Saraswati – Hindu Goddess Of Learning Saraswati Devi
Saraswati is a Hindu goddess of learning. She is the goddess of speech (Vac), the Flowing-One. She represents the union of power and intelligence from which organized creation arises. Saraswati posseses all the learnings of the the Vedas, scriptures, dancing, musical power and poetry. She revealed language and writing to man. Her origin is the lost Vedic river Saraswati. This is the source of her profound connection to fluidity in any aspect (water, speech, thought, etc.). She is wisdom, fortune, intelligence, nourishment, brilliance, contentment, splendour and devotion.
Origins of Saraswati
The Sarasvati river was one of the major water causeways in northwest India. The river was navigable in the third and fourth millennium, BCE, from the Gulf of Khambat (Lothal) throughout Surkotada and Kotda (Dholavira, close to Bet Dwaraka) and upward th rough Nara-Hakra-Ghaggar-Sarasvati channels, right through to Mathura. It flowed directly through the Marusthali desert, one of the largest deserts in the world. During the third and fourth millennium BCE, an extensive civilization lived along its banks . Although considered a part of the Indus Valley Civilization, these groups of people shared a different lifestyle and different religious practices. All of the sacrifices and worship practices were primarily done on the banks of the river; the river wa s considered the most pure and auspicious place to do these sacrifices. The river was described in the Vedas as the “Mother of all rivers.”
One such religious practice used the river directly. As each of us live and interact in this material world, where the majority of our action s are considered unclean and unhealthy, we accumulate residues of these actions inside and outside of our body. The practice entailed submerging the whole body into the river. As the waters engulf and surround, the purity of the waters wash away all the foulness from the body, leaving the body fresh and pure when emerged from the river. Like a clean slate.
This practice is interesting to note when discussing the migration of the civilization and the migration of religious practices. In the fourth millennium, the Sarasvati River was drying up due to the dryness of the prevailing monsoon winds, which did not bring enough rain to keep the region moist. Consequently, the civilization migrated to the Kubha River, where they renamed the river to the Avestan Sarasvati.
This drying up of the river was a turning point in many of the beliefs of the people, and is noted in the Upanishads. Here, this act is explained in a myth. The Gods wanted someone to transport “fire” or Agni to the sea. The gods entrusted the Sarasvati River to perform this task. After gaining permission from her father Brahma, Sarasvati gathered up all her waters, and formed a body. She then carried the fire to the sea. The myth holds many symbolic meaning to the religious changes that were developing with the emergence of the Upanishads, as well as the physical changes of the river. The fire in reference, Agni, was the sacrificial fire and served as the link between hu mans and the gods. Sarasvati’s mission was to take this fire and deliver it to the sea, which can be associated with the ocean of consciousness, an aspect of the absolute. In doing so , the fire would become extinguished, and at the same time, would be removed form the world of man (the relative). The gods choose the Sarasvati River as the only one able to perform this task. Due to the purity of her waters, and the fact that she is water, she is able to accomplish the task.
In this event, Sarasvati has moved from a sacred river, to a goddess; she is a goddess of purity. She has also deposed of the sacrifice as the sole mode of reaching the gods and the absolute. As mentioned in the Upanishads, the sacrifice changes from fi re and rituals, to internalizing the process. In pursing knowledge, a sacrifice of the self is necessary to exit from the karmic world. In this knowledgeable state, the person becomes liberated through disciplines of the body, breathing, and mind. As a result, from removing the sacrificial fire and replacing it with a sacrifice of the self through obtaining knowledge, Sarasvati has now become the goddess of knowledge and learning. Also, the conventional modes of ritual movements as the concentration o f the sacrifice was extinguished. In its place, sounds, such as the sound OM and mantras became the most important quality. Sarasvati was given the title of music and speech.
Although the waters of the ancient Sarasvati River are all dried up, one can still ride on the currents and waves of Sarasvati to become pure. In the pursuit of knowledge and learning and through proper use of sound and speech, ultimate purity can now be achieved: moksa.
Saraswati and the Gods
The Puranas relate Saraswati to Brahma and Vishnu. Most frequently, she is associated with Brahma. Her connection with him dates earlier than to any other God. She is portrayed mostly as his wife and occasionally as his daughter. When Vishnu’s popularity in India increased, myths relating Saraswati to him appeared.
Saraswati and Brahma: When Saraswati is pictured as a wife of Brahma, she is usually portrayed as white complexioned, wearing white or yellow garments, and accompanied by a peacock or/and a swan (symbols of Brahma).
Origin of Brahma’s 5 heads due to Saraswati: Brahma created Satarupa (Saraswati) out of his own body, and became enamoured with her. He was looking at her amorously. In order to avoid his glances, Satarupa turned to the right side from his gaze. In order to see her then, Brahma created a second head. As she passed to his left and his rear, in order to avoid his lustful glances, two other heads of the god successively appeared. At last she sprang to the sky, and following her, a fifth head of Brahma was also formed.
