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Who is Goddess Saraswati?
The etymology of the word, “Saraswati'' comes from the fusion of two Sanskrit words, “Saras” meaning pooling water or sometimes loosely translated to "speech" and "Vati" meaning she who possesses. Originally associated with the river or rivers she is also known as "she who has ponds, lakes, and pooling water" or occasionally "she who possesses speech". In some interpretations, "sara" is translated as "Essence", and "sva" is translated to "Self". Thus, the name Saraswati would translate to "She who helps realise the essence of self" or "She who reconciles the essence (of Parabrahman) with one's self".
Ma Saraswati Tanjore Painting by Sanjay Tanjekar
Understanding the birth of Saraswati gives us an insight into who she was and what was her purpose in this universe. It also helps us to understand her relationship with Lord Brahma as well.
In the beginning there was chaos. Everything existed in a formless, fluid state. Brahmna, the creator of this universe asked, "How do I bring order to this disorder?"
"With Knowledge", said Devi.
Heralded by a peacock, sacred books in one hand and a veena in the other dressed in white Devi emerged from Brahma's mouth riding a swan as the goddess Saraswati. The goddess uttered, “Knowledge helps man find possibilities where once he saw problems."
Under her tutelage Brahma acquired the ability to sense, think, comprehend and communicate. He began to look at the chaos through the wisdom he had acquired and saw the beautiful potential that lay therein. He discovered the melody of mantras in the cacophony of chaos. In his joy, he named Saraswati as Vagdevi, goddess of speech and sound.
The sound of mantras filled the universe with vital energy, or prana. The cosmos began to acquire shape and structure. The sky was dotted with stars and rose from the heavens, the sea sank into the abyss below and the earth materialised and stood still. Gods became lords of the celestial abodes; demons ruled the nether worlds, humans walked the earth. The sun rose and set, the moon waxed and waned, the tide flowed and ebbed. Seasons changed, seeds germinated, plants bloomed and withered, animals migrated and reproduced as randomness gave way to the rhythm of life.
Brahma thus became the creator of the world with Saraswati as his wisdom.
Saraswati was the first being to come into Brahma's world. It wasn’t long before Brahma began to see her with desire and lust.
Saraswati turned away saying, "All I offer must be used to elevate the spirit, not indulge the senses."
Brahma couldn’t control his amorous thoughts and his infatuation grew. He gave himself four heads facing every direction so that he would always be able to feast his eyes on Saraswati's beauty. Saraswati tried to escape Brahma's gaze, taking the form of a cow. Brahma then followed her as a bull. Saraswati then changed into a mare; Brahma gave chase as a horse. Every time Saraswati turned, Brahma followed her as the corresponding male equivalent. No matter how hard Brahma tried he could not catch Saraswati in any of her forms. The goddess with multiple forms came to be known as Shatarupa. She personified material reality, alluring yet fleeting.
Angered by his display of unbridled lust, Saraswati cursed Brahma, "You have filled the world with longing that is the seed of unhappiness. You have fettered the soul in the flesh. You are not worthy of reverence. May there be hardly any temple or festival in your name."
Undaunted by the curse, Brahma continued to cast his lustful looks upon Saraswati. He gave himself a fifth head to enhance his gaze. Brahma's action motivated by desire confined consciousness and excited the ego. It disturbed the serenity of the cosmos and roused Shiva, the supreme ascetic from his meditation. Shiva opened his eyes, sensed Saraswati's discomfort and in a fit of rage turned into Bhairava, Lord of Terror. His eyes were red, his growl menacing.
He lunged towards Brahma and cut off Brahma's fifth head. The violence subdued Brahma's passion. Brahma's decapitated head seared through Bhairava's flesh and clung to his hand removing all his strength and driving him mad. Saraswati, pleased with Bhairava's timely action, rushed to his rescue. With her gentle touch she nursed him like a child, restoring his sanity. Brahma, sobered by the encounter, sought an escape from the maze of his own desire. Saraswati revealed to him that he would have to conduct a yagna to cleanse himself and start anew. In order to conduct a yagna successfully, the assistance of a wife was needed. Brahma chose Saraswati to be his wife and thus they were reconciled. Thus, we understand the birth of Saraswati, though necessary, was a complex and complicated process, showcasing the much darker aspects of Hindu mythology
Importance of Goddess Saraswati as a River
The word Saraswati appears both as a reference to a river and as a significant deity in the Rigveda. Saraswati was viewed initially as a major river which geologists today consider as the Ghaggar-Hakra River.
The mythological story of Goddess Saraswati becoming a river is mentioned in the Srishti Khanda of Padma Purana as well as in Skanda Purana. It talked about a terrible battle taking place between the Bhargavas (a group of Brahmana) and Hehayas (a group of Kshatriya), and from it an all-consuming fire called Vadavagni was born which could destroy the whole world. Worried, the devas went to Shiva. He suggested that the devas go to Saraswati for help, requesting her to become a river and immerse the Vadavagni into the ocean. She agreed to go, only on the condition that Bramha would tell her, which he did. Therefore Saraswati agreed and leaving Brahmaloka. She arrived at sage Uttanka’s ashram. There, she met Shiva who gave her Vadavagni in a pot and told her that it originated from the Plaksha tree. Saraswati therefore, merges with the tree and transforms into a river.
