Sarasvati

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


SARASVATI


May purifying Sarasvati, with all the plenitude of her forms of plenty, rich in substance by the thought, desire our sacrifice.
 She, the impeller to happy truths, the awakener in consciousness to right mentalizings, Sarasvati, upholds the sacrifice.
 Sarasvati by the perception awakens in consciousness the great flood and illumines entirely all thoughts.

Rig Veda

 And you, sir, do you really think it helped?" The enquirer arched his brow with respectful interest, touched by only the smallest hint of scepticism. He was questioning a successful barrister who, many years previously in his youth, had participated in just such a ritual as the one they were now witnessing. The advocate looked around him at the young students placing their books and writing materials on the lap of the idol set up in their classroom, before seating themselves in prayer at her feet. Their voices rose and fell in rhythmic chant following the cadence set by the village priest, and their eyes were filled with sincerity and fervour, never wavering from Sarasvati's pale and smiling face. A flood of memory overtook the barrister. He could see himself among the young hopefuls and feel the thrill of picking up his books and pen at the end of the puja. It had seemed to him then that the enlightening power of the goddess coursed through every page and through the ink itself, revealing to him the hidden meaning behind the printed words and guiding his hand in their eloquent written expression. The same inspired confidence he could read in the eyes of these youths had periodically regenerated his determination and hope during the long course of his own studies. In his present position of affluence and assured respect, he was not much given to spiritual self-examination, but he turned to his questioner with a simple finality and said, "Well, something certainly seems to have worked." Privately, his eyes gazing upon the goddess, his thoughts travelling back over those years of hard-won learning and tough exams, there was no doubt in his mind that it had helped.

 The Puranas say that Brahmā himself worshipped Sarasvati, after which she was worshipped by all the gods, by sages and, finally, by men. Though not numerous, her shrines can be found in Nepal, Tibet and Southeast Asia as well as in India, where the flowing lines of her figure are more likely to grace the veranda or pillared hall of a temple dedicated to one of the other deities rather than to her sole worship. She is not so much worshipped in stone as she is brought to life in papier mâché, made to breathe as a fresh, living presence each year in classrooms all over the country. She comes to the villages and towns. She enters and pours forth her beneficence from statues great and small, some highly polished works of art, others home-made and barely recognizable. She is invoked with all her powers of the living Word, all her gifts of knowledge and art, and her invocation is shared and witnessed by everyone. Seated upon her vahan in the form of the sacred swan of wisdom, Sarasvati's graceful, white-skinned form curves, head tilted slightly, and her rounded arms ply the various objects emblematic of her gifts: a vina, a book, a cup and a rosary. Nor has her significance or popularity waned with the scientific materialism of the modern age, as was demonstrated by Calcutta University when it established Sarasvati as the presiding twentieth-century deity of learning. If her abode, as the Jains have said, was in the mind of poets, she was no less a habitué of the chemistry laboratory or the subtle hieroglyphs of the mathematician's abstractions. Ekanatha, the Marathi humanist-scholar, glorified Ganapati as "subtler than the subtlest" but did not address the god in his invocation for the endowment of logical, poetical and literary power with which he hoped to infuse his work. This he reserved for Sarasvati, whom he called Goddess of Speech and Enlightener of Intellect, whose vesture is the swan, signifying shrewd discernment.