(From the Matsya Purana)
Brahma’s Great Sacrifice:Brahma decided to perform a great sacrifice and for that purpose he and his wife Savitri (one of the names for Saraswati) went to Pushkara. When all the preparations were made with due rites and ceremonies for performing the sacrifice, Savitri, detained by some household affairs, was not in attendance. A priest was immediately advised to call her. But she replied that she had not yet completed her dress, nor arranged several affairs. Since without a wife no advantage could be derived by performing a sacrifice, Brahma advised Indra to bring a wife from wherever he could find one. Indra proceeded accordingly and, he found a milkmaid Gayatri (another name for Saraswati) who was young, beautiful . Indra seized her and brought to the assembly. Then Brahma told that he would espouse the mikmaid and she would be regarded as the mother of the Vedas. Thus Brahma was united with Gayatri.
At this time Savitri, accompanied by the wives of Vishnu, Rudra and other gods, come to the place of sacrifice. Seeing the milkmaid in the bride’s attire, Savitri became furious and cursed Brahma and all the other gods and left. But Gayatri repaired most of the curses by performing proper sacrifices.
(From the Skanda Purana)
Origin of Saraswati and Her Marriage to Vishnu: Once Krishna felt an inclination to create and thus sprang from him Radha, his shakti. Their union produced the mundane egg, which Radha threw into the numdane waters. Krishna was incensed at this unmotherly conduct of Radha and cursed her with everlasting youth and barrenness. At this point, suddently from the lip of Radha sprang forth a lovely daughter Saraswati of white complexion wearing yellow dress, bedecked with jewels and holding a Veena and a book in her hands. Radha again parted herself into two and her left half was transformed into Kamala or Lakshmi. At this, Krishna also parted into two and produced the four-armed Vishnu from the left side of his body. Krishna gave Sarasvati and Lakshmi to Vishnu as wives.
(From the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana)
Fight Between Saraswati and Ganga: Besides Saraswati, Vishnu married Ganga. One day Ganga was looking wistfully at her husband, and Vishnu was reciprocating the glances. This was too much for Saraswati who began to accuse Vishnu of partiality. Vishnu left the place to give Saraswati time to calm herself down. But this only served to anger Saraswati more. She advanced threatingly to Ganga when Lakshmi intervened. Lakshmi held Saraswati away from Ganga. Saraswati then cursed Lakshmi. Vishnu, having found out about what happened, cursed both Saraswati and Ganga with transformation into rivers, and also gave both of them to other husbands. Saraswati was given to Brahma and Ganga to Shiva.
(From the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana)
Saraswati: Iconographic Symbolism
The river imagery of Sarasvati represents a migration from a world of ignorance or bondage to a shore that represents enlightenment and freedom. This religious quest represents a state of transition or rebirth in which a spiritual pilgrim sloughs off his old self and is born again, free and enlightened.
Sarasvati’s female form demonstrates the great respect and recognition that women held in the Vedic tradition. She extols tolerance, as well as moral and spiritual strength. She can withstand roughness and bear pain. She is the consort of Brahma, so this shows that knowledge and creation are in harmony. Her white complexion and garments point to her absolute purity. Her four arms represent the four directions, giving the notion that Sarasvati is all-pervading. The front arms relate to the manifest world, and the back arms to the subjective world. She also demonstrates the four aspects of the personality-the mana, the buddhi, the chitta and the ahankara. The book symbolizes the totality of knowledge. Placing it in the left hand means that acquisition and application of knowledge should be controlled by the softer side of the human personality. The rosary symbolizes concentration or the meditative process involved in the acquisition of knowledge. The swan demonstrates the discriminatory power between right and wrong, as well as the real and unreal. It states,” live in the world, but do not be possessed by it. It symbolizes “jiva” and the “prana” which manifest through the inhaling and exhaling processes. The swan floats above the water in a state of samadhi. The peacock represents mundane knowledge that is unstable and leads to worldly desires. The peacock points to the chance of ignorant activity taking charge of the human personal ity–the dominates the head and the right side. Sarasvati as she is represented in the middle demonstrates a need for for a balance between both. The lotus represents supreme knowledge in activity. It is a symbol of evolution and detachment. It makes its way through the ocean of life by rising above its surface–it is the path from the outer being to the inner being.
The Veena points to the collective sound of all our thoughts and actions as it is manifest as music in the cosmic universe; it marks the withdrawal of the senses and the focus needed to attain knowledge. Placing the left hand on top of the veena closer to the heart shows that knowledge should be used for the good of others. Placing the right hand on the bottom shows that negative knowledge should be kept under control. The veena points to the potential for the negative and positive purposes of knowledge–the choice is left to the person as to which type of knowledge is used.
