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

Eternity and a River

Saraswati Devi’s worship can be traced back to the early Vedic era in India (ca.1500 BCE), when she was honored in the form of a sacred river of the same name. Long ago, the Vedic sages performed their rituals on Her banks. Hymns in the Rig Veda extol Her might, as Her waters could break the backs of mountains (1). The river itself may be long gone, and the facts of its existence have become the source of much controversy,* but Saraswati remains.

(1.) Rig Veda. Book 6, Hymn 61

*Yes, it’s Wikipedia, but it’s a good overview of the scholarly debates on the subject. So bite me.

Vasant Panchami 2016

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%.

Hindu Saraswati

Ahimsa

30 Days of Devotion
Day 16: Relationship to the values of the pantheon & culture

Well…first off, a quick reaction to the prompt, more or less.

inconceivable

How am I to do one post on this topic for a goddess who is worshiped in multiple religions, by multiple cultures, and has been for centuries? I say, you don’t. Saraswati says…

Nonsense. That’s only because no one ever has.

Fire Swamp

So, um…That’s settled then.

Saraswati is worshiped by four religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Shinto. The first three religions are historically and culturally related, though their similarities are often (too often) grossly exaggerated; they (along with Sikhism) are often called “Dharma Religions”. Though Saraswati’s (or rather, Benzaiten-sama’s) Shinto cultus in Japan has many links to Buddhism, it would be totally disingenuous for me to treat it as anything other than superficially similar to the Dharma religions as practiced in modern India.

Let’s begin, shall we?

AHIMSA
Literally, “not to injure”; popularly translated as “non-violence”

Ahimsa is a core value of the three Dharma religions that worship Saraswati. It is a value that has obvious and clear implications for daily life. Many (but certainly not all) Hindus are vegetarians, and most Buddhist sects also discourage the eating of meat. Jaina are likely the most fervent adherents of this approach, extending this protection even to non-animals. A devout Jaina will avoid root vegetables, as harvesting them kills the plant.

So how does Saraswati embody this virtue? I would call her a proponent of “active ahimsa.”

Saraswati, as my previous posts have discussed, is concerned not just with avoiding harm, but actively doing good. It isn’t just that she doesn’t want to hurt you. It’s that she really wants to help you. She loves humanity. She loves you.

Saraswati and The Riddle of Vac

Saraswati has been worshipped continuously for about 3 millennia or so. Unlike the Theoi, the Vanir and Aesir, or the gods of the many Celtic lands, she has never been without devotees.

This doesn’t mean that Saraswati’s worship is static and unchanging. Indeed, this is most certainly not the case, as in the Vedic period she was the goddess of a river that is now gone.

The most important change in My Lady’s worship however, was her syncretization with the goddess of speech Vac, which occurred during the Vedic period (ca.1750 BCE – 800 BCE). Today, Vac is mostly forgotten as Saraswati has totally assumed her function.

Vac (whose name literally means speech) was and is still a mysterious and alluring goddess. Her hymn in the Rig Veda(1) sends chills down the spine, as She speaks of her own might, declaring:

I breathe a strong breath like the wind and tempest, the while I hold together all existence.
Beyond this wide earth and beyond the heavens, I have become so mighty in my grandeur!

Rig Veda Book X, Hymn 125, translated by Ralph T.H Griffith(2)

Catherine Ludvik writes extensively regarding the process of Saraswati’s syncretization and ultimately, her total identification with Vac in Sarasvatī, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript Carrying Vīnā Player to the Weapon Wielding Defender of the Dharma.(3) She notes that quite early on, Saraswati was identified with the principle of dhi, or inspired thought. (Ludvik pp.32-34) This is evidenced in hymn 3 of the Rig Veda, where She is called upon to bring success to a rite, as the “inspirer of all gracious thought.” (Rig Veda, Book I hymn 3 translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith)

By the time of the slightly later Atharva Veda(4) Saraswati was connected more firmly with speech itself, thus edging into Vac’s domain. (Ludvik p.42.) That identification came in the last of the Vedas, the Yajur Veda(5), where Saraswati began to be truly syncretized with the goddess Vac.(Ludvik pp.52-53)

Just how thoroughly has Saraswati subsumed Vac’s role? The successors to the Vedas, the Brahmanas, contain a number of famous myths starring Vac, including a creation myth involving Her and her father Prajapati, as well as a story called The Barter for Soma. Both these stories survive to this day, with one important change – Vac is no longer in them. Saraswati is, instead.

Saraswati Cares

30 Days of Devotion
Day 13

Saraswati is a goddess of wisdom and learning, and in Southern Asia today, she is a major patroness of children’s education. Indeed, the once-local placement of the Saraswati Puja on the seasonal festival of Vasant Panchami has been promoted by the Indian government as a sort of Pan-Indian holiday to promote education.

The government has good reason to promote the holiday, as while the country’s literacy rate has exploded from only 12% since the end of colonial rule in 1947, to nearly 75% 2011, growth in literacy has stagnated while growth in population has not. Currently, literacy stands just beneath 63%.

This of course, does not even touch on the very apparent gender gap in literacy rates. The figures given above are an average of adult literacy. In 2011, male adult literacy was actually at 82%, but female literacy was a mere 65%.

Given the topic of this post, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to ask for help….but not for me. Below are some links for Pratham, an NGO established in part by UNICEF that is working to improve literacy in India. Donate if you can, share the links if you can’t. Please help.

Pratham Official Site
Pratham USA

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.