This ground-breaking paper by Sri Acharyaji was originally presented as an academic paper at the Conference on South Asia, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oct. 1999.
For many centuries, the Western concept of divinity has been overwhelmingly preoccupied with a decidedly masculine image of the Absolute. Indeed, it has only been in the last generation or so that spiritual and academic investigations of the feminine face of the divine has been seriously undertaken. The neglected goddesses of human religious expression are everywhere to be found. From the ancient mystery cults of pre-Christian Europe, to the sacred Shakti mandiras (temples) of today’s Sanatana Dharma, worship of the goddess has revealed itself to be a near universal phenomenon. With only a few exceptions (e.g. ancient Egypt), goddesses are routinely linked with the forces of nature and with the earth. The lunar phases and the cycles of nature are seen as closely connected with the goddess. She is also seen as the source and personification of fecundity, fertility and the abundant gifts of the soil.
This has led, in many cultures, to a dichotomous bifurcation of reality into a feminine earth and a masculine transcendence. The many divinities found throughout the religious history of Sanatana Dharma have not escaped this geographical and ontological demarcation. Here, too, the vast majority of feminine divinities (devis) are linked to more terrestrial concerns. There is at least several interesting exceptions to this general rule, however; and this includes such goddesses as Lakshmi and Sarasvati. Unlike the many nature-bound devis of India, Sarasvati represents the subtler, more refined and intellectual qualities of the human experience. Indeed, as this work will show, Sarasvati is rather unique in the world’s pantheon of goddesses in that her origin, functions, and ontological status are believed to be situated in transcendence.
Sarasvati is a popular and instantly recognized divinity among modern Hindus. This, despite there being only ten clear references to her in the eighteen Puranas, the massive literary storehouse of Vedic sacred stories. There are several differing accounts of the goddess’ origin. In the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, for example, it says that she was created from the mouth of Krishna. The Kurma Purana states that she is the daughter of the god Shiva. Whereas the Devi Purana, by logical extension makes her the daughter of both Shiva and his consort Shakti (Ghosh, 1984). Despite these distinctive accounts, she is primarily regarded as the consort of Brahma, the god of creation, personification of wisdom and the revealer of the Vedas. Sarasvati is depicted in the Agni Purana as having four arms, which represent the four Vedas. In these arms she holds a book (pushtaka), a rosary (aksha-mala), a lute (vina), and a lotus flower (kumbhabja) (L, 16).
The functions of Sarasvati are many and varied. They include: giving protection to her worshipers (Rig Veda; VII, 95, 1), bestowing the gift of speech (ibid., I, 3, 10) and providing both material and spiritual relief in the form of a mighty river (ibid., VII, 95, 2). She is also portrayed in the Rig Veda (2,3,8; 1,3,12) as the bestower of knowledge and intelligence: “maho arnah sarasvati pra chetayati ketuna dhiyo vishva vi rajati.” The words “maho arnah” point to Sarasvati as the personification of knowledge. In the Yajur Veda (XXI, 31, 33, 36, 38, 39), Sarasvati is revealed to be a source of healing. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana advises the devotees of Sarasvati that the worship of Sarasvati should be accompanied with the chanting of the mantra “srim hrim sarasvatvai svaha’. For the worshippers of Sarasvati, she is viewed as the transcendental source of all knowledge.
Sarasvati’s status and many functions can be further understood by a cursory glance at some of the many epithets for this goddess. In the Taittiriya-Brahmana (2,5,4,6) she is known as Satyavak: ‘possessed of true speech.’ In the Rig Veda, she has a variety of names, including: Chodayitri-sunrtanam, ‘impeller of truthful speech’ (1,3,11); Rtavari, ‘observer of divine law’ (6, 61, 9); Trisadhastha, ‘abiding in the three worlds’ (VI, 61, 13) and Virapatni, ‘wife of the hero Prajapati, or Brahma’ (VI, 49, 7). She is also referred to as Naditama, ‘best of rivers’ (2, 41, 16) and Sindhumata, ‘mother of waters’ (VII, 36, 6). It is to this aspect of Sarasvati, the goddess as the most sacred river of the Rig Vedic era (circa 3800 BC), that we now turn.
