Objective Fact and Subjective Truth: What’s in a Name?

Let me get this off my chest right away: I really wanted Sarasvati’s name to have a pretty meaning. I was dead set on it meaning “The Flowing One,” because…well, that fits in so perfectly with how I experience her. She is a goddess of things that flow: water, fortune, inspiration, ideas, communication. You name it. She rules the tides of my heart. (And yes, I’m aware of how sappy that sounds. Deal.)

Contemporary Hindu sources, give the etymology of her name as “Sara” and “Sva,” that is, the knowledge of one’s self or essence. A very pretty explanation too, but not one I find useful, as I am already far too prone to self-absorbed navel-gazing. I’d make a very good Pythia, as I “know myself” perhaps a little too well.

What does Sarasvati’s name actually mean, though? For a start, Herself was originally the genius loci of the mysterious Sarasvati River in Ancient India. She was a Vedic deity, and as such, was not anthropomorphized except as poetically necessary. She was the river, spoken of as gushing in mighty torrents that broke the peaks of mountains. In the Rig Veda one is more likely to hear talk of Sarasvati’s roaring waters than anything else. She was not conceived of as a beautiful goddess, but as the awesome waters of the river.

The meaning of Sarasvati’s name is thus the meaning of the river’s name. In an unusually richly cited and clearly reliable article, Wikipedia details the etymology of the River’s name. In the proto-Indo-Iranian languages of Ancient India and the Near East, *sáras-va-tī meant “marshy” or “full of pools.” In later Sanskrit, the masculine sáras meant “pool” or “pond,” while the feminine sárasī meant specifically a stagnant pool or a swamp. A connection with the Sanskrit *sar-, or “flow, to run” is specifically singled out as being unlikely. Thus, the river’s name was likely a description of the terrain of the area: marshy, a swamp, full of stagnant pools.

But here we come to the distinction I posited in the title of this post: Objective Fact and Subjective Truth.

The facts are that Sarasvati’s name means “marshy, full of pools,” and refers to her origins as the genius loci of the Sarasvati River. One cannot dispute that her name did not originally mean “knowledge of self” or “the flowing one.” That was simply not what it meant in Vedic times. The Sarasvati River was not named for either of those things, and thus, neither was my goddess. Those are the plain, bone dry facts.

However, facts are in the domain of rationality and measurable, verifiable experience. Once you leave the realm of objectively verifiable, materialistic facts that are required in the social and natural sciences (and to a lesser extent, in the humanities), you stumble into experiences that simply require a different framework for evaluation. There is a reason that individual, mystical experiences have their own acronym in the Pagan community (UPG – unverified/unverifiable personal gnosis). The sublime and the numinous comes to each person differently, if it comes at all.

In fact, the experience of the sublime is usually considered to be unique to the individual, simply as a given. This is why, in the pagan community, SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis, also called PCPG, or Peer-Corroborated Personal Gnosis) is often such an incredibly validating experience. For example, I stumbled across a poster on a Pagan forum who worked with Sarasvati. This person claimed that Herself had a thing for being surrounded by crystals. I promptly freaked out, as this is something I could verify in my own personal experience with Her: Sarasvati loves crystals and stones.

So what does this have to do with the meaning of the name “Sarasvati?” Well, it all comes down to the idea of there being a concept of subjective Truth, as well as the more ordinary, rational truth (with a lowercase-t) shown to us by facts. Myth is often held up as an example of Truth rather than truth. The ancient stories of deities reveal Truth (with an uppercase-T) about Them that the academic texts do not. To a Hellene, the objective reality of Greek myths is irrelevant, because the myths speak to the sublime. They reveal reality on a different level than the material.

So let’s consider the etymologies again. Factually, objectively, historically, Sarasvati means “marshy, full of pools” and indicates the swampy terrain of the river. But the goddess is more than just what the river was, and for those who seek self-discovery with her, the Truth (uppercase-T!) is that her name means “knowledge of self.” For someone like me, the Truth – the reality revealed to me by my own experiences with the sublime – is that Sarasvati’s name means “the flowing one.”

So may your god bless you, whichever one that is.

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