In real life, the river Saraswati carried glacial water from the Himalayas through the plains of northwest India and probably ended in a series of large lakes within the Thar Desert, its water only reaching the sea in very wet rainy seasons. Many significant archaeological sites have been excavating along its course-way, indicating that the river played a vital part in the development of the Indus Valley civilisation. However, the Saraswati began to dry up during the Harappan and Late Harappan phases, as evidenced by the abandonment of many settlements, disappearing completely around 1900 BCE. To the people who lived along her banks, the goddess Saraswati was originally a personification of the river itself. As its waters began to fail and the Harappa settlements shifted eastward towards the mighty Indus river, Saraswati began to lose her status as a river goddess and became increasingly associated with literature, the arts and music. As centuries passed, she grew further to embody the concepts of intelligence, consciousness, knowledge, creativity, education, enlightenment and power.
Iconography of Goddess Saraswati
Goddess Saraswati is often depicted as a beautiful woman dressed in pure white, often seated on a white louts symbolising light, knowledge and truth. Her iconography follows white themes from dress to flowers to swan – all of it symbolising Sattwa Guna or purity, discrimination for true knowledge, insight and wisdom. She is generally shown to have four arms. The hands symbolically mirror her husband Brahma's four heads, representing manas (mind, sense), buddhi (intellect, reasoning), citta (imagination, creativity), and ahamkāra (self consciousness, ego).
The four hands hold items with symbolic meaning –
- A pustaka (book or script), The book she holds symbolises the Vedas representing the universal, divine, eternal, and true knowledge as well as all forms of learning
- A mala (rosary, garland), a mala of crystals, representing the power of meditation, inner reflection, and spirituality.
- A water pot- A pot of water represents the purifying power to separate right from wrong, the clean from the unclean, and essence from the inessential. In some texts, the pot of water is symbolism for soma – the drink that liberates and leads to knowledge.
- A musical instrument (veena) represents all creative arts and sciences, and her holding it symbolises expressing knowledge that creates harmony. Saraswati is also associated with anurāga, the love for and rhythm of music, which represents all emotions and feelings expressed in speech or music.
A hamsa – either a swan or a goose – is often shown near her feet. In Hindu mythology, the hamsa is a sacred bird, which if offered a mixture of milk and water, is said to be able to drink the milk alone. It thus symbolises the ability to discriminate between good and evil, essence from the outward show, and the eternal from the evanescent. Due to her association with the swan, Saraswati is also referred to as Hamsavāhini. The swan is also a symbolism for spiritual perfection, transcendence and moksha.
Sometimes a citramekhala (also called mayura, peacock) is shown beside the goddess. The peacock symbolises colourful splendour, the celebration of dance, and – as the devourer of snakes – the alchemical ability to transmute the serpent poison of self into the radiant plumage of enlightenment.
She is usually depicted near a flowing river or another body of water, which depiction may constitute a reference to her early history as a river goddess.
There are many avatars and forms of Goddess Saraswati. Saraswati is not just the goddess of knowledge and wisdom but also she is the Brahmavidya herself, the goddess of the wisdom of ultimate truth. Her Mahavidhya forms are Matangi and Tara Mahavidya she manifests:
- As Mahakali, she is the destroyer of ignorance and ego, and the darkness that surrounds the mind of the unlearned and lethargic.
- As Parvati, she is Brahmavidhya, the ultimate truth.
- As Lakshmi, she is Vidhyalakshmi, who provides wealth according to skill.
- As Vidhya, she is the formless concept of wisdom and knowledge in all of its aspects.
- As Gayatri, she is the personification of the Vedas.
As Savitri, She is the personification of purity, consort of Lord Brahma
Maa Saraswati Kerala Mural Painting by Adarsh
Worshipping Goddess Saraswati- Vasant Panchami
One of the most famous festivals associated with Goddess Saraswati is the Hindu festival of Vasant Panchami. Celebrated on the 5th day in the Hindu calendar month of Magha (month) , it is also known as Saraswati Puja and Saraswati Jayanti in India. Vasant Panchami is a festival of Hindus and Sikhs that marks the beginning of preparations for the spring season. It is celebrated by people in various ways depending on the region. Vasant Panchami also marks the start of preparation for Holika and Holi, which occur forty days later. For many, Vasant Panchami is the festival dedicated to goddess Saraswati who is their goddess of knowledge, language, music, and all arts. She symbolises creative energy and power in all its forms, including longing and love. The season and festival also celebrate the agricultural fields' ripening with yellow flowers of mustard crop, which Hindus associate with Saraswati's favourite colour. People dress in yellow saris or shirts or accessories, share yellow-coloured snacks and sweets. Some add saffron to their rice and then eat yellow cooked rice as a part of an elaborate feast.
Goddess Saraswati is celebrated and worshipped in India and across the world. She is worshipped in various east asian countries such as Japan, Cambodia, Bhutan, Thailand and Myanmar. She holds immense importance in Hinduism and one can learn a great deal from her life story.