SARASVATĪ is a goddess of pan-Indian importance best known as the patron of learning and the fine arts. Her name means "flowing, watery," and indeed, she first appears in the Ṛgveda as a sacred river. Since Ṛgvedic times Sarasvatī has been associated with knowledge and learning, and quite early she developed a special connection with music, as is shown iconographically by the lute (vīṇā ) that she often holds. In texts beginning with the Yajurveda she is identified with Vāc, a female personification of sacred speech.
Sarasvatī's primary mythic association is as the wife (or sometimes the daughter) of the god Brahmā; as his cult waned, she came increasingly to be represented, along with Lakṣmī, as a spouse of Viṣṇu. Although she has been assimilated in this way to various deities of the Brahmanic tradition, her primary religious importance is as a goddess in her own right. Thus, in spite of her frequent consort status, she is popularly viewed as unmarried, and she is commonly worshiped alone. Images characteristically portray her as fair, wearing white garments and many ornaments, sitting with one leg pendant, and playing the vīṇā with two of her four arms while holding one or more other objects, such as a manuscript, a white lotus, a rosary, or a water vessel. A ruddy goose or swan (haṃsa ), her usual mount (vāhana ) and emblem, is often represented at her feet; less commonly, she has been depicted with a ram.
From the Ṛgveda onward, Sarasvatī's mythic associations have been various and complex. As one form of the sacrificial fire, she is conceived of as the wife of Agni, whose mount is also a ram. In the Ᾱprī hymns of the Ṛgveda she is praised together with Iḷā and Bhāratī as the triple tongue of the sacrificial fire. Yet her closest Vedic associations are with Indra and with the twin Aśvins, the physicians of the gods. Vedic accounts portray her as healing, refreshing, and giving strength to Indra, either as a river or by the power of her speech, and she is sometimes said to be Indra's wife and sometimes the wife of the Aśvins. Her banks were considered the most sacred place for sacrifices, and her waters alone were deemed capable of purifying humans from that most heinous of crimes, brahmanicide.
In the later tradition, Sarasvatī's river aspect gradually diminished, perhaps at the saṃe time that the actual river by that name receded and eventually disappeared; certain epic and Puranic myths do, however, retain a sense of her earlier identity. In a Mahābhārata story she preserves the Vedas during a twelve-year drought by feeding her son Sārasvata on her fish when other brahmans have become too weak to remember the sacred texts; she is also praised in the Purāṇas and in inscriptions for bearing the virulent Aurvā fire to the sea. Yet increasingly she is conceived of as an anthropomorphic goddess, whose beauty and quick temper cause problems for those around her. In a Puranic elaboration of a Vedic kernel, Brahmā so desires to keep his lovely daughter in view as she circumambulates him that he grows a face in every direction. Other Purāṇas tell of a quarrel among the three wives of Viṣṇu—Sarasvatī, Lakṣmī, and Gaṇgā—which becomes so fierce that Viṣṇu gives Sarasvatī to Brahmā and Gaṇgā to Śiva.
Although Sarasvatī has continued to be associated with Brahmā, she early developed connections not only with Lakṣmī and Viṣṇu but also with Durgā and Śiva. Images of Viṣṇu from the ninth century ce or earlier in eastern India represent her, together with Lakṣmī, at Viṣṇu's side. In Bengal, Sarasvatī and Lakṣmī are popularly viewed as the daughters of Śiva and Durgā, and their rivalry is proverbial. In certain Purāṇas and images Sarasvatī is herself assimilated to the great goddess Durgā and is provided with Durgā's mount, a lion.
Although the worship of Sarasvatī has been as various as her mythology, there are notable points of continuity. The ram, the he-goat, and the ewe are prescribed in Vedic texts as sacrificial offerings to her, and this custom has continued into the twentieth century in the district of Dacca, Bangladesh, where a ram fight has also served as entertainment on the day of her worship. Rice and barley, which are also among her offerings from Vedic times, suggest a connection with fertility, as does early spring, the season of her festival in Bengal. Prosperity and cure, as well as success in marriage and procreation, are chief among the boons requested of her since ancient times.
