Saraswati, the Shaastramayee

TRADITIONAL LEARNINGS

S. Ainavolu

2/5/2022 10 min read

Saraswati, the Shaastramayee – Goddess of learning, knowledge flows and wisdom pool

Sri Panchami or Vasanta Panchami is the Maagha shuddha Panchami, fifth tithi of the ascending moon in the month of the Maagha that marks the onset of spring. Across the country, the day is observed as Saraswati (the goddess of learning) puja day and celebrated so. The two different days marked in the festival cycle for Saraswati are Vasant Panchami and the Ashwija Saptami, which comes during the Ashwija Navaratri, three days before Vijaya Dashami or Dasara festival.

Learning through divine help

Three different divine forms are attributed and related to the process of learning and knowledge. Saraswati is the most known of these three. Dakshina Murthy is represented by the familiar figure of a sixteen plus years young man sitting beneath a large tree and surrounded by four old disciples. In fact, it is said in the Dakshina Murthy stotram that “chitram vata tarore moole vriddha sishya guror yuva, gurostu mouna vyakhyanam shishyastu chhinna sanshaya”. The broad translation of this runs into “what a surprising sight, below the large tree there is a young guru but old disciples. The Guru is preaching in silence and the disciples' doubts got clarified”. The modern personification of Dakshina Murthy can be the Adi Shankaracharya. He too was quite young, and his disciples were much older, a few of them being householders who renounced the world. The subtle difference here is that Shankaracharya wrote and gave enormous literature of stotras and bhashyaas for then and future disciples and probably would have preached too. There is evidence of his famous debates as we know about the story of Kumarila Bhatta and Mandana Mishra. Here too, reference of Saraswati comes as she was chosen to be the best possible judge to decide on the victory in the famous debate. In fact, Mandana Mishra’s wife, Ubhaya Bharati is said to have been born as the amsha of Saraswati. Though Dakshina Murthy is known for learning, the higher orbit learning pursuing often gets aligned with him. First step in such alignment is the reciting of Dakshina Murthy strotra given by Adi Shankaracharya, where in the above shloka exists. Though Dakshina murthy stotra may appear as eulogizing this form of the Shiva, wise say it is the embodiment of Advaita gyana. Still this divine form of learning has a niche section’s following.

The other form of divine god associated with learning is Hayagreeva. The meaning of this term is the one with a horse head. This is considered to be the avatar of Vishnu. This again is very popular among limited sections who teach their kids at home the minimal shloka of “gyaanananda mayam devam Nirmala spatikaa krutam aadhaaram sarva vidyaanam Hayagreevamupasmahe”. It extols the form Vishnu as Hayagreeva as god full of the bliss from the wisdom and one whose form is like a white crystal of spatik, and one who is the base and support for all the learning. In the Lalita upasana, the devotees learn that the stotra is told to sage Agastya by Hayagreeva himself. The ones who recited it for the first time are Vashini and other devatas in the court of Lalita, but the first time, it was instructed by Hayagreeva to Sage Agastya. Though associated with learning and knowledge acquisition, Hayagreeva worship too is mostly limited to certain niche sections. In recent times, the Madhwa tradition saint Vadiraja has mastered the Hayagreeva upasana. In fact, the maddi, the prasad comprising jaggery and Indian chickpeas cooked together offered to Hayagreeva Swamy, is now known as Hayagreeva. It is justified as Vadiraja swamy daily used to offer this to Hayagreeva and it is said that he used to receive the bhukta shesham (remaining portions in the offered plate) for his daily consumption as food. We find that the worship of Hayagreeva is also limited to a few niche sections, followers of certain maths.

Compared to the other two divine forms we discussed here, Saraswati is more known and followed for learning alignment and mastery of knowledge. We may almost term it as universally followed in the tradition. The day of deep reflection, the Sri Panchami gave an opportunity to consider and revisit various threads of learning of four-plus decades and helped one recalibrate the path. Here we find the vocalized internal reflection, of course, constrained by the translation ability of this seeker. If you find the articulation weak and lost, kindly stick to the idea and reflect on it yourself. She shall get revealed to you and in all certainty.

Saraswati, meaning and the form

Saraswati is interpreted as one who is flexible, one who flows, one who is gentle and kind, vast pool. Each is correct and can be related. Riverine interpretation has a story attached that she had to deposit the fiercest fire and she flew with all the gentleness and accomplished the task by depositing it in the large ocean. Saraswati is seen as the gupta nadi, lost river that is said to be flowing invisibly. The title of this writing mentions Saraswati as the shaastramayee, embodiment/custodian of scriptures, the name given in Lalita Sahasra Naama. In fact, it is said there that “desha kaala parichhinna sarvagaa sarva mohinee, Saraswatee shaastramayee guhamba guhyaroopini”. There is some sacredness associated with Saraswati, and also some secrecy associated with her, and hence proabaly the word guhya.

