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Saraswati: Beyond myths and legends

The wealth of knowledge once earned by the worshippers of Goddess Saraswati is eternal. While material possessions run out with giving, the more one imparts knowledge to others the more one is enriched

Buddhadev Nandi | Kolkata |

According to Hindu mythology, after the creation of the cosmic universe by Lord Brahma, a great pandemonium reigned supreme in the cosmos. But Brahma felt bewildered for he realised that His cosmic universe was bereft of order, conception and configuration. He created the embodiment of wisdom and art. Goddess Saraswati emerged out His mouth.

Then all the celestial bodies including the sun, the moon and the stars were created and organised under strict orders. The oceans sprang up and the seasons started changing periodically. Ecstatic Brahma named the Goddess Vagdevi, the goddess of speech and sound. In this way, Brahma created the Universe equipped with the eternal source of wisdom provided by the Goddess Saraswati.

In the Devi Mahatmya, Goddess Saraswati is one of female trinity i.e. Tridevis comprising Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati. They are the consorts of the trinity of Lord Shiva, Lore Vishnu and Lord Brahma. In the process of creation, maintenance and destruction of the Universe, all the three goddesses also played pivotal roles. Maha Saraswati is depicted as eight-armed sitting on a white lotus flower. There She is wielding in Her hands the bell, trident, ploughshare, conch, pestle, discus, bow and arrow. All these suggests that Maha Saraswati was not mere the goddess of knowledge and arts.

Again it is thought that Goddess Saraswati, the metaphysical form of the Rigvedic River Saraswati, with Her watercourse of consciousness and knowledge, dispelled all the abysmal darkness of ignorance from the universe.

READ | Vasant Panchami – a festival dedicated to Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom Saraswati

The compound Sanskrit word Saraswati derives from “saras” i.e. flow in watery pools and the suffix “wati” means possessor. Therefore, Goddess Saraswati is the embodiment of the perennial flow of knowledge. According to Michael Witzel, a German-American scholar and the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, Vedic Saraswati River is the heavenly river Milky Way which is considered as a road to immortality and heavenly afterlife.

There are many legendary stories surrounding Devi Saraswati in Hindu scripture. The effulgent beauty and sharp intelligence of Saraswati enamoured Her father Brahma so much that He was determined to make His own daughter His consort.

But Brahma’s incestuous infatuation to His daughter miffed Saraswati so much that She became desperate to avert Her father’s lustful gaze. She was moving to the opposite direction of Brahma’s sight. But all her efforts were in vain as Brahma created three more visages to cover all four sides within His vision at a time.

To fulfil the desire of gazing on the carnal beauty of His daughter, there appeared a southern face with pale cheeks, a western face with quivering lips and the fourth with amorous beauty. Saraswati then disguised Herself as different animals. But Brahma chased Her disguising Himself as the male counterparts of those animals. Finding no other way to escape His lascivious glances, Saraswati soared high into the heaven. Then Brahma created the fifth head atop with a neck elongated enough to pierce the heaven and chase Saraswati with His lustful sight. Thus Brahma was ascertained that Saraswati would never be able to escape His gaze.

Then the livid goddess cursed Her father for His display of unbridled passion that filled the world with lust and longing, the seeds of unhappiness and fettered the soul in the cage of flesh and blood. She cursed that Lord Brahma unlike Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva would not be revered and worshipped so widely.

On the other hand, Lord Brahma’s giving full vent to His concupiscent nature, became oblivious of His duty to bring orderliness and discipline in the universe. Once again, a chaos started engulfing in the universe. Then Lord Shiva manifested with His incarnation of Bhairava (Lord of destruction) and decapitated His fifth head. Lord Brahma realised his fault and repented, too.

For the purgation of His sinful nature, it necessitated to perform a ‘Yagna’ (holy sacrifice witnessing Agni). But the ‘Yagna’ would be incomplete without a wife. Then Goddess Saraswati was convinced to wed Brahma for the protection of the universe. Though She submitting to the greater causes accepted Her father as Her consort, She restrained Herself from leading any sort of conjugal life with His father turned husband. However, Goddess Saraswati took up Her Veena (lute) and resonated the air with Her soothing music to dispel commotion caused by all pervading confusion. However, another mythological story tells different tale. The curse that was put by Goddess Saraswati on Lord Brahma was caused by misunderstanding.

Lord Brahma was waiting for His wife Saraswati to commence an important religious ceremony. The auspicious moment for the performance of the ritual ceremony was approaching very near.

Then by the grace of the gods, a new consort named Gayatri was created. Gayatri who is often associated with Savitr, a solar deity in the Vedas, is the embodiment of popular Gayatri Mantra, a hymn from Vedic texts. Goddess Saraswati being livid after seeing Her husband with another woman cursed Brahma not to be worshipped in the earth. The curse came to pass. There are only two temples of Brahma in our country — one at Pushkar in Rajasthan and another in Kumbhakonam in Tamil Nadu.

A legend depicts how Goddess Saraswati retrieved ‘Somras’, the elixir of life, from the grips of the Gandharvas, demigods who sprang from the fragrance of flowers.

‘Someras’ derived from ‘Soma’ Plant. It was believed to be an inebriating and invigorating potion kept under the custody of the Devas. A Gandharva named Vishvavasu was entrusted with the charge of guarding the urn of ‘Someras’. His inquisitiveness and avarice about the potion enticed him. He whisked away the urn and kept it in a secret place.

