Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....


Prof. V. N. Bhushan



Countless are the deities in the Hindu pantheon, and surprising is the variety of figurative representations in Hindu mythology. A fecund civilisation, a fertile culture and a living faith have combined to help Hindu thought to attain the acme of its religious and artistic expression. As a consequence, the Hindu iconographic art, with its bewildering array of images of major and minor deities, though embarrassing to the uninitiated and the unaesthetic, is yet a thing of beauty and an object of adoration to those who possess a seeing eye and a knowing mind.

Of the manifold conceptions that have been given form and name none perhaps, is more significant and sublime than that of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. The fact that Saraswati has got a garland of eleven other names only reveals the truth of the ‘Aham bahusyam,’ of the One in the Many and the Many in the One. By whatever name she is known and adored, Saraswati is a universally reverenced Goddess, worshipped both by the ‘Saivites’ and the ‘Vaishnavites,’ by Hindu men, women, and children–without distinctions of caste or creed. Every Hindu infant, before getting initiated into the art of reading and writing, utters the popular prayer 1 to the Goddess of Learning.

Born of the Supreme Godhead, the Patron-Deity of Learning has an unassailable celestial origin. In ‘Brahma Khanda2 there is a description of Saraswati which shows her as being white in complexion and having a ‘veena’ and a book in her hands. It is further stated that she is the presiding Goddess of Speech, and the Muse of Poetry and Learning; that she is of ‘satvic’ temperament, and radiates peace. The same idea is expressed in ‘Ganesa Khanda’3 also. Apart from these, there is a reference to Saraswati and her white complexion in Dandin’s ‘Kavyadarsha,’4 and also in Harihar’s ‘Subhashita.’5 Further there is a stray ‘sloka’ attributed to Vijjuka (or Vijayanko)–a celebrated ancient poetess of Central India. The poetess, who was regarded in her own day as the very embodiment of Learning, was somewhat sun-burnt in her body’s tint. As a retort to Dandin’s description of Saraswati’s white complexion, she asks:6 "Does not Dandin know me, Vijjuka, as having the colour of a blue lotus? Why should he in vain praise Saraswati as an all-white One?"–which, in other words, means: "I who am regarded as an ‘apara Bharati’, am blue in complexion. Why should Dandin go wrong by declaring that Saraswati is white?"

‘Sadhakanam hitardhaya Brahmano rupakalpanah’: for the uplift and enlightenment of the Sadhakas, the ‘Brahman’ takes form (and name). So runs a saying. How, then, has the Goddess of Learning revealed herself?

The ‘Vishnu Dharmottara’ lays down that the figurative representation of Saraswati should be made thus.7 She is decked with ornaments of every kind. She has four hands. In her two right hands she holds a book and a rosary. In her left she has a ‘Kamandalu’ and a ‘Vaishnavee.’ (The ‘veena’ of Saraswati is a hundred-stringed instrument, and is known by the special name of ‘Kachhapi’). On poised feet she stands. Her face is like the moon. She has lotus-eyes, and holds the sun and the moon in them both. She is perfection incarnate.

The image of Saraswati is the concrete representation of an abstract concept, the picturesque embodiment of a subtle idea. Hence, it is but inevitable that not only the things she holds in her hands, but her very form should be but a symbol. Thus, it is said that her shoulders are the Four Vedas; the Book in her hands is the epitome of all the Shastras; her ‘Kamandalu’ contains the quintessence of all the Holy Texts; and the Rosary without beginning or end is symbolic of Eternity.

To quote two more references substantiating the symbolism of Saraswati’s icon: Prakasatmayati says8 that her form is composed of the Vedas and the Shastras. In his introductory verse to ‘Paramardha Sara Vivarana,’ Raghavananda says,9 "She who is the embodiment of all the ‘nigamas’ is seated in the heart of a pure lotus, holding in her lotus hands, a book and a rosary."

