Patrons of writing and teaching: Saraswati/Benzaiten

Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Saraswati

Saraswati is an interesting woman.

As an expression of female creative energy in Hinduism, she carries a lot of power, said to act as the goddess of music and poetry, the visual arts, literature, and knowledge. All knowledge. There are varying accounts of her origins — some say she was the daughter of Brahma and Durga, the pure embodiment of feminine creativity; other accounts claim that, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, Saraswati emerged as a natural product of Brahma’s own creative force. Either way, Saraswati exists not only to drive creativity but also to control it through education and wisdom — because, as we all know, raw creativity unleashed in our lives is sometimes a chaotic force!

A multi-talented goddess, Saraswati influences intelligence, consciousness, education, and enlightenment as well as creativity, music, and the arts. She also oversees power in general (because she knew before Francis Bacon did that scientia potentia est). And those who worship her understand that she controls not only secular knowledge but also the more esoteric knowledge of divinity, necessary to achieve moksha, or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

That’s quite a résumé.

Benzaiten, the Goddess of Music and Good Fortune, by Ogawa Haritsu (1663-1747)

And because all that isn’t enough for one woman, Saraswati also is the goddess of water. Her name, in Sanskrit, translates as “flowing water,” and she shares her name with a river in northern India and parts of Pakistan. It is this association that carries over to her worship in Japan, where she is known as Benzaiten. As Saraswati worship traveled through China to Japan, her attributes of fluidity picked up the Chinese and Japanese associations with eloquence (which is what her Japanese name refers to), and so the water goddess’s connection with music, literature and knowledge translated perfectly for the Japanese. Thus she is known as the Shinto goddess and the Buddhist bodhisattva of words — spoken, written, and sung — wisdom, music, and, of course, rivers.* She is also considered one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, which seems to relate, although not intentionally, to the Muses in Greece, who started our Women’s History month of patronage. And, as a bonus for my own views on teaching, she is also sometimes associated with Kannon (known in China as Kwan Yin and in Tibet as Tara), the female bodhisattva of compassion. And why not? Love, too, flows.

In Japan, Benzaiten is also associated with snakes and dragons, since both creatures are, in East and South Asia, considered water creatures. Snakes, tradition has it, serve as her messengers, and — because she is, after all, an embodiment of control and power — she is said to have married a dragon after first subduing him.

That sounds great to me. In the Chinese astrological horoscope, I was born in a Year of the Dragon, and believe me, I could do with subduing sometimes. So here’s to Saraswati and Benzaiten, who not only inspire us to write but also help us find discipline in our creativity and, like pushing our thumbs over the nozzle of the waterhose, help us direct our creative energies into their most powerful form.

* An interesting connection that I haven’t yet seen others make: Tradition has it that Zen practitioners, when composing haiku, would sit in a hut by a stream in which floated bottles of sake. If they could manage to compose a poem by the time a bottle floated past, they would take the bottle and drink, then get back to writing. Each poem meant another sip of sake. Seems like something my college students in the States would love to try, but (in theory, anyway), the idea for these serious meditators and poets was to compose beautiful poetry, not to get drunk. Either way, I wonder if there is some connection between the haiku stream and Benzaiten….

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “Patrons of writing and teaching: Saraswati/Benzaiten

  1. Fascinating! I have statues of Shiva and Ganesh, as well as a few Buddhas, in my apartment. I think I’ll start looking for one of Saraswati. The place good use a little girl power (besides my own).

    *Please note I did not mean to reduce this most learned, spiritual and interesting post into a shopping trip.

    1. Thanks, Lori! I also have a Shiva and, of course, several Buddhas and bodhisattvas–I love them all.

      Just doing a quick and easy search, I found some Saraswati statues here, and some Benzaiten statues here. Not endorsing these vendors–they were just the first places I found that looked authentic.

      While you’re adding feminine energy to your place, you should check out Tara, the female bodhisattva of compassion. She has many aspects, but her most popular are Green Tara (female buddha of enlightenment) and White Tara (female buddha of compassion and long life). I love her for a whole slew of reasons, not the least of which is her traditional story: According to one origin story, Tara was a woman who entered monastic life and studied Buddhism. She became such an advanced student of bodhicitta that one day some senior monks approached her and suggested she work toward liberation so that when it came time to choose her next birth, she could choose birth as a man, since she could only advance her studies further with a male mind. She forcefully retorted that only the weak and foolish view self in terms of gender; the truly enlightened are neither helped nor hindered by their sex. To prove her point, she vowed on the spot not only to take rebirth until all sentient beings attain enlightenment, but also to always reincarnate in a female body. According to HH the Dalai Lama, she announced that “for all my lifetimes along the path I vow to be born as a woman, and in my final lifetime when I attain Buddhahood, then, too, I will be a woman” (from his talk on Compassionate Action, given in Newport Beach, CA in 1989). For that alone she deserves my reverence!

      If you ever run across Kwan Yin (Chinese) or Kannon (Japanese), she’s the same woman as Tara. I highly recommend any of those figures for a household reminder of strong female influence. 🙂

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