My Lady is called upon as a goddess of wisdom and a patroness of learning by traditions across the world, from India to Japan. She is known not just as Saraswati, but as Yangchenma and Benzaiten-sama. She is a goddess of sense-finding and pattern making, of narrative construction and storytelling. She forces chaos into coherence, and brings meaning to human existence by forcing sound into shapes called words, and carving lines into things called writing. My Lady is a cosmic goddess.
Someone new is in my life…I think? I’m not certain, as it could simply be My Lady in another one of her many guises. The entity in question, anyway, is the Sino-Japanese star deity known as Myōken.
Myōken is most often said to be the deity of the polestar, but his identity is quite fluid, hence my confusion. He is known by many other names, and is associated with many other deities in Japanese culture. Japanese polytheism (which is not limited to Shinto by any means) is complex and syncretic, and you can never be sure which deity you’ve got hold of.
I came to My Lady Saraswati via her Japanese persona Benzaiten-sama. Yet Benzaiten-sama is not only Saraswati; she is seen as the Bodhisattva Kannon, the Devi Sri, and various others. Her iconography overlaps with Oinari-sama, Dakiniten, and most importantly here, Myōken. Both Myōken and Benzaiten are associated with dragons and magic jewels, for instance.
Currently, the cultus I give Myōken is limited to observing the actual stars in the sky, and his shrine is a homemade paper talisman taped to the ceiling above My Lady’s shrine. I feel She has called me to the star god for a reason, if only to gain a greater understanding of Her.
Aoigaoka Keisei, “Benzaiten Seated on a White Dragon”
Edo Period woodblock print, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is one of my favorite images of Benzaiten-sama. It is (I believe, though I am not sure) a scene from the famous medieval epic Heike Monogatari. Benzaiten-sama was said to be the patroness of the Heike clan (better known in historical sources as the Taira). Yet she is sometimes said to have withdrawn her support of the Taira due to the hubris of Taira no Kiyomori, the clan patriarch. This in turn led to their defeat by the newly ascendant Minamoto clan, who would establish the first permanent shogunate.
The more I seek My Lady, the bigger she seems, and yet the more familiar she becomes. She is as vast as the heavens and the ocean, and yet remains an intimate friend and a beloved teacher. Is she Saraswati, Yangchenma, or Benzaiten-sama? Is she all of these or none of these? Some of these or some others? When I ask, the answer is merely, yes.
She is My Lady.
I found my polytheism in the suburbs of Tokyo, in a Shinto Shrine to a Buddhist Goddess called Benzaiten-sama. She is better known as the Hindu goddess Saraswati, but She is worshipped across pretty much all of South and Southeast Asia under many names. In Tibet alone She has a myriad of epithets, most famously Yangchenma, “goddess of melodious sound.”
In Japan though, she is Benzaiten-sama. She came across the waters from China and Korea with books and Buddhism, while I came roaring out of the skies jet-lagged and stumbling.
I’d worked with Her for a few months, and already fallen deeply in love, but it was not until I’d stood on the grounds of one of Her many shrines and met fellow believers that I truly understood what that love meant.
My polytheism was born of hospitality for both foreign mortals and foreign gods.
My polytheism is community in diversity
Guess what I found at the local antique market? Happy Anniversary!
Blessed is My Lady Benzaiten the goddess
For gamblers, whores, and thieves – Blessed are they
Who will call upon My Lady? Liars, the jealous, and me
Edo period print of a courtesan as Benzaiten-sama. At this time, the goddess was a traditional patroness for courtesans and other sex-workers, as well as “jealous women”, and professional gamblers (the forerunners of today’s yakuza)