A Spirit of Place

30 Days of Devotion
Day 12: Places

Saraswati was once the locus genus of a sacred river. Her name comes from this river, and her early evolution is inextricably tied to the ebb and flow, and the eventual disappearance, of the river.

The Rig Veda describes the waters of the Saraswati as being a roaring, raging torrent, capable of bursting through earthworks and breaking down mountains. Despite this seemingly fearsome power, or rather more likely because of it, Saraswati was seen as a protector of the righteous and a punisher of wrongdoing. The 69th hymn describes her thus:

Yea, this divine Saraswati, terrible with her golden path, foe-slayer, claims our eulogy.

Whose limitless unbroken flood, swift-moving with a rapid rush comes on with tempestuous roar.

(Translations from the Rig Veda by Ralph T.H. Griffith)

Even at this date, though, Saraswati was credited with having the power to inspire. A famous line in the 3rd hymn, which is dedicated mainly to Saraswati’s companions the Asvins (twin physician gods), calls the goddess the “inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thought.” The hymn goes on to ask that the goddess “accept our rite” and says that she “brightens every pious thought.”

Saraswati the goddess and Saraswati the river were inseparable in the Vedic era and long afterward, due to the nature of much Vedic worship, which was conducted at sacred river fords. Saraswati’s was the most sacred of these then, just as Lady Ganges is in India today. Thus, it is only natural that My Lady Saraswati would be petitioned by the Vedic priests to help with the rites themselves.

Postscript

There is of course another more complicated piece to this story, and that is the role of the Goddess Vac. Vac was inspired speech, as Saraswati was inspired thought. Vac was a major goddess of the Vedic period who increasingly came to be seen as identical with Saraswati herself. In modern times, Saraswati has taken over from Vac completely.

I’ve wanted to untangle the knot of questions about these two goddesses and their two histories that became one, but so far all I’ve found is a mess of confusion and UPG. But I will do it…stay tuned.

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