Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma
Snapshot
  • The Indian astronomers who recently discovered a galactic supercluster have named the astronomical object ‘Saraswati’.

    Digging into Indian culture and tradition, here are some thoughts on the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning.

The young Indian astronomers who discovered a galactic supercluster four billion light years away have named it ‘Saraswati’. Giving Hindu names to an astronomical object or phenomenon instead of names derived from Western mythology is not something that validates Hindu mythology ‘scientifically’. It only shows that Indian science is increasingly cementing its place in the global scientific community.

Bound by the speed of light, the astronomers see Saraswati supercluster only as it was 4,000 million years ago.

Saraswati supercluster Saraswati supercluster

The celestial Saraswati fondly invokes some interconnected thoughts for a student of Indian culture and spiritual traditions.

Saraswati: Goddess of Sacred Geography

Saraswati in Rigveda is a mighty river goddess. She is the best of mothers, best of rivers and best of the goddesses. She stands distinctly majestic among the other mighty rivers, faster in her charge than others. She is the mother of all rivers. With three hymns for her, which are sung in 80 different places, she who “from the mountains goes to the ocean” made sacred the geography, the ‘Sapta Sindhu’ – the land of seven rivers, as was experienced by the Vedic seers.

Yash Pal study Yash Pal study

From the colonial times, her identity has been searched for by explorers, geologists and archeologists. Dried river beds of Ghaggar-Hakra had been identified with Saraswati by many of them. The paleo-channels, six to eight kilometres wide in the Landsat MSS2 image, as identified by eminent physicist Yash Pal in 1980, would later emerge as iconic of the terrestrial Saraswati river.

Her Vedic description and identity with respect to the sacred geography of India have been challenged by a school of scholars who usually also ascribe to the colonial Aryan migration model. For example, Harvard Sankritist Professor Michael Witzel considers the Vedic description of the river as hyperbole. However, the geologists who studied the paleo-river channels discovered “a perennial monsoonal-fed Sarasvati river system with benign floods along its course” which, to them, was “a testament to the acuity of the Rig Veda composers who transmitted to us across millennia such an incredibly accurate description of a grand river!”

Ravi Varma’s Saraswati (L) and Saraswati on the cover of a recent issue of <i>Amar Chitra Katha</i> Ravi Varma’s Saraswati (L) and Saraswati on the cover of a recent issue of Amar Chitra Katha

There are ‘three goddesses’ (‘tisro devih’, Rigveda, 1:13:9) who are invoked together in the Vedas. They are Saraswati, Ila and Bhārati. In Atharvaveda, all three are given the name Saraswati (‘tisrah Sarasvatih’). Another Vedic goddess of interest is Vāc. In the Vājasaneyi Samhitā of Yajurveda, Saraswati bestows Vāc on Indra; she is the controller of Vāc and she herself is the Vāc. In S̄atapathabrāhmana, Vāc and Saraswati are declared as one. Bhārati is also identified with Vāc. In Brhaddevatā, first compiled in 400 BCE and revised during early Puranic period, Vāc united with Bhārati.

Celestial and Terrestrial Milk of Saraswati

Saraswati is not just the flowing riverine goddess but also the celestial one. She is identified with Milky Way, the river of heaven. She is also associated with the cosmic tree which connects the celestial worlds with earth. Vedic scholar David Frawley sees in her cosmic symbolism her higher status. He considers her the stream of consciousness.

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Aitareya Brahmana of the Rigveda reveals a very interesting dimension of Saraswati. She is not only the celestial river, the river of this earth and the flow of consciousness; she is also the stream of justice. Sadashiv Ambadas Dange, author of Encyclopaedia of Puranic Beliefs and Practices, opines that they “were trying assiduously, in a probable drought, for the gain of water”. They expelled Kavasha because he was “son of a Dāsi, a non-Brahmin and a gambler”. Humiliated and driven to the desert, there he was inspired and saw the famous 'Aponaptriya', “the child of the waters”. He abided in her affection, says the text, and Saraswati started flowing all around him. The dramatic contrast between the arrogant ritualists calling him 'Dāsiputra' and their shaming by Kavasha becoming the seer of “the child of the waters” – as well as the significance of the anecdote in rejecting the socially stagnant abuse of a person with a slur against his maternal lineage, pitting such slur against the Divine Feminine – cannot be lost on any careful student of Hindu history.

