Description: Anonymous (15th century)
Hanging scroll; ink, color and gold on silk
38¼ x 16in. (97 x 40.5cm.)
Notes: Property of the Family of an Important Shinto Priesthood
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Uga Benzaiten is a syncretic Shinto/Buddhist deity of good fortune and wealth. Her iconography is complex, even confusing. In the medieval period, Ugajin, an obscure deity of fortune, fused with the Buddhist goddess Benzaiten (an adaptation of the Hindu goddess of wisdom and music, Sarasvati).
In Japan, Benzaiten is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune and is closely associated with snakes and dragons. Benzaiten (like Ugajin) is worshipped as a water deity; her shrines and temples are located in or near rivers, lakes or the sea. Ugajin is thought to derive from Uga no mitama, a Shinto deity of foodstuffs mentioned in the earliest Japanese chronicles.
Uga Benzaiten has a coiled white snake (Ugajin) resting on her head, framed by a red Shinto gate, and her eight arms hold a halberd, Wheel of the Law, bow, wish-granting gem, sword, lock, treasure stick and arrow. Shown above are the complementary forces of sun and moon, as well as a pair of white foxes, associated with Inari, the Japanese deity of rice. To the right of the goddess is Daikokuten, protector of farming and commerce and one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune; to her left is Bishamonten, protector of the Law and also a member of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Her fifteen boy attendants (doji) are gathered below.
There is a very similar painting, known as Tenkawa Mandala, in the Tenkawa Shrine (the Grand Benzaiten Shrine), an ancient Shinto shrine in Tenkawa Village in the Yoshino region of Nara Prefecture. The painting shown here has additional iconographic features, including the six male figures above, two couples standing on the shore, the sea, a boat, and a dragon offering a jewel to the goddess.
The dragon king's palace, filled with precious treasures, is under the sea. According to Catherine Ludvik, a scholar of Japanese religion, the dragon king offers a jewel to the goddess in a late Kamakura-period painting of Uga Benzaiten, the earliest extant image of the goddess, at Kotohira Shrine in Shikoku. Ludvik notes that the cart at the left and the boat might form a pair, as they are usually connected with the attendant named Sensha ("boat and cart") in paintings of Uga Benzaiten.