There is a special type of Veena called Saraswati Veena. The Sarasvati Veena is one of the oldest instruments of the world. It is a fretted organ which can produce notes in four octaves. Four strings are attached to the main bridge and three extra strings are used to keep count of the ‘taala’ or the cycle of beats. The drum to the right is the sound box, the drum to the left is used for support. The goal is to create a melodious, continuous sound or ‘taanam’ which awakens the inner senses. The Veena imparts a vocalized quality, or ‘Gayaki’ which creates the feeling that divinity itself is speaking through the flow of music. The Veena is considered the spinal cord, and the creation of music stirs the invocation of knowledge within the soul.
Saraswati: Connection to Yoga
Sarasvati gives the essence of one’s self. She provides us with the mundane and spiritual knowledge of our lives. She is a representation of the science of life, or the Vedanta, which attempts to unravel the essentials of human existence and the universe concealed within. She points to the ultimate aim of human life which is to realize the true nature of the self even if it requires an enormous amount of determination, perseverance and patience. The knowledge that Sarasvati renders through continual worship, devotion and discipline is one of an integral vision in which both temporal and spiritual levels of study are meditated upon, practiced and developed. Therefore, she allows one to exist in the material world while striving for the plane of Brahman. The connection one forms with Sarasvati is one with words and music, which are the very source of the cosmos, the Brahman. She is the impeller of true, sweet speech, she is the creative process with the syllable, ‘OM.’ She is the potent quality of sound.
Sarasvati is the ocean of understanding, the consciousness which vibrates with different types of knowledge. She is the cause of all movements, the source of spiritual light, remover of all ignorance and promoter of knowledge. Students that are here to discover, invent and create a new world fall under Sarasvati’’s grace, that is why we must be open and disciplined to acquire the knowledge which she can give to us. Sarasvati shows that human destiny involves the refinement of nature. Being fully human necessitates molding, enhancing and refining the natural world to make it habitable. Artistic creation as well as knowledge of the sciences epitomize human culture; integrated knowledge refines the world into something beautiful and special.
Saraswati: Rituals and Festivals
Ritual worship of Saraswati in the Bengali Tradition:
The idol is in white , symbolizing purity. The sari of the Deity is white or yellow dyed in the natural dye made from “Shiuli” flowers. The place where the idol is kept for the puja is decorated with Rangoli and the design of a fish is considered auspicious. A flat low stool made of wood is covered with yellow cloth and the idol is placed on it, facing East. Then, the face of the idol remains covered till the priest begins chanting the mantras at the commencement of the puja. A green coconut is placed on an earthen pot with a red checked cotton cloth called “Gamcha”. For the actual puja, flowers are used but the most significant is the Palash or flame of the forest and marigold flowers. Students place their books in front of the goddess. The offerings to the goddess are mainly fruits: most significant are Berries from the wild plum tree. Other fruits include tapioca. Sweets must include puffed rice, jaggery and yogurt. Family members bathe early and dress in yellow attire and assemble in front of the Goddess. The earthen pot is tied with a string which will be untied only on the next day by the priest before Bisarjan. A havan puja is done by the priest using special wood, ghee, joss sticks and incense. There absence of a burnt smell signifies the success of the puja. A diya or lamp is also kept lit along with the prasad. A handful of flowers particularly marigolds and flame of the forest are given to each devotee to offer to the goddess as “pushpanjali”–Pushp, meaning flowers and Anjali meaning offering. The offering is done in batches of devotees who repeat mantras after the priest. Arati is performed by the priest in the morning and again in the evening. this is done while chanting sanskrit slokas and accompanied by the blowing of conch shells and the beating of drums. The lit lamp used during the Arati is passed around for each devotee to warm his/ her hand and touch their heads. Nobody touches books on that day. This signifies that the goddess is blessing the books placed in front of her that day.
Basant Panchami: is celebrated on the fifth lunar day of the month of Magh, which is between the moths of January and February. It is also celebrated as Shikshapatri Jayanti. On this day, yellow is the predominant color as all are garbed in bright yellow clothes. This has to do with the onset of spring and the blooming of yellow mustard flowers in the fields. There is a great deal of festivity with the flying of colorful kites. It also happens to be the second most popular festival in Lahore, Pakistan and the incorporation of this traditionally hindu festival into modern Islamic culture has an interesting story behind it.
