The goddess of wisdom and learning
Saraswati is one of the three great Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, the other two being Durga and Lakshmi. She is the wife of Brahma, the creator. Considered to be the repository of all knowledge and the one who bestows wisdom, she is worshipped by all Hindus.
The present day depiction of Saraswati is of relatively recent origin. In the Vedic times, Saraswati was one of a triad, the other two being Ila (or Ida) and Bharati, each being representative of one form of speech, with Ila being praiseworthy speech, Saraswati being speech that has knowledge and Bharati being speech that is full of lore. Over a period these three identities merged. Thus the combination of knowledge and speech coexisted as attributes of this Goddess from time immemorial. The root of this word, Saras- meaning that which flows, is interpreted as transcendental knowledge and Saraswati is said to be the repository of this.
The links with the river
The meaning of the word Saras and the records of a subterranean river of the same name as the Goddess which is said to merge with the Ganga and the Yamuna at the Sangam, have led scholars to interpret that the Goddess had her origins as a river deity. Recent satellite pictures have revealed the possibility of the Thar Desert having once been a river. Several studies continue to be conducted on the origins of this once great river and the reasons for its sudden disappearance. One theory has it, that this was the mighty river on the banks of which the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization developed and that its sudden disappearance caused the civilization too to vanish. As per this theory, seismic upheavals caused this river to be subsumed into the Ganga, causing the latter to rise in popularity and status as a divine object worthy of worship.
The Age of The Puranas
In the post Vedic period, Saraswati emerged as the consort of the Creator, Brahma. She is believed to have been created by Brahma?s mind and when she emerged, he took her as his consort. She is also considered to be the sister of Shiva. By this time, her physical attributes too became well defined. She is now depicted as four armed, with two hands bearing the veena and the other two carrying a rosary and a book. Saraswati is usually shown seated on the white lotus with a white swan as her mount. The bird is of significance, for it is said to be able to separate milk from water and symbolises the realised soul. Saraswati is usually attired in white silk. The predominance of the colour white shows purity, a pre-requisite for complete knowledge.
Saraswati has a few legends. The most famous ones deal with two great sacrifices that Brahma planned. Brahma was flying over the world when his lotus fell at a particular spot and he found that a beautiful lake sprang up there. He decided to perform a sacrifice at once. His consort Saraswati (also referred to in this legend as Savitri) not being with him, he married a local maiden (Gayatri) and conducted the event. Saraswati was enraged and took to the hill near the spot where she is worshipped even today. This place, in Rajasthan, is called Pushkar.
A similar legend has Brahma planning a sacrifice near Kanchipuram without his consort. This time Saraswati takes the form of a mighty river and rushes towards the sacrifice to destroy it. Brahma prays to Vishnu, who takes on a mighty form and lies across the river?s way. Saraswati is abashed and constricts herself into a tiny form and vanishes into the ground. This story probably represents the vanishing of the mighty river Saraswati. The shrine where this happened is called Tiruvekka. The idol of Vishnu here is truly an enormous one and a small icon of Saraswati is present in the sanctum.
Temples for Saraswati
There are several temples for the Goddess of learning. The entire Kashmir province is said to be the abode of Saraswati and Adi Sankara ascended the Sarvajna Peetha or ?Seat of Omniscience? here. Muttuswami Dikshitar states in his ?Kalavati Kamalasanayuvati? (Kalavati) that Goddess Saraswati is Kashmira Vihara. In South India, the most famous temple for Saraswati is at Koothanur in Tanjavur district, where on full moon nights, children are brought to be blessed. The priests dip small sticks in honey and write holy words on the infants? tongues and this is said to bestow high intelligence on them. The Sarada Peetham of Sringeri, established by Adi Sankara is yet another well known shrine.
The ninth day of the Navaratri Festival is observed as Saraswati Puja in South India. Books, implements, tools and musical instruments are all worshipped as embodiments of Saraswati and are put to use afresh on Vijaya Dasami day. Gurus are worshipped as repositories of learning and their blessings are sought on Vijaya Dasami. Young children are initiated into learning on that day. In Bengal, Saraswati Puja is celebrated as Basanta Panchami. This falls in February/March and girls wear orange garments as symbolic of Saraswati on that day.
Songs on Saraswati
The Goddess of Learning has inspired several Carnatic composers to create songs in her honour. Muttuswami Dikshitar has composed several such as Sri Saraswati (Arabhi), Veena Pustaka Dharinim (Vegavahini), Saraswatya (Chaya Gaula) and Bharati Maddhishana (Deva Manohari). Puliyur Doraiswami Iyer?s Sarasiruhasana Priye (Nata) is often a concert opener. Sarade in Devagandhari by Papanasam Sivan is a weighty classic. Madurai Mani Iyer made Subramanya Bharati?s Vellai Tamarai, an evergreen in Bhimplas. This album offers a few of the many songs on Goddess Saraswati.