Sarasvati is one of the most ancient, continuously worshiped goddesses in South Asia. While her role as the personification of intellect (dhi) and patroness of culture and civilization came to be increasingly emphasized, it was her position as a river goddess which was stressed in the ancient Rig Vedic era. An etymological breakdown of her very name reveals her association with water. ‘Saras’ is formed from ‘Sr’, which implies movement. The term ‘Saras’, itself, denotes flowing water, a lake, etc. From the Vedic era to our own day, the goddess Sarasvati is associated with the number seven. This number refers to the seven mighty streams that flowed through the early Aryan settlements in ancient Aryavarta. Two of her names in the Rig Veda are Saptadhatuh, ‘one with seven sisters’ (VI, 61, 12) and Saptahi, ‘one out of seven’ (VII, 36, 6). She is specifically associated with the great Rig Vedic river Sarasvati. At first wrongly believed to be the mere product of a primitive "mythological" imagination, the tracts of the - now dead - Sarasvati river were discovered in our century.
The Rig Veda describes this once mighty river as flowing from the mountains and reaching the sea (VII, 95, 2). This powerful river served as a source of inspiration and awe for the ancient Aryans. It was assigned “... a very superb position in their traditional rites and customary religious systems” (Khan, 1978). Ascetics and priests would reside by the river’s sacred banks and perform their daily sacrifices there believing that it was the pleasure of Sarasvati which allowed for the free flow from their lips of the mantras necessary for their sacrifices (ibid., 1978). To these ancient Aryans, the Sarasvati was a living being whose waves were compared to hands (Rig Veda, VI, 61, 2) and who was the bestower of knowledge (ibid., X, 30, 12). Her waters were ever-flowing, never stagnant; and thus she represented the purity necessary for the success of sacrificial rites (ibid., I, 3, 10). The Rig Veda, then, reveals Sarasvati as the personification of the purifying river, as
well as intelligence.
Sarasvati is still worshiped in the latter capacity to this day. The first day of school is marked by educational institutions throughout the Hindu world with a puja (worship ceremony) to Sarasvati. In the Rig Veda, Sarasvati is implored for intelligence: “sarasvati virapatni dhiyam dhat...” (VI, 4,9,7); and is seen as the patroness of both intellect and intellectuals: “dhinam avitri” (VI, 61, 4). Sarasvati’s status as the goddess of wisdom is further supported by the great epic scripture known as the Mahabharata, where she is called the Mother of the Vedas: “vedanam mataram pashya” (Shantiparvan, 12920). In the Vishnu-dharmottara, it is stated that the four hands of Sarasvati represent the four Vedas. Sarasvati is not only the deity representation of Vedic knowledge, but she embodies the epistemological method necessary for its proper understanding and transmission. Spiritual truths, the ancient rishis (seer-sages) taught, were communicated via divine sound (shabda) expressed through the medium of speech.
In this capacity, Sarasvati is seen as non-different from Vak, the goddess of speech (Rig Veda X, 71; Satapatha Brahmana III, 1, 4, 9, 14). Speech (vak) is seen as flowing in the form of letters (varnas), words (padas), sentences (vakyas) and groups of sentences (vakyasamuhas). The name 'Vak' can be equally applied to designate a flowing river of water. It is through the above mentioned components of language that one attains the gifts of Sarasvati: knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, it is understood that “...Sarasvati lies bodily in varna, pada and vakya” (Khan, 1978). Vak is only one of the goddesses traditionally associated with Sarasvati.
