Unlike many other religions, Hinduism recognizes strongly the feminine aspects of divinity. One example is that each of the Trimurti-Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva -accompanies with a female goddess and the male God cannot function without her. In the following I would like to introduce Saraswati, who is the divine consort of Brahma.
History of Saraswati
The literal meaning of Saraswati is “the essence of the self” as sara means “essence” and swa means “self” in Sanskrit. She is perceived in three major rules: as river, as Vak (speech), and as goddess.
In early Hinduism, Saraswati is perceived as a river goddess associated with the Saraswati River. River Saraswati is considered to be the most scared river like Ganga present day as the river enrich the land and produce fertility. River Saraswati also represents purity due to the purifying power of running water. In Rig Veda, it states that the River Saraswati also blesses people with health and long life.
Later in the Vedic Period, she is associated with and even equated with Vak, the goddess of speech. The power of speech has been important in Hinduism. According to Vedas, Brahman, the divine reality at the heart of all things, is created by the short mantra OM, which is the sound of creation. As a result, speech is considered as the primary power and origin of creation. In Hinduism, speech is also important as for invoking the powers of deity. By reciting and repeating a mantra of a given deity is to make the deity present. The power of sound is embodied in Saraswati, thus the Goddess of speech.
Due to the embodiment of speech, then, Saraswati is present wherever speech exists. As speech or language is the origin of poetry, Saraswati’s role as the goodness associated with poetic inspiration, eloquence, learning and art become more popular and emphasized while her role as River Saraswati is lessened. Since speech is associated with the creative power, she later associated with Brahma, the God of creation as his divine consort. As Saraswati symbolizes the creative power of Brahma, she represents the shaktis (energies) of Brahma that the power of Brahma cannot function without her.
Today, Saraswati is mostly worshiped as the Goddess of knowledge because her creative power and her role as Vak, leading to her association with the Supreme reality thus the true knowledge. As Goddess Saraswati, she remains significance in present day and is much popularly worshiped then Brahma. People who interested in knowledge, especially students, scholars, and scientists, often worship her and many Indian academic institutions like universities have images of Saraswati in their buildings as an inspiration for students and scholars. Saraswati is especially celebrated at schools in Vasant Panchami on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of Magha of the Indian lunar calendar. It is believed to be the time when Saraswati was born. White, the main theme of Saraswati image plays a significant role on this day. Statues of Saraswati would be dressed in white clothes and be adorned by devotees with white garments. Children would be given their first lesson in reading and writing on this day. All Hindu educational institutions conduct Saraswati puja on this day.
Saraswati has played an important role in Hinduism and has influence in other regions as well. She is known and worshiped under the name of Benzaitan as a Goddess of wealth in Japan and China. The symbolic meaning behind image of Saraswati: Although Hinduism emphasizes the formless of the universe and divinity, it is important for people to worship and show devotion through physical manifestations of deities like paintings and music in order to experience the divinity.
The images of deities are usually symbolized and carried meanings representing teaching and power. The image of Saraswati is not an exception.
From this verse that often recited to invoke the blessings of Saraswati, we can have a general impression about Saraswati and her power. “May Goddess Saraswati, who is as white and bright as the jasmine flower, moon, dew, and a garland of pearls, who dresses in white clothes and whose hand is adorned with the finest Veena, who sits on a white lotus and is held in reverence by Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar, protect me from the worldly evils and a dull intellect by kindling the light of knowledge.”
Saraswati is mostly associated with the color white which signifies the purity of knowledge. In most of her images, she wears white sari and seats on a white Nelumbo nucifera lotus. White sari shows the she is the embodiment of pure knowledge. As lotus in Hinduism is a symbol of Supreme Reality, the white lotus denotes to Supreme Reality. Sitting on the white lotus, Saraswati is rooted in the Supreme Reality thus represents the Supreme Knowledge. Also, just like lotus that roots in mud but blooms with purity, Saraswati with her lotus seat suggests her transcendence of physical world. It inspires people to transcend physical limitations to receive true knowledge. Saraswati is often portrayed as a beautiful, modest woman with four arms.
The two front arms, holding a book and a mala in another, indicate her presence in the physical world and the two back arms, holding a lute called veena, signify Her presence in the spiritual world. The four hands also represent the four elements of the inner personality, which are mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), pure consciousness (citta) and ego (ahamkara).
The book in the rear left hand is Vedas, which is the earliest sacred book in Hinduism. It signifies pure and total knowledge as well as intellect that acquired to promote prosperity of mankind. By holding Vedas in her hand, it suggests that Saraswati holds all knowledge in her hands. The mala in Saraswati rear right hand signifies concentration, meditation, and contemplation that required for gaining union with god.
A mala is a string of Hindu prayer beads. It is commonly used to keep count of repetitions while chanting and reciting mantras or the name of deities so that the prayer could concentrate on the sound and power behind mantras.
In her front hands, Saraswati plays a musical instrument called Veena. Veena is a string instrument that requires great control and skillful manner with rhythmic mind. By playing Veena, it conveys that people should tune up the mind and intellect to live in harmony with the world and attain deeper understanding of life. As Veena represents music that requires control and skills, it also shows that Saraswati is the Goddess of arts, crafts and technology.
Saraswati usually uses a swan as her vehicle. It is said that the sacred swan has a sensitive beak that enables it to distinguish milk from a mixture of milk and water. Therefore swan symbolizes the power to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong, the valuable and useless. Another notable feature of a swan is that it can stay and swim in water without getting affected by the waves. By using swan as her vehicle, it shows that Saraswati has a strong power of judgment, without getting attached to or influenced by the waves of the world or illusions (maya) on the path towards Divine Spirit. This teaches one to apply knowledge with discrimination and to swim across the waters of life to see the Divine Spirit without being influenced.
Sometimes a peacock is shown beside the Saraswati gazing at her. The peacock changes according to weather that symbolizes the fickleness of human mind. It also represents the arrogance and pride. By choosing swan over the peacock as her vehicle, it indicates the teaching of Saraswati that unlike peacock, one should remain undisturbed by external and changing factors as well as the self-ego in the pursuit of true knowledge and eternal truth. This teaching is also shown in her modest appearance that mostly only the ornament she wears is a garland of pearls as described in the verse.
Although the ultimate goal of Hinduism is the moksha, the complete release from the limitations of being an individual, Hinduism also encourages devotees to pursue life goals like Kama,(pleasure), artha (economic power) and dharma (social and religious duty). Arts, science and pure knowledge is important to both general life goals and the final spiritual deal as arts and science would help to achieve general life goal and divine knowledge would lead to moksha. Saraswati, originally considered as a river goddess but later worshiped as the Goddess of speech and Goddess of knowledge and arts, would bring devotees inspiration of artistic creation, knowledge leading to transcendence of the physical world.
1. “Saraswati.” Shakti: Realm of the Divine Mother. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2008. P208-215.
2. Kinsley, David R. “Saraswati.” Hindu Goddesses Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: U of California, 1988. P56-64.
3. Molloy, Michael. “Hinduism.” Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2008. Print.