One of the goddesses we love to rage about is Saraswati.
This has alot to do with her job description: she is the ruler of wisdom, the arts, and music.
Like her fellow gods and goddesses, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. (Always a nice accelerator to deity charisma!)
But who is Saraswati really?
In this article, you’ll get the down-low on her name, her myth, and the philosophies that make her prominent in the Indian pantheon.
First, Her Name
Saraswati’s name has lots of meanings—as do most Sanskrit terms!
One of them comes from an Indian creation myth that tells the story about the first thing ever made in the universe.
Yes, you probably guessed: It was that great, big golden egg, Hiranyagarbha.
As the myth goes, Hiranyagarbha divided into the gods Saraswati and Brahma—who then became water and breath, respectively.
Saras means, “anything flowing or fluid.”
Aligning with her femininity, one of her formal titles is, “She who Flows like Water.”
This water aspect leads us further into the tangle of world myth.
Water & Wealth: Same, Same
When we identify Saraswati with water, we identify her with wealth.
In Sanskrit, there is a term that combines both meanings: rayi .
The importance of this word is discussed in the 4th century BCE scripture, called the Prashna Upanishad.
But water and wealth are connected to goddesses all over the world.
Saraswati is a goddess of wisdom, too, and among goddesses of many traditions, water, wisdom and wealth are all woven together.
This reflects a longtime reality: the insight women have gained from an objective viewpoint outside public life helped guide families to the choices behind good fortune.
This is not unlike the social role priests, priestesses (and grandparents!) play. If you have a position outside the wheel of money-making and high-stakes social decisions, things can be evaluated more cooly. Your wisdom can go to the core of things.
Wise women are honored in both East and West.
Sophia: Wealth and Wisdom
In the Western tradition, the feminine principle of wealth and wisdom is embodied in Sophia
She is referenced in the Biblical book of Proverbs, verses 9:1-6:
Wisdom [sophia] has built her house;
she has set up[a] its seven pillars.
2 She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
3 She has sent out her servants, and she calls
from the highest point of the city,
4 “Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
5 “Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
6 Leave your simple ways and you will live;
walk in the way of insight.
Wisdom, wealth-making and “saving” roles (like a priest or priestess!) are all apparent here.
She is the Word
Saraswati also means “she who has speech,” because saras means “speech,” too.
Think of the water-like flow of thought, or the wisdom-flow of an experienced person’s conversation.
In the Vedas, India’s first sacred texts (c. 1800–800 BCE), Vac was a speech goddess.
Vac was important because India’s main early ritual, the agni hotra, (“fire ritual”) depended on mantras being spoken precisely to make the ceremonies function in the magical way they were supposed to.
The Male-Female Split
As the goddess of learning and the consort of Brahma, Saraswati represents a reversal of a common male-female duality in Hindu myth.
The active force in the universe appears as female in most iconography—whereas consciousness, which we associate with knowledge, is commonly depicted as male.
The earth goddess, Prakriti (also found in the Vedas), is an example of the more familiar duality.
The feminine Prakriti becomes the universal principle for nature and the relative world of change and action in later Samkhya philosophy.
Pra means “primary, before, or the fulfillment of,” and kriti means “action.”
Prakriti is all power and manifestation in the universe.
In Samkhya, the masculine, Purusha (Prakriti’s fundamental opposite), represents the non-active realm of pure consciousness.
Purusha is the self-reflective quality of emptiness.
Consistent with consciousness as associated with the male principle, Purusha’s original designation in the Vedas was, “First Man.”
The well-known goddess Shakti, who became popular during India’s tantric Middle Ages (700–1100 CE) is an example of this familiar duality, too.
The principle of action, her name literally means “power.”
In later mythology, her descent from the masculine realm of emptiness instigates creation.
Usually, female = action-and-power, and male = inaction-and-being in Hindu myth.
But as Saraswati arises from Hiranyagarbha in the ancient stories, she signifies the reflective side of things through speech and thought (more like the male Purusha and Shiva).
Completing the switch, Saraswati’s counterpart, Brahma, plays creative, active role like Shakti and Prakriti.
As a god of activity, the male, Brahma, is also associated with the agressive vibration of rajas (see below).
She of the Thousand Forms
In this time before the Indian Middle Ages, we also find tales of Saraswati orienting her in the more standard polarity.