Since the Vedic era (circa 3800 BC), Sarasvati has been closely aligned with two other goddesses: Ila and Bharati. Sarasvati’s association with these two other goddesses seems quite natural since Ila and Bharati are said to personify two varieties of speech: terrestrial and heavenly. As a triune divinity, Ila, Sarasvati and Bharati, together, represent three distinct forms of speech: earthly, atmospheric and celestial, respectively. They also represent the three spheres in which these forms of speech dominate, namely, Bhuh, Bhuvah and Svah. Thus, Sarasvati, either personally or via her alternate forms, pervades all creation. One of her many epithets is justifiably A-paprushi, or ‘pervading everywhere’ (Rig Veda, 6, 61, 11), not an attribute ordinarily assigned to most of the more terrestrial goddesses of Sanatana Dharma.
This sacred trinity of goddesses served several functions in the minds’ of early Vedic priests. The three-sistered goddess represents the three divisions of the Veda, the sacred literature of the Vedic Aryans: Ila representing the Vedas and Brahmanas, Sarasvati representing the Aranyakas and Bharati the Upanishads. The three goddesses formed the triple tongue of the sacrificial fire, and were invoked to be seated on the sacred grass placed by the side of the sacrificial altar (Rig Veda, 10, 110, 8; 1, 13, 9; 1, 142, 9). Sarasvati and her various manifestations have been seen, historically, as the divine intermediary between the realm of human concern and the celestial spheres of divine certainty.
As such, Sarasvati serves a radically different function in the minds of her devotees than do the other, more earth-bound, goddesses of the Vedic pantheon. Sarasvati’s position is clearly of an ontologically distinct nature from that of the other goddesses. As the patroness of the arts, culture, intellect, etc. she represents those very qualities that are almost the antithesis of most goddess figures. Rather than symbolizing the creative energies of material nature, Sarasvati represents the dynamic human attempt to transcend the realm of material nature through the building and cultivation of both material and spiritual culture, which constitute the foundations of Vedic civilization.
Consequently, Sarasvati represents those elements which, in the minds of both the ancient Aryans and modern day followers of Sanatana Dharma, represent civilization in its most meaningful sense. The river, for example, has historically been crucial to the building of civilization, both agriculturally and economically. As the most important river of the seven rivers region of the ancient Vedic nation of Aryavarta (which includes north-west India), the early inhabitants were cognizant of their dependence upon the life-giving waters of Sarasvati river. The goddess Sarasvati also personifies both the spiritual source of civilization - Veda - and the medium of its revelation: vak, or speech. Revealed to spiritual seekers by the rishis (seer-sages), the former studied her in the form of the Veda believing the Veda to be of divine and transcendent origin (apaurusheya). Sarasvati represents the highest of spiritual attainments. Among other texts, the Matsya Purana describes her vehicle as being the swan (CCLXI, 25). Many Vedic and Dharmic gods are traditionally assigned vehicles, or carriers. Shiva, for example, is transported by the bull, and Vishnu by the great bird vehicle Garuda. That Sarasvati’s carrier should be the swan is, however, replete with significance. Throughout the history of Sanatana Dharma, the swan has been the preeminent symbol of the highest state of self-realization. The very Sanskrit word for ‘swan’, hamsa, is often interpreted as stating ‘I am That’, i.e., the individual identifying him/her self with Brahman, the absolute and transcendental reality. This absolute is known through the Veda, which is revealed by the goddess Vak and is ascertained by the individual seeker through the medium of dhi, or intellect. The very mechanics of spiritual enlightenment, then, all fall within the domain of Sarasvati, the goddess of salvific wisdom.
Further evidence that Sarasvati has been traditionally viewed as a goddess whose status and functions are ontologically situated in transcendence is offered in the accounts of her relationship with Vishnu / Krishna, who is the supreme being of Sanatana Dharma. Much of this textual evidence is found in the Mahabharata and the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, both of which, significantly, portray Krishna as being the supreme and transcendent God. In the Bhishma-parvan (verse 3019) of the Mahabharata, for example, we find that Achyuta (Krishna) is said to create both Sarasvati and the Vedas from His mind. Both the goddess of knowledge, and the knowledge itself, had the same transcendent source in the form of Sri Krishna, or God.
