Saraswati: Goddess of Knowledge and Arts
‘Avirvabhuva tatpashchanmukhatah Paramatmanah’, that is, one who has her origin direct from the mouth of God is Saraswati. One of the aspects of Vishwadevah – a collective name for a group of deities with various names, their more widely accepted number being twelve, Saraswati manifests as Vak – speech, wherein reveals the world of name and form – material or abstract, present or past, celestial or terrestrial … all that is known or shall ever become known. The goddess of learning and intellect ‘jyotiswarupa’ – lustrous, Saraswati is the light within that illuminates beyond. As the supreme light, she imparts to the sun its power to reveal a form, and to man, his desire to discover the formless. Never ruthless, and hardly ever inclining to punish, the benign one bestows bliss and delight – always and on all, and if at all, eliminates maladies and ignorance or other forms of darkness. She operates as man’s creative faculty and is thus the root-source of literature, art, music and all – ever thought, conceived or created.
Far from a passive boon-conferring divinity, Saraswati has always represented operative aspect of cosmic existence. A long course of evolution shaped her image in the devotional mind, the purity of her being, lustre of her form, benignity of her mind, and ability to nourish have, however, been the same as ever.
SARASWATI IN VEDIC LITERATURE
As regards her status in the Vedas, Saraswati has priority over Mahadevi and Mahalakshmi – other two deities of the Puranic Trio manifesting Divine Female. Saraswati apart, the two deities of the Rig-Vedic Trio were Ila and Bharti, not Mahadevi and Mahalakshmi. Both, Ila and Bharti merged into the all-pervading personality of Saraswati during the later Vedic period – substantially in Brahmans. Though Vishwadevah is the primary object of the prayers that the Rig-Vedic richas – usually four-line verses offer, at least eighty of these richas laud and pray Saraswati. Saraswati, along with Illa and Bharti, is one of the twelve components of Vishwadevah. These collective richas apart, three of the suktas – conceptual hymns, are also devoted to Saraswati, which elevates her to the status of a sukta-bhak deity – a deity of higher order with a distinct and independent identity, one that is the subject of conceptual verses.
Its mysticism apart, the Rig-Veda seems to have a dual perception of Saraswati, one as the sacred river, and the other, as the deity pervading all three worlds. Most scholars assert that it is only as river that the Rig-Veda has alluded to Saraswati and what of it seems to pervade all three worlds is its celestial character. They discover Saraswati’s parallel in Iranian river Haraihvati, which in contemporary Iranian rituals and literature was similarly lauded for being benign, humid, heroic, and immaculate. They argue that the term Saraswati, a combination of ‘sara’ or ‘svara’, meaning ‘to go’, and ‘swati’, meaning ‘tending’ or ‘inclining’, that is, one that has the tendency of going or moving, is more characteristic of a river. They emphatically hold that like the root ‘gam’, meaning ‘to go’, from which developed the name of river Ganga, in the Rig-Veda ‘sara’ is another root from which developed several terms that denote a river or an entity that has river-like moving character. They quote as examples Sarayu, Saranyu, sarita, sansara… first two, the names of two rivers, third, a river in general, and fourth, the transient world. They however concede that the Rig-Vedic Saraswati, with its origin in Heaven, could have been a celestial flood, not a terrestrial stream. Invoked by sages to redeem them from drought it descended on the earth across vast aerial region pervading it, and hence its all-pervasive character. In similar vein they interpret Saraswati’s other Rig-Vedic attributions. Her long arms by which Saraswati carves her path are interpreted as her long banks through which she had her course. To them, Saraswati’s form as the deity is a mere apotheosis of the river of that name.