In the references cited above there are two apparent discrepancies. One is that the ‘Vishnu Dharmottara’ describes the Goddess as having four hands, while Raghavananda mentions only two. The easiest and, perhaps, the best way of explaining this is by escaping into the spiritual plane where mere physical laws and anatomical rules do not operate. Raghavananda might have thought it unnecessary to make specific mention of her four ha.nds, either by believing that that familiar notion would be taken for granted even without his special reference to it, or by thinking that, having mentioned the book and the rosary, the two most important of her accompaniments and attributes, he had mentioned the other two also. Whatever it be, there is no need for this minor point to be dragged into the furnace of discussion and hammered on the anvil of research! In Jain iconography also there are two images–one in the Bikaner State with four hands, and another in the Lucknow Museum having only two!

The next seeming incongruity is the reference to the Goddess as having the Sun and the Moon in her two eyes. The sun during day and the moon at night–this is the certain routine of those celestial scatterers of light. How then can Saraswati have them side by side? This serves to show that what appear to be contradictions to us mortals are not so to the Godhead. Pavilioned in the glittering pride of our superficial knowledge, it is we imperfect human beings who talk of one thing as good and of another as bad; who find enjoyment in hair-splitting differences; who declare the supremacy of one faith over another; and who praise one God while blaming another. In the plenitude of our unripe wisdom we follow the dubious trail of floating mirages, forsaking the lawful track, and all the while forgetting that neither at the base nor at the peak is there any discrepancy! God manifests Himself in many ways–and all is He. In the serene presence of the Ultimate, all variations, all differences, all diverse manifestations fade away, merging into the great Oneness that is Absolute.

In the ‘Vishnu Dharmottara’10 there is a detailed description of the ‘Saraswata Vrata’–the ritual observed in the worship of the Goddess. It will be noticed therein that this ceremony is in many respects akin to that involved in the worship of other deities. It is generally believed that the Brahmins who worship Saraswati in strict accordance with the canons of this ‘puja’ obtain Vedic knowledge. 11 Patanjali mentions12 the ‘Saraswateshti’–a ritual performed by the grammarians in particular, invoking the aid and blessings of the Goddess, in order to be free from grammatical errors.

The fifth part of ‘Padma Purana’ says that for securing the blessings of learning one should worship ‘Gayatri’–who is sometimes mentioned as ‘Trilochana,’ the three-eyed.13 ‘Hayagreeva,’14 the Horse-God, and ‘Lalita,’ the Shakti-goddess15 are also worshipped for the sake of knowledge. It may here be borne in mind that no contradiction or confusion is involved in the mention of different deities with power to bestow upon their respective devotees the fruits of Learning. The ‘Padma Purana’ mentions the ‘Ashta Vapus,’ the eight forms of Saraswati. The principal Goddess of Learning has eight differing forms or aspect–such as ‘siddhi,’ ‘buddhi,’ ‘mati,’ etc.,–each embodied and given primary recognition in a minor deity. Thus, according to the well-known dictum that the lesser is but a part of the larger, the worship of any of these eight aspects of the Goddess means the worship of Saraswati herself. The different minor deities have by virtue of their fundamental oneness with Saraswati the privilege and the power to sanction the needs of their respective ‘Sadhakas.’ The eight differing forms have their unity in the One Goddess; they are her powers and personalities, her emanations and ‘Vibhutis’ that do her work in the universe. Saraswati is the Divine Conscious Force that dominates the world where the triune streams of knowledge, speech and wisdom have their birth and their consummation. She is so luminous with her transcendences that oftentimes it is impossible even for the most developed and agile mind to comprehend her completely, to hear her footfalls, and to follow her movements. But even the novice can behold her greatness, can catch some of her hints and feel some of her influence through her embodiments, because they are limited in their scope, and clearly defined and detailed.

A parallel to the ‘Ashta Vapus’ of the Hindu Saraswati may be cited. In Jaina iconography, there is firstly ‘Sruta Devi’–corresponding to the Saraswati of the Hindu; and then there are the sixteen secondary goddesses16 –all merely aspects of the same ‘Sruta Devi,’ with identical attributes, powers and privileges.

