Hindus in India and elsewhere, start their education or intellectual endeavour by worshipping Goddess Saraswati, whom they regard as the Goddess of Knowledge. The Sanskrit verse generally recited to invoke the blessings of Saraswati says: “May Goddess Saraswati, who is as white and bright as the jasmine flower, moon, dew, and a garland of pearls, who dresses in white clothes and whose hand is adorned with the finest Vinã, who sits on a white lotus and is held in reverence by Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar, protect me from the worldly evils and a dull intellect by kindling the light of knowledge.” It is evident from this verse that Saraswati had attained and realised spiritual knowledge; being powerful and proficient in it, she could remove any obstacles placed by Mãyã on her path and that of other spiritual seekers as well. In this sense, she was the spiritual mother who nourished other souls with the milk of divine knowledge.
The word ‘Saraswati’ means “one who bestows sweetness on the self”. Since this is only possible by sharing spiritual knowledge, her name suggests that she was the Bestower of Spiritual Wisdom. Today, she is regarded as the icon of not merely spiritual knowledge but any venture or branch of knowledge. Many Universities and Academies keep an image of Saraswati in their buildings or as part of their insignia, along with an inscription of a line or two from the above verse. Eminent scholars, who are well-versed in scriptures, or have mastery over expression are given the title ‘Saraswati’, which is appended to their names (even though the spiritual sweetness born through spiritual wisdom may be lacking!).
The above traditions draw light to the fact that the name, ‘Saraswati’, must have been bestowed as an upãdhi (honourable title) to a virtuous young virgin who had attained unparalleled proficiency in spiritual knowledge. Being extraordinarily sweet in temperament, she gave motherly love, affection, and spiritual relief to humanity at large as a spiritual mother. Therefore, ‘Saraswati’ was not the name given to her physical body but was conferred by a higher being in recognition of her spiritual enlightenment and eminence. This supreme entity, ‘Shiva’ i.e. God, the Knowledgeful One and Creator of the Trimurti Brahma-Vishnu-Shankar, respected Saraswati for her spiritual learning, enlightenment, and sweetness.
The word ‘Saraswati’ originates from the Sanskrit root, “Srigatou”, which represents a person who is the river or ocean of divine consciousness, where divine knowledge vibrates constantly just as water flows in a river. If water in a channel does not flow, it begins to stagnate and stink; if, on the other hand, it keeps flowing, it remains clean and removes all obstacles in its path. It also reaches out to serve others. The word ‘Saraswati’ thus has these connotations.
Saraswati is also given the names Kamlã and Padmã in scriptures. Both these names mean ‘lotus’. Since the lotus is a symbol of detachment and purity – the essential characteristics of a spiritual person – these names signify her spiritual qualities. They further illustrate that Saraswati was not the name of her physical costume but ‘Kamla’ and ‘Padma’ were her spiritual titles.
Her numerous characteristics are praised in verses and depicted using specific symbols. The following descriptions explain their significance accurately:
1. Veena: Veena is a musical instrument that requires great control and mastery over the strings. It signifies control over one’s physical organs or actions. In India, the veena is symbolic of life whilst its strings symbolize feelings, emotions or sensibilities. Life is like music; there needs to be rhythm and we have to play the music well. The veena in the hands of the Goddess of Knowledge indicates the delivery of knowledge as one plays musical notes; knowledge should be imparted in an artistic and skilful manner that can win the listeners’ hearts. It is also symbolic of the rhythmic mind of the person who holds it, and the control over their physical sense organs.
It is worth noting that Sanskrit literature calls the veena played by Saraswati, ‘Kachchapi’, meaning ‘a female tortoise’. Some artists portray her veena with its upper end in the form of a tortoise. In Indian tradition, Kachchapi i.e. tortoise signifies withdrawal of physical senses from the external world. As is well-known, a tortoise withdraws its organs when it does not need to move or act. This withdrawal from the physical senses or introversion is essential for attaining spiritual knowledge. One who is withdrawn alone can play well or enjoy the musical notes of the veena of Godly knowledge. Zoologists and those who have studied the behaviour of tortoises say that after a female tortoise lays her eggs, she covers them up with sand to protect them, and carries on with other activities whilst keeping an eye on her eggs. This signifies the quality of Mother Saraswati who gave spiritual birth to others through Godly knowledge, and then protected and nurtured them well.
In her portraits, Saraswati is seen holding the veena with her left hand on the upper side and the right on the lower part. This implies that she had command over the complete knowledge and could play whichever part appealed to a particular soul.
The veena: is also called ‘Muktchandi’, meaning multi-rhythmic potential. Saraswati was not bound by any texts or scriptures, but being a wise person she had the freedom to decide what to say.