 As Brahmā's wife, Sarasvati has the power to execute what he conceives with his creative intelligence. The dynamism she brings to cosmic ideation finds its reflection in the process of human learning. Thus, while she is known by many names, such as Brahmi (Beloved of Brahmā), Mahavani (Transcendent Word), Bijagarbha (Womb of the Elements of Speech) or Bharati (because she brought her eloquence to Bharata), she is also called Shri Panchami after her day of worship, which falls on the fifth day of the bright side of Magha (January-February). In some parts of India this celebration may take place in the month of Ashvina, but the observances are the same, focussing upon the learning process. Reading and writing on this day are prohibited, for the whole idea is to open up one's books, ink-pots, pens, mind and heart to the goddess and let her kindle anew therein a fluidity of vision and expression. Books are wrapped in new cloth covers and reverenced while white flowers and young blades of barley are strewn over them to promote a burst of awakened growth in the thoughts of their readers. Pens and ink-pots are cleaned so that, when refilled, Sarasvati's lingering power will commingle with the black fluid, enabling the writing implement to respond effortlessly to a mobile hand completely expressive of the writer's coursing thoughts. In this the goddess fulfils her name, the first part of which, saras, connotes 'flowing', the 'flow of nectar from the brahmarandhra', and the second part, vati, means simply 'possessor of. From the region abounding in pools of wisdom, it is said, she flows as the stream of Truth-Consciousness bearing forth the divine Word, and even the humblest scholar may dare to hope that a tiny drop of her inspiration might liquefy his mind and pen.

 Inscriptions a thousand years old tell of her origin in Brahmā, "on the stage of whose tongue she dances". But in earlier Vedic times Sarasvati was worshipped as a river goddess, whose stream played the same role for the ancient Aryans of the Punjab as the Ganga was later to play for so many on its plains. West from the Himalayas she flowed, to be celebrated for her purifying and fertilizing powers and because her length continued all the way to the sea. When the ocean god, Varuna, stole the wife of Utathya, the incensed Sage pronounced a curse upon the river's flow in order to deprive Varuna of receiving its bounty. Thus, as the Mahabharata tells us, Sarasvati became lost in a sandy desert, forced underground, where she secretly meets the flows of the Yamuna and Ganga. But before this time, Sarasvati was closely identified with the sacred rituals performed by priests along her banks, leading to the popular belief that she had influenced the composition of hymns chanted there, that her rhythm and melodious voice had even inspired the Sanskrit language in which they were uttered, and ultimately inspired the Vedas themselves. Thus she came to be called Mother of the Vedas, and even as her current became invisible, she slowly acquired more of the characteristics associated with Vach. Just as Vach, as river goddess, had supplied life in the form of water to the world, so Sarasvati, assimilating the powers of Vach, became the supplier of spiritual life in the form of the sacred knowledge of the Vedas. The analogous roles became one, and as Sarasvati lost her prominence among the Sapta Sindhus (the seven sacred Vedic rivers), she assumed the more glorious role of divine nurse and goddess of eloquence, wisdom and learning.

 Sprung from Brahmā's mouth, Sarasvati was embarrassed to find herself the object of her parent's fervent adoration. She moved to avoid his gaze, but as she flitted from left to right, she was watched by a new head which sprang from Brahmā's accommodating neck. Desperate to escape, she became a deer, only to be pursued by Brahmā disguised as a stag. This story illustrates how parables are used to typify a complex metaphysical process such as creation through progeneration. It also stands as an archetype for myths concerning Isis and her relationship to Osiris as well as that of lo to the Hellenic father of the gods, Zeus, who pursued the cow-horned maid in the form of a bull. Like lo and Isis, Sarasvati is of a divine sisterhood closely identified with the cow of plenty, the melodious Satarupa "of the one hundred forms", taken to mean Nature herself. According to the Bhavisya and the Devi Bhagavata Puranas, Sarasvati is one of five main forms mahaprakriti assumes, at the time of creation, to fulfil its different functions. Thus, Aditi's primordial Akashic veil subtly differentiates, like gradually curdling milk streaming forth from a limitless udder. Like a graceful calf whose horns have become a crescent moon upon her brow, Sarasvati dances across the plains of becoming, tripping upon the parched tongue of the world so that it explodes in a hundred thousand voices. Hers is the creative stream, the shape that flows and takes flight within the flower's stem, the singer's note, the inventor's mind.

 Let the housekeeper wake in the time sacred to Brahmi, the goddess of speech, that is in the last watch of the night; let him then reflect on virtue and virtuous emoluments and on the whole meaning and very essence of the Veda.

