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Divine Spotlight: Sarasvati

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

(O She) Who is Soothing White, Who is Herself the Supreme Essence of the Thoughts of Brahman, the Basis of All Things, the Primordial World-Pervading Goddess Who Holds the Veena and Book and Grants Fearlessness: may She dispel the darkness of ignorance from me, She Who carries in Her Hands the Crystal Rosary, and Who Has Established Her Form Upon the White Lotus Seat. I praise that Supreme Goddess Who Rules Over All Things; may that Autumnal One grant me a keen intellect!

-- Traditional Hymn to Sarasvati

Artwork of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati depicting a beautiful Indian woman playing a veena, holding a book and a rosary, and wearing a crown

Sarasvati, Sam & Steph Braithwaite, 2014 for Hero's Journey

Sarasvati is the Hindu Goddess of the arts and sciences, expression and intellect; one of the oldest figures in the religion, she has antecedents in two separate Vedic era figures and is widely honoured and worshipped both for her personal largesse towards academics and artists alike, but also for her status as wife and personal muse of Brahma, the Creator. Where her husband shapes existence into being, it is she who infuses meaning and the capacity to understand it into the fabric of the universe, turning grey Existence into vibrant Experience.

Sarasvati, like most Hindu Gods, has her characteristic panoply that marks her iconography: she is usually robed in white to symbolize clear understanding and purity, the latter of which is especially connected to her status as an ancient River Goddess. In her variable hands she carries a stringed lute-like instrument known as a veena, a book, either a sacred water pot or a rosary, and an elephant goad, which represent respectively her powers over music, science and knowledge, scripture, and her ability to bring the whirling thoughts of the mind (often compared to drunk elephants in Hindu texts) to heel. More warlike forms carry a variety of weapons, but most interestingly a plough - representing both her river-related power over fertility as well as her ability to plough the mind and ready it for the seeds of inspiration and understanding. Her Vahana, her sacred animal companion and mount, is a swan, or sometimes a goose; Hindu scripture attributes the swan with the power to, when given a mixture of milk and water, drink only the milk and leave behind the water, making it a symbol of discernment, a trait Sarasvati literally rides on as she goes about the world bestowing her gifts.

An image of the 19th-century painting Saraswati by Raja Ravni Shankar, depicting the goddess seated beside her river, wearing gold, with her veena, rosary, book, and crown, accompanied by a peacock

Saraswati, Raja Ravi Varma, 1896

Sarasvati's historical origins go back to two Vedic era Goddesses - the River Goddess of the same name, and Vak, the personified deity of speech. The former is extolled as greatest of rivers, greatest of mothers, greatest of Goddesses by the Rig Veda, and is honoured as a mighty leader in battle, smashing even mountains with her streams and bringing ruin to the enemies of her worshippers. In one colourful verse, she is asked to flow rivers of milk for her supplicants and rivers of poison for those who would harm them, a familiarity that comes in useful in post-Vedic myth when Indra is poisoned and saved by her in tandem with the Ashvin twins.

Vak, meanwhile, is understood to be the power responsible for not just the communication that keeps human societies functioning, but also the praise hymns that are central to the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic Gods, uniting Earth and Heaven. Not to be outdone in her wrath by her sister Goddess, though, another post-Vedic myth tells us that Vak was once offered as the payment given to the chief priests of an important sacrifice, but was refused; this so enraged her that she took on the form of a lion and rampaged around killing people for a while (hmm, rampaging lions? where have we heard that before?) until she was satisfied by being offered the sacrificial offerings even before Agni - since the offerings are accompanied by Speech, she partakes of them even before Fire.

A wooden statue of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, wearing a skirt and crown, holding her veena and accompanied by her swan, garlanded with flowers

Why would you anger a woman with a musical instrument this large?

By the time the Puranic era comes around, the Goddess Saravati is now a deity of not just the flow of a river but also the free flow of thoughts, words, ideas and notes. Most myths agree that she was 'born' into the World from the thoughts of Brahma, as he contemplated the task of Creation and manifested her as the muse he needed, and he pursues her lustily. Different versions give different events following this, but in general Sarasvati is initially reluctant to accept Brahma's advances, considering him the equivalent of her father, and flees to Shiva for help when Brahma grows a face in each direction in order to always keep an eye on her, including a fifth face on top of his head to follow her. Shiva cuts off this fifth head and this results in Brahma repenting of his behavior and approaching Sarasvati with restraint and humility, after which she agrees to marry him - although in some parts of India Sarasvati is still understood to be a virgin Goddess and this marriage never consummated.