The Gandharvas were on cloud nine for possessing the urn of ‘Someras’. Svan and Bhraji were the two Gandharvas who were in charge of the protecting the urn. When the gods discovered the fact, there was a great pandemonium in the heaven. Though the gods were infuriated with the news, their friendship with the Gandharvas restrained them from going to a war. Then Goddess Saraswati assured them of retrieving the urn of ‘Someras’ without a feud against the Gandharvas.

The Goddess Saraswati equipped with her Veena (lute) reached in a beautiful garden occupied by the Gandharvas. There She started playing her Veena and creating enchanting tunes of ragas and raginis until the air of the garden is engulfed with melodious rendition of music. Captivated by the enchanting music the Gandharvas were drawn to the garden. They entreated the Goddess Saraswati to teach them the divine music. But She agreed to teach them provided they should return the urn of ‘Someras’. The Gandharvas were so captivated by both the refulgent beauty of the goddess and Her melodious music that they agreed to Her proposal. Thus Saraswati recovered the urn of elixir from the Gandharvas’ custody. And the Gandharvas also became maven in music and art enough to perform in the court of heaven in presence of the gods and goddesses.

Saraswati is often depicted as a beautiful lady elegantly attired in pure white outfit. She is seated on a white lotus. Her complexion is as white as the moon. Necklace made of white pearl beads ornaments her breast. Her four hands are adorned with a book of the Vedas, crystal mala, a pot of water and a musical instrument called Veena. The book i.e. the Vedas symbolises universal and true knowledge.

The crystal mala symbolises power of meditation, introspection and spirituality. The pot of water stands for creativity and power of purification. The Veena signifies perfection in the sciences of all arts and music.

Goddess Saraswati is imbued with all white. The colour white signifies purity, true knowledge and divine wisdom. Water on which Her lotus seat is erected symbolises perennial flow of knowledge.

Hamsa (swan) is the carrier of Saraswati. The bird possesses incredible power of discrimination between real and unreal. It is proved when a swan can drink only milk leaving aside the watery substance. Therefore, the swan symbolises the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong. The peacock is placed on the right side of Saraswati and the swan on the left side. It stands for equilibrium between reason and emotion.

Like other major gods and goddesses, Saraswati also has ‘ashtottara satanam’ (one hundred and eight names). In Bengal the goddess is popularly known as Saraswati, Sharada, Veenapani, Bagdevi and Bani. In Telegu She is known as Chaduvula, in Kannada Sharadamba. Again, She is popularly known as Kalaimagal in Tamil.

Saraswati, Saraswati Puja, Vasant Panchami, Basant Panchami, Thurathadi, Biàncáitin, Benzaiten
Outside India, Goddess Saraswati is known as Thurathadi (right) in Mayanmar, Biàncáitin in China and Benzaiten (left) in Japan. (Photos: Ajay Mathew & Hintha/Wikimedia Commons)


Outside India the goddess is known as Thurathadi in Mayanmar, Biàncáitin in China and Benzaiten in Japan.

Goddess Saras wati is one of the most popular Hindu deities who is worshipped in countries transcending the boundary of the Indian subcontinent. Many temples of Benzaiten who is equated with Goddess Saraswati are in Japan. The concept of the worshipping of Benzaiten was introduced between 6th and 8th centuries.

In Japan, Goddess Benzaiten is depicted holding ‘biwa’, a traditional Japanese lute like musical instrument. There are many big shrines of Benzaiten in Japan. Some of them are the Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, the Chikubu Island in Lade Biwa and the Itsukushima Island in Seto Inland Sea.

In Indonesia, the last day called ‘Watugunung’ of the ‘Pawukon calender’ is observed as the day of Saraswati sharing the same attributes as the goddess of learning in Hindu scriptures. The day in Indonesia is marked by the closing day of 210-day year in ‘Pawukon calendar’. Saraswati is worshipped there as one of the major deities.

In Myanmar, Saraswati is named Thurathadi. Students seek blessings from her so that they can fare well in the examinations. During Yashobarman era in Khmer literature of Cambodia, Saraswati is referred to as Vagisvari and Bharati. In Thai literature too, the reference of Saraswati is seen. Again, the Goddess is worshipped as Yang Chen Ma, the goddess of music in Tibet.

In Eastern India, Saraswati along with Laxmi, Ganesh and Kartika are considered the offspring of Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva. There is also a popular belief that the two sisters Saraswati and Laxmi cannot coexist peacefully. They are the embodiments of two opposite cravings — desire for knowledge and desire for material wealth. It is considered that the worshippers of Saraswati are bestowed with knowledge, whereas, the worshippers of Laxmi are blessed with material possessions. This difference in between human cravings is thought the apple of discord between the worshippers of two deities. But the fickle-mindedness of goddess Laxmi may betray Her worshippers.

Needless to say, the wealth of knowledge once earned by the worshippers of the Goddess is eternal. Again, material possessions run out with giving. But the more one imparts knowledge to others the more one is enriched. Therefore, the greatness of Goddess Saraswathi is always acknowledged by true pundits.

According Hindu scriptures, the birthday of Goddess Saraswati falls on Vasanta Panchami and is observed on the fifth day of the lunar month of Magha every year. The day is mainly celebrated in educational institutions, club precincts, homes and temples with pomp and grandeur. The day is also considered as Valentine Day to the youths of Bengal. However, students pay floral tribute to woo the goddess of wisdom and arts.

The popular pronam mantra uttered by them during floral tribute is: Saraswati mahaa bhaggey, vidye kamala lochoney / Vidya rupey vishalakshmi, vidyaam dehi namahastutey // (Hail auspicious Devi Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge with lotus like eyes/ Pray to the embodiment of knowledge with enormous oculus to make me truly wise)