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Saraswati - Goddess of Learning and Wisdom

The original concept of Saraswati was that of a feminine water deity. Over a period of time, this riverine goddess came to be associated with all coursing and flowing energies and forces. Today, Saraswati is hailed as the patron goddess for the thought process and all creative arts.

The Hindu religion or Sanatana Dharama, as it is called, recognizes a Supreme Godhead (Paramatma) who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. This supreme being performs three essential functions of creation (shrishti), sustenance (samrakshana) and annihilation (samhara) in relation to this universe and beyond. In his personalized manifestation, this Godhead assumes the triple forms of Brahma, the Lord of Creation, Vishnu or Narayana, the Lord of sustenance and Rudra or Shiva, the Lord of Annihilation. These three entities comprise the Trimurtis or the Holy Hindu Trinity. Each of these three gods has been associated with a consort or female aspect who provides the requisite support and energy to the respective Godhead in the discharge of his ordained functions. The Vedas which are the most ancient of the Hindu religious scriptures, postulate that Goddess Saraswati is the consort of Creator God Brahma.

The word Saraswati is of Sanskritic origin and etymologically, it denotes a person or being of the feminine gender. This name has different connotations which, in the final analysis, are all related with water bodies such as stream and river (sarit) and lake and pool (saras). In a figurative manner, all things that are fluid or free-flowing in nature have had their associations with Saraswati.

References to a river bearing the name Saraswati could be found in the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures of yore. The Rig Veda says that the River Saraswati originated in the Himalayas, flowed westwards and joined the Arabian Sea. At Prayag—modern day Allahabad—in Uttar Pradesh, the rivers Ganga and Yamuna are believed to be joined by a third river called Saraswati, which is invisible. Hindu faithfuls take the name of Saraswati, in addition to the Ganga and Yamuna, while they take a dip in any river held sacred by them. Thus, it can be inferred that the name Saraswati in itself has a purificatory significance.

As per Vedic lore, Goddess Saraswati manifested herself from the mouth-or tongue to be precise—of Lord Brahma. Having been bewitched by her beauty and grace, and impressed by her divine attributes, the Creator God decreed that Saraswati should become his consort and provide him assistance in his task of creation. Since Brahma was responsible for the creation of Saraswati, he was by logic her father. His act of marrying Goddess Saraswati was, therefore, regarded as a transgression of accepted norms of behavior and so Vishnu and Shiva uttered a curse that henceforth Brahma would cease to be worshipped as a God by faithfuls. Even to this day, this curse seems to be holding true since there are only a few temples dedicated exclusively to Brahma, whereas there are hundreds of thousands of temples and shrines dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva. In this background, Goddess Saraswati traditionally has come to be worshipped in her individual capacity as the patron goddess for all knowledge and wisdom without her being associated with Brahma. Idols of Goddess Saraswati are installed in temples and shrines dedicated to her exclusively or sometimes find a place with other gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon in Vishnu, Devi and Shiva temples. Such temples are more in number in the southern and eastern parts of the country.

In the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and the union territory of Pondicherry skilled craftsmen have been making beautiful icons of Saraswati since generations. Around the festival of Durga Puja in October, innumerable craftsmen move out from West Bengal to different parts of the country and display their artistry in making clay images of Saraswati and other deities that are ceremonially installed in the pavilions erected for the celebrations.

Saraswati worship spread during the medieval period from the Indian sub-continent to many south and east Asian countries. Several references to the Goddess can be evidenced in the local traditions and literature of those countries. Even sculptures and graphic representations of Saraswati have been identified in some of those countries, notably in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Hinduism apart, Buddhism and Jainism have also accorded an honoured place to Saraswati. In modern times, wherever Indians have gone, they have carried the Saraswati lore and erected shrines for her worship.

The term Saraswati, besides referring to the goddess also stands as an appellation to the names of sanyasis (religious pontiffs or recluses) of the Advaitic (non-dual) religio-philosophic order. A sect of Hindu Brahmans in the western and northern parts of India go by the name of Saraswat Brahmans. Eminent poets and litterateurs are addressed as Bharatis by virtue of their scholarship, literary accomplishments or poetical ability which are all deemed to be the gifts of the goddess. A state level award instituted for the recognition of excellence in literature, fine arts and writing goes by the name Saraswati Samman. Trophies given to scholars, eminent artistes and craftsmen sometimes have the Saraswati motif or connotation. All in all, Saraswati dominates the entire scholastic, literary, cultural and aesthetic domains.