The Matsya Purana (c. 200 CE), calls her Satarupa, or “she of the hundred forms.” (Sata means “a hundred,” and rupa means “form.”)
Her “hundred forms” are those of language (because she’s reigns over speech).
Language, of course, is near-infinite in the number of things it can reference!
The Hindu goddesses (and most goddesses in general) rule over this idea of “lots-of-things” or, more to the point, they rule over fertility.
Large numbers, like sata, get connected to them!
Similarly, the lak in Lakshmi (The Goddess of Wealth) means “a thousand.” As a goddess of multiplicity, wealth, and fertility, Lakshmi is “She of the Thousands.”
The divergent Matsya Purana creation story of Saraswati—which comes a thousand years after the Vedas—says Saraswati is the daughter of Brahma! Nonetheless, because they are gods, and because they exist in the period before universal law appears and forbids incest—-they become loving partners—as in the stories above.
They copulate and—beause they’re gods—they birth all beings—as we might expect!
Their firstborn is Manu.
In this myth, Manu is known as “The First Man,” just like Purusha (there’s alot of this duplication in Indian myth).
Ironically, Manu is the lawgiver. His coming now prevents things like the incest that gave him birth!
How Saraswati Belongs to the Gunas–the Primary Approaches to Life
We give this Goddess thing another turn when we relate the deities to the basic vibrations of life, called the gunas.
These also come from the Samkhya philosophy we talked about.
Saraswati, as Brahma’s partner, is associated with the the active, forceful, creative guna called rajas.
Think of Saraswati’s association with wealth, and her etymologies that connect her back to flow and fertility.
Lakshmi (“She of the Thousands”), the consort of Vishnu, is associated with the guna, sattva. It is the balanced, luminous energy that some say represents rajas and tamas in balance (like the yang and yin that compose the balanced Tao in Chinese philosophy).
As a hint to her river goddess past, Saraswati is also the name given to a watercourse that used to flow between India and Pakistan.
In that region, archeologists have excavated the “Indus-Saraswati” culture.
It pre-dated the Vedic period, oriented to c. 3000–1500 BCE.
The oldest evidence of yoga has been found in artifacts from that civilization. The initial Pashupat, “Lord of the Animals” seal, that some say is the first representation of a yoga pose, was excavated there, dated to 2900 BCE.
Her Visual Form
Saraswati wears white, which represents the purity of divine knowledge.
She sits on the lotus, which represents vijnana, or “higher knowledge.”
She has four arms, suggesting her power.
She holds a stringed instrument called the veena, symbolizing music and mantra.
The veena also stands for the divine vibration (called spanda) that lies behind everything in the universe.
In other hands, she holds a book, representing the Vedas’ sacred knowledge, and a crystal mala, which represents the power of meditation (and doubles as a symbol of the linguistic clarity of poetry).
Another arm holds a sacred water pot.
This harkens to the alternate meaning of her name as well as to the “flow” of the mind. It is tied to water as wealth. Esoterically, the liquid is associated with amrta—the fluid of immortality that is said to drip down from ajna (the third eye) to the throat, and to be cultivated by yogis through special practices.
Her Sound Form
This Goddess’s mantra, Om Shreem Saraswati Namaha, makes use of a common four-part formula.
1. Om is the pranava, or “universal sound,” that hallows an intonation.
Standard chants begin with om to bless the words that follow and open the heart.
2.Shreem is the bija (seed) mantra that means “beauty.” It resonates within our gross and subtle bodies to purify them while harmonizing us with the universal rhythm we call rta.
3. Of course, now we know what “Saraswati” means!
4. Namaha, at the end of the mantra, functions as an intellectual statement and a vow.
It literally means “not me.”
When it closes a mantra, it suggests, “Now that this sound equation is launched, I let it go—I do not claim it for my clinging ego!”
The devotional art of chanting we call kirtan is now a dynamic companion to modern yoga, and posework’s artistic aspects have come to the fore, too. Hence, Saraswati takes her place as a yogic deity with fresh meaning for our new tradition. She represents art—and the art of yoga.
Her image is found in yoga studios everywhere.
Sometimes teachers even chant her mantra to bless our efforts:
“Om Shreem Saraswataye Namaha!”READ IT AT YOGA INTERNATIONAL