DEVI SARASWATI : THE VEDIC GODDESS OF KNOWLEDGE AND ARTS(SAMYA MUKHERJEE)
Devi Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, nature, speech and learning; representing the free flow of wisdom and consciousness. She is also named as ‘Bharati’ (eloquence), ‘Brahmi’ (goddess of science), ‘Shatarupa’ (existence), ‘Vedamata’ (mother of Vedas), ‘Brahmani’ (power of Brahma), ‘Veenapani’ (goddess carrying veena in Her hands) and ‘Bagdevi’ (goddess of speech). She is the abode of ‘Satyaloka’ and ‘Manideepa’. Devi Saraswati is the daughter of Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga. In visual representations, Devi Saraswati has sacred scriptures in one hand and a lotus in the opposite hand. It is believed that Goddess Saraswati endows human beings with power of speech, wisdom and learning. Devi Saraswati is known as ‘Mother of Vedas’ and chants directed to Her, called the ‘Saraswati Vandana’, often begin and end the Vedic lessons. The wealth of knowledge, once earned by the worshippers of Goddess Saraswati is eternal. While material possessions run out with giving – the more one imparts knowledge to others, the more one is enriched.
Devi Saraswati first appeared in the Rig Veda and in later religious texts, She is identified as the inventor of Sanskrit; and appropriately provided Lord Ganesha the gifts of pen and ink. Thus, Devi Saraswati remained significant as a goddess from the Vedic period, through modern times of Hindu traditions. She is generally shown to have four arms, holding a book, a rosary, a water-pot and a musical instrument called ‘Veena’. The goddess is also revered by believers of the Jain religion of West and Central India, as well as some Buddhist sects. ‘Saraswati’ is a Sanskrit fusion word of ‘Saras’ meaning – pooling
water, also sometimes translated as speech and ‘Vati’ meaning – she who possesses. Originally, being associated with the river or rivers known as ‘Saraswati’, this combination therefore means ‘She who has ponds, lakes and pooling water’ or occasionally ‘She who possesses speech’. It is also a Sanskrit composite word of ‘Suras-Vati’ which means ‘One with plenty of water’.
Mythological outlook : According to Hindu Mythology, after creation of the cosmic universe by Lord Brahma, a great pandemonium reigned supreme in the cosmos. But Brahma felt bewildered because He realised that His cosmic universe was bereft of order, conception and configuration. He created the embodiment of wisdom and art, thus, Goddess Saraswati emerged out of the mouth of Lord Brahma. Then all the celestial bodies including the Sun, the Moon and the stars were created and organised under strict orders. The oceans sprang up and the seasons started changing periodically. Ecstatic Brahma named the goddess as ‘Bagdevi’ (the Goddess of speech and sound). In this way, Brahma created the Universe equipped with the eternal source of wisdom, provided by Goddess Saraswati. Thus Devi Saraswati is considered as the patron of Arts and Science, as well as the wife of Lord Brahma; even if the Bengal Vaishnavas considered Her as the wife of Lord Vishnu.
In Hindu tradition, Lord Brahma is very rarely worshipped – in Mythology this is explained as a result of a curse from Saraswati. The curse was actually brought about through a misunderstanding. One day when awaiting His wife to begin an important religious ceremony and so unable to start the ritual punctually, Brahma asked for the advice of the gods. They responded by creating a new wife for Him, whose name was Gayatri – so that, the ceremony could go ahead at
the precise time. However when Saraswati eventually turned up, She was not pleased to see Her husband with another woman and so cursed Lord Brahma that He would never be worshipped by humanity (even if He is very rarely worshipped in few parts of South-East Asia). Some Hindus believe that all creatures were born from the union of Lord Brahma and Devi Saraswati, starting with Manu, the first man. More specifically, Saraswati’s son is the rishi (sage) Sarasvata. He nourished by the beautiful waters of His mother, was able to withstand the Great Drought of Hindu Mythology and so survive as the definitive repository of the sacred text Vedas.
Devi Saraswati – under reflection of some ancient texts : In ‘Devi Mahatyam’, Goddess Saraswati is one of the female trinity i.e. ‘Tridevi’, comprising of ‘Maha Kali’, ‘Maha Lakshmi’ and ‘Maha Saraswati’. They are the consorts of the trinity of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma respectively. In the process of creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe – all the three goddesses also played pivotal roles.
In Hindu tradition, Saraswati has retained Her significance as a goddess from the Vedic age up to the present day. In ‘Shanti Parva’ of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Devi Saraswati is called “The mother of the Vedas”, and later as the celestial creative symphony who appeared when Brahma created the universe. In Book2 of ‘Taittiriya Brahmana’, Devi Saraswati is called “The mother of eloquent speech and melodious music”. Devi Saraswati is the active energy and the power of Brahma. She is also mentioned in many minor Sanskrit publications such as ‘Sarada Tilaka’ of 8th century CE.
