She is the epitome of purity. She bestows true knowledge. She nurtures the intellect. She incites pious thoughts and actions. She is eternal. She is transcendental. She is Maa Sarasvati.
From being praised as a mighty and all-powerful river in the Rig Veda to becoming the presiding deity (adhishatri devi) of vidya (knowledge), Sarasvati is also a cultural icon who transcends geographical and religious boundaries. Sarasvati is revered in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. Even Benzaiten, a goddess worshipped in Japan, owes her origin to her.
True knowledge is complex and enveloped in sheaths that need to be pierced for its attainment. Like true knowledge, the origin and development of the patron deity of knowledge is also hidden behind sheaths of evidence (literary, material, and geological). It is, however, clear that she has been imbued with divinity for over four millennia now.
Sarasvati in the Rig Veda is the embodiment of the Sarasvati river. She is no ordinary river, is said to have originated in the heavens and flowed on the earth, is extolled as a great and powerful river — majestic, impetuous, vast and is the mother of waters.
The mighty Sarasvati got ‘lost’ as a river over the centuries, and in the Brahmanas and Yajur Veda is identified with speech (vaak or vaach). In Post Vedic literature, the references to her as a river kept fading away except stray instances (Kalidasa alludes to her disappearance in Abhijnanashakuntalam and the Mahabharata also refers to the same). During the Pauranic period, she developed into the goddess of learning and the mother of the Vedas as we know her today.
While the waters of the Sarasvati may have been lost, her memories and ‘myths’ were never. She continued to be worshipped as the invisible third river in the holy triveni sangam at Allahabad – Ganga and Yamuna are the other two rivers there. The search for the mighty river Sarasvati continued and continues till date. Over the past few decades, scholars such as BB Lal, SP Gupta, Dilip Chakrabarti and VN Misra have surmised that she was the same river on whose banks a large number of sites of the Harappan civilization flourished – the Ghagghar-Hakra belt. In the words of VN Misra – "The description of the location, size and desiccation of the Sarasvati river in the Vedic, epic and classical literature perfectly matches with the features and history of the Ghaggar-Hakra river. Therefore it can be stated with certainty that the present Ghaggar-Hakra is nothing but a remnant of the Rigvedic Sarasvati which was the lifeline of the Indus Civilization.” SP Gupta proposed that the Indus Civilization should be called the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization – an idea that is still being debated but has considerable merit. (The Lost River by Michael Danino is an excellent work that the reader may want to refer to for a detailed discussion of this debate around Sarasvati.)
While Sarasvati is indisputably the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, the mother of all arts and the Vedas, especially invoked by children before they commence their education; it is important to remember that invoking her is not limited to praying for academic excellence or excellence in the arts. Rig Veda 1.3.10-12 remind us of the deeper and eternal meaning of her invocation. पावका नः सरस्वती — she purifies us, चोदयित्री सून्र्तानां – she inspires true action, चेतन्ती सुमतीनाम — she awakens and heightens our consciousness and धियो विश्वा वि राजति — she illuminates all thought and intellect. (Paraphrasing after Satwalekar and Aurobindo)
Even iconographically, Sarasvati attired in pristine white and sitting on a white lotus symbolises purity. Her vehicle – the swan (hansa) is legendary for neer-ksheer viveka (intellect to separate milk from water). When one worships Sarasvati on Vasant Panchami or other days devoted to her or any other day; one essentially prays for purity of thoughts and actions, for vidya (wisdom/knowledge) to distinguish between right and wrong and for awakening of our inner consciousness. That is our eternal quest and that is what the eternal Sarasvati bestows upon us. The Sarasvati flows on… and will flow on till eternity. (The Sarasvati flows on is in the title of BB Lal’s famous work).
1. Danino, Michael (2010). The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvatī. Penguin Books India.
2. Ghose, Aurobindo (1998). The Secret of the Veda. Aurobindo Ashram.
3. Kinsley, D (1986). Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. University of California Press.
4. Lal BB (2002). The Sarasvatī flows on: the continuity of Indian culture. Aryan Books International.
5. Misra, V (2001). The Role Of The Ṛgvedic Sarasvatī In The Rise, Growth And Decline Of The Indus Civilization. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 82(1/4), 165-191.
6. Satwalekar, Damodar (2011). Rig Veda Ka Subhodha Bhashya – Volume I. Swadhaya Mandal, Pardi.
The author is an independent business consultant, mentors startups and is an Indic Studies enthusiast.
Updated Date: Feb 01, 2017 08:59 AM