The Laws of Manu

 The Anugita records a discussion between a Brahmin and his wife which charmingly serves to indicate the origin of speech. A description is given of a dialogue between Speech and Mind, each of whom felt herself to be prior and therefore causal to the other. They went to Brahmā Prajapati and asked him to decide which of them came first. When Prajapati stated that Mind was superior. Speech saucily remarked, "I verily yield you your desires" (meaning that by speech he acquired what he wanted). Prajapati then pointed out there were two minds and that the immovable one remained always with him whilst the movable one accompanied speech. He admonished Sarasvati for her cheeky pride and limited her to utterance only through exhalation. He declared that such speech, produced by means of prana, is transformed into apana and, becoming assimilated with the physical organs of speech, dwells in the navel as sound, the material cause of all words. To this utterance, noiseless speech is superior, containing, as it does, the greater potency of thought. In fact, there are four forms of Vach, from the vaikhari, uttered out loud, to paravach, about which nothing descriptive can be said except that it resides as an infinite potential in parabrahm. Between these two, madhyamavach signifies the unknown beginning and end of things associated with the Light of the Logos, and pashyantivach represents the Logos itself. From this one can see that Vach or Sarasvati existed in the maternal essence of Aditi with the first momentary throb of the pre-cosmic Logos, to come fully into manifestation through the third creative Logoic impulse identified with Brahmā. She thus 'embodies' the four principles of cosmos unfolding from the invisible and soundless possibility of the Word to the sukshma state, wherein the Light of the Logos manifests as its energy is gathered and transferred to cosmic matter, and thence to the plane of physical light and sound.

 The sukshma state relates to the inner mind and body wherein resides knowledge of that which exists beyond the objective world. It corresponds with the sukshma sharira or thought-body vesture of the dhyanis and devas. In man this state is normally experienced in svapna, where voices need not be embodied and speech requires no sound to be understood. A more causal level is encountered only in sushupti, the essence of which man can so rarely recall in waking consciousness. In this deep sleep state one moves amidst the effect of Divine Thought, the Host of the Logos, called the Army of the Voice. This Voice or Light of the Logos is the root of the mental Self, the permutation of Aditi {mulaprakriti) which, in its third aspect, becomes Vach, the mother, wife and offspring of Brahmā.

 Shall we not maintain, then, that mind is the first origin and moving power of all that is, or has been, or will be, since it has been clearly shown that mind is the source of change and motion in all things?

Laws                PLATO

 As a permutation of Aditi, Sarasvati is called the Mother of the Vedas, who entered into the Rishis and inspired them with her revelations. She is the female Logos, giving light and shining radiance to the Word in darkness, giving thought its expression or voice. She is Kwan-Yin-Tien, the female aspect of the Heavenly Man, whose voice calls forth from chaos the illusive form of the universe. The androgynous Brahmā, thus separated into male and female aspects, acts upon himself, enlivening his objectified substance so that it emerges as an active creative power, corresponding in man to both an activated buddhic and astral vesture. As Plato intimated in Cratylus, the mind-force works through sensuous matter, shaping the diverse forms of the world as a means of objectively realizing its nature and purpose. This suggests a purposiveness to the world which works its way upward through matter until, in man, it becomes conscious. It then begins to work in an explicitly purposive manner – imposing new forms upon matter from the outside rather than unconsciously from within. The question of intelligent purpose operating in the universe has caused scientists, struggling to negate the idea of a divine creative agent, to go to great lengths attempting to reveal what they believe to be the purposeless and essentially random character of the cosmos. Alfred North Whitehead wrote ironically of those who design experiments to show that the physical activities of animals and humans have no purpose. He noted that "scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitutes an interesting subject for study".