Other group of scholars is little convinced with the logic. They feel that motion that ‘sara’ or ‘svara’ denoted is the first requisite also of sound. Apart, ‘sara’ also meant praise, and ‘svara’, utterance. So interpreted, the two terms stood for a goddess who was possessed of sound, utterance and praise, or was one who has been praised. They often perceive Saraswati as another form of Vak. Prayed and lauded with Vishwadevah Saraswati is one of the Akasha-devatas – aerial deities that commands atmosphere, thunder and lightening, i.e., sound, light, humidity, rain, and other atmospheric elements. They assert that under the Rig-Vedic standards two essentials defined a deity. Firstly, it had to be benign, and secondly, valorous performing acts requiring prowess. The Rig-Veda has lauded Saraswati as being ‘pavaka’, the one who purifies and causes rainfall. ‘Pavaka’ could be the attribute of a deity as also of the river but a valorous act – such as eliminating a demon, could be attributed to a deity, not river. The Rig-Veda lauds Saraswati for eliminating Vratra, or Bala – demon of drought and the son of Brasaya, something which a deity alone could accomplish.
Both suggestions are substantial. In most of its verses, or in most part of these verses, the Rig-Vedic attribution to Saraswati as the river is unambiguous. So interpreted, the demon Vratra could be a Rig-Vedic metaphor for drought – a usual Rig-Vedic idiom. But, the emphasis with which the Rig-Veda has personalised Vratra – giving his father’s name and other things, speaks of the same super-sensibility with which the Rig-Veda has conceived its most deities – Indra, Varuna, Agni, Sun among others that otherwise represented an aspect of nature. It is difficult to say as to when the Vedic seers – the great mystics endowed with unique power to see beyond material frame, perceived a divine entity containing an aspect of phenomenal nature, and when to them an aspect of phenomenal nature rose to divine heights and deified necessitating them to revere it as part of Vishwadevah and offer to it their prayers. Thus whatever it stood for, Vratra might not completely dilute into a mere verbal metaphor nor its elimination might be treated just as an act of a river redeeming from drought.
The Rig-Veda does not perceive Saraswati as an aspect of Vak as claim those seeing in her only a deity. It was rather Vak that later – in Atharva-Veda and Yajura-Veda, merged with Saraswati. The Rig-Veda personalises Saraswati independently and also straight, not metaphorically as it does Ushas or some other deities. When talking of Ushas the Rig-Veda alludes to her as one who unveils herself to the sun as does a bride before her groom. The Rig-Veda perceives in Saraswati a mother, spouse, sister and daughter – a complete woman. Virapatni – consort of the heroic, is her more often used epithet. The substantial part of the two of the three suktas that laud Saraswati is devoted to her consort Saraswata. Saraswata has been identified variedly as Vayu, Surya, Prajapati and Indra. A greater unanimity prevails in regard to Vira as an epithet of Prajapati. Later, in Puranas, Saraswata appears as the name of her son by sage Dadhicha – her consort. Apart that the Rig-Veda lauds and prays Saraswati as Ambitama, Sindhumata and Mata – terms denotative of ‘mother’, her form that it elaborates in one of its richas is essentially a mother’s : "Yas te stanah shasayo yo mayo bhur yena vishva pushyasi varyani / Yo ratnadha vasuvid yah sudatrah Saraswati tam iha dhatave kah" – Saraswati, may we drain that breast of your, which is exhaustless, source of pleasure, by which you feed all choicest things, which is wealth giver, treasure finder and free bestower. The Rig-Veda has also used for Saraswati the term ‘kanya’ usually interpreted to mean an unmarried daughter of tender age, and a couple of other terms interpreted variedly to mean a sister, both of other rivers, as also of Ila and Bharti – other deities of the Rig-Vedic Trio.
SARASWATI’S ATTRIBUTES IN THE VEDAS
Not so much her physiognomy or anthropomorphic appearance, the Rig-Veda liberally elaborates her personality, spiritual in particular – something it has not sought to do in case of most other deities. In regard to her appearance and basic temperament the Vedic seers have used three terms ‘suyama’, sometimes considered to be ‘suvigraha’; ‘shubhra’; and ‘supeshas’, which some scholars take as ‘swarupa’, and others, as ‘supish’. ‘Suyama’ meant easily led, as by prayer or laudation. Its identical term ‘suvigraha’ meant a beautiful figure with an accomplished anatomy. The repeatedly used ‘shubhra’ – meant white, obviously denoting her costume and adornment.
