Basant Panchami: Honouring Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom and Light

Goddess Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, the arts and speech, expression or communication. The festival of Basant Panchami that heralds the arrival of spring (22 January this year), is dedicated to Goddess Saraswati whose grace is sought for all activities relating to learning, art and also for spiritual purity.

Source: Flikr

Symbolisms of Saraswati

Indian culture is one full of symbolisms, metaphors, allegories and imagery. It is through these vehicles that what the ancient seers (rishis) wanted to communicate to the world and to humanity down the ages, was preserved and more easily understood by the common folk.

Saraswati for instance is a deity described as wearing white (the colour of purity) and moving or rather flowing (the ‘one who flows’ is one translation of Saraswati), with grace. She is depicted with a white swan or white lotus. Saraswati’s swan (hansa) represents the power of discrimination as the swan is believed to be able to separate milk from water, symbolic of the intellect separating the real from the unreal or truth from untruth. Likewise, the lotus which blooms only in filth, represents the ability to use one’s discrimination to rise above the world while still being in it. In her four hands, Saraswati holds the Vedas, a rosary, a pot of water and  a veena (a stringed musical instrument).

Another representation of Saraswati is in the human body itself where the three main energy channels (nadis) of the subtle body – the Ida (the left channel), Pingala (right channel) and the Sushumna (central) – are considered to correspond to the inner representations of the rivers Yamuna, Ganga and Saraswati respectively. All three rivers flowed in the Indian subcontinent in Vedic times and the Ganga and Yamuna still flow today while Saraswati went underground around 1500 BC (read more).

Why we revere Saraswati

Saraswati is part of the triad of the feminine Divine principle (Shakti) represented by the three goddesses: Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kali (or Parvati). The three goddesses are the consorts of the male trinity of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva respectively.

The feminine Divine principle or Shakti represents the workings of nature and the three goddesses are associated with the three gunas (qualities of nature): tamas (Kali), rajas (Lakshmi) and sattva (Saraswati).

Saraswati represents purity, refinement, wisdom and light and is the creative feminine principle. She is regarded as the mother of the Vedas, the most ancient scriptures in the world and the fountain of wisdom that form the basis of Hindu spiritual life. In fact, the earliest mention of Goddess Saraswati is found in the Rig Veda (the oldest of the four Vedas) in which she is revered as the “best of mothers” and the “best of rivers”.

See: Saraswati, the Vedic Goddess and River

In India, artists especially revere Goddess Saraswati, seeking her inspiration before commencing any work of art and dedicating their crafts to her. Young children are traditionally initiated into education with the worship of Saraswati. Traditional education institutions honour Saraswati who inspires the intellect and sharpens our powers of discrimination. Saraswati is also known as Vak Devi or the goddess of speech or expression – one who imbues our expressions with clarity and purity.

Why we need Saraswati today

The Saraswati river going underground about 3,000 years ago is perhaps symbolic of the world having lost the respect for inner knowledge, wisdom and refinement in art and speech. We’re a predominantly aggressive and materialistic society that is crude in its expressions and desires. We have created a world where the arts are crushed at the expense of other more lucrative endeavours, where knowledge is approached not with reverence, but with an attitude of how we can use it for our material benefit, where the feminine is not valued and often coerced to express itself in the way of the masculine.

Honouring Goddess Saraswati really means approaching knowledge with earnestness, seeking to make all our expressions inspired and pure and exercising our wisdom and discrimination. She is the mother of knowledge, the grace of music, the power of the word, the light of insight, the inspiration of expression and the purity of Truth.

This Basant Panchami, may the power of Saraswati awaken within us.

Saraswati’s mantra: Om Aim Saraswatyai Namah

(Aim is pronounced: ah-eem)

Saraswati in other cultures around the world 1

Interestingly, Saraswati was also worshipped in cultures other than Indian, in olden times. Some of these traditions are still alive today.

Statue of Thurathadi in Burma Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Burma, she is called Thurathadi. The Shwezigon Mon Inscription dated around 1084 AD, near Bagan, recites the name Saraswati as follows: 

“The wisdom of eloquence called Saraswati shall dwell in mouth of King Sri Tribhuwanadityadhammaraja at all times”

Burmese students pray to her before their exams and she is also believed to be the protector of Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, she is worshipped as Benzaiten, a goddess dating back to the 6th century CE and revered in both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows: water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension, knowledge. 

Goddess Benzaiten of Japan:

In Cambodia she is referred to as Vagisvari and Bharati in Yasovarman era Khmer literature.

In Thailand she is called Suratsawadi and considered to be the goddess of speech and learning and the consort of Lord Brahma, the Creator aspect of the Trinity. Amulets with Saraswati and a peacock are also found in Thailand. 

Saraswati Devi is the emblem of the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Bali, she is celebrated on Saraswati day or “knowledge day”, one of the main festivals for Hindus in Indonesia celebrated every six months (210 days). 

Statue of Saraswati looking over 3 children reading. Sculpture at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington DC, USA. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Saraswati chants and prayers

Saraswati Vandana

The following lines from the Saraswati Stotram are a popular prayer for Goddess Saraswati recited on Basant Panchami and Saraswati puja.

या कुन्देन्दुतुषारहारधवला या शुभ्रवस्त्रावृता
या वीणावरदण्डमण्डितकरा या श्वेतपद्मासना।
या ब्रह्माच्युत शंकरप्रभृतिभिर्देवैः सदा वन्दिता
सा मां पातु सरस्वती भगवती निःशेषजाड्यापहा॥

Ya Kundendu Tusharahara Dhavala Ya Shubhra Vastravrita
Ya Veena Varadanda Manditakara Ya Shveta Padmasana
Ya Brahmachyuta Shankara Prabhritibihi Devaih Sada Pujita
Sa Mam Pattu Saravatee Bhagavatee Nihshesha Jadyapaha

Meaning:2 May the Goddess Saraswati, who wears a white garland like the Kunda flower, the moon and the snow, who is adorned with pure white clothes, whose hands are ornamented with the veena and the gesture of blessings, who is seated on a white lotus, who is always worshipped by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and other gods, and who is the remover of all inertness and laziness, protect me.

Saraswati Ashtottara Shat Nama Stotra

Here is a nice rendition of the ancient Saraswati Ashtottara Shat Nama Stotra (the 108 names of Saraswati) believed to have been composed by Sage Agastya Muni.

The goddess is described as Mahabhadra (great auspiciousness), Mahavidya (great knowledge), shastra-rupini (who takes the form of the scriptures) and praised as the one who destroys all evil and provides all that is good. The different names and their meaning are explained on this blog.

1. Reference:
2. Source: Sivananda Yoga Teachers’ Training Manual

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