 The entire thrust of purpose is embodied in Sarasvati, for she is knowledge in action expressed through the power of speech. She is not a mindless flow of cacophonic sound entering the world from the howling abyss, but a marshalled intelligence, vibrating as a septenary superstructure, upon whose frame articulated consciousness evolves its many forms. She is the source of "creation by the Word", which runs parallel to and cannot be separated from the creation of forms. Gupta Vidya teaches that the power of sound can lift the pyramid of Cheops and raise the dead. The potency of speech rooted in an intelligent ordering of sound is thus far greater than any known to present humanity. Sound and rhythm are closely related to the subtle elements and unite in complex patterns to produce good and evil, often inextricably mixed. This mighty power, expressed through speech, music, writing and ideas translated into forms of creative invention, is epitomized in the mantras of the Vedas. It is the root and stem of the Mantra Shastra, the mantrika shakti which, with the other six cosmic forces, has a living conscious entity at its source. It would be illogical to suppose that this entity, this Sarasvati, exerted her power without purpose. She is, after all, the shakti of Brahmā, in whose mind the plan of the entire universe waits to unfold. Possessing the powers of silent and uttered speech, man is thus in a position to affect this unfolding. Every time he thinks or speaks, he participates in this purpose and consciously or unconsciously contributes to its self-realization or to its further involvement in maya.

 To pronounce a word is to evoke a thought, and make it present: the magnetic potency of the human speech is the commencement of every manifestation in the Occult World. . . . The Word (Verbum) or the speech of every man is, quite unconsciously to himself, a BLESSING or a CURSE.

The Secret Doctrine

 Vowels contain the most occult and formidable potencies. Words used in the Upanishads and the Puranas for 'sound' and 'speech' find ready correspondence in the Gnostic Vowels representing the seven heavens acting as transmitters of the Word during creation. The utterance of speech composed of the right combination and pronunciation of these vowels is deeply mystical and, employing the full flow of Sarasvati's power, can kill or give life to new forms. As she entered the Rishis and gave birth to the Vedas, so Sarasvati incarnates in man, enabling him to kill or cure, curse or bless, with his thought-forms and his uttered speech. She flows into him as the immortal intellectual ray of Spirit and manifests as a double-edged sword in his mouth. One of the stories placing Sarasvati in the role of Brahmā's offspring describes her as the spouse of the eternally celibate Kumaras, whose refusal to create leads to their later being compelled to "complete divine man by incarnating in him". With this incarnation, man achieved self-consciousness and speech in the same stroke, for surely language is coeval with reason and could never have developed "before men became one with the informing principles [the Agnishvatta Pitris or Kumaras] within them". One could thus say that the Logos is both reason and speech, male and female, although language, proceeding in cycles of expression, might not always be adequate to express higher spiritual thoughts.

 Manifesting one's thought by the voice with nouns and verbs, imagining the opinion of the mind in the stream which flows from the lips, as in a mirror.

Theaetetus                PLATO

 Animals call to one another and possess a vast array of voices. Only man has the ability to reproduce them all and more besides, having the brain, the tongue, the oral cavity, larynx, facial muscles and lips necessary for producing human speech. Julian Huxley poetically described birds as a part of life streaming slowly towards more mind but unburdened with thought, flying through an eternal present. Just so, all animals grow and interact, their varying expressions of intelligence having a particularized form of voice, a certain evolving sound in the world. But Sarasvati does not inform them. They have no self-conscious sounding-board upon which her echoed potency can reverberate and feed the individual mind. They belong instead to a species soul, a mind suffused with substance akin to a less differentiated level of the Mother-principle, bereft of the objectivity so germinal to the many forms of self-conscious thought. Animals think and give voice to their thoughts, but only man experiences the terrible separation of selfhood and attempts to make himself whole, to bind himself to others and back to his Source through speech, music, learning and all the arts and sciences. The being who is capable in any degree of doing this is the product of a long evolution culminating in the fusion of the animal body and the fire of the higher spiritual mind.

 It is said that the ethereal first race of man was speechless and that the second race merely uttered chant-like sounds of vowels unbroken by any stop or consonant. With the third race, variation entered into what were basically animal sounds, until the mind-born sons of Brahmā were forced to incarnate and speech blossomed forth, embracing the whole human race in one tongue. This monosyllabic speech gave voice to ideas previously communicated through thought-transference and became vowel-parent to the alternating hard consonant/monosyllabic vowel sounds typical of the so-called yellow races. The Polynesian language still bears testimony to an earlier third race tongue, where vowels broken by few consonants predominated, whilst one hears in spoken Japanese a good example of a later developed alternating vowel-consonant speech.