‘Supeshas’ could either be ‘swarupa’ meaning beautiful, or beauteous, or ‘supish’ meaning well adorned. The Rig-Veda is more elaborate in its depiction of her benignity, prowess, vigor and spiritualism. It uses for her terms like ’dhiyavasu’ – one who has exception wisdom and ability to act, interpreted sometimes as ‘dhinam avitri’ meaning one who perfects or bestows ’dhi’ – wisdom; ’subhaga’, fortunate and beautiful; ’vajinivati’, one possessed of abundant food, water, strength, vigor, energy, wealth, power of speech…; ’pavaka’, rain-giver, purifying, fire and lightening; ’paravataghni’, destroyer of Paravatas – a non-Aryan tribe, or mountains falling on its way; ’chitrayuh’, unique, bright, versatile, wonderful; ’hiranyavartanih’, one who abounds in gold; ’asurya’, one who has ceaseless life, breath, water or spiritualism; ’dharunamayasi puh’, one who is firm as a city made of iron; and, ’akavari’, one who is liberal even to her enemies. The Rig-Veda alludes to her also as destroyer of Vratra, and ’ghora’ – fierce, but in low tone.
SARASWATI IN POST-RIG-VEDIC LITERATURE
In the post-Rig-Vedic literature Saraswati, the deity, begins gaining prominence over Saraswati, the river. In her merges Vak, and her two counterparts in the Rig-Vedic Trio, Ila and Bharti, begin merging into her. At one place in the Atharva-Veda, a ‘mantra’ – divine hymn, mentions Saraswati with Ila and Bharti but at another, uses a term ‘tisrah Saraswatih’ that early Vedic commentators like Sayan and many other subsequent scholars interpret as three forms of Saraswati or her three aspects. In the Mahabharata Ila reduces into a mere linguistic term denoting intellect, and Bharti, into another name for Saraswati, or an abstraction denoting pursuit of learning. In their use of terms like ‘Saraswati Vakam’ or ‘Vak-Saraswati’, Atharva-Veda and Yajur-Veda perceive the synthesis of the two deities as final. Sayan holds that it is in her synthesis with Saraswati that vak, ordinary speech, undergoes her apotheosis into Vak, the goddess. The attribute of Vak being first born from the mouth of Brahaspati also merges with Saraswati.
In Atharva-Veda, Yajur-Veda and their organs – Brahmans, Aranyakas and Upanishadas, she emerges as a regular operative deity invoked for destroying a number of diseases, bestowing offspring, affluence, money and food, and for the attainment of other ends – winning love of a woman, or a man, harming a rival in love, or destroying enemies. The Yajur-Veda treats her almost like a physician. First in Yajur-Veda and then in Aitareya and Shatapatha-Brahmana Saraswati begins assuming legendary form and role. As Vak she transforms herself into a woman and goes to Gandharvas, who had a weakness for women, for restoring from them the Soma – divine drink, which they had stolen. As is the legend, Gandharvas guarded Soma – drink of Indra and other gods, in the heaven. One day, one of the Gandharvas Vishvavasu stole it and hid it in waters where Gandharvas Svan and Bhraji guarded it. To help gods, who were unable to win back Soma from Gandharvas, Saraswati as Vak turned of her own into a woman, went to Gandharvas and brought back from them the divine drink. It was from this episode that Saraswati got her ‘Anshumati’ – full of the Soma, epithet. Saraswati in her personalised form has been widely alluded to in different parts of the Mahabharata. She has been alluded to in Sabha Parva (Chapter 7, Verse 19) as adding lustre to Indra’s court by her presence, in Vana Parva (Chapter 185), as advising sages, in Karna Parva (Chapter 34, Verse 34), as serving as a passage to enable Shiva to take his chariot across over her and destroy Three Cities, and in Shanti Parva (Chapter 318, Verse 14), as appearing in the vision of sage Yajnavalkya the moment he meditated on her.
