Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning
BY: P. GAN AND S. MOHANTY
Feb 18, INDIA (SUN) Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning occupies a distinct position among the Sakta goddesses of Hindu pantheon. Due to the wide prevalence of the worship of Shakti or the female energy in India from a very early period among almost all the different ethnological elements comprising the vast mass of Indian population, goddess Sarasvati became more popular among the followers of Shaktism.
Goddess Sarasvati is one of the few important goddesses in the Vedas who has remained significant in later Hinduism, though today she is in particular, worshipped by children and students as the patron Goddess of Learning throughout India.  She is popular not only as a Hindu goddess, but also popular with the Jains and the Buddhists.  The word Sarasvati is derived from the words Sarah and Vati which means 'one possessing a vast sheet of water'.  Goddess Sarasvati is known to us in various names like Vani, Vagdevi, Vac, Sarada, Bharati, Pusti, Vagisvari, Vinapani etc. 
In the Rig Veda the earliest reference about the goddess Sarasvati is to be found as the manifestation of a river, on the bank of which most of the Vedic hymns were composed and the Vedic culture developed. The river thus appears to have played an important role in the formation of her concept. About the origin of the goddess Sarasvati, in the Pradhanikarahasya, as summarized by J.N. Banerjea,  it is stated that the unmanifested Mahalakshmi takes the three forms of Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasarasvati. In her manifestation as Mahasarasvati, she is of representing Sattoguna. She is associated with the destruction of the demons Sumbha and Nisumbha.  She is the colour of white and the most beautiful of all beauties. As indicated in the Pradhanika-rahasya, She is four arm holding a rosary, a goad, a vina, and a manuscript. In the Vaikritika-rahasya, where She is said to have been born from Gauri with eight armed and holds an arrow, spear, chakra, conch,bell, plowshare, and a bow. 
A similar description appears in the Sritattvanidhi, where She is described as the slayer of Sumbha, with the eight ayudha.  Regarding the origin and development of Sarasvati, interesting accounts are recorded in different Puranas. The Devi Mahatmya  section of the Markandeya Purana refers three principal forms of female principle, i.e. Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasarasvati. According to the Brahmavaivartta Purana,  the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad,  the Matsya Purana,  the Devi Bhagabat Purana,  goddess Sarasvati is stated to have been born from the mouth of Paramaatma, Krisna as his Shakti. The Matsya Purana  and the Vayu Purana  describe Sarasvati as Visvarupa and Brahma created her. In the Matsya Purana She is conceived as wife of Brahma, while in the Vayu Purana, She is described as the daughter of Brahma.
According to T.A. Gopinath Rao,  the three forms of Mahalakshmi, Mahakali, and Mahasarasvati divided their bodies into two halves, i.e., one male and the other female. Accordingly, Mahalakshmi created Brahma and Lakshmi, Mahakali created Siva and Sarasvati, and Mahasarasvati produced Vishnu and Parvati. All came into action forming their union with their male counterparts. Sarasvati married to Brahma, Laksmi married to Vishnu and Parvati married to Siva and they were engaged for creation of the universe, preservation of the universe, and destruction of the universe respectively. 
In the Krishna Yajurveda,  Sarasvati came to be identified with the Vedic goddess Vac (speech personified), who appears in the Rig Veda as the vehicle of knowledge, while in the Aitreya Aranyaka  She is called the mother of the Vedas. In the Rig Veda Sarasvati is very often invoked with Ida and Bharati. Ida, Bharati and Sarasvati are the three manifestations of Agni and are known as Yajnuagni (sacrificial fire). On account of their close intimacy, these three goddesses are called three Sarasvatis.  Goddess Sarasvati is also depicted as the annihilator of demons. She destroyed Vrtra and other demons.
Utasya nah Sarasvati ghora Hiranyavartanih
Vrtraghni vasti sustuition 
With the passage of time Sarasvati's association with a river and fertility gradually decreases and She increasingly becomes a goddess associated with speech, learning, wisdom and culture. Even in the Rig Veda, She is called the 'impeller of true and sweet speech and awakener of happy and noble thoughts'. 
As evident in the Tantrasara, where Sarasvati has more dhyanas, in compare to other goddesses. Her name is Varnesvari, which means 'goddess of letters'. She is also described as Varnajanani, the meaning of 'mother of letters'.  The other epithets of Sarasvati included in different literature as Jihvagravasini (dwelling in the front of the tongue) and Kavijihvagravasini (She who dwells on the tongues of poets), etc.  Like Lakshmi, Sarasvati is also associated with many male deities. As an individual goddess She is closely associated with Brahma. The Brahmavaivartta Purana states that Visnu has three wives, who constantly quarrel with each other, so that eventually he keeps only Lakshmi, giving Ganga to Siva and Sarasvati to Brahma. 
