While the male form of God (Deva) is associated with strength and protection, most of the female forms have represented sensible characteristics and power such as wisdom, wealth, healing, food, etc. Amongst them a certain Goddess (Devi) has established herself as an important figure for what she represents (knowledge and wisdom) and how she appears (calm and in her own world) is Goddess Saraswati.
Saraswati – The literal meaning
Adored by her followers in search of excellence in wisdom, education , music and an independent lady, the name Saraswati came from “saras” (meaning “flow”) and “wati” (meaning “she who has …”), i.e. “she who has flow” or can mean sara meaning “essence” and swa meaning “self”. So, Saraswati is a symbol of knowledge; its flow (or growth) is like a river and knowledge is supremely alluring, like a beautiful woman. She is depicted as a beautiful fair Goddess with Four arms, wearing spotless white saree and seated on a white lotus.
Goddess Saraswati is generally shown to have four arms, which represent the four aspects of human personality in learning: mind, intellect, alertness, and ego. Alternatively, these four arms also represent the 4 Vedas, the primary sacred books for Hindus. The Vedas, in turn, represent the 3 forms of literature: Poetry — the Rigveda contains hymns, representing poetry Prose — Yajurveda contains prose Music — Samaveda represents music.
Origins of the existence of Saraswati
Like her presence, her origin holds great importance in the balance and creation of the world according to the Hindu texts. After creating the universe, Brahma looked over what was made and realized it was unformed and utterly lacking in concept. To help him with this monumental task of creating a form, Brahma decided to create the embodiment of knowledge. So from his mouth emerged the Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. Saraswati emerged from Brahma and began to give him direction on how to create order in the cosmos; the sun, moon, and stars all came into being. She later became the bride of Brahma, as their matching created the order we see today.
“Knowledge helps a man find possibilities where once he saw problems.” Said the goddess Saraswati. Under her tutelage, Brahma acquired the ability to sense, think, comprehend and communicate. He began looking upon chaos with eyes of wisdom and thus saw the beautiful potential that lay therein.
Brahma discovered the melody of mantras in the cacophony of chaos. In his joy, he named Saraswati, Vagdevi, goddess of speech and sound.
The sound of mantras filled the universe with vital energy or prana. Things began to take shape and the cosmos acquired a structure: the sky dotted with stars rose to form the heavens; the sea sank into the abyss below, the earth stood in between. Gods became lords of the celestial spheres; demons ruled the nether regions, humans walked on earth. The sun rose and set, the moon waxed and waned, the tide flowed and ebbed. Seasons changed, seeds germinated, plants bloomed and withered, animals migrated and reproduced as randomness gave way to the rhythm of life. Lord Brahma thus became the creator of the world with Goddess Saraswati as his wisdom.
While Lord Brahma created Goddess Saraswati, he wasn’t unharmed by her beauty and grace and thus took upon himself to make her his. In the form of a cow, the mare she hid, Lord Brahma followed her in form of bull and horse yet was unsuccessful. (The goddess with multiple forms came to be known as Shatarupa. She personified material reality, alluring yet fleeting). These amorous thoughts of Brahma confined consciousness and excited the ego. It disturbed the serenity of the cosmos and roused Shiva, the supreme ascetic from his meditation.
Lord Shiva opened his eyes, sensed Goddess Saraswati’s discomfort and in a fit of rage turned into Bhairava, lord of terror. His eyes were red, his growl menacing. He lunged towards Brahma and with his sharp claws, wretched off Brahma’s fifth head. The violence subdued Brahma’s passion.
Brahma’s cut head seared through Bhairava’s flesh and clung to his hand sapping him of all his strength and driving him mad. The lord of terror ranted and raved losing control of his senses.
Saraswati, pleased with Bhairava’s timely action, rushed to his rescue. With her gentle touch, she nursed him like a child, restoring his sanity. Brahma, sobered by his encounter with the Lord of terror sought an escape from the maze of his own desire. Saraswati revealed to him the doctrine for his own liberation.
Brahma sought to conduct a yagna, fire sacrifice, to cleanse himself and start anew. In order to conduct a yagna ritual the assistance of a wife is needed. Brahma chose Saraswati to be his wife and thus they were reconciled.
Goddess Saraswati and the curse on Lord Brahma
It is said that angered by his display of unbridled passion Goddess Saraswati cursed Lord Brahma, “You have filled the world with the longing that is the seed of unhappiness. You have fettered the soul in the flesh. You are not worthy of reverence. May there be hardly any temple or festival in your name.”
So it came to pass that there are only two popular temples of Brahma in India; one at Pushkar, Rajasthan and the other in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. There are few more Brahma Temples in India but not as popular as these two mentioned above.
What Goddess Saraswati stands for
Saraswati wears neither jewels or paints herself with bright colors. The white sari she adorns reflects her essential purity, her rejection of all that is base and materialistic.
