To Whomsoever It May Concern: Progressiveness Is In The Reverence Of Saraswati, Not In Opposing Her
Lyrics writer Yashwant Manohar’s act is similar to that of those who scribble their names on valuable paintings or sculptures in temples.
But his juvenile talk is called ‘progressive’, and is shameful.
I pay homage to you, Saraswati, for you bestow perfect skill in oratory, debate, and composition .... Lucid expression thrills every sharp mind, so I beseech you: Grant me wisdom in writing, debate, and teaching — Prayer of the Second Dalai Lama
Marathi socio-political lyrics writer Yashwant Manohar, whose career as a poet is based on his positioning of himself as social reform ‘poet’, refused to accept the ‘lifetime achievement award’ given by Vidarbha Sahitya Sangh (VSS).
The reason he cited was that a ‘Saraswati puja’ was performed and a portrait of the goddess was garlanded on stage.
He has stated that Saraswati was a symbol of "exploitation that barred women and shudras from education and knowledge”.
This is a good example of ignorance of history and culture, portrayed as a social progressive stand. It is profitable in terms of publicity and career opportunity.
Yes, even septuagenarians can be fame addicts. Had Manohar accepted the award he would have been confined to the Marathi literary circuit.
Now, he has gained a chance of getting invited to every leftist-elitist literary festival and may even get a column written about him in the New York Times.
Now let us examine his specific charge — that Saraswati symbolises denial of education to Shudras and women.
Let us explore some instances to bring out the true nature of Saraswati in not just Vedic but in the pan-Hindu canvas.
Kavasha To Kambar
Kavasha was a Vedic Mantra-Drishta or one through whom the Vedic hymns pour forth.
A Vedic lore states that because of a prolonged drought, Vedic sages conducted a 'Soma Yajna' for rain.
Kavasha was one among the performers of the Vedic rituals.
However, the other rishis ridiculed and humiliated him. They called him the son of a maid and a gambler. They threw him out of the gathering of Vedic ritualists.
In response to this, Saraswati is said to have come to him as a flowing river.
The sages who humiliated him repented and recognised the worth of Kavasha as a great seer.
Later, in the epic-puranic traditions, it was Tura, the son of Kavasha, who becomes the chief priest of Janamejaya.
In southern India, Kambar (thirteenth century) is unmatched in his poetic genius. There are many oral traditions related to him.
There are various claims that he was born into the weaver or potter community or into the non-Brahmin Kali priest community called Uvachars.
Whatever the truth, the fact remains that he was born in none of the so-called ‘upper’ varnas. However, his epic Iramavatharam popularly known as Kamba Ramayanam, shows his in-depth knowledge of not only Sanskrit Valmiki Ramayana but also of the Upanishads.
In oral traditions, the ‘ishta-devata’ of Kambar is Saraswati.
Though hailing from a socially humble background, Kambar rose to such a level that he could mix freely with the king much to the chagrin of the nobles in the court.
Kambar’s son Ambikapati, the oral tradition says, fell in love with the king’s daughter Amaravati. Since then, in Tamil Nadu, they have become the archetypical lovers belonging to strikingly opposite social backgrounds who would endure any hardship for love.
However, even the liberal king would not have accepted their match in those days. So, the envious courtiers were waiting for an opportunity to use this budding romance to exact their revenge on Kambar.
They started telling the king of the rumours of Ambikapati being romantically inclined towards the princess. Though the king refused to believe amidst those who complained, he started having doubts.
It was usual for the king to have lunch with Kambar and he would have his daughter serve them food. On a particular day, Kambar had also brought along his son. As the princess came to serve, the lover-poet in Ambikapati could not restrain himself. He burst into a poetic line:
"(So tender is her feet that) the one foot in motion pains and the one that touches the ground has blisters and carrying the food basket she comes with her waist moving delicately..."
It dawned on the king whose feet the youngster was referring to. As he started to get furious, Kambar realised what was happening. So meditating on Saraswati, he completed the next line:
"...crying ‘buy these tubers’ in the street in a voice the whole world can hear."
The poet thus changed the lines to refer to an imaginary tuber-selling woman they had seen in the streets in hot sun.
The king still looked doubtful.
Then suddenly in the street adjacent to the palace, a voice rang out: "nice edible tubers... buy tasty edible tubers”.
The king had her summoned and lo and behold, there were blisters on her feet — her feet.
So the tradition says.
To protect the young lovers, who defied social status and prestige, yielding to the appeal of her blessed devotee Kambar, the Goddess of all Gnosis walked in the streets under the hot sun, getting blisters in her feet.
Again, tradition has it that Kambar desired to announce and get approval for his epic by scholars at the famous Sri Rangam Temple. There was opposition. Vishnu himself came to Kambar and asked him to sing an ‘Anthathi’ on Sadagopan or Nammazhwar — the fountainhead and the spiritual core of Sri Vaishnava Dharma.
Incidentally, Nammazhwar belongs to the fourth varna. Following this, as Kambar was reading his verses to the scholars for their critical analysis and approval, one of the objections was that Kambar had used the word ‘thumi’ for ‘drop’ while the Tamil word was ‘’.