 With the fourth race, such speech continued to evolve parallel with the agglutinative tongues spoken by some Atlantean races which were carried into the present by the American Indians. Combining simple words, without changing their form, in order to express more complex ideas, such languages were rooted less in naming things than in expressing nuances within patterns and processes in a dynamic natural world. Individuals using such speech participated in a mental framework enabling them to experience the world while remaining conscious of the basic forces of which it is composed. They are not thrice removed, so to speak, from the elements forming the roots of their existence and their language. It is with the fifth race and the highly inflective speech of Sanskrit and its derivatives that man reached his greatest ability to describe his inner and outer worlds even as he experienced his greatest sense of separation from their natural patterns and cycles. The roots of language are still present (perhaps left over from the monosyllabic speech of earlier races), intimating a deeper, more abstract category of meaning, but the particularized interpretations that their combined prefixes, suffixes and compounds indicate seem unlimited. The analytical mind is necessarily aroused to contemplate a world described in terms of highly differentiated categories of gender, tense, case, number and syntax. Interestingly, when one contemplates word roots and their more generic meanings, it appears that language has evolved from the more abstract to the particular. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that more primitive languages are necessarily more abstract. In studying them one finds that many abound in words for particular trees or tails and coats of animals but do not have categorical terms covering all trees, round objects or tools. If, however, one concluded that this indicated a lack of abstract thought, one would only have to investigate many agglutinative languages to find that the categorizing process is dependent upon a use of the correct verb to focus the action of any object, rather than upon the use of a substantive category.

 If things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators, before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?

Cratylus                PLATO

 Sarasvati flows like a coolly transported flame igniting genius along her banks, so that where there was a desert, a poetry of flowers blooms. She is more than language, more than a particular music, an instrument, a book. She is the power that hovers in the inner chamber of the poet's mind, revealing before his inmost vision glimpses of worlds beyond speech, worlds pursued in dreams in this and earlier races alike, worlds shrouded in the substance of eternity, of which tongue or note can barely hint. She dwells in the very shaping of worlds. Her essential Sound, suffused through seven vowels, first lays the foundation-roots, which then grow to define one another and become determinative elements (as with the agglutinative language or with the combining elements of the developing cosmos) until, finally, they combine with the inflective element, creating a new level of fine-tuning in man's ability and desire to take conscious part in shaping matter.

 Just as her flow carries in its current the evolving impulse of the sound and form of the cosmos and the developing races of man, so the same impulse can be traced in the birth and development of a single human being. Things may not be known ultimately through their names, as Socrates taught Cratylus, but naming things through speech seems the key step in the linguistic development of a baby, who will eventually participate in shaping a world of its own growth. It may not be surprising that during an infant's first several months, while it is developing its reflexes, focussing on its own body, vocalizing its comfort or lack of it or responding to adults, it does not utter words. It is only after it begins to act upon objects to achieve ends, to imitate novel sounds and to explore the nature of objects that it begins to mouth words. Thus, at about one year the baby's world begins to open. It sees its image in a mirror and gains a glimmering sense of an objective self. The words are single and increase slowly in number until, at around sixteen months, the child begins to anticipate events, becomes aware of the independent existence of objects and begins asking their names. At this point, symbolic play commences, marking the development of a mental representation of reality which will grow in and through language, leading the child into the highly complex world of symbolism which, for many, becomes the beginning and end of all that is real.

 Behind the names lie the roots, just as notes lie at the basis of melody. But causal to both is the power of the Word manifesting at each level of creation. Sarasvati represents the union between its power and intelligence from which the entire cosmos arises. As the transmitter of Brahmā's mind, she can enable mortals, in imitation of herself, to join power and intelligence in their own minds so that ideation flows forth eloquently. It is remarkable how recognizable is true eloquence. Even to the simplest mind an eloquent phrase inspires admiration and intimations of something beyond words. It is as though sheer, unadulterated intelligence were being revealed in an expressive flow so effortless and uncontrived that it is impossible to see it as something achieved through mere technique or hard work. It seems, rather, to be a gift from the gods, a boon from goddess Sarasvati, giver of shruti, Awakener to Truth. In Indra's court she appeared to the gods as fluency personified, and so to the writer of golden verse or singer sublime she appears and floods his consciousness with revelation.

