If you have ever visited India and admired the ancient Hindu temples here. Surely you have come across the image of a beautiful four-armed goddess with a unique instrument called ‘Veena’. Yes! LotusBuddhas is referring to the goddess Saraswati, an important figure in Hinduism, and the embodiment of knowledge, wisdom and art.
Who is Goddess Saraswati?
Saraswati is a prominent deity in Hinduism and represents the knowledge, wisdom, learning, art and music. With historical roots in ancient Vedic traditions, she was initially mentioned as a river in the Rigveda, one of the earliest and principal scriptures of Hinduism, and later evolved into a wise deity personified consciousness.
Her name, derived from the Sanskrit words “Sara” and “Swati”, can be translated as “the essence of self” or “one who flows”, meaning that she is likened to a river as well as a continuous flow of knowledge and wisdom.
The reverence for Saraswati goes beyond mere symbolism. Every year, the festival of Vasant Panchami, which marks the beginning of spring, is dedicated to her. Devotees wear yellow, engage in educational and artistic activities, and seek her blessings for wisdom and enlightenment. Furthermore, educational institutions and places of learning in many parts of India have idols or images of Saraswati, emphasizing the cultural importance of knowledge and learning.
Iconography of Saraswati
Saraswati is depicted as a graceful woman with pale skin, the embodiment of purity and enlightenment, wearing a white saree, signifying purity and understanding.
Usually, she sits on a white lotus, a symbol of truth, knowledge and enlightenment. This lotus flower is rooted in mud but blooms above water, metaphorically symbolizing the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom beyond materialism and ignorance.
Her four arms, integral to her iconography, hold items of profound symbolic significance:
- Book (Vedas): One of her hands holds a book, typically the Vedas, which are the primary scriptures of Hinduism. This emphasizes her association with knowledge and learning.
- Rosary (Mala): Another hand holds a mala or rosary, symbolizing the power of meditation, spirituality, and the constant reflection upon the Divine.
- Water Pot (Kamandalu): The water pot or kamandalu, often seen in another of her hands, stands for purification, essential in the quest for knowledge and spiritual growth.
- Musical Instrument (Veena): Lastly, she is depicted playing the veena, a stringed musical instrument. This underlines her dominion over arts, music, and creativity, showing that knowledge is not merely academic but also encompasses artistic endeavors.
Her chosen mount or ‘vahana’ is a swan or sometimes a peacock. The swan in Sanskrit, called hamsa, is believed to have the discerning ability to separate milk from water, symbolizing the distinction between truth and falsehood, an essential quality in the quest for knowledge. When depicted with a peacock, the bird’s brilliant plumage can represent the multifaceted nature of true knowledge, which is both profound and expansive.
Overall, Saraswati’s depiction in Hindu art is rich in symbolism, providing insight into Hindu notions of knowledge, wisdom and art, interweaving tangible and intangible aspects of intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
The Legend of Saraswati
The legend of Saraswati has its origins in the ancient Vedas and was later found in various Puranas. The story surrounding Saraswati encapsulates her evolution from a river god to a goddess who rules over knowledge, music and the arts.
Initially, in the Rigveda, Saraswati was praised primarily as a river that embodied fertility, purification, and life-giving powers. This river is said to have once flowed in the northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, and is revered for its sustaining and purifying properties. Hymns refer to her as a mighty stream, praising her power that nourished the ancient Vedic civilization.
However, as Vedic thought evolved and transformed, so did the conceptualization of Saraswati. At the time of the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, she began to transform from a mere geographical entity into a cosmic principle. The river’s constant flow has become a metaphor for the constant flow of knowledge and wisdom.
The Puranas also weave elaborate stories to reinforce Saraswati’s stature as a deity. She appears as the daughter of Lord Brahma, the creator god in the Hindu trinity. In a popular legend, Brahma, wishing to begin the process of creation, sought the aid of Saraswati. To facilitate the act of creation, she emerged from Brahma’s mouth, taking the personified form of knowledge. Realizing her importance, Brahma appointed Saraswati as his consort.