SARASWATI, GODDESS OR RIVER: PURANIC SOLUTION TO THE ENIGMA
The Puranas, too, take up the issue as to whether Saraswati was a river or a goddess and also seek to settle it finally. As have the Puranas, Saraswati was a goddess in Vaikuntha – Heaven, born on the earth as a river under a curse and was thus both, a river and a goddess and in both cases alike sacred. The Devi Bhagavata acclaims that Saraswati was one of Mahavishnu’s three wives, other two being Lakshmi and Ganga. One day when all three and Mahavishnu were engaged in delightful conversation, Ganga was secretly casting her lustful eyes at Mahavishnu and as secretly Mahavishnu responded her. When unable to bear it any longer Saraswati got up and hit Ganga. Lakshmi sought to intervene, which Saraswati did not like and cursed her to be born on the earth. Ganga pronounced a similar curse against Saraswati, and Saraswati against Ganga. Aggrieved by this unrestrained behaviour of his wives Mahavishnu ordained how the curses would work and each of them would be born on the earth. As for Saraswati, he ordained that she would be born on the earth as a river but her divine form would ultimately return back to Vaikuntha and then she would become Brahma’s consort.
SARASWATI IN PURANAS
The Puranic conception of Saraswati, though extremely diversified, takes off from where the Rig-Veda had left it. She emerges as one of the three deities of the Puranic Trio of the Divine Female as she was in the Rig-Veda, though her counterparts are now Mahadevi and Mahalakshmi, she herself being Mahasaraswati.
As in the Rig-Veda where she had several attributes in common with other deities of Vishwadevah, in Puranas too, at least initially, she had a form largely identical with Mahadevi and Mahalakshmi. She is benign and kind-hearted but also a fierce warrior and demon-slayer carrying same weapons as carried Mahadevi or Mahalakshmi. In popular worship tradition this demon-slayer form of Saraswati was known as Sharda. If anything distinguished this form of her from those of Mahadevi and Mahalakshmi it was her ‘subhra-vasana’ – white attire, again what the Rig-Veda had prescribed.
The Rig-Veda perceived Vak as born from the face of Brahaspati and hence his daughter, and Saraswati, as Virapatni and hence Brahma’s spouse. Much before Puranas Vak and Saraswati merged into one entity and so did largely Brahaspati and Prajapati, in most contexts Brahma being their name. Thus, on one hand, Saraswati as Vak was Brahma’s daughter and on the other, his consort. Puranas like the Brahmanda Purana allude to her straight as Brahma’s daughter born from his face. As the Brahmanda Purana has it, while meditating on creation before its process was begun, ‘sattvaguna’ – sublime nature, began swelling up in Brahma’s mind. First to be born from it was a girl. Brahma asked her who she was. She answered that she was born of him and asked him to fix for her a seat and duties. Brahma named the girl Saraswati and ordained that she should stay on the tip of everybody’s tongue. He instructed her to dance especially on the tongues of learned ones. He desired that in her another form she should descend on the earth as a river and in yet another form reside in him.
As unanimously Puranas acclaim Saraswati to be Brahma’s consort. Usually Puranas allude to Saraswati, Savitri and Gayatri as Brahma’s three consorts. The Matsya Purana, however, opines that these are only the three names of one person. As the Matsya Purana has it, Brahma created a woman out of his own effulgence. The woman – a daughter born from him, became known by four names – Satarupa, Savitri, Gayatri and Brahmani. Her enchanting beauty mesmerised even Brahma who falling in love with her looked at her with lustful eyes. Noticing it she turned to his right to evade his glance but Brahma created a face on the right side of his head and continued to gaze at her. She likewise turned from one direction to other but Brahma created a face on each of his four sides and kept his gaze fixed on her. The helpless woman rose into the sky but Brahma created a fifth sky-wards looking face. Finding escape impossible she yielded to his desire and the two were then onwards husband and wife honeymooning for a hundred years. To them was born a son named Swayambhuva or Virat. Thus, Puranas perceive Saraswati dually as Brahma’s daughter and consort.