Temples Dedicated to Saraswati
There are Saraswati temples in Deupatan, Kamalakshi, Thimi, Bhadrakali and Swyambhu, Neel Saraswati at Gairidhara, among others in the Kathmandu Valley. Saraswati Temple in the University of Roorkee. Prthudakeshwara Temples in Pehowa, Haryana. They were built by the Marathas in honour of Saraswati. Saradamba Temple in Sringeri. Sarada Temple in the Neelam Valley in Kashmir. Basar: Situated 50 Kms from Nizamabad at Basara ,on the banks of river Godavari, the Sri Gnana Saraswathi Temple is the only temple in South India dedicated to the Goddess of Learning.
Saraswati: Connection to Other Religions
Sarasvati is well known in a variety of other religions outside of Hinduism. She appears in Jainism and Buddhism, and has made her way from India to Japan as well as to other places around the world.
In Jainism, Saravsvati has been given many titles, a few of these include: The Dispeller of Darkness & Ignorance, The Remover of Infatuations, The Destroyer of Miseries and The Bestower of Knowledge. As in Hinduism, she also stands as a symbol of purity.
In the transition from early (Theravada) Buddhism to Mahayana Buddhism, may elements of Hinduism were transplanted into Buddhism. In early Buddhist mandalas, various divinities were depicted of Mahayana Buddhism. In those early Buddhist mandalas, Sarasvati is located in the south-west of the innermost circle, between Brahma and Vishnu, symbolizing her close connection with these two deities. In Buddhism, Sarasvati is the Bestower of Knowledge, Intelligence & Memory; and she confers wisdom and learning upon her worshippers. She possesses many forms within Buddhism, including Vajra-Sarasvati, Vajrana-Sarasvati, Vajra-Sarada and Mahasarasvati. During a period of Tantric dominance within Buddhism, many of the Mahayana Buddhist texts were transmitted through the Himalayan passes to Nepal, Tibet, Java, China and eventually Japan.
In Tibet, she is known as Vajra-Sarasvati and is often depicted as wielding a Thunderbolt (vajra). In Japan, the goddess Benten is seen as a manifestation of Sarasvati. Her full name in Japanese is Dai-Ben-Zai-Ten or The Great Divinity of Reasoning Faculty. She is believed to confer power, happiness, riches, long life, fame and reasoning powers. In later times she came to be regarded as one of the seven deities of good fortune. A myth in Japan speaks of a hideous pond dwelling serpent that terrorized the villages and devoured the children for miles around. Benten could not bear to witness such destruction. Therefore she stirred up an earthquake and hovered above the serpent’s lair in the dust clouds. Descending, she called it forth. At first Benten was filled with loathing. But the serpent king wooed her with soft and tender words until her heart was melted, and–making him promise to mend his savage ways–she married him. It is interesting to note that Ben-Ten, as goddess of speech was won by words.
Names of Saraswati
Bharati – eloquence; Mahavidya – transcendent knowledge; Vac – speech; Mahavani – transcendent word; Arya – the noble one; Brahmi – power of the immense being; Kamadhenu – the wish cow; Bijagarbha – womb of the seed or womb of the elements of speech; Dhanesvari – divinity of wealth; Vacdevi – divinity of speech; Vinapani – the one that holds the vina; Sarada – giver of essence; Vageshvari – mistress of speech; Brahmi – wife of Brahma and Gayatri.
About the Goddess Saraswati, Sathya Sai Baba said:
The significance of Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati has to be rightly understood. The three represent three kinds of potencies in man: will power (ichchaa shakthi), the power of purposeful action (kriya shakthi), and the power of discernment (jnaana shakthi).
Saraswati is manifest in man as the power of speech (vaak). Durga is present in the form of dynamism. Lakshmi is manifest in the form of will power. The body indicates purposeful action (kriya shakthi). The mind is the repository of will power (ichchaa shakthi). The Aathma is the power of discernment (jnaana shakthi). Purposeful action comes from the body, which is material. The power that activates the inert body and makes it vibrant is will power. The power that induces the vibrations of will power is the power of discernment (jnaana shakthi), which causes radiation of energy. These three potencies are represented by the mantra, Om Bhur Bhuvah Suvaha. Bhur represents the earth (bhuloka). Bhuvah represents the life force, conscience in man. Suvaha represents the power of radiation. All three are present in man. Thus, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati dwell in the human heart.
Men are prone to exhibit passionate (raajasic) qualities like anger and hatred. They are the menacing manifestations of Durga. The extolling of the Divine in song and poetry and the pleasing vibrations produced by them indicate the power of Saraswathi. The pure qualities that arise in man, such as compassion, love, forbearance, and sympathy, are derived from Lakshmi.
When people worship Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswathi externally in pictures or icons, they are giving physical forms to the subtle potencies that are within them. The unfortunate predicament of man today is that he is not recognizing the powers within him and developing respect for them. He goes after the external, attracted by the physical forms. The relationship between the material and the subtle has to be understood. The remedy for man’s life is contained within himself. But man seeks remedies from outside. ~Sathya Sai Baba