Sarasvati, a Hindu goddess, is the embodiment of the Sarasvati River and can be thought of as one of the earlier feminine deities worshipped in Vedic culture. Not to be confused with the idea that she simply personifies the river, the Hindu belief is that the manifestation of the river is simply one part of her true being and there is a connection between this river and the transcended being of a goddess (Kinsley 57). This connection is what truly makes these places of worship holy and auspicious.
The river’s true location is a disputed issue between many scholars due to various forms of evidence, each pointing to separate regions. A popular theory which is supported by satellite imagery and archeological digs identifies the river as the one that is thought to have sustained the Indus Valley Civilization before having dried up in most parts of the desert (Kalyanaraman 2). Recent scientific attempts to place the exact location of this river have led to the distinct possibility of the Markanda River being a part of the Sarasvati River as well [More in depth maps for the candidate locations, see Kshetrimayum and Bajpai]. Along the banks of this river a great civilization is believed to have once thrived and historical finds show many settlements dotting this area. The evidence shows that this river had dried up in roughly 1500 BCE (Kalyanaraman 3). The commonly agreed upon theory of its disappearance relies on the findings of two major events that are believed to have caused this. The first major event was the Yamuna River pushing the Sarasvati River towards the Ganges River in roughly 3000 BCE while the second major event saw the Satadru River join the Indus River in roughly 2000 BCE (Kalyanaraman 5). These two events diverted the water source from the Sarasvati River causing it to gradually dry up. A massive migration ensued for the civilization having them spread out across modern day India.
Stemming from her ties with the river, Sarasvati is the patron goddess of learning, knowledge, arts (poetry and music), and science (McLeish 1). She is called upon by libraries, schools, and by those that need to create. Later as Hinduism evolved, she began to represent more of patronage towards speech through the development of mythology (Kinsley 59). She is typically found in most art forms to be an extremely beautiful woman with four arms seated on a white lotus, a white swan, or on the edge of a river bank. In her four arms she holds four objects that represent her patronage, though the exact objects may differ slightly between each representation [Commonly a book, a musical instrument, jewelry, and a pen are seen] (McLeish 1). Sarasvati is praised for nourishing the land with her waters and is prayed to by those who seek knowledge, wealth, children, and nourishment themselves. Additionally, her ties with the river make her into a being that purifies and cleanses her believers (Kinsley 11). A holiday is celebrated in her honor in the early spring (fifth day of Magha) by a puja. Hindus take this time to worship the goddess and worship her associated artifacts (books, pens, musical instruments, beads). Pictures and artwork are also hung up along buildings and walls to celebrate the day (Kinsley 64).
Sarasvati’s mythological history is spread out over the Mahabharata Epic and many of the Puranas. The epics also attempt to give reason for the disappearance of the great river attributing it to the non Dharmic actions of a cannibalistic aboriginal tribe called the Nisadas. This tribe is said to play host to all sorts of thieves, hunters, and other inauspicious vermin. In the tale, due to their actions and their failure to regard the Vedas as holy, Sarasvati decides to descend into the sands so that they cannot know her benefits [Ludvik explores the idea of the goddess moving herself for her followers further] (Ludvik 99). In one version of the creation myth, she is created by the deity Brahma from a stream of water from his side. Her beauty enters into this myth as a reason for the many faces of Brahma. According to the myth, Brahma cannot keep his eyes off of her and as she moves around him he grows his other four faces to watch her (McLeish 1). In other creation myths she has been tied to one of Krsna’s forms assigned to learning and knowledge or to be the tongue of Visnu once again showing her relation to creativity (Kinsley 58).
Early worship practices seem to be focused mainly on the bounty that this river provided or to the power and ferocity of its floodwaters. The river is written about in a mixture of fear and respect. It is said to be capable of destroying the mountains with its power and flooding the plains (Kinsley 10). This river is spoken about in the Rg Veda as one of the most powerful bodies of water and comes heavily praised in so much that it has given scholars difficulties at times to distinguish whether the praise is intended for the river or the goddess herself (Kinsley 10-11). So much so was the admiration of her great power that it was said that the source of her waters flowed from the heavens themselves which is now thought to have had certain ties to the Milky Way. It is thought that perhaps the Sanskrit word for the “Milky Way” might very well have been Sarasvati [Witzel looks into the reason why most other heavenly bodies were described in Vedic texts but such a large heavenly body could not possibly be overlooked] (Witzel 222-226).
Sarasvati is mentioned throughout the Veda Samhitas but is mainly praised in the Rg Veda though her heavy ties to sacrificial rites also have her mentioned in the Yajur Veda as well. She is invoked into ceremonies typically for the purpose of purifying the process as her powerful association with water might suggest (Kinsley 11). The river that she embodies is seen as a holy site and the Rg Veda makes mention of the banks of the river as being one of the holiest places to perform these sacrifices (Ludvik 14). She is sometimes associated with a male counterpart by the name of Sarasvant, a river god, who is typically only referred to during sacrificial ceremonies. His exact nature is relatively unexplored but offerings are also made to him during these rituals (Ludvik 11). Her ties to speech make her a crucial deity in the performing of these rituals since Hindu beliefs consider the recitation of a mantra to be the equivalent of summoning a deity to your presence. Along with speech she also represents the idea of thought itself through knowledge, an integral part of speaking to the gods (Kinsley 59).
Since Sarasvati is seen as such an early emerging deity, it is only natural that she become the mold for later goddesses that will appear. River goddesses that can be seen as later versions of Sarasvati may include Ganga and Jumna (Kinsley 56). Though it may be noted as Hinduism progresses and evolves, her association with the river becomes less distinct and she takes on a role much more fitting to her patron status rather than her status as a river goddess (Kinsley 57).
Artwork that Sarasvati inspired also evolved over time and she is accepted to be one of the most culturally influential goddesses for the art that she inspired. An early prototype image for the goddess or even possibly an image of the goddess herself appears as early as 200 BCE at a Buddhist site. This figure carries much of the iconic symbols that are now associated with the goddess [Ludvik discusses this further with more emphasis on the relevance to the time period] (Ludvik 227-229).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland: Sussex Academic Press.
Ghosh, Niranjan (1939) Sarasvati in India art and literature. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Kalyanaraman, S (1997) Sarasvati River. Chennai: Sarasvati Sindhu Research Centre.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Kshetrimayum, K. S. and Bajpai, V. N. (2011) Establishment of Missing Stream Link between the Markanda River and the Vedic Saraswati River in Haryana, India Geoelectrical Resistivity Approach. Current Science 100 #11 (June): 1719-1724.
Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati: Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: from the Manuscript carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Boston: Brill’s Indological Library.
McLeish, Kenneth (1996) Sarasvati Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.
Witzel, Michael (1984) Sur le chemin du ciel. Leiden: Institut Kern.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Indus Valley Civilization
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by William Beninger (April 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.