In Vedic literature, Saraswati acquires the same significance for early Indians as that accredited to river Ganges by their modern descendants. In hymns of book 10 of Rig Veda, Devi Saraswati is already declared to be the ‘possessor of knowledge’. Her importance grows in Vedas, composed after Rig Veda and in Brahmanas, and the word evolves in its meaning from ‘waters that purify’ to ‘that which purifies’; from ‘vach (speech) that purifies’ to ‘knowledge that purifies’ and ultimately into a spiritual concept of a goddess that embodies knowledge, arts, music, melodies, language, rhetoric, eloquence, creative work and anything whose flow purifies the essence and self of a person. Again, in Upanishads and Dharma Shastras, Saraswati is invoked to remind the reader to meditate on virtue, virtuous emoluments, the meaning and the very essence of one’s activity, one’s action.
Symbolism of Devi Saraswati : Devi Saraswati is the embodiment of knowledge as well as the experience of high reality. Devi Saraswati, with Her two hands, plays the music of love and life on a string instrument called ‘Veena’ (serving as a reminder to tune one’s heart and mind to live in harmony with others and the world). Devi Saraswati has four hands, representing four aspects of human personality in learning – mind, intellect, alertness and ego. Front arms of Devi Saraswati depict activity of Goddess in the material realm while the back arms represent the activities of spiritual realm. Devi Saraswati is dressed in white (the symbol of purity), seated on a white lotus (symbolizing purity, knowledge and truth) and rides on a white swan (symbolizing ‘Satya’ guna – purity and discrimination). Devi Saraswati seats on the lotus because lotus remains untouched by the muddy waters within which they grow, also generally symbolizing the necessity to remain untouched by any negative influences which may
surround any individual. The swan represents beauty and also is believed to have the unique ability to separate milk from water with its beak, symbolizing the necessity for the individuals to always discern between the rights and the wrongs. The book or scripture carried by Devi Saraswati represents the ‘truth’ or ‘pure knowledge’. The stringed beads or ‘Japa mala’ on Her hands represent discipline, concentration and meditation. The ornaments with which Devi Saraswati is dressed indicates opulence. Devi Saraswati is also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri. Learned and the erudite individuals attach great importance to the worship of goddess Saraswati, as a representation of knowledge and wisdom. They believe that only Devi Saraswati can grant them ‘moksha’ (the final liberation of the soul).
Devi Saraswati-Mantra : A popular ‘pranam-mantra’ or Sanskrit prayer is uttered with utmost devotion by the devotees of Devi Saraswati, as they eulogize the goddess of knowledge and arts –
“Om Saraswati Mahabhagey, Vidye Kamala Lochaney; Vishwarupe Vishalakshmi, Vidyam Dehi Namahastutey.
Jaya Jaya Devi, Charachara Sharey, Kuchayuga Shobhita, Mukta Harey.
Vina Ranjita, Pushtaka Hastey, Bhagavati Bharati Devi Namahastutey”.
The beautiful human form of Devi Saraswati comes to the fore in this English translation of the Saraswati hymn - “May Goddess Saraswati, who is fair like the jasmine-coloured moon, and whose pure white garland is like frosty dew drops; who is adorned in radiant white attire,
on whose beautiful arm rests the veena, and whose throne is a white lotus; who is surrounded and respected by the Gods, protect me. May you fully remove my lethargy, sluggishness and ignorance”. This ‘dhyana mantra’ of Devi Saraswati describes Her to be as white as the moon.
Worship and Rituals : Goddess Saraswati has Her own festivals, notably the Saraswati Puja. Devi Saraswati is worshipped on the day of ‘Vasanta Panchami’ (the fifth day of Spring, and also known as Saraswati Puja or Saraswati Jayanti in different parts of India) – this auspicious day is marked by helping the pre-school children to learn how to write letters of the alphabet on that day. All Hindu educational institutions conduct special prayer for Devi Saraswati on this auspicious day. During this festival, worshippers wear yellow, which is associated with wisdom and prosperity. Statues of the goddess are draped in yellow silk, and believers pray for blessings on their pens, books and musical instruments. Devi Saraswati is worshipped along with other major goddesses in the pan-Indian celebration of Navaratri. As the patron of music, Devi Saraswati is frequently prayed by the musicians before concerts and as a goddess of intellectual pursuits, by the students before examination.
