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
Kichijōji’s main tourist draw is the Ghibli museum. It’s certainly the only thing that most Westerners I’ve spoken to are likely to recognize (though most admittedly don’t realize what it is until I mention Spirited Away and/or a few other of Miyazaki-san’s works). It’s not surprising that the neighborhood isn’t a big attraction; it’s a residential area and quite a nice one. It’s not meant to draw foreigners.
However the area is well worth a visit even if you are largely indifferent to anime and manga and have no intention to visit the Ghibli Museum. Inokashira park is simply beautiful, and it is home to my favorite shrine, one to Benzaiten-sama.
I have posted this picture several times on this blog, and it is actually my desktop background at the moment. The Inokashira Jinja is and always will be very dear to me.
Inokashira-Jinja’s history dates back to the tenth century, when a court aristocrat was shipped off to what is now Tokyo, but what was then the middle of nowhere. He brought with him an icon of the goddess Benzaiten-sama. The shrine itself has been in its present location since the end of the twelfth century; it was built under the orders of none other than the very first shogun Minamoto Yoritomo. That first shrine was completed in 1197, though it has been remodeled and even totally rebuilt a number of times over the centuries.
In the Edo period, the shrine was immensely popular with the leading actors of the day, and even during the Meiji era and on through WWII, when other shrines to Benzaiten-sama such as that at Enoshima and in Ueno were shut down or rededicated to native kami, the shrine in Kichijōji remained unopened and undamaged. To this day, it is a hidden jewel worth seeking.
What am I?
I belong to Sarasvati. I am Buddhist. I am Shinto. I am Hindu. I am Pagan. I am a mystic. I am syncretic. I am an eclectic. I am an apostate. I am a heretic. I am Catholic, but I am not Catholic anymore. I am a Lokean. I am Nokean. I am a poet and a writer. I am a student and a teacher. I am a witch. I am not a witch. I am all and nothing. It’s complicated, you see, but it’s so very simple.
What do you want me to be? What do you need me to be? I am here to help you. That’s all there is to it.