She transcends the cravings of the flesh and rejoices in the powers of the mind as the patron of pure wisdom. She embodies all that is pure and sublime in Nature. The four Vedas, books of universal knowledge, were her offspring. Her mount, the swan, personifies pure knowledge and her herald, the peacock, is a symbol of the arts.
She is a part of the Trinity (Tridevi) of Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati. All three forms help the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to create, maintain and regenerate-recycle the Universe respectively.
The earliest known mention of Goddess Saraswati as a goddess is in the Rigveda. She has remained significant as a goddess from the Vedic period through modern times of Hindu traditions. Some Hindus celebrate the festival of Vasant Panchami (the fifth day of spring) in her honor and mark the day by helping young children learn how to write alphabets on that day.
The word Saraswati appears both as a reference to a river and as a significant deity in the Rigveda. In initial passages, the word refers to Sarasvati River and mentioned with other northwestern Indian rivers such as Drishadvati. Saraswati then connotes a river deity. In Book 2, Rigveda calls Saraswati as the best of mothers, of rivers, of goddesses.
Saraswati is celebrated as a feminine deity with healing, purifying powers of abundant, flowing waters in Book 10 of Rigveda, as follows:
अपो अस्मान मातरः शुन्धयन्तु घर्तेन नो घर्तप्वः पुनन्तु |
विश्वं हि रिप्रं परवहन्ति देविरुदिदाभ्यः शुचिरापूत एमि ||
– Rigveda 10.17
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.
Goddess Saraswati is known by many names in ancient Hindu literature. Some examples of synonyms for Saraswati include
- Brahmani (power of Brahma)
- Brahmi (goddess of sciences)
- Bharadi (goddess of history)
- Vani and Vachi (both referring to the flow of music/song, melodious speech, eloquent speaking respectively)
- Varnesvari (goddess of letters)
- Kavijihvagravasini (one who dwells on the tongue of poets).
The rebellious side of Goddess Saraswati
Like all beautiful, eloquent and cerebral women, Saraswati’s life is a turbulent saga of a million mutinies. Unlike the charming Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Saraswati is a haughty and disputatious loner, fond of roaming with her veena, her books and a string of rudraksha beads. She is also, like most free souls, fearless, quick of tongue, and ever ready to give back as good as she gets.
The Vaishnavas of Bengal have a popular legend that she was the wife of Lord Vishnu, as were also Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Ganga. Hindu texts describe her as having become Vishnu’s wilful wife, constantly quarreling with his other wives, Ganga and Lakshmi. Lord Vishnu sorted out his domestic squabbles by presenting Ganga to Shiva and Saraswati to Brahma while retaining the domesticated Lakshmi with her considerable bounty.
Goddess Saraswati seethed within. She deliberately arrived late to participate in a vital yagna being performed by her father-cum-consort Brahma that could not be performed without his wife being present. But Saraswati was furious to find that Brahma had, in the meanwhile, married Gayatri to complete the ritual. She then cursed Brahma before stomping off: there would be no temples built to Brahma and even within ones that existed, he would be worshiped only once a year.
She prefers, it seems, to remain an abstraction, as the supreme power of rasa, the essential communication the arts create between minds through poetry, literature, sacred rituals, and occasionally defiant thoughts.
The Vac Sukta in the Rigveda says the Sangamani or unifier, Saraswati, creates nations, (Aham Rashtri, Sangamani). As Chikitushi she constantly raises questions about linkages between people and nature. As Bhuryaveshayanti she brings into an intellectual fold all that seems disconnected but is actually not. This is no ordinary goddess. She is a feminine force that creates intimate partnerships of the mind not through a macho display of power or feminine wiles, but through gender, creed, and caste-neutral sakhyatva or friendship. Once a bond is formed between the artist and the Rasika or connoisseur, like a beautiful woman, Vac shall uninhibitedly reveal her all to a good-hearted partner, says the Brihaspati Sukta (10/79).
Goddess Saraswati and her importance in various Religion:
Devi Saraswati is known in Burmese as Thurathadi, Chinese as Biàncáitiān (辯才天), in Thai as Surasawadee (สุรัสวดี) and in Japanese as Benzaiten (弁才天/弁財天).
In Burma, the Shwezigon Mon Inscription dated to be of 1084 AD, near Bagan, recites the name Saraswati as follows,
The wisdom of eloquence called Saraswati shall dwell in the mouth of King Sri Tribhuwanadityadhammaraja at all times.
The concept of Saraswati migrated from India, through China to Japan, where she appears as Benzaiten (弁財天). the three biggest shrines in Japan in her honor are at Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, the Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa, and the Itsukushima Island in the Seto Inland Sea.
In ancient Thai literature, Saraswati (Thai: สุรัสวดี; rtgs: Sarasvatī) is the goddess of speech and learning, and consort of Brahma.
Few Powerful Saraswati Mantras For Acquiring Knowledge and Education