Saraswati is one of the few important goddesses in the Vedas who have retained their significance to the present
day. Literary evidence suggests that right from the ancient times down to the modern, she is perceived in three major roles,
as a river, as Vak (speech), and as a goddess.
In the Vedas her character and attributes are clearly associated with the mighty Saraswati River. She is the
earliest example of a goddess who is associated with a river in the Indian tradition. In a symbolic sense she suggests the
sacrality inherent in rivers or water in general. While the symbolism of water is rich and complex in the religions of the
world, two typical associations are important in Vedic descriptions of Saraswati. First, she is said to bestow bounty, fertility
and riches. Her waters enrich the land so that they can produce. Second, Saraswati represents purity, as does water, particularly
running water. It is stated frequently in the Vedas that the banks of Saraswati were especially sacred for ritual purposes.
This also suggests the purifying powers of the river.
Another particular association with rivers is the imagery of crossing from the world of ignorance or bondage
to the far shore, which represents the world of enlightenment or freedom. The river in this metaphor represents the state
of transition, the period of birth, in which the spiritual sojourner undergoes a crucial metamorphosis. The river represents
a great purifying power in which the pilgrim drowns his old self and is born anew, free and enlightened.
In addition, a curious legend surrounds Saraswati, the river:
Once the celebrated Vedic sage Vasishtha was practising penance on the banks of the river Saraswati. Suddenly,
the warrior turned saint Vishvamitra, a sworn enemy of Vasishtha, appeared on the scene and said to her, ‘Flow on and
bring Vasishtha floating on your waves.’ Saraswati hesitated for a while, but seeing that Vishvamitra was determined,
she broke through her banks where Vasishtha sat meditating. Vishvamitra was very pleased. But Saraswati did not stop at that.
She flowed on towards the east, with Vasishtha on the crest of her waves. Vishvamitra realizing her intention was to protect
Vasishtha rather than harm him, grew indignant and cursed Saraswati, turning her into a river of blood.
When the poor sages, who lived in hermitage on her banks, came for a bath, they were shocked to find a flowing
stream of blood. Saraswati prayed to them, ‘ I was a river of pure water. But the sage Vishvamitra ordered me to bring
his enemy, the good sage Vasishtha, floating to him. I sensed mischief but was afraid of Vishvamitra’s ire. So I carried
Vasishtha away from where he sat, but instead of delivering the innocent sage to his ill-tempered colleague, I took him to
a safer place. Vishvamitra realized my intention and cursed me. I feel so unclean and humiliated. Can’t you sages cleanse
my water and restore my purity?’
‘We surely can and are definitely going to do just that,’ said the kind-hearted hermits, who were
moved by her courage. So, through their magic powers Saraswati regained her purity and again became a river flowing with water.
This is why she is also referred to as Shonapunya, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘one purified of blood’.
Conception of Goddess Saraswati as a flowing blood river is open to interpretation as a symbol of the menstrual
blood flow in women, particularly since Saraswati is conceived of as an ever-flowing stream which purifies and “fertilizes”
Later ancillary Vedic literature consistently equates her with the goddess of speech, known as Vak. The importance of speech
in Hinduism is both ancient and central. The entire creative process is said to be held in the sacred syllable OM, and the
idea of creation proceeding from shabda –brahman (ultimate reality in the form of sound) is often mentioned in the ancient
texts. A mantra too, which may consist of words or of sounds alone, is said to possess great power. Indeed, the mantra of
a given deity is declared to be equivalent to the deity itself. To pronounce a mantra is to make the deity present. There
resides in sound a potent quality, and this quality is embodied in Saraswati, the Goddess of speech.
As the embodiment of speech, then, Saraswati is present wherever speech exists. And so it is that she is pre-eminently
associated with the best in human culture: poetry, literature, sacred rituals, and rational communication between individuals.
Till today, whenever a new baby arrives, grandmothers make a five pointed star-called Saraswati-sign on the
newborn’s tongue with honey. The tongue, the organ of speech, is thus expected to get hitched to Saraswati’s star
As Saraswati, the goddess, her identity is not as nebulous as Vak (speech). There are clear descriptions of her form, dress,
ornaments and mount, together with the articles she is associated with. She is always referred to as extremely beautiful,
fair complexioned, with four arms, ever youthful and gracious looking. She is seated on a lotus-accompanied by her swan, and
holds a lute (Veena) resting across her breast. In her hands she holds a rosary, a book and a water pot. The book associates
her with the sciences and with learning in general. The lute associates her with the arts, particularly the musical arts,
and the rosary and the water pot associate her with the spiritual sciences and with religious rites. She is dressed in white
and blue garments, reminiscent of her form as a river. Like Lakshmi and unlike Durga and Kali, she does not carry any arms
Her color is white, the color of peace. Her clothes, the lotus she sits upon, and also her familiar swan,
are all white. Not for her Kali’s dramatic and gory nakedness, or Lakshmi’s dazzling red and gold. Her robe and
appearance show serenity and a total lack of artifice.
Legends say that she sprung from the forehead of her father, Brahma, as did the Greek virgin goddess Athena
who was born from her father, Zeus’s head. As soon as Brahma looked at this beautiful woman, he desired her, even though
she was his daughter. Saraswati disliked the amorous attentions of this old god and kept dodging him, but whichever way she
moved, Brahma grew a head in that direction to see her the better. As a result he grew four faces on four sides of his neck,
and even a head on top of these four, so that she could not escape by moving upwards. But Saraswati still eluded him.
Brahma was angry. He, being the Creator, was also all powerful. We do not know how, but legend has it that he did manage to
marry the elusive girl, and produced through her mind the four great Vedas. Lore also has it that Brahma discovered that his
girl-wife was too aloof and absent-minded for his liking. He had arranged for a major fire-sacrifice, at which his wife’s
appearance by his side was a must. He repeatedly warned Saraswati not to take too long over her toilet and miss the auspicious
hour. She must, he had decreed, take her traditional seat to his left, well in time. But Saraswati behaved with her characteristic
whimsical disregard for parental diktats. Her prolonged toilet saw to it that the holy hour passed without the couple’s
making the supreme joint offering to the fire God as man and wife. When Saraswati finally arrived, Brahma was livid. He threw
her out, and replaced her with the daughter of a sage, called Gayatri.
Saraswati, thus, though married, never enjoyed domestic bliss like Durga or Lakshmi. According to most myths she had no children,
possessed a fiery temper, was easily provoked and was somewhat quarrelsome. She, of all the goddesses, is described as possessing
a very independent will and was not very obliging to the male gods.
As the disinherited daughter and estranged wife, Saraswati lived perpetually in self-imposed exile. She focuses
her calm, dispassionate gaze upon the past as pure experience. The capacity to recall without anger or resentment, is Saraswati’s
greatest gift to her children: the writers, musicians and creators of various art forms. All of them have fought with tradition,
but their fight has been cerebral, not emotional. For without cutting away the umbilical cord, no innovative new beginning
may ever be made, whether one is creating or procreating. This is the message of Saraswati.
Saraswati’s ironical eye, one may be sure, watches Kali’s tussle for power against male demons
and Lakshmi’s subterfuges in the male world of power and plenitude. But she remains a witness, a dispassionate historian.
She is the one who believes in the ultimate futility of all warfare and the trappings of wealth.
Understandably, such a Goddess could be venerated by the simple-minded and earthy householders, but not loved
and fussed over by them, like her regal sister Lakshmi, or even feared and held in awe like Shakti. Saraswati remains the
unblemished ascetic goddess, to whom no temples are built and who offers nothing except knowledge, no institution, no protection,