‘Saraswati’ as a river : The name ‘Saraswati’ means - elegant, flowing and watery – these are indicative of Her status as one of the early Aryan boundary rivers. The Saraswati river (modern name : ‘Sarsuti’), just like the Ganges river, flows from the Himalaya and is considered a sacred source of purification, fertility and good fortune for those who bathe in Her waters. Devi Saraswati was initially a river-
goddess (in the early texts like Rig Veda). She was the personification of the ‘Sarasvati’ river, which is a symbol of purity. The story of Devi Saraswati becoming a river is mentioned in the ‘Shrishti Khanda’ of ‘Padma Purana’ as well as in ‘Skanda Purana’. There was a terrible battle between the ‘Bhargavas’ (a group of Brahmana) and ‘Hehayas’ (a group of Kshyatriyas) and from this an all-consuming fire called ‘Vadavagni’ was born which could destroy the whole world. In some versions, a sage named ‘Ayuva’ created it. The devatas were worried and they went to Lord Vishnu or Lord Shiva. The Supreme God suggested that they should go to Saraswati for help as She can become a river and immerse the ‘vadavagni’ in the ocean. All the devatas and devis went to Saraswati and requested Her to protect the universe. Devi Saraswati said that She would only agree if Brahma told Her to do so. Then they all went to Lord Brahma and Brahma told Saraswati to become a river. Devi Saraswati agreed and left Brahmaloka and arrived at the ashram of sage Uttanka. There She met Lord Shiva. He gave the Vadavagni in a pot to Saraswati and told Her to originate from Plaksha tree. Saraswati merged with tree and transformed into a river. From there She flowed towards ‘Pushkar’ and continued Her journey towards the ocean. At last, She reached to the end of Her journey and immersed the fire in the ocean.
The word ‘Saraswati’ appears both as a reference to a river and as a significant deity in the Rig Veda. In initial passages of Rig Veda, the word Saraswati appears to river Sarasvati and is mentioned as one among several north-western Indian rivers such as Drishadvati. Saraswati, then connotes as a river deity. Rig Veda (Book 2) describes ‘Saraswati’ as the best of mothers, of rivers, of goddesses – “Best of mothers, the best of rivers, best of goddesses, Sarasvati”. (Rig Veda – 2.41.16). Saraswati is celebrated as a feminine deity with healing and purifying powers of abundant flowing waters in Book 10 of the Rig
Veda, as follows – “May the waters, the mothers, cleanse us,/ may they who purify with butter, purify us with butter,/ for these goddesses bear away defilement,/ I come up out of them pure and cleansed”. (translated by John Muir).
Devi Saraswati in Jainism : Devi Saraswati is also revered in Jainism as the goddess of knowledge and regarded as source of all learning. Devi Saraswati is depicted in standing posture with four hands – one holding text, other holding a rosary and two hands holding Veena. Devi Saraswati is seated on a lotus with peacock as her vehicle. Saraswati is also regarded as responsible for dissemination of Tirthankaras sermon. The earliest sculpture of Saraswati in any religious tradition is the Mathura Jain Saraswati from Kankali Tila dating 132 CE.
Devi Saraswati in Buddhism : Devi Saraswati is the divine-embodiment and the bestower of enlightened eloquence and inspiration, patroness of the arts-science-music-language-literature-history-poetry-philosophy; all of which are engaged in creative endeavours of Tibetian Buddhism. According to Buddhists, Devi Saraswati is considered the peaceful manifestation of Pladen Lhamo (glorious goddess). It is also known from the ancient texts of Buddhism that Buddhist goddess ‘Benzaiten’ originated from Hindu goddess Saraswati. Referred to as Devi Saraswati in Sanskrit, ‘Benzaiten’ is the goddess of everything that flows : water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension and knowledge.
Scientific facts underlying in the idol of Devi Saraswati : Being the deity of divine knowledge and art, the form of Devi Saraswati is fully unique. There is profound spiritual science behind the components of the idol of Devi Saraswati. By understanding the functions of Devi Saraswati, in the subtle and the gross realms, and which qualities to develop to attain Her grace, the devotee is in a better position to worship Her and progress spirituality. There are two forms in the idol of Devi Saraswati : i) ‘Tarak’ form and ii) ‘Marak’ form.
‘Tarak’ form - Devi Saraswati sits on a lotus. In one of Her right hands, She holds a veena while with the other She blesses the devotees. In one of Her left hands, She holds the Vedas and with the other She holds a lotus. There is a smile on Her face and upon looking at Her face, one experiences peace.
‘Marak’ form - The standing, four-armed posture of Devi Saraswati, holding the ‘Brahmashtra’ in Her hand is the marak form of Devi Saraswati. In Kaliyug, Devi Saraswati has taken a ‘marak’ form to punish those who behave unrighteously.
Devi Saraswati provides knowledge to the seeker in the form of words. Similarly, according to the need, He sometimes provides it in the form of pictures. Worshipping of Devi Saraswati is also the beginning of the worship of ‘Nababrahma’ i.e. music, because of the sound of Devi Saraswati’s Veena. The musical notes from the musical instrument and the inspired musical notes spontaneously coming out of the mouth used to give spiritual existence of ‘Nababrahma’ to the listener. Even deities from heaven would come down to earth for hearing this Divine-music. This music had more than 60 percent ‘Sattvika’. It would be activated through the ‘Madhyamavani’ and ‘Pashyantivani’.
