Sarasvatī | Saraswati

1. Sarasvatī

Sarasvatī (Sanskrit: सरस्वती) is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning.

She is a part of the trinity (Tridevī) of Sarasvatī, Lakṣmī, and Pārvatī. All the 3 forms help the trinity of Brahma, Viṣṇu, and Śiva to create, maintain, and regenerate the Universe, respectively.

The earliest known mention of Sarasvatī as a goddess is in the Ṛg Veda. She has remained significant as a Goddess from the Vedic period through modern times of Hindu traditions.

Some Hindus celebrate the festival of Vasanta Pañcamī (the 5th day of spring, and also known as Sarasvatī Pūjā and Sarasvatī Jayantī in so many parts of India) in her honour, and mark the day by helping young children learn how to write the letters of the alphabet on that day.

The Goddess is also revered by believers of the Jain religion of west and central India, as well as some Buddhist sects.

Sarasvatī, is a Sanskrit fusion word of saras (सरस्) meaning "pooling water", but also sometimes translated as "speech"; and vatī (वती) meaning "she who possesses".

Originally associated with the river or rivers known as Sarasvatī, 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 surasa-vati (सुरस-वति) which means "one with plenty of water".

The word Sarasvatī appears both as a reference to a river and as a significant deity in the Ṛg Veda.

In initial passages, the word refers to the Sarasvatī River and is mentioned as one among several north-western Indian rivers such as the Dṛṣad-vatī.

Sarasvatī, then, connotes a River Deity.
In Book 2, the Ṛg Veda describes Sarasvatī as the best of mothers, of rivers, of goddesses.

Best of mothers, the best of rivers, best of goddesses, Sarasvatī.

— Ṛg Veda 2.41.16

Sarasvatī is celebrated as a feminine deity with healing and purifying powers of abundant, flowing waters in Book 10 of the Ṛg 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.

— Ṛg Veda 10.17

In Vedic literature, Sarasvatī acquires the same significance for early Indians as that accredited to the river Ganges by their modern descendants.

In hymns of Book 10 of Ṛg Veda, she is already declared to be the "possessor of knowledge".

Her importance grows in Vedas composed after Ṛg Veda and in Brāhmaṇas, and the word evolves in its meaning from "waters that purify", to "that which purifies", to "vāc (speech) that purifies", to "knowledge that purifies",

- and ultimately into a spiritual concept of a Goddess that embodies knowledge, arts, music, melody, muse, language, rhetoric, eloquence, creative work and anything whose flow purifies the essence and self of a person.

In Upaniṣads and Dharma Śāstras, Sarasvatī 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.

Sarasvatī is known by many names in ancient Hindu literature.
Some examples of synonyms for Sarasvatī include:

Brahmāṇi (power of Brahma), Brahmī (goddess of sciences), Bharadi (goddess of history), Vāṇī and Vacī (both referring to the flow of music/song, melodious speech, eloquent speaking respectively), Varṇeśvarī (goddess of letters), Kavi-jihvāgra-vāsinī (one who dwells on the tongue of poets).

The Goddess Sarasvatī is also known as Vidyādātṛ (Goddess who provides knowledge), Vīṇavādinī (Goddess who plays Vīṇā, the musical instrument held by Goddess Sarasvatī),

Pustakdhāriṇī (Goddess who carries a book), Vīṇapaṇi (Goddess who carries a Vīṇā in her hands), Haṁsavāhinī (Goddess who sits on swan) and Vāgdevi (Goddess of speech).

In some interpretations, "Sāra" is translated as "Essence", and "Sva" is translated to "Self". Thus, the name Sarasvatī would translate to "She who helps realize the essence of self" or "She who reconciles the essence (of Para Brahman) with one's self".

2. Names

In the Hindi language, her name is written Hindi: सरस्वती.

In the Telugu, Sarasvatī is also known as Caduvula Talli (చదువుల తల్లి, Mother of the Educated) and Śārada (శారద).