Whatever the myth in regard to duality of relationship between Brahma and Saraswati, the Vedic mysticism, which the Puranas often seek to unfold using fiction, seems to reveal a different cosmic truth. The universe, as it is revealed to the knowing mind, is the universe of ‘form’ and ‘name’, and it is through Vak – speech or syllable, that it becomes known. Brahma, the Creator, could not reveal his creation to the knowing mind unless he had Vak to be his medium. Hence, he first created Vak, his medium, and then using it rendered the universe of form and name manifest. Saraswati who represented speech was, thus, born of Brahma and was hence his creation, and by her he made the universe manifest and hence was his partner in the act of creation – one way his daughter and other way, his consort. In later Puranas and visual arts – sculpture in particular, she is hardly ever treated as Brahma’s daughter. She appears mostly as his consort and quite often has her name as Brahmani, though unlike Shiva and Parvati who are often in ‘mithuna’ – an aspect of love, and invoked jointly sometimes as Uma-Maheshvara and at other times as Shiva-Parvati, Brahma and Saraswati have very rarely a ‘mithuna’ form and far rarely a joint name.
OTHER EXPLOITS OF SARASWATI
Black-complexioned Saraswati with normal two arms conducting 'badavagni' - ocean-fire, into the western ocean; Rajasthan, late 18th or early 19th century; collection: National Museum, New Delhi
Puranas attribute to Saraswati several exploits involving unique wisdom and prowess. After great austerities Kumbhakarana, Ravana’s elder brother, came to Brahma for a boon. Brahma learned by foresight that he wanted him (Brahma) to grant him ‘Nirdevatva’ – absence of gods. Brahma sought Saraswati’s help. Saraswati, already staying at the tip of Kumbhakarana’s tongue, made it utter ‘Nidratva’ – sleep, which was granted. Padma Purana credits Saraswati to have saved the world and all from ‘Badavagni’ – fire ensued as the result of the great austerities of Aurva, great grandfather of Parasurama. For obtaining ability to avenge the killing of his ancestors by Kshatris Aurva took to great penance. By the power of austerities his sublime wrath transformed into cosmic flames that began engulfing the world. The horrified gods rushed to Brahma for rescue. They told him that Saraswati alone could save the world by conducting ‘Badavagni’ into the western sea. On instructions from Brahma Saraswati conducted Badavagni into the sea, with which the oceans still boil and occasionally send back its flames. On her way to the western sea Saraswati had a brief halt at Pushkara and redeemed people’s sins, something that waters of Pushkara are believed to yet do.
Goddess Saraswati Plays Veena on Her Swan
Like her personality, Saraswati’s imagery also evolved along centuries from Vedic days to now. In Vedas, except her large beautifully shaped breasts full of abundant milk, details of her limbs or anatomy are missing though those of her appearance are quite elaborate. The Vedas conceived her as both black and white but essentially effulgent and lustrous – ‘jyotiswarupa’, in body-colour, and as abounding in gold – ‘hiranyavartaniya’, in her adornment. Other attributes used for her in Vedas are ‘chitrayus’ – well shaped and elegantly modeled like a picture, ‘suvigraha’ – having a beautiful figure, ‘swarupa’ – endowed with great aesthetic beauty, ‘supish’ – well-adorned, ‘subhra’ – clad in white, and several others reflecting benignity, spiritualism and energy in her being. In her early visual representations she is invariably in ‘adhovastra’ – clad below the waist, her ornaments covering the rest. This Vedic perception of Saraswati’s personality and appearance continues in Puranas as well but they also add some new features which immensely strengthen her deity form. Her figures brim with unique vigour and timeless youth. She is now four-armed.
