two-armed beauty playing a lute. Sometime during the late 11th-12th century, the Hindu-Buddhist deity Benzaiten was conflated with an obscure local Shintō snake deity ('kami') named Ugajin and became an object of worship among Shintō, the syncretic Shūgendō order and esoteric circles. Also known as Uga (or Uka) no Mitama, Ugajin is venerated as the deity of water, rice, good fortune and wealth. The composite deity is named Uga Benzaiten, and her iconography became increasingly complex, combining the eight-armed Buddhist form carrying various weapons and wealth-promising attributes and crowned with a Shintō shrine gate and the snake kami Ugajin in her headdress. The linkage with Ugajin promotes Benzaiten’s popularity in Japan enormously. It also reconnects her with her origin as a river – hence water – goddess, and associates her with fertility, fecundity, food crop and wealth. Her sanctuaries are usually located in the proximity of a sea, lake, pond or river, and her avatars are snakes and dragons. As a result of her increasing importance as a goddess of wealth and good fortune, the character ‘zai’ in her name was changed from the meaning of ‘talent’ to ‘wealth’ during the Muromachi period (1392-1573), leading consequently to her inclusion as one of the ‘Seven Gods of Fortune’, highly popular in Japan until the present day.
Uga Benzaiten is depicted here in her standard iconography as an esoteric eight-armed goddess, shown in frontal view, sitting on a throne of eight dragon heads. Her four right arms hold a treasure stick, the key to the treasure house, arrows and a sword; while the four left arms carry a trident, the wheel of the Law, a bow and the wish-granting jewel. Her white, plump face, hairdo and clothing are modelled after the beauty ideal and fashion of Chinese court ladies of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Her headdress is adorned with a coiling white snake beneath a 'torii' (Shintō shrine gate). A double halo with three flaming jewels surrounds her head and her whole figure is encircled in a large disk. The goddess is accompanied by Bishamonten, the guardian deity of the North, also celebrated in popular belief as a God of good fortune, to her right, and Daikokuten, the god of agriculture and commerce, to her left. Included in her entourage are the fifteen youthful attendants, 'dōji', each carrying offerings such as rice, cloth, wine, cattle as well as various other food stuff. Above this central group of figures are celestial beings and guardian figures – grouped to five to her right and seven to her left - carrying diverse musical instruments and weapons. A gigantic dragon head, engulfed in flames, emerges between these two groups. With its mouth wide opened, the right claw stretched out while the left clutching a jewel, the dragon is an awe-inspiring presence. Interestingly, parts of its long, snake-like body appear intermittently among the cresting waves in the lower part of the composition.
Depictions of Uga Benzaiten – sometimes accompanied by her fifteen attendants – enjoyed high popularity in Japan in the Muromachi period. The present scroll is unique in its iconographic complexity, as it does not only show the standard grouping of Uga Benzaiten and her acolytes, but also other accompanying deities such as Bishamonten and Daikokuten and the celestial beings, whose identification is yet to be determined.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, June 2012.