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Hindu goddess Saraswati

Saraswati: Hindu Goddess of Wisdom and Protector of the Universe

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A deity with as many attributes as arms, Saraswati (or Sarasvati) is the Hindu goddess of aesthetics. These include music, the arts, wisdom and learning. She can be compared, in many ways, to the Greek god Apollo combined with the mental prowess of the Greek goddess Athena. She is wed to Brahma, the highest deity of the Hindu religion and complements his abstraction of the universe with her active efforts to seek and maintain the wisdom to protect it. But what exactly is her position in the Hindu hierarchy?

The Two Hindu Trinities

Saraswati is part of one of the two primary trinities in Hindu culture. The first, and better known, is that of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who together keep the cosmos in order. In the Hindu tradition, Brahma is responsible for creating the universe, Vishnu ensures the universe is maintained and ordered, while Shiva is tasked with destroying the universe at an allotted time and recycling/reviving it accordingly.

Saraswati is part of a second trinity, together with Lakshmi and Parvati. Lakshmi is the wife of Vishnu and is associated with wealth and prosperity. Parvati is the goddess of love and fertility. With the wisdom and artistry of Saraswati, these three women aid in the maintenance of the cosmos alongside their male counterparts.

Interestingly, there are some customs that portray Saraswati as a wife of Vishnu, possibly because Vishnu is more actively worshipped than Brahma, and suggest that she was later given to Brahma as a gift.

A Pure Seeker of Knowledge

In art, Saraswati is associated with the white lotus flower , as it symbolizes the knowledge which she is constantly seeking. She is often also associated with a swan or hamsa to identity with her pure, innocent nature—as it is believed wisdom is best achieved through indiscriminate means. She is portrayed in yellow or white, and her primary festival (Saraswati Puja) is celebrated on the first day of spring.

Closeup of a sacred lotus on the water surrounded by greenery under the sunlight. ( Wirestock /Adobe Stock)

It is likely that young children are taught the alphabet and preliminary learning skills during the Saraswati Puja due to her pure nature and intellectual prowess. Saraswati's spring association is probably intended to represent the ever-changing progression of nature alongside the development of children and their knowledge.

In other mythological literature regarding Saraswati, she is said to provide gifts of education and learning to other gods. For example, she provides Ganesha, the elephant companion of Shiva, with pen and ink.

Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma, 1896 AD. ( Public Domain )

The Goddess Saraswati and Water Worship

It was common to worship Saraswati in the modern day river Sarsuti, once named the Saraswati River. Just like the well-known Ganges River, the Sarsuti has long been thought to possess otherworldly powers. Bathing in it was believed to bring the worshipper good fortune and fertility.

Whether Saraswati was a goddess prior to the naming of the river, or the river was personified into a goddess after years of worship there, is uncertain. However, there is an agreement among scholars that this site is associated with the goddess Saraswati.

Saraswati's name is first found in the Rigveda, one of four sacred texts of the Hindu religion. It dates back to around 1700-1100 BC, indicating that Saraswati has long been a pertinent part of the evolving faith.

A chapter of the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, even claims that Saraswati herself was responsible for the creation of the Rigveda and its three counterparts: the Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. This is a sensible presumption based on Saraswati's various aspects of wisdom and the limitless knowledge of the universe.

Indian goddess Saraswati . ( mkb /Adobe Stock)

Celebrating Goddess Saraswati

Vasant Panchami is a holiday linked to the goddess Saraswati and celebrated across India to mark the end of winter and beginning of spring . It is annually held in January or February. Worshippers wear yellow clothes on this day and farmers celebrate the time when their crops turn yellow and mustard flowers appear.

Hindus give offerings of food to the goddess at her temples and children place their books and stationary items in front of statues of the goddess on altars in their homes to receive her help in acquiring wisdom. Yellow foods, flowers, and treats are also gifted between family, friends, and neighbors. Schools also encourage children to say prayers to honor the goddess during this celebration.

Saraswati is also known by other names, each epithet indicative of the primary aspect of her person the worshiper wants to invoke. Some of these names are: Bharati, Shatarupa, and Vac - eloquence, existence, and speech, respectively.

It should also be noted that Saraswati has roles in other Asian religions, particularly Jainism and Buddhism. Her roles in these faiths are slightly different, though she remains predominately a goddess of knowledge.

Top Image: Goddess Saraswati, Kolkata, India . Source: mitrarudra /Adobe Stock

By Ryan Stone

References

Arumugam, Raj. Ganesha, Laksmi and Saraswati . TTS: Melbourne, 2006.

Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts . Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2000.

Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism . Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996.

Flood, Gavin. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism . Blackwell: Massachusetts, 2003.

Fowler, Jeaneane D. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices . Sussex Academic Press: UK, 1997.

Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition . University of California Press: CA, 1988.

Lipner, Julius. Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Psychology Press, 1998.

"The Vedas." 2010. Sacred-texts.com. Accessed February 26, 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/index.htm#vedas

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