The form of Saraswati often is one who is blissfully white, with swan or peacock, one who holds a parrot/lotus/ japa mala / book and a combination of these. In fact Saraswati is also worshipped as Sharada. Most famous Sharada worshipped place now is Shringeri Shankara math, in Karnataka which is said to be founded by Adi Shankaracharya. Other Sharada pratishta he did was in Kashmir. Sharada when visualized is said to be holding lotus, japa mala, parrot and book- each signifying one or the other important aspect of mundane and higher life. The most important point is these two aspects of living can not be separated out. In other words, the seeker’s life has to have the pursuit of both the mundane and wisdom together and the balance is the key and secret. If one is not used to swaadhyaya till one “retires”, it is very difficult to get into the groove at that age with most of the rigidities decelerating the process of learning.

Saraswati worship shlokas

As Saraswati worship is more popular among grihastees, typical vidyarambham (beginning of the education of the child) happens with the worship of Saraswati. The shloka often taught to children in their early years is “Saraswati namastubhyam varade kaama rupinee vidyarambham karishyami siddir bhavatume sada.” Broader translation conveys the meaning that “kindly grant me the learning accomplishment the mother Saraswati, who assumes desired forms, whom I am saluting on this occasion of beginning of my education”. Probably most known and widely recited shloka in the tradition along with Gurur Bramha shloka. This communicates the importance of the learning divine in-charge who is also known as Vani, Bharati, Sharada.

The other well-known shloka around Saraswati that was known to almost all children before the onset of “English medium schools” was “ya kundendu tushara haradhavala ya Shubhra vastravruta ya veena varadanda mandita kara ya Shweta padmasana ya brahmachyuta shankara prabhrutirbhai devai sada vandita samaam paatu Saraswati bhagawati nissesha jadyapaha”. Here the most important appeal or the urging is “nissesha jadyapaha”, one is requesting for the annihilation of the grossness (ignorance) called jadya (comes from jada). Here the plea is the one who is like jasmine flowers, moon, snow, and pearl-like garland/necklace, who is seated on white lotus holding Veena (the musical instrument), one who is worshiped by gods like Brahma/Vishnu/Shankara, kindly remove the grossness without leaving any trace, no “remainder” please (recall basic division problems learned in school!).

The nature

Saraswati, as the name indicates to us, is about flow. This one quality, if we can absorb from the goddess, many issues get resolved. One who flows is not impacted by the moss that can be accumulated around by not flowing. Stagnated waters are always dirtier- this can be our observation. But what is the application of this concept of flow for everyday life? Stickiness may be good in certain situations, it affects people by creating impressions or samskaras. It is a known issue that we are here because of the past impressions or samskaras and instead of getting rid of those and becoming “lighter,” if we start accumulating more, then life becomes more gross can be the easy guess. There are multiple steps involved here. First is the appreciation of the concept flow, secondly how do we learn to apply it and thirdly, how do we apply the concept in day to day life to become “Saraswati-like”.

Adi Shankaracharya most effectively explained “satsangatve nissangatvam, nissangatve nirmohatvam, nirmohatve nischala tatvam, nischala tattve Jeevan muktihi”. One has to begin with good company and this gets one nissangatva that leads to nirmoha (non-attachment). Flow and attachment are contrary concepts, if one has one of these two, the other can’t stay with the person. So the key is to be surrounded by “good company”. This appears common sensical though we may not practice it. It is said often that we are the “average of the five people with whom we spend most time with”. So the first step may be having the right company.

Materialism is required as it sustains the body. It is said that body is the tool for practicing the dharma (shareera madhyam khalu dharma sadhanam). So we need to sustain. But the issue is that of the “limits.” Aggrandisement and amassing takes one’s attention too long for mundane and material things. Unnecessary and undesired competition regarding the possessions puts people into marshy field, making escape really difficult. Sustainability implemented in real life can hold the light and become the key towards “escaping the trap”. Minimalistic living, sustainable fashion, internalizing repair notion (around gadgets) shall greatly bring relief. Instead of pursuing relevant, one may be stuck in the muddy waters, pretending to be enjoying it or even enjoying it.

Goddess of learning, is she ubiquitous?

Learning is one universal process. The mankind made leaps of progress only after observing, internalizing the observations and achieving some sort of conceptual frameworks around those observations. Entire process is called learning, and is universal. So islands of learning eco-system must have existed in those days of limited or even no connecting travel. Thus, it becomes a good guess that our “Saraswati equivalent” might have existed at places where different cultures prevailed. Need for learning existed (else survival gets threatened), learning happened, societies benefited of the learning, and hence the divine forms of learning appeared in different cultures too. Roman and Greek cultures had their own divinity personified as Minerva and Athena respectively. Japanese have their own and Chinese too. Buddhists when went to different places, have carried their form of goddess of learning. Neel Saraswati is one such. To clarify, Saraswati is always visualized as white.