Another important legend revolves around the demon Shankhasura, who, driven by evil intentions, stole the Vedas and sank them to the bottom of the ocean. The gods were confused and realized the severity of the situation, so they appealed to Saraswati for support. She becomes a warrior and defeats the demon to retrieve the scriptures and thereby restore the balance of cosmic knowledge.
In addition, the legend of Saraswati is also intertwined with other deities. A notable story is her relationship with Lord Krishna, where she is said to have come out of his mouth when he played a divine melody on his flute. This story emphasizes her dominance over music and art.
Saraswati and Brahma
In Hindu mythology, Saraswati is said to be the wife of the creator god Brahma, but in other stories it is said that she was originally married to Vishnu. However, Vishnu had two wives. The story goes that, to avoid troubles, he transferred Saraswati to Brahma.
Although Brahma is a central figure in Hinduism, he is not as actively worshiped as other gods, which is said to be the result of a fateful episode involving Saraswati:
Once, Brahma was preparing for an important religious ceremony but could not start on time because Saraswati was late. Looking for a solution, the other gods created a new wife for him named Gayatri to carry out the ceremony in time.
When Saraswati arrived and saw her husband with another woman, she felt extremely hurt and in her grief cursed Brahma. She decreed that he would never again be worshiped by the people. This is what some believe explains the limited worship of Brahma today, even if he is revered in some areas, especially in parts of Southeast Asia.
Another fascinating aspect of the Brahma-Saraswati union is the belief that all living beings emerged from their relationship, with Manu being the first human being. Specifically, they had a son, a sage named Sarasvata. With the blessings of his mother’s waters, he endured the Great Drought, an important event in Hindu mythology. Sarasvata’s survival was crucial, as he became the guardian of the sacred Vedas, ensuring their preservation and continuance.
Mantras dedicated to Saraswati
Mantras are sacred sayings or sequences of sounds in Hinduism that serve a variety of purposes, from spiritual illumination to invoking deities in rituals.
Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, wisdom and arts also has many mantras invoking her blessings and guidance. The power of these mantras lies in eliminating ignorance, developing wisdom, and providing insight to the practitioner about all things and phenomena of this world.
One of the foremost mantras dedicated to Saraswati is the Saraswati Vandana:
“Ya Kundendu Tushara Hara Dhavala”
Translation: “Oh Goddess, who is as radiant as the moonlight, as pure as the driven snow, adorned with a garland of white flowers and dressed in white attire.”
Another pivotal invocation is from the Rigveda, elucidating her role in bestowing knowledge and wisdom:
“Om Aim Saraswatyai Namah”
Translation: “I bow to Goddess Saraswati.”
For individuals embarking on academic pursuits or intellectual endeavors, the Saraswati Beej Mantra is often recited:
“Aim Hreem Kleem Maha Saraswati Devaya Namah”
Translation: “Salutations to the great Goddess Saraswati.”
A more comprehensive mantra is the Saraswati Gayatri Mantra, which seeks enlightenment and understanding:
“Om Vakdeviyai Cha Vidmahe Virinji Patniyai Cha Dheemahi Tanno Vani Prachodayat”
Translation: “We know the goddess of speech, we meditate upon the wife of the creator; may that Saraswati inspire us.”
If you recite the Saraswati mantra with devotion and sincere intention, you will call upon Saraswati’s benevolence, granting her clarity, creativity and wisdom. Additionally, through these mantras, devotees establish a deep connection with the divine, emphasizing the importance of knowledge and learning in human existence.
Worship & Rituals
Saraswati holds a prominent place in the cultural and spiritual lives of many Hindus. The worship and rituals dedicated to her demonstrate respect and the profound significance of knowledge and learning within the framework of Hindu tradition.
Vasant Panchami: One of the most notable festivals dedicated to Saraswati is Vasant Panchami, celebrated on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of the lunar month of Magha, heralding the arrival of spring. On this day, Hindus adorn the idols of Saraswati with yellow attire, symbolizing the vibrancy and renewal of spring. Educational institutions, in particular, became centers of activity with prayers, music and dance performances. Students place their books and musical instruments before the image of the deity, asking for her blessings for academic and artistic success.