In the early stage of evolution, Sarasvati was associated with different Vedic gods, such as Indra, Maruta, Asvinis, etc. In the Veda Sarasvati was the goddess of rain and the counterpart of Indra. She was believed to be in charge of rain.  Goddess Sarasvati's association with Ganesha is clear from the fact that, they are often juxtaposed, one next to the other in Orissan sculptural art particularly in motifs involving teaching. According to Sarada-tilaka Tantra and other texts, as Pusti, She is the consort of Ganesha. 
Goddess Sarasvati is also regarded as the Shakti of Siva as in the Tantrasara, where She is coupled with Siva. In the Suta Samhita of the Skanda Purana, Sarasvati is associated with Siva and is described as having a blue neck like Siva.  In the Devi Bhagavata Purana,  She is the spouse of Rudra in Manidvipa, the celestial residence of the Devi. She is also associated with music as is apparent by the vina that is prescribed for her in various texts. In the Brahamavaivartta Purana, where she is prescribed a book and the vina. 
As the goddess of learning She has various names such as Vagisvari, Sarada, Sarasvati and Bharati, etc., having different vahanas associated on different situations. Goddess Sarasvati is associated with hamsa (swan), the lotus, the ram, and lion. According to the Puranic texts, Sarasvati inherited her vahana swan (hamsa) from her father or husband Brahma, who has swan vahana.  According to the Satapatha Brahamana, ram is the mount of Sarasvati from the Vedic period. Sarasvati is also described as Mayura vahana. It is probably to symbolize her philosophical relation with Agni that She holds the peacock the symbol of Agni, as her vehicle. According to Krisna Yajurveda, the lion is her mount and She was invoked in the form of a lioness to destroy the demons.
Today, Sarasvati is worshipped primarily as a goddess of speech, learning and the fine arts. Her early associations with water, fertility, as a goddess of healing, as goddess of prosperity are mostly forgotten. In the present Indian society, every year, She is worshipped on the day of commencement of knowledge and on the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Magha (January-February), while her basic mantra is the same with which the guru first imparts instructions to his students.
1. David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses, Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, Delhi, 1986, p.55.
2. T.E.; Donaldson, Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa, Vol. I, New Delhi, 2002, p.286.
3. Bhagwant Sahai, Iconography of Minor Hindu and Buddhist Deities, New Delhi, 1975, p.141.
4. T.E. Donaldson, op.cit.
5. J.N. Banerjea, The Development of Hindu Iconography, Calcutta, 1956, pp.496-7.
6. T.E. Donaldson, op.cit, p.192.
8. Balaram Srivastava, Iconography of Shakti: A Study Based on Sritattvanidhi, 1978, p.21.
9. Devi-Mahatmya, Cantos, 81-93.
10. Brahmavaivartta Purana, Chapter - 2.2.55-61.
11. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, Chapter-1.4.3-4.
13. Devi Bhagabat Purana, Chapter-IX.1.1.40
14. Matsya Purana, Chapter - III. V-VIII; II-IV.
15. Vayu Purana, Chapter - IX. 71. 7-8.
16. T.A. Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography, Vol. I, Madras, 1914, pp.334-7. 17. Ibid.
18. Yajurveda, Chapter-I. 1.77.
19. Aitareya Aranyaka, Chapter-3.1.6.
20. R.C. Dutta, Rig Veder Banganubad, Calcutta, 1895, pp.27-28.
21. Rig Veda, quoted by H.N. Bhattacharya in Hindu Devadevi, Vol. III, p.22.
22. David Kinsley, op.cit, p.59.
23. T.E. Donaldson, op.cit., p.287.
24. Ibid, p.288.
25. Brahmavaivaratta Purana, Chapter-2.6.13-95.
26. H.C. Das, Iconography of Sakta Divinities, Vol. I, Delhi, 1997, p.151.
27. T.E. Donaldson, op.cit., p.288.
28. T.A. Gopinath Rao, op.cit, p.378.
29. Devi Bhagabat Purana, Chapter-12.11.90.
30. Brahmavaivartta Purana, Chapter-2.1.31-7.
31. H.C.Das, op.cit, p.105. Pradeep Kumar Gan is a Scholar in History, Culture & Archaeology and works at Fakir Mohan University, Vyasa Vihar, Balasore, Orissa. Dr. S.K. Mohanty works at Fakir Mohan University, Vyasa Vihar, Balasore, Orissa