Rigveda speaks of rivers as mothers of Saraswati, the seventh river. Saraswati herself is said to be ‘Sudughdh’, “yielding good milk”. And this sacred geography gets mapped into the inner realms as well. In Rigveda (1.164.49), the seer asks Saraswati to allow him to suckle her breasts. Dr Catherine Ludvik insightfully observes: “Her milk, in this stanza, represents all valuable things, which she gives in full from her abundant breast, wealth in the widest sense. For the poet, as a poet, however, there is one treasure above all inspired thought (Dhi). Thus if one were to apply this stanza directly to the poet, one might say that he wishes to suck ‘Dhi’ directly from its source so that inspired thoughts might flow from him in the form of words.”

Interestingly, two of South India’s greatest poet-seers would seek and get the same from a goddess, though not from Saraswati but Pārvati, who is the daughter of the mountains.

Events from the life of Thiru Gnana Sambandar: Parvati feeds infant Sambandar Events from the life of Thiru Gnana Sambandar: Parvati feeds infant Sambandar

According to tradition, seventh-century child prodigy and Saivaite saint Thiru Gnana Sambandar, who revived Saivism in South India, was given milk by Pārvati when he cried as an infant. Adi Sankara, around early eighth century, in his work Saundarya Lahari makes the Vedic-Sarasvati connection explicit. He describes the milk of her breast as “an ocean of milk flowing like the waters of Sarasvati”. Having drunk this milk, says Sankara, “the Dravida Sisu (Dravidian infant) became poet among all great poets”. It is interesting that the Vedic imagery of the flowing river becomes linked to the poetic greatness of the South Indian seer. In the context of Tamil Saivism, the distinction between Saraswati and Pārvati does not matter at all. Thirumanthiram is a fifth-century canonical Saivaite text written by Tamil mystic seer Thirumoolar, who identifies Saraswati emphatically with Pārvati:

She that holds the Book of Knowledge in her hand divine

She our mother, of eyes three,

She of crystal form, She of comely white lotus,

She chants the Vedas, She is Parvati. … (Tantra 4:5:22, 1067)

Sarasvati Anthāthi, a Tamil devotional work of 30 verses sung in praise of Saraswati, traditionally attributed to famous Kambar (twelfth century) but probably a later work, hails her having given the milk of knowledge of all art from her mountainous breasts.

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Goddess of the Battlefield

Both Vāc and Saraswati are also goddesses who can fight. Saraswati is compared to Indra, and her assistance is requested in the battlefields. She is the only goddess addressed as the slayer of Vtra-Vṛtragni. The epithet in its masculine form that is used to address Indra 106 times is used only once in feminine form and that is to address Saraswati. In Yajurveda, Saraswati is invoked with Rudras to help people.

Vāc Sukta is interesting because this hymn is attributed to the human daughter, Vāc, of sage Ambṛna. Seized with an altered state of consciousness merging with the archetypal Divine Feminine, she identifies herself with the goddess. She declares herself to be roaming the land with Rudras (invoked with Saraswati), Adityas (invoked with Bhārati) and Vasus (invoked with Ila). Thus, she embodies in her all the three goddesses. Then she says that she fights for the people. She reveals herself as Rashtri – the embodiment of the nation. She says that she strings the bow of the Rudras and fights for the people. A comparable poetic manifestation of this Vedic hymn would arise centuries later in the worship of goddess expressed in Chilapathikaram (dated variously between second to fifth century CE) in South India. We have here the primordial surfacing of Bharat mata, combining both her traits as the giver of knowledge and the fighting warrior goddess.

A Goddess of Buddhist Dhamma with Vedic roots

Dr Ludvik, professor of religion at Kyoto Sangyo University, in her detailed study points out that in ‘Suvarṇaprabhā Sūtra’, or the ‘Sūtra of Golden Light’, Saraswati becomes a multi-armed fighting goddess for Dharma. She ponders:

Would the Sutra of Golden Light, in the extant Sanskrit and in the versions represented by the Chinese translations of Yasogupta/Jnanagupta and Yijing-over two thousand years removed in time from the Rg Veda-have drawn on an aspect of the goddess that amongst the Hindus had been left behind, seemingly forgotten? Would the Buddhists have been studying the Rg Veda and its complex language so closely?
Dr Catherine Ludvik, 2007, p 199

She rejects such a scenario, though. To Dr Ludvik, the Sutra simply combines distinct goddesses: the original wisdom goddess Saraswati and the later battle goddesses merging them with Saraswati. Saraswati takes the form of an eight-armed battle goddess for Dharma in the Sutra and reaches Japan through China, though this form is more related to 'Kausiki-Vindhyavasini' and 'Mahisāsuramardini'.