It is the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, however, which contains the most detailed account of Sarasvati vis-a-vis Vishnu / Krishna. It is maintained here that Krishna created Sarasvati orally, as a manifestation of his shakti, or divine power: “avirbhuta yada devi vakratah Krishnayositah” (2, 4, 12). In this connection, she has been described as one of the prakrtis (the other four being Durga, Savitri, Lakshmi and Radha) (ibid., 2, 1, 1ff.) Thus, in this account of her genesis, she has as her direct ontological antecedent the ultimate cause of the universe, prime matter, or Prakrti. After her creation, Krishna is said to have given both Sarasvati, as well as Lakshmi, to Vishnu as His wives. In Chapter VI is described a significant incident which resulted from a disagreement between Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Ganga, the three consorts of Vishnu. In an apparent difference of opinion over who better deserved the affections of Vishnu, both Sarasvati and Ganga commanded each other to become rivers. In aversion over their disagreement, Vishnu transfers Sarasvati to Brahma and transfers Ganga to Shiva. Thus Sarasvati’s role as a river, as well as her very creation, are both ascribed to the mysterious will of the transcendent.
It is arguable, of course, that Sarasvati’s status as a goddess situated in transcendence is anything but certain. In addition to her reign over various human cognitive faculties, Sarasvati is the personification of an earthly (albeit historically deceased) river. A river is, after all, a part of nature. Does this not reveal Sarasvati to be no more than another earth-bound nature divinity?
An examination of the symbolism of the Sarasvati river eases this concern. A river is not the earth. As obvious as this statement may at first appear, it is quite crucial. Throughout human history rivers have served as metaphors pregnant with symbolic meaning, specifically spiritual meaning (Eliade, 1987). This is especially true for the religions of South Asia. In Sanatana Dharma specifically, river imagery has been traditionally employed to symbolize the transgressing of ignorance. At the far shore of the river is mukti, or the realm of liberation and knowledge. Additionally, the river is a source of purity, grace and spiritual nourishment. David Kinsley (1988) endorses this symbolic interpretation in connection with Sarasvati when he writes:
"The Sarasvati (and later the Ganga) represents an ever-flowing stream of celestial grace which purifies and fertilizes the earth. The earthly manifestation of Sarasvati as a river thus represents only a partial disclosure of her being. Physical contact with her earthly manifestation, however, connects one with the awesome, heavenly, transcendent dimension of the goddess and of reality in general."
The transcendental status of Sarasvati (even in her river form) is further supported when we examine the legendary source of this river. For the ancient Aryans, the Sarasvati river had her source, not merely in the icy peaks of the Himalayas, but from the heavenly region itself. It was believed (and still is by sincere followers of Sanatana Dharma today) that Sarasvati was a celestial river majestically making her way across the stretches of time and space, till she finally graces our planet by descending upon the Himalayas to eventually become the historic Sarasvati river (Airi, 1977). It is believed, then, that Sarasvati, even in her manifestation as an earthly river, had unearthly origins.
Yet another curious theory put forth by several contemporary scholars (Bhattacarya and Kinsley among them) is that a radical transformation and evolution (not necessarily in a qualitative sense, but in a sequential differentiation) took place throughout the history of Sarasvati worship. Sarasvati, according to this theory, was originally merely a river goddess who, over the course of hundreds - if not thousands - of years became slowly transformed into the Vedic goddess of wisdom whom Dharmis (followers of Sanatana Dharma) worship today.