Vedic references of Saraswati are quoted. Puranic references are there. Historical evidence of temples for learning goddess are there. Mantra shastra is mature about the learning practices and how to facilitate these better. There again is a Sanskrit poets life story wherein his mother makes him do sadhana of Chintamani so that he could take revenge for the defeat of his father in literary debate. Chinatamani Saraswati is said to give everything a seeker asks around learning/internalization/crystallization and, finally wisdom formation. Very powerful and quick result giver, say the seekers.

Is Saraswati sufficient?

In Lalita worship the basic mantra has three beejaksharas that signify the learning, abundance, and power. In other words what gets communicated is one for the existence in this world, requires all three. The sounds associated with the beejaksharas bring in the vibes appropriate to attract the required/desired for the seeker who is reciting it. One becomes that vibe, and attracts similars. Thus, Saraswati is the embodiment of knowledge/learning/wisdom at best but is it sufficient? In the world where we often here “dhanam moolam idam jagat”, the primacy of knowing and possessions (material) debate may be clear. The walking “Saraswatis” often don’t get the recognition and get “walked over”. This opens a debate of knowing vs having. In Bhagavadgita the mentor tells clearly that “without knowing, there is no freedom”. But to gain that “knowing state” and pursuing the swadhyaya uninterruptedly one needs “vittam” (money) for survival. Gone are the days when royal patronage encouraged people interested in pursuing knowledge continue without bothering about material shackles. In the absence of such, one gets dragged down, and perpetually or atleast it appears so.

On a deeper contemplation

It was always said that a rich man is respected in his town, the raja is revered in his kingdom but a “vidwaan” is “sarvatra pujyate” or “a learned one is respected everywhere”. It is also said that “vagbushanam Bhushanam” meaning it is the mastery of speech that is the real embellishments/jewellery. Incidentally Saraswati is the goddess of the “word or speech”. Goddess Saraswati is also ascribed to music and such instruments. She herself carries the veena. Saraswati is guhyaroopini, in secreat form in different persons. It is also said that “mukhe mukhe Saraswati”, meaning she exists in all in different forms. Congregations are addressed as form of Saraswati. We address a wise gathering by saying “sabhaa Saraswatyai namaha”, meaning we salute the Saraswati present here in this congregation.

Saraswati is often understood as the embodiment of Sattva guna or subtle soft form. White colour communicates the Sattva guna, we may infer. There may be a few Rajasik forms of Saraswati too, but mostly people are aware and talk about the sattva guna Saraswati form. It may be obvious that tamo guna and Saraswati can’t co-exist, which is akin to laziest in the class, topping the exams. Unlikely, most may say.

Saraswati is often treated as Matangi as well. Here, Matangi is associated with green colour. One parallel we may consider is Saraswati is related to learning/communication. In Navagrahas, it is Budha (Mercury) who is associated with these aspects of learning/communication. Budha is also associated with green colour. Budha is also a “soft” planet, who gets suffering because of “combust”. Mention of Saraswati and astrology takes one to houses 2 and 3. The second house controls the “speech” and the third house indicates written communication.

“Saraswati influenced” people, if they are filled with Sattva guna, they are often on the “receiving side”. The rajasika filled Saraswati blessed people can pull the other party completely down and mercilessly show their “right place” through debate or discussion. But Sattva people often end debates subtly and by not cornering the other participant. Matangi mention brings Kalidasa memories to the fore. He cried in ecstasy that “Matangi Madhushalini”. The other form of Matangi is Raja-Matangi who is associated with getting one benefit or fruits of one’s efforts in the form of livelihood. All-knowing but starving (as there is no food) can put an end to one’s life itself! There is also a tamasic form of Matangi, who is depicted as holding weapons. Quite unimaginable for one who had imagined Saraswati as a gentle, all-giver and “nice” Goddess.

On closing note

One gains humility by knowing more as we find out that how much more is to be known. By knowing our condition, we know the contours of our knowledge beyond which is our ignorance. Thus, theoretically, by knowing more one should become more humble. Probably many may say that their real life observation is on the contrary. We have to give them the benefit. Empty vessels making noise or the “food leaf” (banana leaf/vistari/ patroli/ pattal) that has got served food on it stays humble and in one place.

On the other hand, the leaf which is emptied, it flies around. Probably our prayers can be for humility and openmindedness for more learning. One who knows what he knows is wise. Let’s pray that we reach that destination. The journey for that destination has been for years. May our journey become the destination. May this be a successful process.