Religion revisited

Saraswati’s life was one of a million mutinies – but she always had the last word

Unlike domesticated Lakshmi, the goddess of learning repeatedly challenged the authority of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.

Each year in the month of Magha (the 11th month in the Hindu calendar), the fifth day of the new moon, or Vasant Panchami, marks the day for Saraswati pooja. This year, it falls on February 12. Yet few of those who offer flowers, vermilion, incense and prayers to this cerebral goddess and her symbols – musical instruments, pen, paper and ink – realise that she is one of the rare Vedic deities to have survived through the centuries with her name and mystical powers intact.

It is especially remarkable because according to myths, Saraswati, has repeatedly challenged the authority and might of the post-Vedic male trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh/Shiva. When proffered male consorts, she willfully ignored them, and when forced to accept them for a short while, she refused to bear children.

Saraswati also managed to elbow out her arch–rival Lakshmi (Sri, the Vedic goddess of wealth) and usurped the holy day of Magha Shukla Panchami, or Sri Panchami, for herself. Over the centuries, despite the considerable rise in Lakshmi’s importance in the divine pantheon and within Hindu homes, neither she nor the male trinity have been able to reclaim the space Saraswati has occupied. Efforts were made, we hear, to call the day Gyan Panchami and then jointly worship Lakshmi and Saraswati, but nothing came of it. The day continues to be Saraswati’s exclusive turf.

The source of Saraswati

Let us start Saraswati’s tale at the very beginning. Once upon a time, migrant tribes crossing the Sindhu river from the West settled next to a river by the name of Saraswati. This mighty river flowed westwards from the Himalayas between the Satluj and Yamuna, into the Arabian sea. The settlers worshipped her as their mother goddess. As they created a magnificent triad of Vedic literature, Saraswati, to them, became the supreme goddess of learning.

The French writer Colette once advised fellow writers to follow the generic verb to locate the real heart of a word. The verb behind the name Saraswati is the Sanskrit sru, signifying a constant and self-renewing flow of both pure water and also gyan or knowledge. A river with a name such as this was bound to merge and mutate with the Vedic goddess Vac, the creator of multiple streams of fluid thought. Thus Saraswati was born as a constantly purifying, fertilising force that lent a fluidity to languages and sustained all art forms. After the merger of Vac with Saraswati, even after the original river had petered out in the deserts of Rajasthan, Saraswati continued to signify a sustaining bond between humans and nature, a creator of the sense of nationhood. In the famous Vac Sutra, the goddess boasts:

“I move among the Gods, I hold them, sustain them… whosoever breathes, sees, hears or eats does so because of me… I create powerful creators and embed them with wisdom and sight… my powers overflow the universe..”

Free soul

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 big things and big money, 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.

One myth describes her as the cerebral progeny of Brahma. The powerful Vedic god, the creator of all things, like many creative artists, fell in love with his own creation and chased Saraswati. But his mercurial daughter escaped his advances. Still, wifehood followed her. Myths describe her as having become Vishnu’s wilful wife, constantly quarrelling with his other wives, Ganga and Lakshmi. Like many men, Vishnu sorted out his domestic squabbles by presenting Ganga to Shiva and Saraswati to Brahma while retaining the domesticated Lakshmi with her considerable bounty.

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 worshipped only once a year.

What is more, it seems Saraswati’s ire did not end there. In Pushkar, Rajasthan, in 1984, Mahant Laharpuri, priest of the rare temple to Brahma, moved court asking that he also be allowed to access the temple of Brahma’s alienated wife Savitri (Saraswati) for five days every year and collect the offerings made there. The counsel of Saraswati, represented by the priest of the Savitri temple, challenged this saying that Saraswati as Savitri was an alienated wife and the Brahma temple must pay her alimony instead. The court, referring to Hindu law, rejected the demand made by the priest of the Brahma temple as deities are perpetual minors.

Essence of art

It is interesting that the lives of many famous women writers and musicians follow a trajectory similar to that of Saraswati’s. Take for example the famed 14th-century poet Laldyad of Kashmir, who was starved and tortured by her husband’s family for lapsing into mystical silences and sudden bouts of singing till she could take it no more. She is said to have taken to wandering naked as Mahadevi Akka, her 12th century soul sister in South India, composing her immortal lyrics sung as vakh, the earliest form of Kashmiri poetry:

“My womb never carried a child, I never gave breast to a baby,

Never tasted the milk with turmeric and ginger...”

To this day Saraswati as the goddess Vac refuses to be a domesticated goddess with a temple roof over her head. 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).

It is a pity that the study of Saraswati as Vac – and as a mighty river of tradition accepting and carrying all streams of thought – remains mostly limited to a study of a certain aspect of the Hindu tradition. Saraswati symbolises a rare, holistic and multicultural stream of tradition that has created and recreated India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.