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.

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