Sarasvatī's continuing importance for scholars is attested to by her prominence in the invocatory (maṇgala ) verses of Sanskrit manuscripts, in which she appears more frequently than any other deity except Gaṇeśa. Her role as the goddess of learning is prominent in her worship in homes, where students place their books before her image on her festival day. On that day, too, the family priest puts chalk in the hand of the youngest child and guides the child's hand in writing his or her first letters. Musicians, especially in South India, place their instruments before her shrine and worship them—with fruits, coconut, cloth, incense, and lighted oil lamps—as the very body of the goddess.
Buddhist and Jain Traditions
Sarasvatī as the goddess of learning has also figured prominently in both the Jain and the Buddhist traditions. She has been worshiped by the Jains since ancient times as Śrutadevatā, the deity who presides over the sacred teachings, and in later Vajrayāna Buddhism she became the female counterpart and consort of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Through Indian Vajrayāna her cult spread to Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia, as well as China and Japan, and it has remained popular among Buddhists of those lands.
There is no single comprehensive study of Sarasvatī. Most works treating her have focused almost entirely on texts or images, rarely combining the two approaches. Among textual studies are Manisha Mukhopadhyay's "Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī in Sanskrit Inscriptions" and A. K. Chatterjee's "Some Aspects of Sarasvatī," both included in Foreigners in Ancient India and Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī in Art and Literature, edited by D. C. Sircar (Calcutta, 1970). The earlier and more comprehensive article of Haridas Bhattacharyya, "Sarasvatī the Goddess of Learning," in Commemorative Essays Presented to Professor Kashinath Bapuji Pathak (Poona, 1934), pp. 32–52, goes beyond these two in giving brief but suggestive accounts of popular conceptions and practices. Sushila Khare's Sarasvatī (Varanasi, 1966) provides a useful compendium in Hindi of Vedic, epic, and Puranic sources for understanding the goddess. Although Khare includes a chapter treating the various directions for making Sarasvatī's images as found in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist treatises, her work is largely limited to the elite Brahmanic tradition and takes little or no account of popular conceptions or contemporary practice. Still more specialized is the richly detailed monograph by Jan Gonda, Pūṣan and Sarasvatī (Amsterdam, 1985), in which he attempts through a close study of Vedic literature to determine the early history of the conceptions of these two deities.
The almost exclusively textual approach of the above studies of Sarasvatī requires correction by a careful examination of her extant images. T. A. Gopinatha Rao's Elements of Hindu Iconography, 2 vols. (1914–1916; 2d ed., New York, 1968), treats her briefly, showing certain simple correlations between descriptive and prescriptive texts and selected images. The studies of Nalini Kanta Bhattasali and Jitendra Banerjea offer fuller analyses and more imaginative interpretations of the data. Bhattasali's landmark work, Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmānical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum (Dacca, 1929), is unique in its effective juxtaposition of textual and iconographic evidence, especially regarding the connection of Sarasvatī with Viṣṇu. In The Development of Hindu Iconography, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1956), Banerjea shows the influence of popular iconographic types—represented by terracotta figurines from the Maurya and Śuṅga periods—on early images of the goddess. Curt Maury's provocative Folk Origins of Indian Art (New York, 1969) provides evidence that Sarasvatī is a regional variant of an ancient lotus goddess, called also Śrī and Lakṣmī.
Art-historical studies are themselves incomplete without a knowledge of the contexts in which the images have been used. In the case of Sarasvatī, these contexts have not been sufficiently explored. Also needed is a close investigation of her contemporary cult, especially in the villages. It is likely that further research will identify other indigenous elements that have coalesced with the more readily traceable Brahmānical ones to form her composite character. A thorough historical study of the interplay among popular and literary conceptions and practices should thus yield a more accurate and balanced view of the religious significance of this major Indian goddess.
Donna Marie Wulff (1987)