In Koṅkaṇī, she is referred to as Śārada, Vīṇapaṇi, Pustakdhāriṇī, Vidyādāyinī.

In Kannada, variants of her name include Śārade, Śāradamba, Vāṇī, Vīṇapaṇi in the famous Sringeri temple.

In Tamil, she is also known as Kalaimagaḷ (கலைமகள்), Kalaivāṇi (கலைவாணி), Vāṇī (வாணி) and Bhāratī.

She is also addressed as Sāradā (the one who offers sāra or the essence), Śārada (the one who loves the autumn season), Vīṇā-Pustaka-dhāriṇī (the one holding books and a Vīṇā),

Vāgdevi, Vāgeśvarī, (both meaning "goddess of speech"), Vāṇī (speech), Varadanāyaki (the one bestowing boons), Sāvitrī (consort of Brahmā), Gāyatrī (mother of Vedas).

3. History

In Hindu tradition, Sarasvatī has retained her significance as a Goddess from the Vedic age up to the present day:

In Śānti Parva of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, Sarasvatī is called the Mother of the Vedas, and later as the celestial creative symphony who appeared when Brahma created the universe.

In Book 2 of Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, she is called “the Mother of eloquent speech and melodious music”. Sarasvatī is the active energy and power of Brahma.

She is also mentioned in many minor Sanskrit publications such as Śārada Tilaka of 8th century CE as follows,

May the goddess of speech enable us to attain all possible eloquence,
she who wears on her locks a young moon,
who shines with exquisite lustre,
who sits reclined on a white lotus,
and from the crimson cusp of whose hands pours,
radiance on the implements of writing, and books produced by her favour.

– On Sarasvatī, Śārada Tilaka

Sarasvatī became a prominent deity in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Mañjuśrī in 1st millennium CE.

In some instances such as in the Sādhanamālā of Buddhist pantheon, she has been symbolically represented similar to regional Hindu iconography, but unlike the more well-known depictions of Sarasvatī.

4. Symbolism and iconography

The goddess Sarasvatī is often depicted as a beautiful woman dressed in pure white, often seated on a white lotus, which symbolizes light, knowledge and truth.

She not only embodies knowledge but also the experience of the highest reality.

Her iconography is typically in White themes from dress to flowers to swan – the colour symbolizing Sattva Guṇa or purity, discrimination for true knowledge, insight and wisdom.

Her Dhyāna mantra describes her to be as white as the moon, clad in a white dress, bedecked in white ornaments, radiating with beauty, holding a book and a pen in her hands (the book represents knowledge).

She is generally shown to have 4 arms, but sometimes just 2.

When shown with 4 hands, those hands symbolically mirror her husband Brahma's 4 heads, representing manas (mind, sense), buddhi (intellect, reasoning), citta (imagination, creativity), and ahaṁkāra (self-consciousness, ego):

Brahma represents the abstract, while she represents action and reality.

The 4 hands hold items with symbolic meaning —

1) a Pustaka (book or script),
2) a mālā (rosary, garland),
3) a water pot and
4) a musical instrument (vīnā).

The book she holds symbolizes the Vedas representing the universal, divine, eternal, and true knowledge as well as all forms of learning.

A mālā of crystals, representing the power of meditation, inner reflection, and spirituality.

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.

The most famous feature on Sarasvatī is a musical instrument called a Vīṇā, represents all creative arts and sciences, and her holding it symbolizes expressing knowledge that creates harmony.

Sarasvatī is also associated with anurāga, the love for and rhythm of music, which represents all emotions and feelings expressed in speech or music.

A Haṁsa or Swan is often shown near her feet. In Hindu mythology, the Haṁsa 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 symbolizes 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, Sarasvatī is also referred to as Haṁsavāhinī, which means “she who has a Haṁsa as her vehicle”. The Swan is also a symbolism for spiritual perfection, transcendence and moksha.

Sometimes a citrāmekhalā (also called mayūra, peacock) is shown beside the Goddess:

The peacock symbolizes 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.

