Crossing the River

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

WWSD: What Would Saraswati Do?

30 Days of Devotion
Day 15: Activities Associated with the Deity

Saraswati is a goddess of wisdom, learning, education, and the arts. As such, it’s fairly self evident that academic and scholastic pursuits fall under her purview. In my opinion this is why she was not only adopted by Buddhists, but has remained very popular.

In fact, Saraswati’s Buddhist devotees included some of the foremost leaders and thinkers of the religion. None other than Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (currently led by HH The Dalai Lama) wrote a prayer to the goddess, asking that she grant him her eloquence:

Captivating presence, stealing my mind,
Like a lightning-adorned cloud beautifying the sky,
There amid a celestial gathering of youthful musicians.
Compassionate goddess, come here now!
Those alluring honeybee eyes in that lotus face,
That long, dark blue hair, glowing with white light,
There before me in a pose of seductive dance.
Grant me, Saraswati, your power of speech!
Those beautiful, playful antelope eyes,
I gaze insatiably upon you, seducer of my mind,
Goddess of speech with a mother’s compassion,
Make our speech as one.
More beautiful than the splendour of a full autumn moon,
A voice eclipsing the sweetest melody of Brahma,
A mind as hard to fathom as the deepest ocean,
I bow before the goddess Saraswati.

Saraswati was explicitly stated in Buddhist scripture (specifically The Sutra of Golden Light) to grant eloquence and enhanced memory to monks. Given the increasing intricacies of Mahayana theology and the highly competitive nature of religious scholasticism in Tibet and India from the time of the Buddha onward, those who sought Saraswati’s blessings did so gladly.

Seven Sistered

Once upon a time
There were three sisters
They were three rivers
They were
Ila
Bharati
and me.

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.

Saraswati’s Tale: The Fire Ritual

30 Days of Devotion
Day 4: Favorite Myths

I was married to the Grandfather once, the creator god Brahma. (He’s called the Grandfather, in case you didn’t know). Now, the Grandfather is…well, I’ll let you figure that out.

One day, a very, very long time ago, The Grandfather was going to hold a fire ritual. He needed my presence at this oh-so-important ritual, because I am his wife, and his ritual partner. He was a very silly man, don’t you think, to require my presence when I had better things to do?

Anyway, I was getting ready (I had to look my best for this oh-so-important fire ritual). The silly little man kept sending messengers to fetch me, even though I had plenty of time. Silly little man! I sent them away. “I will be on time,” I told them to say. “Do not start without me.” But of course, Grandfather didn’t listen (did he ever?).

Once I was ready, I gathered my veena and my mala and my texts, and set out on the back of my trusty hamsa. On the way, one of my women came to me on the road. “I’m so sorry my lady! You won’t believe what has happened. He has taken another wife for the ritual! Oh dear…”

Oh dear. Oh dear.

Needless to say, I was not happy when I arrived. The new “wife” was a milkmaid his men had dragged into the whole affair. The poor dear was quite petrified, and in any case had no idea what to do at this oh-so-stupid farce.

All the gods were there, even Shiva and Vishnu. Their wives, I could see, had taken their time and hadn’t been made to rush! Oh my, I was quite annoyed. And there was my dear husband, looking quite the fool with this poor milkmaid girl half his age and twice his beauty. She was not terribly unlike me, I must admit.

“Dear husband, I am here right on time, but I see you have started early?”

The yakshas and gandharvas gasped as one, and the apsarases ran for cover. My husband too, had at least enough sense to not defend himself. He immediately came forth with folded hands and offered his apologies. If it had stopped there, things would have been fine. Unfortunately, Shiva couldn’t contain his laughter, and my husband is a rather prideful man…

He broke off from his apologies. “I did summon you.”

“I came on time,” I reminded him. And as I looked over the assembly, my eyes landed on the milkmaid. Her face was red and her eyes were bloodshot. When she saw me, she hid her face and began to shake with fear. Oh, that was what angered me! The poor child had not asked to be dragged into this.

“You have assembled all our friends and family for this ritual,” I said to Grandfather. “If it was so important for it to be done correctly, why didn’t you wait for me?”

I approached the milkmaid and took her gently in my arms. “Dear child, what is your name?”

“It’s not important, Your Ladyship,” she whispered.

“She’s just a milkmaid.” My husband shrugged and smiled nervously. “Really, please don’t get the wrong idea!”

Shiva and Vishnu were both at this point doubled over with laughter. It was such as shame really. I was going to have to be the one to ruin my husband’s oh-so-serious ceremony of a farce.

I stroked the milkmaid’s hair. “Dear child, you are very important. You are apparently far more important than me. So, won’t you tell me: are you angry at the Grandfather for bringing you in like this?”

She looked up at me, tears pouring down her face as I enveloped her with my energy. As her fear melted away, she looked over at the Grandfather. There was fire in her eyes enough to make Shiva himself stop with his laughter.

“That makes two of us,” I said, as my gaze too fell upon Grandfather.

Of course, once the seriousness of the situation was impressed upon Vishnu, he took it upon himself to act as peacemaker. “Dear Saraswati, please don’t be angry with Brahma. This was a very important ritual, and he was simply worried…”

“ENOUGH!” And Vishnu fell back.

“You were so occupied with your own role in this ritual, Grandfather, that you have made a farce of it. I don’t think you should be trusted with the rituals from now on.”

No one will worship you ever again.” And I knew my words to be true.

“Saraswati!” Shiva cried.

“And you!” I said, turning on Shiva. “Your austerities will in the end mean nothing. You will have a wife and love her more than yourself, and you will lose her and grieve for her like a mortal man.” And I knew my words to be true.

“…and you!” Now it was Vishnu’s turn “You will be made to leave the heavens and walk as a mortal. You will suffer as a mortal. You will die as a mortal.” And I knew my words to be true.

Then I turned to the milkmaid. “You!” I said, and my rage melted away as she smiled. “What is your name?”

“Gayatri,” she replied.

I smiled in return. “To you, I will teach the most sacred of all mantras, and it shall be called the Gayatri mantra.”

And my words were true.

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.