There is a witty and naive verse in Prakrit by Hala which attempts to justify and explain the partiality of Saraswati for poets and men of letters. Brahma, the Creator, having created Saraswati, fell in love with her fair form, and married her in spite of the discrepancy in age between them both. The story goes that, hating her alliance with a senile husband, Saraswati fled from him in panic, and created for herself a new dwelling place in the honeyed world of poets and ‘litterateurs.’ The couplet of Harihara also supports the above view. Says the poet17 "My salutations to Bharati (Goddess of Learning) who hovers like a bee about the lotus faces of great poets like Vyasa and others." These interpretations are funny but nevertheless ingenious. They show how the Goddess of Learning loves to associate herself with poets and men of letters, who alone create the atmosphere congenial to her. It also proves how there is an indefinable and indissoluble link between persons who aspire for and possess knowledge and the goddess who bestows that knowledge upon them.

Saraswati is not only the Patron-Deity of Learning, but is also the Goddess of Speech18 –‘Vagiswari’. There is a story current that the Goddess of Speech was turned into a river condemned to flow on this earth by the Lord’s curse.19 The story as mentioned in ‘Brahma Purana’ is briefly this: Once there arose a serious controversy between Brahma the Creator, and Vishnu the Protector, as to the superiority of their respective divine powers. Neither would yield his claim to supremacy, so that there seemed to be no possible solution. Then Siva, the third in the Trinity, intervened as umpire, and said that he would assume the shape of a ‘Jyotih Linga’ (a concretised column of fire) and that whosoever discovered either its beginning or end would be considered greater than the other. The disputants agreed; and immediately there appeared before them an incredibly huge ‘lingam’ with its base hidden somewhere in the bowels of the earth and its top extending into the unknown regions beyond the sky. The task of investigation seemed to be an impossibility even to these gods. But the zealous rivals set about their task in right earnest. Vishnu delved into the interior of the earth to find out the base; and Brahma ascended to the heart of the higher regions to discover the top. After some time both returned. Vishnu confessed to the Lord that he had failed. But Brahma boasted that he was successful. It was an apparent lie. The Lord felt offended at this unabashed falsehood, and condemned his speech to an earthly career.20 In fact, it was not really Brahma that was punished, but Saraswati the Goddess of Speech, who has her seat of honour on the tip of Brahma’s tongue. Humbled and humiliated, Saraswati besought pardon of the Lord, as otherwise the curse would perpetuate her professed form. Moved to commiseration, the Lord said that she would regain her purity by mingling her waters with those of the Ganges. 21

The story, I think, serves to explain the origin of the river Saraswati and also accounts for the existence of falsehood alongside of truth in this world!

But the ‘Rig Veda’ upsets the view that the river Saraswati had its origin in the Lord’s curse of the Goddess. For we are told22 that Saraswati was primarily a stream, and that the name was later on identified with that of the Goddess of Learning.

Saraswati is not only the Goddess of Learning and the Goddess of Speech, but is also regarded and worshipped as a powerful ‘mantra devata’ or ‘tantric deity.23 Sayana explains this aspect further by saying, 24 "My Devi, luminous Saraswati, who pervades the space betwixt earth and sky!……May she, the ‘mantratmikae devi’ grant us our prayer "(and appease Arati the demon of grudge and avarice).

Further, to quote the translation of Oldenburg25–"Saraswati (Speech), Anumati (Favour), and Bhaga (Fortune), we go to invoke. Pleasant honeyed words I have spoken on the occasion when the Gods were invoked….Him whom I implore with ‘Vak Saraswati’ (Goddess of Speech)–the Yoke-fellow of thought–faith shall find today bestowed by the brown soma…..

Thus we see that Saraswati has not only the privilege to grant her worshippers the fruits of learning speech that strictly belong to her own sphere, but she has also the power, when invoked by ‘sadhakas,’ to aid them in their endeavours.