She is a part of the Tridevī, the triad of great Goddesses:
She represents the Sattva Guṇa, and Jñāna Śakti.

5. Sarasvatī as a River

Devī Sarasvatī is also regarded as a River Goddess in early texts.
Sarasvatī River is a symbol of purity.

The story of Devī Sarasvatī becoming a River is mentioned below:

In some texts, it is written that once there was a terrible battle between the Bhārgavas and Hehayas, and from this an all-consuming fire called Vāḍavāgni was born which could destroy the whole world.

The devas were worried and they went to Śiva. Śiva suggested that they should go to Sarasvatī for help as she can become a River and immerse the Vāḍavāgni in the ocean.

All devas and devis went to Sarasvatī and requested her to protect the universe. She said that she would only agree if her consort, Brahmā told her to do so.

Then they all went to Brahmā and Brahmā told Sarasvatī to become a River. Sarasvatī agreed and left Brahmāloka and arrived at Sage Uttaṅka's ashram.

There she met Śiva. He gave the Vāḍavāgni in a pot to Sarasvatī and told her to originate from Plakṣa tree. Sarasvatī merged with the tree and transformed into a River. From there she flowed towards Pushkar.

Sarasvatī continued her journey towards the ocean. At last, she reached the end of her journey and immersed the fire in the ocean.

6. Avatārs

There are many Avatārs and forms of Goddess Sarasvatī.

She is venerated as Mahā Sarasvatī in the Kashmir Śakti Pīṭh, as Vidyā Sarasvatī in Basara and Vargal, and as Śāradamba in Sringeri.

She takes her Mātrika (Warrior) Avatār as Brahmāṇi.

Sarasvatī is not just the Goddess of knowledge and wisdom but also she is the Brahmāvidyā herself, the Goddess of the Wisdom of Ultimate Truth.

Her Mahāvidyā forms are Mātaṅgī and Tārā Mahāvidyā she manifests:

- As Mahākālī, she is the destroyer of ignorance and ego, and the darkness that surrounds the mind of the unlearned and lethargic.

- As Pārvatī, she is Brahmāvidyā, the ultimate truth.
- As Lakṣmī, she is Vidyālakṣmī, who provides wealth according to skill.
- As Vidyā, she is the formless concept of wisdom and knowledge in all of its aspects.
- As Gāyatrī, she is the personification of the Vedas.
- As Sāvitrī, She is the personification of purity.

7. Mahā Sarasvatī

In some regions of India, such as Vindhya, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam, as well as east Nepal, Sarasvatī is part of the Devī Māhātmya mythology, in the trinity (Tridevī) of Mahākālī, Mahālakṣmī and Mahā Sarasvatī.

This is one of many different Hindu legends that attempt to explain how the Hindu trinity of gods (Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva) and goddesses (Sarasvatī, Lakṣmī and Pārvatī) came into being.

Various Purāṇa texts offer alternate legends for Mahā Sarasvatī.

Mahā Sarasvatī is depicted as 8-armed and is often portrayed holding a Vīṇā whilst sitting on a white lotus flower.

Her dhyāna śloka given at the beginning of the 5th chapter of Devī Māhātmya is:

Wielding in her lotus-hands the bell, trident, ploughshare, conch, pestle, discus, bow, and arrow, her lustre is like that of a moon shining in the autumn sky.

She is born from the body of Gaurī and is the sustaining base of the three worlds. That Mahā Sarasvatī I worship here who destroyed Śumbha and other Asuras.

Mahā Sarasvatī is also part of another legend, the Nava-Śaktis (not to be confused with Nava-Durgās), or 9 forms of Śakti, namely:

Brahmī, Vaiṣṇavī, Maheśvarī, Kaumārī, Varāhī, Nṛsiṁhī, Aindrī, Śivadūtī, and Cāmuṇḍā, revered as powerful and dangerous goddesses in eastern India.