Saraswati Puja during Navaratri: Actually the Navaratri ritual is mainly devoted to worshiping Goddess Durga, but the last three days are dedicated to Saraswati. Devotees engage in recitation, meditation and offerings to seek her blessings for spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. This period culminates during Ayudha Puja and Vijayadashami, when books, tools and musical instruments are placed before the deity, worshiped and then used to start new businesses.
Akshar-Abhyasam or Vidyarambham: This ritual marks the initiation of young children into the world of knowledge and learning. On a predetermined auspicious day, a child is made to write its first letters, symbolizing the beginning of formal education. While this ritual is widespread across India, it is particularly prominent in states like Kerala on the day of Vijayadashami, where thousands gather at temples to initiate their children into the world of letters.
Saraswati Anjali: Recitations, particularly of the Saraswati Vandana mantra, are integral to her worship. These hymns, extolling the virtues of the goddess, are chanted in households, educational institutions, and temples, fostering an environment of reverence and introspection.
Offerings and Arti: Traditional offerings to Saraswati include white flowers, symbolizing purity; fruits; and sweets. A prominent offering is the ‘Beri Patram’, a leaf from the bael tree, symbolizing the purification of the soul. The rituals often culminate in the Saraswati Arti, a devotional song accompanied by the waving of lamps before the deity’s image.
Saraswati rituals and worship practices epitomize the aspirational values of the seekers, emphasizing knowledge as the path to liberation, personal development and social progress. These practices are deeply rooted in tradition yet constantly evolving, a testament to the enduring relevance and veneration of Saraswati in Hindu thought and society.
Famous Saraswati Temples in India
Temples dedicated to Saraswati are relatively less in number than other deities in the Hindu pantheon. However, those that do exist are revered and historically significant centers of devotion. If you have the opportunity to travel to India, LotusBuddhas recommends that you take some time to visit these temples, you will gain a deeper insight into the regional variations, architectural masterpieces and long-standing veneration long for Saraswati.
Saraswathi Temple in Basar, Telangana: Located on the banks of the Godavari river, this ancient temple is one of the two prominent Saraswati temples in India. Legend has it that the Vedas were written here by sage Vyasa, making it an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. Devotees flock to this temple to perform the “Akshara Abhyasam” ritual, which marks a child’s initiation into the world of letters.
Saraswathi Temple in Koothanur, Tamil Nadu: This temple stands as the only temple dedicated to Saraswati in Tamil Nadu. It is believed that the poet Ottakoothar, a contemporary of Kambar and Thiruvalluvar, installed the idol of the goddess here. The temple witnesses a significant influx of devotees during the Navaratri festival.
Sharada Peeth in Jammu & Kashmir: Originally a prominent place of learning located in Kashmir, Sharada Peeth was an important center for Saraswati worship. Although the temple now lies in ruins and is managed by Pakistan, it remains a profound symbol of the region’s rich spiritual and scholarly heritage.
Panachikkadu Saraswathi Temple in Kerala: Often referred to as the “Mookambika of the South”, this temple is known for the Saraswati River flowing nearby. It is famed for the “Vidyarambham” ceremony, where scores of children are introduced to learning every year.
Saraswati Temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan: Among the few temples dedicated to Brahma worldwide, the temple complex in Pushkar also houses a notable temple for Saraswati, his consort. Pilgrims visiting the Brahma temple often pay their respects here, acknowledging the integral role of Saraswati in the act of creation.
Mookambika Temple in Kollur, Karnataka: While primarily dedicated to Goddess Parvathi, the temple has a significant aspect associated with Saraswati. Legend states that Goddess Parvathi incorporated Saraswati into herself, becoming Mookambika. The temple’s “Sri Chakra” embodies both deities, making it a significant center of worship for devotees of Saraswati.
These temples demonstrate the geographical spread of Saraswati worship, highlighting the intertwining of myths, legends and historical events in the region. Each temple, with its unique story and traditions, emphasizes the diverse manifestations and enduring significance of Saraswati in the cultural and spiritual fabric of India.