This is only one of several possible theories, and certainly by far not the best one. Both in the ancient era, as well as today, Sarasvati has been seen as representing two different - but, as we have shown, intimately connected - phenomena. These are both the concept of water and the identification with an historical river, on the one hand, and the finer aspects of human thought and culture, on the other. As Kinsley has correctly pointed out, different eras in the literary history of South Asian religious expression have stressed different aspects of the goddess Sarasvati. In the Vedas, she is primarily a river goddess. In the Brahmanas, she is seen in the form of Vak, or goddess of speech. Finally, in the Classical era, it is her role as goddess of learning, etc.. which is stressed. These supposed textual inconsistencies concerning Sarasvati’s many roles are not sufficient to support the idea of a radical transformation of Sarasvati’s image over time; much less do they represent clearly demarcated stages in that so-called evolution.
Rather, the textual evidence supports a slow shift of emphasis in Sarasvati’s various roles throughout history. Sarasvati has always been seen as both a river goddess and as a goddess of learning and wisdom. As history progressed, however, her former aspect became less important and naturally receded into the background. This slow shift in symbolical emphasis was brought about by the very real, and very slow, death of the Sarasvati river as a powerfully physical and tangible reality. At the time of the composition of the Rig Veda, the Sarasvati was a large and mighty river (Gupta, 1995). Therefore, this marine aspect is most greatly stressed in the early textual sources, i.e., the Rig Veda. As the geographical reality known as the Sarasvati river began to diminish in size and importance, a natural and corresponding de-emphasis of the river goddess aspect of Sarasvati’s multiple functions was also seen in the history of Vedic literature. We see Sarasvati’s other attributes increasingly highlighted. Since the Sarasvati ceased to exist as a river quite some time ago, is it any wonder that other of her aspects have increasingly come to be stressed? The textual evidence, itself, further supports the fact that Sarasvati has always been seen as both a river goddess and as a goddess of learning simultaneously, one aspect merely being emphasized over the other for reasons dealing with the changing South Asian geographical situation. As we clearly show earlier in this work, Sarasvati was often appealed to as the origin and bestower of dhi (or intellect) and knowledge as early as the Rig Veda, the very earliest of textual source (Rig Veda 2, 3, 8; 1,3,12; 1,3,11; 10, 30, 12; 6, 61, 4). Conversely, though Sarasvati is emphasized in her role as goddess of learning in the later texts, even sources as late as the Vamana-Purana (40, 140) and the Skanda-Purana (6, 46, 28) still associate her with the river. Consequently, the textual data proves that Sarasvati’s dual aspects of river goddess and transcendental source of knowledge and culture are both long standing and historically consistent.
Sarasvati’s position in both the Vedic and the Dharmic pantheon is unique when compared to the majority of other goddess figures - both within and without the South Asian context. She is portrayed in Vedic texts as being the personification of spiritual knowledge and culture, both of which are crucial for the achievement of mukti, final release from the pangs of ignorance. As such, she is necessarily situated in a state of transcendence, a state which is juxtaposed to the natural, the tamasic (lethargic and dark), the limited. In Sarasvati, we find a goddess who personifies the greatest of cultural and spiritual achievements attainable by human beings. One interesting project recently engaged in by the adherents of goddess spirituality and eco-femininism has been the attempt to replace the traditional masculine face of God with a more feminine countenance. If one were to posit the notion of a supreme Goddess, Sarasvati would certainly serve quite ably as a prime candidate for such a transcendent station.
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About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Sri Acharyaji represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 38 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.
Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment. He is the Founder-President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a global movement dedicated to teaching Dharma in its most authentic form.
Sri Acharyaji is the real thing: an enlightened guru with the ability to deliver the highest wisdom and spiritual liberation to his sincere students.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
Some of his books include:
"Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way"
"Living Dharma: The Teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya"
"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"
"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"
"The Vedic Way of Knowing God"
"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"
"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"
His latest book Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way, is scheduled for publication in 2011.
For more information on following the life-transforming path of Sanatana Dharma, please visit his website:
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