They have special significance on Navarātrī in these regions. All of these are seen ultimately as aspects of a single great Hindu goddess, with Mahā Sarasvatī as one of those 9.

8. Mahāvidyā Nīla Sarasvatī

In Tibet and parts of India, Nīla Sarasvatī is sometimes considered as a form of Mahāvidyā Tārā.

Nīla Sarasvatī is not very different deity from traditional Sarasvatī, who subsumes her knowledge and creative energy in tantric literature.

Though, the traditional form of Sarasvatī is of calm, compassionate, and peaceful one:

Nīla Sarasvatī is the Ugrā (angry, violent, destructive) manifestation in one school of Hinduism, while the more common Sarasvatī is the Saumyā (calm, compassionate, productive) manifestation found in most others.

In tantric literature of the former, Nīla Sarasvatī has 100 names. There are separate dhyāna ślokas and mantras for her worship in Tantrasāra.

She is worshipped in parts of India as an incarnate or incarnation of Goddess Tārā but outside India. She is not only worshipped but also been manifested as a form of Goddess Sarasvatī.

9. Sarasvatī Pūjā Festival

In Bihar and Jharkhand, Vasanta Pañcamī is commonly known as Sarasvatī Pūjā;

On this day, Goddess Sarasvatī is worshipped in schools, colleges, educational institutes as well as in institutes associated with music and dance. Cultural programmes are also organised in schools and institutes on this day.

People especially students worship Goddess Sarasvatī also in pandals (a tent made up of colourful cloths, decorated with lights and other decorative items).

In these states, on the occasion of Sarasvatī Pūjā, Goddess Sarasvatī is worshipped in the form of icon, made up of soil.

On Sarasvatī Pūjā, the icon is worshipped by people and Prasad is distributed among the devotees after Pūjā. Prasad mainly consists of boondi (motichoor), pieces of carrot, peas and Indian plum (ber).

On the next day or any day depending on religious condition, the icon is immersed in a pond (known as Mūrti Visarjana or Pratimā Visarjana) after performing a Havana (immolation), with full joy and fun, playing with abīr and gulāl. After Pratimā Visarjana, members involved in the organisation of Pūjā ceremony eat khichdi together.

In 2018, the Haryana government launched and sponsored the annual National Sarasvatī Mahotsava in its state named after Sarasvatī.

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the last 3 days of the Navarātrī festival, i.e., Aṣṭamī, Navamī, and Daśamī, are celebrated as Sarasvatī Pūjā:

During the Navarātrī festivities, on the 7th day, which coincides with the Mūla Nakṣatra (which is considered to be Devi's birth star), the Goddesses in various temples are decorated and worshipped in the form of Mahā Sarasvatī, in honour of the Goddess of knowledge, wisdom, arts, and learning.

Students throng these temples in large numbers and receive books, pencils, pens and other learning equipment as "Devi Prasādam".

"Akṣarābhyāsa", the ceremony of initiating a child into the process of learning, is held on a large scale across these temples.

10. Tibet

In Tibet, she is known as Yang chen ma (Singing/Music Goddess), or Yang chen drolma (Singing/Music Tārā) considered the consort of Mañjuśrī, Buddha of Wisdom, she is one of the 21 Tārās.

Sarasvatī is the Divine Embodiment & Bestower of Enlightened Eloquence & Inspiration, patroness of the arts, sciences, music, language, literature, history, poetry & philosophy, all those engaged in creative endeavours in Tibetan Buddhism.

She is considered the peaceful manifestation of Palden Lhamo (Glorious Goddess).

In the Gelugpa tradition, Palden Lhamo is known as Magzor Gyalmo (the Queen who Repels Armies) and is a wrathful emanation of Sarasvatī while being a protector.

Sarasvatī was the Yidam (principal personal meditational deity) of 14th century Tibetan monk Je Tsongkhapa. He composed a devotional poem to her. She is believed in the Tibetan tradition to have accompanied him on his travels, as well as regularly engaging in conversations with him.