Devi Saraswati in the form of ‘Avatar’ : There are many avatars and forms of Goddess Saraswati. Devi Saraswati is venerated as ‘Mahasaraswati’ in the Kashmir Shakti Peetha, as ‘Vidya Saraswati’ in Basara and Vargal, and as ‘Sharadamba’ in Sringeri. In some parts, Devi Saraswati is known by Her twin identities – ‘Savitri’ and ‘Gayatri’. Devi Saraswati takes her ‘Matrika’ (warrior) avatar as ‘Brahmani’. Saraswati is not only the goddess of knowledge and wisdom but also She is the ‘Brahmavidya’ herself, the goddess of wisdom of ultimate truth. Her Mahavidya forms are – ‘Matangi’ and ‘Tara’. Devi Saraswati is manifested as ‘Maha Kali’ (She is the destroyer of ignorance and ego, and the darkness that surrounds the mind of the unlearned and lethargic), as ‘Parvati’ (She is ‘Brahmavidya’, the ultimate truth), as ‘Lakshmi’ (She is ‘Vidya Lakshmi’, 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).
1) Maha Saraswati : In some regions of India, such as Vindhya, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam; as well as East Nepal – Saraswati is part of the ‘Devi Mahatmya’ mythology, in the Tridevi of ‘Maha Kali’, ‘Maha Lakshmi’ and ‘Maha Saraswati’. This is one of many different Hindu legends that attempt to explain how the Hindu ‘Trimurti’ of gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and goddess (Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati) came into being. Various Purana texts offer alternate legends for ‘Maha Saraswati’. Maha Saraswati is depicted as eight-armed sitting on a white lotus flower – there She is wielding in Her hands of bell, trident, ploughshare, conch, pestle, discuss, bow and arrow. ‘Maha Saraswati’ is also part of another legend – ‘The Nava Shaktis’ (not to be confused with Navadurgas) or nine forms of Shakti –
namely ‘Brahmi’, ‘Vaishnavi’, ‘Maheshwari’, ‘Kaumari’, ‘Varahi’, ‘Narasimhi’, ‘Aindri’, ‘Shivdooti’ and ‘Chamunda’ – revered as powerful and dangerous goddess in Eastern India. They have special significance on Navaratri in these regions. All of these are seen ultimately as aspects of a single great Hindu goddess, with ‘Maha Saraswati’, as one of those nine forms.
2) Mahavidya Nila Saraswati : In Tibet and various parts of India, Nilasaraswati is sometimes considered as a form of Mahavidya Tara. Nila Saraswati is not much a different deity from traditional Saraswati, who subsumes Her knowledge and creative energy in Tantric literature. Though the traditional form of Saraswati is of calm, compassionate and peaceful one : ‘Nila Saraswati’ is the ugra (angry, violent, destructive) manifestation in one school of Hinduism, while the more common Saraswati is the ‘Saumya’ (calm, compassionate, productive) manifestation found in most others. In Tantric literature of the former, Nila Saraswati has 100 names. There are separate dhyana shlokas and mantras for Her worship in Tantrasara. She is worshipped in parts of India as an incarnate or incarnation of Goddess Tara but mostly outside India. She is not only worshipped but also been manifested as a form of Goddess Saraswati.
3) Sharada Avatar : The earliest known shrine dedicated to goddess, worshipped in Kashmir is Sharada Peeth (6th to 12th centuries CE), dedicated to the goddess Sharada. It is a ruined Hindu temple and ancient centre of learning located in Kashmir. The goddess Sharada worshipped in Sharada Peeth is a tripartite embodiment of the goddess of Shakti : ‘Sharada’ (goddess of learning), ‘Saraswati’ (goddess of knowledge), ‘Vagdevi’ (goddess of speech, which articulates power). Kashmiri Pandits believe the shrine to be the abode of the goddess. In line with
the Kashmiri Pandits’ belief that springs which are the abode of goddesses should not be looked directly, the shrine contains a stone-slab concealing the spring underneath, which they believe to be the spring in which the goddess Sharada revealed Herself to rishi Shandilya. It advanced the importance of knowledge and education in culture of Kashmiri pandits; which persisted well after the Kashmiri pundits became a minority group in Kashmir. Again, as one of the Maha Shakti Peethas, Hindus believe that it represents the spiritual location of the goddess Sati’s fallen right hand. Sharada Peeth is one of the three holiest sites of pilgrimage for Kashmiri Pandits, alongside the Martand Sun temple and the Amarnath Temple.