2. The Book: A book is held by a pupil, disciple or student and also by a teacher or author. Saraswati had deep interest in divine knowledge and taught the same to others. She practised spiritual discipline well and trained others in the art and science of life. An authority on divine knowledge, she is known as the ‘Goddess of Knowledge’.
3. Rosary: The Rosary symbolizes ‘concentration of the mind on God’ or ‘loveful remembrance of the Supreme Being’. The rosary in Saraswati’s hand is called the ‘Sphatik mãlã’. Sphatik is transparent and Sphatik mãlã is symbolic of Paradarshini Vidya (knowledge through which one can see reality implicitly). The rosary comprises of 50 beads and incidentally, the alphabetical letters in Sanskrit or Devnagari script are also 50 in number. This signifies that she had mastered the complete knowledge and had grounded her meditation and concentration on the same.
It is interesting to note that in the science of symbolism everything holds significance. Traditionally, the thumb, third finger, and the one next to the index finger are used to hold a rosary; the thumb is considered to represent guru or spiritual teacher; the third finger indicates knowledge and the finger next to the index finger is symbolic of ‘the known’. In other words, her meditation and concentration were based on knowledge and not blind faith. The trio in this mudra (positioning of fingers) symbolises the truth that the soul and God are two distinct entities. The Goddess of Knowledge, who had attained complete purity, represents the reality that soul and God are not one and it is through meditation that they are linked. Meditation is righteous only if based on this understanding.
4. Swan: Saraswati is shown seated on a swan, which is considered to have a strong power to discriminate between right and wrong, the valuable and useless. A notable feature of a swan is that it can stay and swim in water without getting tired, incapacitated or adversely affected. This Hans, ‘carrier’ of Saraswati, signifies that she led her life with a strong power of judgement, without getting attached to or affected by the world. Godly knowledge does not ask us to renounce the world or actions, but teaches us the power to discriminate and becomes a vehicle that helps us swim across the waters of life without being influenced. The white swan symbolises ‘purity’, which can become our vehicle; we can neither develop sound judgement nor swim across without purity.
5. Peacock: Apart from its colourful feathers, the peacock has a few unedifying traits and habits; it’s mood keeps changing. It is greatly influenced by change in weather and weeps due to infatuation; a yogi is expected to not have these traits. The peacock is symbolic of worldly knowledge, name and fame. Worldly knowledge is not Saraswati’s vehicle, but is shown at her feet waiting to be used. This implies that the one who has attained spiritual knowledge also has the worldly means to achieve success at his or her disposal but does not use them. Such a soul does not experience fluctuating moods nor is victim of infatuation.
6. White Lotus: Divine Mother Saraswati is shown seated on a lotus flower. This flower is mainly white with a light-red tinge. White represents purity and light-red symbolises dignity and grace. These symbolize her graceful way of performing tasks and her truthful and righteous intellect. It further illustrates that realisation of the depths of knowledge comes by performing activities parallel in nature.
7. Banana Leaves: The trunk of the banana plant is made up of multiple layers. As the layers are removed, one ultimately reaches the end where nothing else remains. It is symbolic of finality in knowledge or penetration into its depths. In India, it is said, “The statement of a spiritually-knowledgeful person has many layers to it or is as deep as a banana tree.” Therefore, the knowledge delivered by Saraswati has many strata of truth.
The Fruition of Godly Knowledge
Having acquired brief knowledge of the names and symbols associated with Saraswati, and her authority over spiritual knowledge, the logical question would be: what is the ultimate fruition of Saraswati’s knowledge? In other words, what did she attain by rising to the acme of purity and spiritual knowledge?
We know that knowledge is the means through which a person achieves a goal. Indian scriptures say, “It is through knowledge that man becomes like God, Shri Narayana, and a woman attains the status of Goddess Shri Lakshmi.” “Lakshmi” originates from the Sanskrit word ‘Lakshya’ or ‘Lakshma’, meaning ‘goal’ or ‘aim of life’. Semantically, Lakshmi is the goddess representing the goal of human life. This is reiterated beautifully in a Sanskrit verse : “She signifies the culmination of Godly knowledge and is symbolic of the final attainments of health, wealth, and happiness; thus, she is the goal for all.” Saraswati attained the status of Shri Lakshmi in her future life at the beginning of Satyuga, which ensued after she, Prajapita Brahma, and their spiritual progeny helped purify and enlighten mankind.
We have understood these truths by our practical experiences with Jagadamba Saraswati. We have seen the white-clad mother, whose life was a source of deep spiritual inspiration. We have listened to her Gyãn Veenã — the veena of knowledge. We have received her motherly love and care, and continue to experience her subtle, angelic presence amongst us…
–by Brother Jagdish Chander