The Devi Sukta

30 Days of Devotion
Day 22: A Quote, Poem, or Piece of Writing that resonates with this deity

From the Rig Veda, Book X: Hymn cxxv: translated by Ralph T.H Griffith

I travel with the Rudras and the Vasus, with the Adityas and All-gods I wander.
I hold aloft both Varuna and Mitra, Indra and Agni, and the pair of Ashvins.

I cherish and sustain high-dwelling Soma, and Tvashtar I support, Pushan and Bhaga.
I load with wealth the zealous sacrificer who pours the juice and offers the oblation

I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship.
Thus the Gods have established me in many places with many homes to enter and abide in.

Through me alone all eat the food that feeds them – everyone who sees, breathes, and hears the word outspoken.
They know it not, but yet they dwell beside me. Hear, one and all, the truth as I declare it!

I, verily, myself announce the words that Gods and Man alike shall welcome.
I make the one I love exceedingly mighty; I make him a sage, a rishi, a brahman.

I bend the bow for Rudra, that his arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion.
I rouse and order battle for the people, and I have penetrated Heaven and Earth.

On the World’s summit I bring forth the Father; my home is in the Waters, in the ocean.
Thence I extend over all existing creatures, and I touch even the far side of Heaven with my brow.

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

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.

My Life with Saraswati: OMG YOU ARE SO AWESOME

This is to be the first of an ongoing series about my experiences as a devotee and dedicant of My Lady Saraswati. I must make a disclaimer, however: I am as white and Western as it is as possible to be, and though the vast majority of my experiences regarding My Lady can be corroborated in extant lore regarding her personality, preferences, history, etc., what I state here is nonetheless still only my personal experience and should be taken as such.

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How would I describe My Lady, Saraswati?

People tend to think of Saraswati as a quiet, bookish lady sitting on a swan (it’s actually a goose. Don’t laugh. Geese are pretty badass) and strumming away at some sort of lute guitar thingy. Guess what? That guitar thingy is called a veena, and its vibrations contain all the sounds of the universe.

I’d say she’s awesome.

That’s really not an opinion. That’s a fact. When I read the Rig Veda, I am filled with Her presence, and I can feel her vastness and her ancient power. She was a mighty river then, though she has long since vanished. She was called the “inspirer of all gracious thought” and the Vedic priests prayed to her so that their words might flow like her waters.

To tell the truth, My Lady would rather be alone with her books than in a party. She’d rather stay in than go out. She’s the exact opposite of Lady Lakshmi. So here she is, sitting in her chair and waiting for people to come to her. She answers them, with that slight smile and raised eyebrow I’ve come to know so well. She’s warm and calm, but also incredibly practical. Yet she also has an unexpected streak of playfulness and whimsy that comes out in private.

But my Lady is awesome. She inspires awe in me, and I kneel at her feet in love and gratitude for her blessings.

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.