Despite this, most Cosmologies also agree that Sarasvati existed long before she was born. As the Power of Creation she is a fundamental part of Reality itself; some say that, as the embodiment of all of Brahma's powers, she existed within him as part of his being, and was not so much 'born' of him as simply manifested externally from him, showing him very literally his own power. Others say that Sarasvati was born at the dawn of existence from the third of the three eyes of Durga, the Eye of Knowledge, from which she arose at the same time as Shiva, making them siblings (which would explain why she approached him for help with Brahma) (also, watch this space to find out who came from the other two eyes!). Rocky start aside, Brahma and Sarasvati are one of the three Primal Couples via whose union allows Reality as a whole to function, and as later literature would tell us, they are very much in love; take, for example, this extract from a poem from South India where Brahma attempts to cheer her up after she is angry at him:

‘The Vedas live on my tongue because of your lucid presence.

All the fragrance of poetry and music emerges from your play.

The melodies of veena and flute embody your love.

The whole world is in business because you allow it to happen.

If you’re upset even a little, I have no joy left in life.

How you can stay angry for so long at your willing slave?'

A three-dimensional wall relief from a 12th-century temple depicting the Hindu deities Brahma and Sarasvati, both wearing full regalia, crowns, and jewelry, holding their hands up in blessing while Sarasvati sits in Brahma's lap

The Powers of Creation honeymooning at the Hoysaleswara Temple in Dwarasamudra

Having been established as one of the Ruling Powers of the Universe, Sarasvati continues to have adventures, many of which show off her power over expression and her ability to guide and calm thoughts and calamities; when the Rakshasha Kumbhakarna asked Brahma to gift him Indrasan (Indra's Throne) as a reward for austerity, she twisted his tongue so that he asked for Nidrasan ("the Sleep Posture") instead, immediately falling asleep. And when her brother Shiva once unleashed the world-ending flames from his third eye prematurely, she stopped him and gathered up the flames and carried them within her own waters, there to keep them until the time is right.

But Sarasvati is also the Power of Creation, Speech and Expression, and it is her essence that empowers sacred blessings and curses, a power she is more than capable of wielding herself. At a grand ceremony to celebrate Brahma's defeat of a mighty Asura, Sarasvati was delayed in arriving, and since tradition dictates that a married man cannot engage in ritual without his wife present, the ceremony could not start. Impatient (and possibly drunk off the sacrificial Soma) the attendant Gods arranged to marry Brahma to Gayatri, the Goddess of sacred prosody; but Sarasvati arrives in the middle of the proceedings and, enraged, curses all the Gods in attendance. She then leaves the area, but sets off a second round of curses when the Goddesses decide to go back to their husbands and it falls to Gayatri to convince her to blunt the impact of her curses. Indeed, in many traditions Gayatri is considered to be an aspect of Sarasvati herself, so the marriage was never to anyone else but Sarasvati herself in these traditions.

A photo of a white stone or marble statue of the goddess Sarasvati, holding all her items and crowned, standing atop her swan vahana above a lotus flower floating on her river; below, statues of three children are blessed by her as they read from a book

Saraswati, multiple sculptors, the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, D.C.

Sarasvati is worshipped by anyone who seeks to create, discover, or understand, and the powers she brings forth on their behalf are immense; similarly, she comes to the aid of those Heroes she chooses in Hero's Journey by opening the gates to enlightenment and creativity. Heroes who serve her can replace Creator or Elemental rolls with successes granted to them by her, making them always able to access her gifts no matter what their background or other skills.

Sarasvati is the Power of Creation, by whose will thoughts and art are formed and contemplated, and since all Paths towards God and Godhood involve some form of contemplation, be it literal study, the single-minded focus of meditation, or the ecstasy of music, Divinity simply cannot be grasped without her aid. No matter the Goal, she shows the Path, and who could be more useful on a Hero's Journey than a Goddess who does that?

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