It may be that Dr Ludwik could have overlooked a connection between Vāc and Mahishāsuramardini. For this, a bird’s eye view of the way Mahishāsuramardini has evolved along the time stream may provide some clues.

The buffalo-slaying Divine depicted in Harappan tablet: The tablet has on its other side a female
figure fighting felines and over a hostile elephant. In the fifth century, Devi Māhātmiya, before slaying
Mahisha, fights the elephant and lion forms of the demon. The buffalo-slaying Divine depicted in Harappan tablet: The tablet has on its other side a female figure fighting felines and over a hostile elephant. In the fifth century, Devi Māhātmiya, before slaying Mahisha, fights the elephant and lion forms of the demon.

The buffalo-slaying Divine can be traced to the Harappan period itself. Archeologist Jonathan Kenoyer while discussing the Harappan terracotta tablet which shows “the ritual slaying of a water buffalo in front of a deity seated in yogic position while a crocodile crawls above the scene”, points out that these aspects are in Hinduism “associated with the deity Durga”. During the period of second urbanisation, which in South India coincides with Sangham age, the goddess who slays a buffalo demon has emerged in literature. She had won a battle and is the mother of Murugan. Uma is also the mother of Murugan in the same layer of literature. She is depicted as armed with a trident in battlefields and has three eyes. When vermillion is applied to a maiden, she is said to look like Kottravai, the battle goddess. She dwells in the forest. Chilapathikaram clearly establishes her identity as Mahisāsuramardini and also a tribal deity who is also hailed as the goddess at the summit of Upanishads. Here, she is also identified with another goddess of Indian sacred geography – Kumari (Kanyakumari). Meanwhile in North India, in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) and the Nagar region of Rajasthan, Mahisāsuramardini images have been obtained archeologically, attested to the end of first century BCE.

Devi Māhātmiya, a fifth century CE work (part of Markandeya Purana), provides an interesting, if not clinching, link connecting Mahisāsuramardini and Vāc. Māhātmiya describes in detail the weapons of the goddess and the deities who provided them. It were the Maruts or the Rudras (sons of Rudra) who gave her the bow. In Vāc Sukta, it is the bow of Rudra that she strings for the people. When one sees the depictions of her in the reliefs and sculptures holding the bow and fighting Mahishāsura, as in the case of the famous Mahabalipuram shore temples of Pallavās (seventh century), one can relate the imagery to Vāc Sukta of Rigveda.

Mahabalipuram temples of Pallavās (seventh century) Mahabalipuram temples of Pallavās (seventh century)

Thus, the connectivity between the goddess of knowledge and the multi-armed goddess who battles is never forgotten in the flow of history in the land of seven rivers, India. Vande Mataram brought it out when Bankim Chandra Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay manifested those lines in our national song.

TvaM hi Durgaa dashapraharaNadhaariNii

kamalaa kamaladala vihaariNii

vaaNii vidyaadaayinii namaami tvaaM

Abdul Kalam’s translation of the Saraswati Vandana verses is worth recalling. Abdul Kalam’s translation of the Saraswati Vandana verses is worth recalling.

Perhaps the right place to end this article is with the message A P J Abdul Kalam conveyed to the students of Bharathiyar University on 06 July 2005. After asking the students to recite and remember the Saraswati Vandana that Tamil poet Bhārathi had composed in his epic poem, ‘The Vow of Pānchāli’, he translated the verses for the students.

If perpetual motion be the nature of all systems, (electrons in the atoms to stars in the galaxies) around, O! Goddess of Learning! Kindly bless my mind also to work ceaselessly in acquisition of knowledge. I think it is an important message for all of us, for continued acquisition of knowledge, work and continued prosperity.
A P J Abdul Kalam

By naming a galactic supercluster after Saraswati, the young scientists have given her another dimension in human beings’ quest for knowledge, of whose embodiment she is.

This article, along with all its references, can be read here on Scribd.

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