Can you prove the usage of this word anywhere in Tamil, a scholar asked. Unless the usage was proved, the epic would be rejected for the faults it contained, Kambar was told.
Kambar had used the term in the context of building the Ram Sethu. As the mighty vanaras threw the mountain rocks and trees into the sea, the splash of water rose to reach the heavens. It reminded the celestials of the churning of the milky ocean making them yearn for the nectar again. It was a moment of poetic inspiration.
Kambar prayed to Saraswati, stating that since all poetic inspirations were her emanations, it was her duty to prove him right.
The scholar who raised the objection was coming the next day to the assembly and on the way he had to pass the houses of milkmaids. In a hut, a mother was churning the curd for butter.
Surrounded by four kids, she told them "move away or the curd thumi would splash on you”.
On hearing this, the scholar poet rushed to the assembly and announced that he heard the term referred to by Kambar being used by a cowherd woman.
Kambar stood in silent gratitude for a moment for the one who had arrived to help him as a cowherd mother.
These oral traditions say how Saraswati is being venerated by the collective Indian psyche. The story also shows how the classical tradition in India and the so-called folk tradition are intimately associated.
Saraswati is not only the muse of the poets but also the one who checks the scholastic arrogance and other conceited behaviors, which often resulted in social injustice and disharmony.
Nagarjuna And Adi Shankara
In the traditional account of the life of Adi Shankara, we see that his opponent Mandana Misra’s wife was the judge for their debate and she judged in favour of Shankara.
She was also considered as an emanation of Saraswati. At the Sharada Pitha where Shankara would ascend the throne of Sarvajna, we find all the different sects — not only Vedic but also Jains, Buddhist and atheistic sects — coming under her roof and emphasising the universal and all-inclusive nature of the goddess — a divine imagery unparalleled anywhere in the world.
In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist scholar, revealed to his rival-turned-disciple, who had debated with him earlier and got defeated, that Nagarjuna worshipped Saraswati to gain intellectual prowess.
The Second Dalai Lama sought the grace of Saraswati to save knowledge for posterity during a period of calamity and chaos.
Usually, people such as Yashwant Manohar like to demean Hindu gods and goddesses and project Buddhism as egalitarian.
However, real scholars of Buddhism have seen a positive influence that the goddesses of the Vedic religion have had on Buddhism, a religion which was initially maleoriented.
Dr Mirinda Shaw, in her study of Buddhist goddesses, points out that while "Sarasvati predates Buddhism by many centuries, having first been introduced in Vedic hymns in the second millennium-·B.C.E’, her “association with the intellectual sphere assured that she would find favor among Buddhists, who highly value wisdom and its servants: mental clarity, reasoning ability, memorization, and oratorical skill."
In fact, she was the only Goddess of Vedic religion accepted in Buddhism "without a change in name or significant alteration of divine persona" and that “the range of blessings for which Sarasvati is invoked in Buddhism has remained the same as in Hinduism”.
She points out further how the pan-Hindu conception of the divine feminine is elevating and liberating for the human spirit:
Sarasvati’s presence in the Buddhist pantheon shows that the western dualism which assigns maleness to the superior sphere of culture while relegating femaleness to the realm of nature does not apply in the cultural setting that gave rise to Sarasvati. The Indian ethos on the whole attributes to women and goddesses the power to give life, but “life” in this context is not understood as a merely biological or material phenomenon. Female life-giving power (Shakti) nourishes; inspires, and empowers every level. Without it, no goal of human life can be achieved, whether material, social, intellectual, creative, or religious.
And In The Modern Times
Modern India has more than two centuries of great stalwarts fighting against social stagnation. And they drew inspiration from Saraswati.
Sri Chattambi Swamigal (1853-1924) of Kerala, in his critique on societal discrimination, cites the Kavasha incident to counter the then prevalent claim that Shudras should be denied Vedic knowledge.
India owes its entire freedom movement to Swami Vivekananda. And Swami Vivekananda burst upon the national scene with his Chicago address.
At Chicago, in the World Parliament of Religions, the young monk was delaying his talk so much that the moderator had begun to wonder if he would ever speak at all.
Then at last Vivekananda stood before a foreign audience of 7,000 and he in his mind bowed to Saraswati . Then he uttered those historical words “Sisters and Brothers of America..." And the rest was history.
Dr B R Ambedkar who himself ran a magazine Saraswati Vilas, called Swami Vivekananda the greatest Indian of the century.
The great Kannada poet Manjeshwar Govinda Pai (1883-1963) considered as 'Rashtrakavi' has also used the Vedic episode of Kavasha and Saraswati to drive home the message of social emancipation.
In his Shudrarshi Kavasha, the poet dramatically makes the repenting Vedic ritualists say to Kavasha that their inner eye was blinded by ignorance just as the outer eye was blinded by the smoke from the sacrificial pit.
It is against this unfathomable depth and immeasurable height of the magnificence of Saraswati as the cultural symbol and spiritual force of vidya and jnana, common to all, irrespective of caste creed or gender, that one has to see the self-seeking tantrum of lyric writer Yashwant Manohar.
His is an act similar to that of those who scribble their names on a wonderful painting or a sculpture in a temple. And that this juvenile act is called ‘progressive’ is a shame for all media.
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