In her initial stage as demon-slayer Sharda, she carried in them attributes of annihilation but later Agni Purana type subsequent texts represent her as carrying in her three hands a string of beads, book and vina – lyre, more characteristic of the deity of learning, arts, music and creativeness, and the fourth, held in a posture of ‘varada’ – boon-conferring, ‘abhaya’ – imparting fearlessness, or as interpreting. In one of her hands she sometimes carried a pot, perhaps to denote her water-carrying distinction – a feature of the river-goddess. In view of her Shaivite links she sometimes carried attributes of Shiva, and sometimes a lotus suggestive of her prior links with Vishnu.
Jain Saraswati with idol of Tirthankara Mahavira in her coiffure: marble, Rajasthan, collection: National Museum, New Delhi
Saraswati has far many forms in Jain and Buddhist pantheons. Saraswati as a Jain deity essentially carries a Tirthankara idol in her coiffure,
and as the Buddhist, a number of Buddhist attributes, various body-colours and postures.
Some of Saraswati’s early idols are also two-armed. In contemporary art, too, she is sometimes represented with normal two arms.
Goddess Saraswati on Her Swan
Puranas assign to her a lotus seat and a swan as her vehicle – symbolising purity, chastity and detachment which Saraswati represents in her being.
The Finest Saraswati Money Can Buy
Her votive images are often defined with an elaborate ‘prabhavali’ – fire-arch. Her most forms reveal rhythm but not dance.
However, a few of her early dancing images are also reported, one from Udeshvara temple, Udayapur in Madhya Pradesh. As deity, river Saraswati has the same imagery as has Saraswati the goddess except that corresponding to her moving character she is more often conceived as swan-riding, not as lotus-seated or seated.
WORSHIP OF SARASWATI
Shri Saraswati Prarthana The Complete Prayer (With Two CDs)
Like Lakshmi, who, as Padmavati, has many shrines dedicated to her in the southern part of the country, Saraswati as Sharda has been since ages the presiding deity of the entire Kashmir region and was widely worshipped in the north and Central India. Even Kashmir’s classical script is named as Sharda after her name. In Bengal, too, she has great significance. Not in her Vedic form, or as the river goddess, or even as the consort of Brahma who himself is no longer in worship, Saraswati enshrines every Indian mind, if not many sanctums, as the goddess of learning representing supreme wisdom, all-knowing intellect, and as nurturer of creative faculties – literature, arts, music, dance… and occupies pedestals and shelves of lacs of institutions devoted to pursuit of learning.
Saraswati with Ganesh : late 18th or early 19th century, Rajasthan, collection National Museum, New Delhi
Not only a sanctum-deity, Saraswati is an auspicious presence that elevates the mind and promotes right knowledge. When with Ganesh, she assures right perspective and accomplishment of the goal, while Ganesh, the detriment-free auspicious beginning.
Since ancient times and all across medieval days, on Vasantotsava – Spring festival, which is celebrated on Vasanta-panchami – the fifth day of Phalguna, the last of the twelve months of Indian calendar, Goddess Saraswati is worshipped.
Vasanta-panchami marks the beginning of man’s pursuit of learning and Saraswati, who represents it, presides over the occasion. As the tradition has it, with Vasanta-panchami is begun a new educational session and a child writes on the day his ever first alphabet. Educational institutions and private persons hold special rites to hail and worship the goddess and believing minds place their books and pens around her image so that they reveal to them more learning and greater wisdom.
(Best Wishes to all our Readers on the Occasion of Vasant Panchami, 11th February)
Mohammad Ismail Khan : Saraswati in Sanskrit Literature
Dr. Raghunath Airi : Concept of Saraswati in Vedic Literature
Dr. Daljeet and P. C. Jain : Indian Miniature Painting
B. C. Bhattacharya : The Jain Iconography
T. A. G. Rao : Elements of Hindu Iconography
D. A. Mackenzie : Indian Myth and Legend
Thornbury : Geomorphology
Encyclopaedia of Religion : (ed.) Ferm, J.
Vettam Mani : Puranic Encyclopaedia
David Kinsley : Hindu Goddesses