Saraswati From Vedas To Altar

‘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 ad all-ever thought, concieved 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 deovtional mind, hte 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.

saraswati_wc43

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.

the_artists_divine_muse_he99

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.

images (1)

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 personalized
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.

H35

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.

saraswati

‘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.

saraswati2

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 personalized 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
luster 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 behavior
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.

pt40

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.

ha10

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.

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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.

Indiamostsacredriversaraswatifound3

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

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.

badavagni_saraswatism

Saraswati’s Imagery

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 vigor 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.

Saraswati has far many forms in Jain and Buddhist pantheons.
Saraswati as a Jain deity essentially carries a Tirthankara idol in her coiffure,

1_Saraswati-Gangaikonda-Cholapuram-TN-1020AD_3

and as the Buddhist, a number of Buddhist attributes, various

body-colors and postures.devi_saraswati_tf05

Some of Saraswati’s early idols are also two-armed. In
contemporary art, too, she is sometimes represented with normal
two arms.

standing_saraswati_ez67

Puranas assign to her a lotus seat and a swan as her vehicle –
symbolizing purity, chastity and detachment which Saraswati
represents in her being.

goddess_saraswati_on_her_swan_hf90

Her votive images are often defined with an elaborate ‘prabhavali’
– fire-arch. Her most forms reveal rhythm but not dance.

the_finest_saraswati_money_can_buy_ez53

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

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_ganeshasm

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.

pbabb011_goddess_saraswati


(This article by Prof. P. C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet)

Sanskrit Texts:
Rig-Veda
Yajur-Veda
Atharva-Veda
Aitareya Brahman
Brahmanda Purana
Agni Purana
Mahabharata

Other Texts:
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

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Atma Jñani (Sarva Devata Svarupini)

Visionary, Seer, Yogini, Komyo Reiki Do Ocuden healer, Peacefull wayshower-lightworker, High Priestess, optimist oriental dancer and tribal fusion lover, Fashion designer-stylist, arts+crafts addict, a secret kitchen witch

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