Worship of Saraswati Devi dates back to the early Vedic period in India (1500 BCE), where she was the presiding spirit of a sacred and possibly mythical river. The name of the river is believed to be derived from the proto-Indo-Iranian *sáras-vat-ī, which supposedly means “marshy” or “full of pools”. Another proposed etymology derives her name from the root *sar, which means “flow”. Though this latter theory has been widely repeated, it was apparently not favored by Manfred Mayrhofer, a linguist specializing in Sanskrit and Indo-Iranian languages.(1)
In modern worship, Saraswati’s origins as a river deity have been obscured. She is a deity of wisdom, and a patroness of learning and the arts. Modern commenters sometimes derive her name from Sanskrit Sāra and Sva, meaning of “essence of self-knowledge”. While not a historically valid etymology, it certainly captures Lady Saraswati’s character.
(1) Information taken from Wikipedia entry “Sarasvati River“
Aoigaoka Keisei, “Benzaiten Seated on a White Dragon”
Edo Period woodblock print, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is one of my favorite images of Benzaiten-sama. It is (I believe, though I am not sure) a scene from the famous medieval epic Heike Monogatari. Benzaiten-sama was said to be the patroness of the Heike clan (better known in historical sources as the Taira). Yet she is sometimes said to have withdrawn her support of the Taira due to the hubris of Taira no Kiyomori, the clan patriarch. This in turn led to their defeat by the newly ascendant Minamoto clan, who would establish the first permanent shogunate.
The Medicine Buddha is a popular figure in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in Tibet and Japan, as well as China. In Sanskrit, his name Bhaișajyaguru, and he features in a sutra entitled Bhaișajya Guru Vaidūrya Prabhā Rāja Sutra, which can be translated as “Medicine King Master and Lapis Lazuli Light.” The title alludes both to his function as a Buddha of healing, and to his trademark association (at least in Tibetan Buddhism) with the color deep blue.
Bhaișajyaguru is said to be a guardian of the Eastern direction, and may actually supplant The Buddha Akshobhya, who is far more commonly said to fill this role. Just like the far more famous Amitabha, he also rules over his own Pure Land, known as Vaidūryanirbhāsa or “Pure Lapis Lazuli.”
In Japan, he was known as Yakushi, and his popularity no doubt was bolstered by the fact that he plays an important role in The Lotus Sutra, which is arguably the most influential Sutra in Japanese Buddhist traditions. (Anyone wanna argue with me on that?) His cult in Japan is very old, dating back to the seventh century. In the late eleventh century, the author of the Sarashina Nikki (a famous literary diary/memoir) wrote of her attachment to a statue of Yakushi that had been made in her size, and her grief at being forced to leave it behind in a move.
Tomorrow is Vasant Panchami, a spring festival in Northern India. It is also Saraswati’s birthday, and the day that her puja is held. While Vasant Panchami as a spring festival is pretty much confined to northern India (for reasons of climate, obviously), the Indian government has promoted Saraswati Puja as a Pan-Indian holiday in an effort to boost literacy rates.
The current literacy rate in India is 71.2%; this is well below the global average of 84%. There is also a stark gap between the sexes. In 2011, when the last census was performed (and when the literacy rate was measured at 75%) male literacy rate was 82.14% while the women only came in at 65.46%.
It is a Fire Monkey year, which is special in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, as Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) was born on a Fire Monkey year. Padmasambhava is an eighth century Tibetan hero. He is known to have founded the first Buddhist monastery in Tibetan, though other other historically verifiable details of his life are scarce. He is especially honored in the Nyingma tradition, as one of their founders.
Guru Rinpoche, from Wikimedia Commons
I asked Saraswati for a dream last night, and got a weird, scrambled mess involving Japan and her incarnation as Benzaiten-sama. I was at Ueno again, and looking for another talisman, but I couldn’t get the attendants at her shrine to speak to me.
Then I woke up today and saw that it’s the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Nagasaki is on the 9th. I realized why Saraswati has been so quiet. WWII is a painful subject for her. In Kichijōji, beautiful Kichijōji, her shrine remained opened and unharmed throughout the war. Ueno was bombed flat, and her pond was drained and replaced with rice paddies. In Kichijōji, her presence was pure and unfiltered. In Ueno, she was much quieter.
What desperation brings a people to drain a little park pond for two acres of rice? Were those bombs really necessary? The allies pushed for an unconditional surrender; Japan feared the loss of the Imperial system, and held out until the bombs fell, all out of that fear. In the end, we got our unconditional surrender, but let them keep their Emperor.
Why bother? Why drop the bombs? Was it really a choice, as so often posited, between dropping the two atomic bombs or invading Japan? I actually doubt that. The privation within the country was growing. They drained My Lady’s pond for two acres of rice.
Today, I think I shall be with Benzaiten-sama.
Once upon a time
There were three sisters
They were three rivers
Saraswati pressed this rhyme into my brain as I struggled with how to begin. Have you ever heard of the Ganges? Well, once upon a time (mukashi, mukashi…She reminds me) it wasn’t Lady Ganga but Saraswati who was the most sacred river in all of India. She was called “seven-sistered” and said to be foremost of the seven holy rivers of the Vedas. Yet if you seek her waters today, you will be disappointed; they vanished centuries ago.