From the ‘Atharvana Veda’–which is a treasure-house of incantations, witchcraft, charms and spells–we learn that Saraswati is grouped together with the ‘Asvins.’ the Divine Physicians. She too is believed to possess the power of healing, of alleviating the distress of the sick and the suffering, and is invoked for such ministering purposes. She has the capacity to counteract the effects of poison by antidotes. "The Gods have given, the sun has given, the Earth has given, the three Saraswatis of one mind have given–this poison-destroying remedy."26 According to Sayana’s commentary, 27 the ‘tisrah saraswati’ are ‘Ida,’ ‘Saraswati’ and ‘Bharati’ who, on account of close companionship, identical attributes and oneness of mind, are generally spoken of as Saraswati. She is one of the deities mentioned in the charm to promote virility,28 and also in the charm to bring about the submission of others to one’s own will.29

Here then is Saraswati as depicted and delineated in some of the important Hindu scriptures of old. In this connection it may be apposite to quote the pregnant words of Sri Aurabindo Ghose. In his superb interpretation of the Divine Mother, he says:

"Four great aspects of the Mother, four of her leading powers and Personalities, have stood in front in her guidance of the Universe and in her dealings with the terrestrial play…..

Mahasaraswati is the Mother’s power of work and her spirit of perfection and order. The youngest of the Four, she is the most skilful in executive faculty and the nearest to physical Nature……Mahasaraswati presides over their (world forces’) detail of organization and execution, relation of parts and effective combination of forces and unfailing exactitude of result and fulfillment. The Science and craft and technique of things are Mahasaraswati’s province. Always she holds in her nature and can give to those whom she has chosen the intimate and precise knowledge, the subtlety and patience, the accuracy of intuitive mind and conscious hand and discerning eye of the perfect worker. This Power is the strong, the tireless, the careful and efficient builder, organiser, administrator, technician, artisan, and classifier of the worlds…….The will in her works is scrupulous, unsleeping, indefatigable; leaning over us she notes and touches every little detail, finds out every minute defect, gap, twist or incompleteness; considers and weighs accurately all that has been done and all that remains still to be done. Nothing that is too small or apparently disguised or latent can escape her……Nothing short of a perfect perfection satisfies her and she is ready to force an eternity of toil if that is needed for the fullness of her creation. Therefore of all the Mother’s Powers she is the most long-suffering with man and his thousand imperfections. Kind, smiling, close and helpful, not easily turned away or discouraged, insistent even after repeated failure, her hand sustains our every step on condition that we are single in our will and straightforward and sincere…..A mother to our wants, a friend in our difficulties, a persistent and tranquil counsellor and mentor chasing away with her radiant smile the clouds of gloom and fretfulness and depression, reminding always of the ever-present help, pointing to the eternal sunshine, she is firm, quiet and persevering in the deep and continuous urge towards the integrality of the higher nature……"30

After this splendid illumination, it only remains to say that the authoritative conception of the Goddess of Learning of our ancestors endowed with thought-force and seer-will, has come down to us as an authentic tradition; and is it not said that "every tradition which helps man to lift his soul to God is held up as worthy of adherence?" 31 The Hindu conception of the Goddess of Learning is not a dogmatic creed but a significant practical suggestion to help the God-ward endeavour of the human spirit in the eternal light of the ever-increasing activity of knowledge!

1 Saraswati namastubhyam Varadae Kamarupini,

Vidyarambham Karishyami Siddhirbhavati Bharati.

2 Avirbhabhuva (tatpaseyaet) Sukhatah Paramatmanah

Esha Devi Suklavarna veena pustake dharini,

Vagadishtatru devi sa Kavinamishata

Devata Suddha satva swarupacha santarupa Saraswati.–Ch. 36.

3 Ch. 70.

4 Sarva Sukla Saraswati–Dandin.

5 (a) Sarada parada Sara,

Tulya dhavalya dharini–Harihar.

(b) Govindakhyama peeyushaplavairiva siti Kruta-Ibid.

6 Nilotpala data syamam Vijjukam ma majanata Vruddhaiva dandiva proktam Sarva Sukla Saraswati–Vijjuka.

7 (a) Devi Saraswati Karya Sarvahbarana bhushita chaturbhuja as Kartavya

tathaiva samuthhita.

(b) Pustakanchaksha malancha tasya dakshiva hastayot vamayoscha tatha-

karya Vaishnaveecha Kamandaluh.

(c) Sama pada pratishtacha Karya soma mukhi tatha vedastasya bhujagneyah

sarva sastrani pustakam.