In the field of Indian classical music, the Carnatic system has accorded due importance to Goddess Saraswati who is the patron deity for music and dance. Innumerable musical compositions dedicated to the goddess can be identified in both Hindustani and Carnatic systems of music. Saraswati Vandana or invocation of the goddess forms an essential part of dance recitals.

Saraswati is generally depicted in sculptures, icons and graphic representations either as seated on an ornate pedestal or standing on a fully blossomed white lotus. She is shown wearing a jeweled crown over her head and bedecked with resplendent pearl ornaments. Her face is said to resemble the full moon with a smile on it. She is fair complexioned and possesses four arms signifying her divine attributes. Her raiment is of white silk. She holds a stringed instrument, the veena, diagonally across her chest. In another arm she holds a palm leaf manuscript—the book of knowledge. Her fourth arm displays a rosary. The goddess radiates feminine beauty, grace and beatitude. Seen near her feet it the white swan which is her mount. In some depictions, instead of the swan, the colourful Indian peacock is shown standing at her feet. Likewise, in some pictorial representations, Saraswati is shown holding a pitcher containing holy water instead of a rosary. These symbols have been explained in esoteric texts as possessing philosophical connotations. The lotus, white swan, pearls and pitcher symbolize association of Saraswati with water. The colour white which predominates her personage alludes to purity, tranquility and equanimity. The manuscript held in her arm is symbolic of knowledge and intellectual excellence.

For the traditional worship of Saraswati elaborate rituals, supported by Vedic incantations, have been prescribed. While these are observed even today, the average householder installs an image, icon or pictorial reproduction of the goddess in a corner of his home and performs the rituals. Generally he recites verses in Sanskrit or in his own mother tongue, makes votive offerings and circumambulating it before the icon. He prays for the atonement of sins and then shares the votive offerings with members of his family. On festive occasions more elaborate worship is done and numerous delicacies are prepared by the housewife. The fare offered and blessed by the deity is partaken of as prasadam (benedictory meal).

Saraswati worship is done round the year. But certain specified periods of the Hindu calendar are regarded as especially propitious for her worship. Basant Panchami which is the fifth day of the fortnight following the new moon occurring during spring (basant), generally in the month of March or late February, is observed as the day dedicated to the goddess. On this day young men and women dressed in yellow attire and adorned with flower garlands congregate and sing verses in praise of the goddess’ consecrated idol. The best part of the day is spent in music and dance and exchange of greetings. In West Bengal, the Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore had organized such celebrations at Shantiniketan near Calcutta. The tradition started by him continues to this day. Wherever there are large concentrations of people of Bengali origin, there is bound to be a Basant Panchami celebration. Various cultural and entertainment programmes and competitions of skill are organized on this occasion, which sustain the interest of the young and old alike.

The other occasion on which ritualistic worship of Goddess Saraswati is done is during October every year coinciding with the first 10 days of the fortnight following the new moon (Sharad Ritu) in the autumnal month of Aswina of the Hindu lunar calendar. These 10 days are called Dussehra. In the southern part of India this period is denoted by term Navratri (nine nights) and the tenth day is called Vijaya Dashami (victorious tenth day). From the sixth day (Shashti) to the ninth day (Maha Navami) Saraswati is worshipped. In fact, the ninth day is termed as Saraswati Puja day in south India. On this day students are enjoined to worship the Goddess of Learning and seek her blessings for success in their educational pursuits. Factories and workshops are spruced up and the tools of production are worshipped since Saraswati Puja day is also the ayudha (implements) puja day. Prasadam made to the deity and tools are partaken by the management and staff.

In West Bengal, Saraswati Puja forms part of the Durga Puja celebration. Saraswati in the Bengali tradition is regarded as the daughter of the Mother Goddess Durga or Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. In Durga Puja, images of Durga and her children—Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik—are installed in the specially built pavilions and celebrations go on for four days, ending with the immersion of the images in the sea of river. Durga Puja is the most important festival for the Bengalis world over and it is not only a religious festival but also an occasion for promotion of fine arts, culture and universal brotherhood.