The Importance Of Basant Panchami, The Meaning Of Saraswati
There is no one in our life and our cultural memory like Goddess Saraswati, the bestower of not some preconceived learning package, but our ability, indeed, our worthiness to go beyond ignorance. She seems to be nudging more of us to wake up.
In my new novel, Saraswati’s Intelligence, the Kishkindhans have three ceremonies by which they measure their lives. The “first ceremony” takes place moments after birth, and urges the Goddess to teach the newborn to nourish itself from its mother. It is a prayer to know what is food, and how to find it (and it is going to become very vital to the civilisation as the trilogy unfolds!) The “second ceremony” marks the beginning of their formal education. The “third ceremony” is marriage. There is no “fourth ceremony.” Long after the battles are fought and dangers averted (for now). Hanuman remembers asking his mother Anjana about that as a child. Her reasoning about why Kishkindhans do not have a “fourth ceremony” is something that I hope we will all think about. We are, after all, Saraswati’s Children.
Simple, Straightforward, Benevolent Presence
There is no one in our life and our cultural memory like Goddess Saraswati. We might have innumerable gods and goddesses we hold dear, but Saraswati is unique in some ways. She is perhaps the only deity who is known not so much by her deeds and adventures as her simple, straightforward, benevolent presence. When you think of Hanuman, you think of him carrying the mountain, or opening his chest to show Rama and Sita, or leaping towards the sun. When you think of Krishna, you think of the miracles at his birth, his dance on the serpent’s head, his revelation to Arjuna on the battlefield. But when you think of Saraswati, you rarely think of any definitive episodes. You think only of a mother who you can ask and she gives, and gives you the only thing really that you have been put on this earth for.
“Blank Slate” And Memories
From my childhood, during the 1970s, until very recently when I encountered Roberto Calasso, post-Pai Amar Chitra Katha and academia, there is probably not one story about Saraswati I came across in my daily life. By all means, one might find all sorts of tales in the vast ocean of culture that is our past; but it is this unique cultural quality of Saraswati in our daily lives that I want to evoke here. She is in some ways a “blank slate” untouched by history and time. And a “blank slate” is also the greatest gift she puts in our hands; greater than whatever lines might come and go on it. She is the bestower of not some preconceived learning package, but our ability, indeed, our worthiness to go beyond ignorance. She is there when we transcend that dull finitude of what we assumed we knew only to be shown there is still more that we need to know after all. She is the bestower of wonder, most of all.
I cannot recollect with precision the first time I might have seen, understood or recognised Goddess Saraswati in my childhood. Like many our deities, she was already there; in our feelings, dreams, temples, puja rooms. However, like most of us, I do have vivid memories of prayers to her during the Dussehra celebrations. I placed my brown-paper colored notebooks to guarantee good marks (that’s the way I understood it) and of course, also chanted Saraswati namastubhyam before every exam I wrote.
The Initiators Into The Grace Of Saraswati
While I do not remember the Saraswati puja that must have taken place during my aksharabhyasamu ceremony in Madras in 1973 or so, I still remember the people involved, whom I invoke now reverentially as stand-ins for the Mother herself. The ceremony was performed by Sri S.K.D. Prasadalingam garu of Chinna Parimi, a small village near Tenali in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. He was known in my household as “Master Garu.” He was the principal of my mother’s school in Duggirala when she was a child, sometime in the early 1940s.
My first day of school was a fiasco. Master Garu’s wife, Smt. S. Mallika Devi, my mother’s childhood music teacher and my childhood foster-mother of sorts, masterminded my escape from that school and then executed a whole decade of strategic emotional blackmail to get me to study. Every time I tried to bunk school, she would say, “if you do badly in your studies, all the people will blame Master Garu and me because he performed your aksharabhyasamu.” After all these years, and since I have become a teacher myself, I suppose it is appropriate to remember these wonderful elders as my initiators into the grace of Saraswati. Their memory also reminds me of what so many of us are concerned about these days, the vast world of traditional, non-urban, non-Anglophone knowledges that each generation in India gets severed even more from as it is indoctrinated into a colonial-religious curriculum under secular guises.
There is however one memory that I cherish as a gift of grace from Goddess Saraswati. It is a conversation that took place with my father during one of my trips back to India in the late 1990s, probably around the time I had gone to do some fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation. I remember my father sitting across the table at lunch. We were talking about something I cannot remember, but for some reason I was reminded of an insight I had read in Sanathana Sarathi (the official magazine of the Sathya Sai world published from Prashanthi Nilayam). I said to my father (as I had understood it), “Swami says ‘So-Ham’ is also a reversal of ‘Ham-Sa’ and therefore every breath of ours is really Saraswati’s vaahana.”
I remember this moment mainly because I remember my father’s reaction to it; he was amazed by the creativity and originality of that insight, and I could see the wonder and appreciation on his face. “I never heard that, I say!” he said. Some of us remember our graduation ceremonies and photos as markers of our educational journey. For me, it will be the memory of my father’s reaction to my having said that. Today, as I reach the age where memories become even more important milestones for the journey to the self we are all making, I wonder if the expression on my father’s face was probably no different from what it was when he watched me take my first steps on my own as a child. As all elders do, he was there, and he presided, and delighted, in watching the next generation learn to learn somehow the sanathana of dharma.
Will knowledge prevail?
There is a divinely beautiful life-like Goddess Saraswati in the Bay Area Satyanarayana Swami temple (the “Silicon Valley” temple). Hanuman’s shrine stands at a right angle to hers. Each year, the temple conducts a community Saraswati Puja. I recall well over a hundred families sitting there in disciplined rows when we went. Each child writes the same simple letters to begin the journey of learning as his parents, grandparents, ancestors did. Which ancestors might have imagined where, how, and in what countries and circumstances their descendants would be doing this? Can we imagine where and in what circumstances our future generations will be? Will knowledge have prevailed over ignorance in the struggle for the fate of the planet and all its lives? I can imagine my parents praying to Goddess Saraswati to give me learning so I can get a good job and life, which was the concern of most parents those days. But Goddess Saraswati seems to be nudging more of us to wake up these days and see that our children have to be prepared for not only professional security, but for nothing less than planetary rescue. The chalks we hold in their tiny hands at Saraswati Puja are going to be wielded as arms in the defense of our civilization, and all that is good in the world, whether we realise it yet or not.
May Maha Saraswati, as Medha Devi, Sraddha Devi, and Vaag Devi, fill us with steadfast dedication, accurate thought, and lucid expression so we may realise all that we are meant to realise in our lives.
I thank Sri Marepalli Naga Venkata Sastri garu of the Sri Satyanarayana Swami Devasthanam for his insights on the forms of Goddess Saraswati.
— Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies and Asian Studies at the University of San Francisco and author, Saraswati’s Intelligence (Book 1 of The Kishkindha Chronicles).
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