(d) Sarva sastramrita rasa devyah gneyah Kamandaluh Aksha mala

Karaetasyah Kalobhavati (Parthiva).

(e) Siddhir murtimati gneya vaishnavi natra samsayah savitri vadanam

tasyah sarvadya parikirtita.

(f) Chandrarka lochana gneya Sacha rajeeva lochana.

8 Veda Sastra parinirmita vandya dehah.

9 Amala Kamala madhyae sannivishtanga Yashtih Kara jalaruha rajat pusta

kaakshamala Akhila nigama Sarah.

10 Vishnu Dharmottara–3: 168.

11 Dvijottahmah…stutanvitah syat–V.D.

12 Mahabhashya–Paspasahnika.

13 Varadabhayaksha Sutra pustakedhyam Trilochanam–Agni Purana

14 Sampujayaeddevam turanga sirasam harim…..Kritva Virata midam masa

paryantam….vidyanvitahsyat purushah–V. D. 207

15 Tasmai dadati Lalita Vidyam–Samkar’s Devi Stotra.

16 The sixteen goddesses known as Vidyadevis are: (1) Rohini (2) Prajnapti (3) Vajra Shumkhala (4) Vajramkusa (5) Apraticara or Jambunada (6) Purusadatta (7) Kali (8) Mahakali (9) Gauri (10) Gandhari (11) Maha Jwala or Jwala Malini (12) Manavi (13) Vairoti (14) Achyuta (15) Manasi (16) Maha Manasi.

17 Vyasadi Vadanambhoja Bhramarim Bharatim bhajae–Subhashita.

18 Sakti Saktimatorabhaedadwani rupam, achanamapi Saraswati sabdavachyam–Raya Mukuta in Amarukosa Teeka.

19 Sara asya aslayatvaena asti, matupi Saraswati. Eyancha Brahmalokae

Brahma Sarah samasritya sapannadi bhutva bhuloka mavateerna.–Raya Mukuta.

20 Dushtaetwam ninmnaga bhuya nanrute dasti patakam. Yasmadasatya

muktasi Brahma Aachisthita sati, tasma dadrusya twam bhuyah papa rupasya samsayam.–Brahma Purana, Ch. 135.

21 1. Gangaya sangata bhadrae yadatvim loka pavani. tadapunarva pustae syat pavitramni su sobhanae–Brahma Purana. 2. Sapi devi gangaya sangata bhavat bhagirathi goutamicha tataschapi swakim vapuh goutami-vani, Bhagirathi–Saraswati–Ibid.

22 Utanah priya pripasu, sapta swasa sujustha, Saraswati stomyabhuth–Rig Veda; 4. 12.

Sayana in his Bhashya says that sapta swasa may mean either seven rivers or seven metres.

23 Oto mae dyava prithivi Oto devi Saraswati. O tau ma Indraschyagnischaradhya smaedam Saraswati–Atharvana Vedan. 10.94.6

24 Devi dyotamana saraswati dyava pridhirvyormadhyae Vartamana vagedvata

Atah Etaesham, anugrahat hae Saraswati mantratmikae devi–Sayana.

25Saraswatimanumatim bhagam yamto have mahae, vacham jushtam Madhumatimavadisham devanam devahutishu.

Yam yachamyaham vacha saraswatya manoyuja Sraddhatamadya vidatu

datta somaena babhruma–Atharvana Veda.

26 Deva aduh surya adao dyaura dat pridhivya-dat, Tisrah saraswati-raduh sachitta visbadushanam–Atharvana Veda. VI-100.

27 Tirah trisankhyakah saraswatih saraswatyas trayee rupah yadva–Ida. Saraswati, Bharati, ti tisro devyah sahacharyat saraswatya uchyantae–Sayana.

28Oto mae dyam pridhvi Ota devi saraswati; Otau ma indraschagnischa

Krimim jambhayatamiti.–A. V.

29 Adyagnae adya savitaradya devi saraswati,

Adyasya Brahmanaspataedhanuriva tanayapasah –A. V.

30 Sri Aurobindo Ghose: The Mother: (V).

31 Sir S. Radhakrishnan: The Hindu View of Life. p. 20.

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