Goddess Saraswati – Origin, Existence and Significance

While the male form of God (Deva) is associated with strength and protection, most female forms (Devi) 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, Goddess Saraswati symbolizes 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 a spotless white saree and seated on a white lotus.

Goddess Saraswati is generally shown to have four arms, representing 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.

Origins of Goddess 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 an unformed and utterly lacking 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 Devi Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge and wisdom.

Saraswati emerged from Brahma and began to give him direction on creating 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. Brahma acquired the ability to sense, think, comprehend, and communicate under her tutelage. 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. He named Saraswati, Vagdevi, the goddess of speech and sound in his joy.

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, and 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.

Devi Saraswati

While Lord Brahma created Goddess Saraswati, he wasn’t unharmed by her beauty and grace and thus took it upon himself to make her his. In the form of a cow, the mare she hid, Lord Brahma followed her in the 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 turned into Bhairava, the Lord of terror in a fit of rage.

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, cleanse himself and start a new. 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 a few more Brahma Temples in India but not as popular as the two mentioned above.

What does Goddess Saraswati stand for?

Saraswati wears neither jewels nor 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.

Goddess Saraswati

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 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 the alphabet on that day.

The word Saraswati appears both as a reference to a river and a significant deity in the Rigveda. In initial passages, the word referred to the Sarasvati River and was mentioned with other northwestern Indian rivers such as Drishadvati. Saraswati then connotes a river deity. In Book 2, Rigveda calls Saraswati the best of mothers, rivers, and goddesses.

Saraswati is celebrated as a feminine deity with healing, and 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 ||

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.

Rigveda 10.17

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, and eloquent speaking, respectively)
  • Varnesvari (goddess of letters)
  • Kavijihvagravasini (one who dwells on the tongue of poets).

The rebellious side of Goddess Saraswati

Saraswati’s life is a turbulent saga of a million mutinies like all beautiful, eloquent, and cerebral women. 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. Like most free souls, she is fearless, quick of the tongue, and ever ready to give back as good as she gets.

Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Durga and Goddess Saraswati
Image source – Pinterest

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 Ganga and Lakshmi’s other wives.

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 yajna performed by her consort Brahma that could not be performed without his wife.

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.

Goddess Saraswati
Art by Katiahonour on DeviantArt

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). Like Chikitushi, she constantly raises questions about the 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 Brihaspati Sukta (10/79).

Festivals of Goddess Saraswati

One of the most well-known festivals associated with Goddess Saraswati is Vasant Panchami, which is celebrated on the fifth day of the Hindu month of Magha. This festival is also referred to as Saraswati Puja and Saraswati Jayanti in India.

In South India, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the last three days of the Navaratri festival (Ashtami, Navami, and Dashami) are dedicated to Saraswati Puja. The festivities commence with the Puja Vypu (Placing for Worship), where books are placed for worship on the eighth day (Ashtami).

These books are only taken out for reading on the morning of the third day (Vijaya Dashami). Vijaya Dashami is also when the Eḻuthiniruthu or “Initiation of writing” takes place for children, symbolizing their admission to nursery schools.

During Navaratri, on the seventh day, which coincides with the Moola nakshatra (considered the goddess’ birth star), various temple goddesses are decorated and worshipped in the form of Mahasaraswati. Students visit these temples and receive educational items such as “Devi Prasadam.” The ceremony of Aksharabhyasa, introducing a child to the process of learning, is also conducted on a large scale during this time.

In East and Northeast India, including Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, and Tripura, Saraswati Puja is observed on Vasant Panchami. Hindus celebrate this festival in temples, homes, and educational institutions alike.

In North, West, and Central India, particularly in Bihar and Jharkhand, Vasant Panchami is commonly known as Saraswati Puja. Goddess Saraswati is worshipped in schools, colleges, and educational institutes, as well as in institutions associated with music and dance.

Cultural programs are organized in schools and institutes, and pandals (decorated tents) are set up where people, especially students, worship the idol of Goddess Saraswati made from soil. Prasad (sacred offering) consisting of Boondi (sweet fried balls), pieces of carrot, peas, and Indian plum (ber) is distributed to devotees after the puja.

The idol is immersed in a pond (known as Murti Visarjan or Pratima Visarjan) the next day or on a chosen day, accompanied by joyful celebrations, playing with abir (colored powder) and Gulal (colored powder used during festivities). After the Pratima Visarjan, the members involved in the puja ceremony gather to share a meal of khichdi.

Renowned Saraswati Temples

The ancient Sharada Peeth, situated in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, is one of the oldest temples dedicated to Saraswati that has survived through the ages. There are numerous temples worldwide that are devoted to Saraswati like Gnana Saraswati Temple located on the banks of the River Godavari in Basar, as well as the Wargal Saraswati, and Shri Saraswati Kshetramu temples in Medak, Telangana.

In Karnataka, the Shringeri Sharadamba Temple is a significant pilgrimage site associated with Saraswati. In the Ernakulam district of Kerala, the Dakshina Mookambika Temple in North Paravur is renowned as a Saraswati temple. Koothanur, situated approximately 25 kilometers from Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu, is home to a Saraswati temple.

Additionally, numerous temples dedicated to Saraswati, under her identity as Brahmani, can be found across Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The Jnaneshwari Peeth in the coastal village of Karki in Karnataka also houses a temple devoted to Saraswati, where she is revered as Jnaneshwari.

Goddess Saraswati in various Religion

Devi Saraswati is known in Burmese as Thurathadi, in Chinese as Biàncáitiān (辯才天), in Thai as Surasawadee (สุรัสวดี) and in Japanese as Benzaiten (弁才天/弁財天).

Goddess Benzaiten in Japan

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). In her honor, the three biggest shrines in Japan are Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa, and 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