 The Word (as goddess) which rushes onward like the wind, which bursts through heaven and earth, and, awe-inspiring to each one that it loves, makes him a Brahmin, a poet and a sage.

Rig Veda

 If the gift of Sarasvati merely guided the child or the adult ever deeper into the complexities of naming, differentiating or, on occasion, spellbinding, it would be a dubious gift indeed. But as a giver of shruti, she offers far more to those able to see and hear and understand. The word shruti is generally applied to the Vedas in which Sarasvati appears, indicating a revelation. In the Vedas she is referred to as "the river of inspiration flowing from Truth-Consciousness" or as the divine Word or Truth, the shruti that vibrates from the infinite to the inner hearing of one prepared. Shruti is a rhythm, not like that in ordinary poems of the intellect, but a rhythm flowing from the thrill of self-realization, the spirit's hymn of the divine, reflected in inspired writing, revelation, scripture or melody. Thus, Sarasvati awakens in consciousness the great flood, the vast movement of rita, the ordered Truth of active being, Truth in action, the true working out of reality and fulfilment of dharma. If the Word were carried forth, shaping a world in which all learning merely supported symbolic edifices removing man thrice and thrice again from reality, one would perhaps think the cosmic plan to be either purposeless or perverse. But with increasing self-consciousness, the responsibility for divining the purpose and lending creative effort to it falls more squarely upon man's shoulders. It is not merely that an unexamined life is not worth living, but that an uncreative life, in which one fails to strive to realize the intent of the divine creative impulse, is a wasted life. Man has reached and crossed a threshold separating him from the time when prescribed rules of individual social behaviour could adequately outline his dharma. He has arrived at a point where realization of the Self by the self is a duty which, when fulfilled, will carry him far beyond the normally achieved rudiments of learning and accomplishment.

 With Sarasvati's inspiration, man progresses through the centripetal mental process whereby facts, emotions and ideas are gathered through the senses into a centrifugal condition connecting the mind, through language, science and the arts, to the outer world. There the mind is reflected back to itself as in a hall of mirrors, forcing it to sift, discard and penetrate its engulfing veils of illusion. Penetration, yes – but only if the power motivating the centrifugal action is rooted in the universal flow of rita and pulsates with the rhythm of shruti. If the driving force is aggrandizement, no matter how subtle, of the small self, then the poetry written, the speech given, the music composed and the invention conceived will be only additional contributions to the cacophony of voices infecting the mayavic removes from reality that pass as an imitation of life in the world. We would be better off returning to the more basic awarenesses associated with the Polynesian or agglutinative tongues if such were the case, or would benefit by remaining small infants – watching the patterns of light and shadow while fumbling with our toes.

 Sarasvati is the Impeller to Right Mentalizing. Of all the goddesses, she is alone able to deliver beings into moksha, filling them with the divine Word until they become one with it. The young student, cleaning his slate and reverentially placing it at her feet, hopes for only a drop of this revelation, a tiny glimpse of its mind-expanding reality. The poet yearns for inspiration; he sits in stillness and silence, pen at rest, blank sheet of paper before him, waiting for the thrill of Sarasvati's presence, the ordered Truth of her revelation and rhythm. Emptying their minds and hearts of any thought of self, any hope or fear of success and recognition, the student, the poet and all who thus prepare themselves sit in complete readiness and humility. The sacredness of the moment possesses their entire being, which swirls mentally, opening like a vessel to receive the uncharted stream of Sarasvati's creative fire. One doubt, one attempt to grasp it, and it is gone. Only patient, bold and sure humility enables one to receive it, be filled with it, and to pick up the diamond pen to do its bidding. The Impeller to Happy Truths reveals the completeness of the sacrifice which is the world, exposing the outlines of its poignant depths and its necessities. She opens the way to right mentalizing and takes as her own all who give themselves to it, all who embrace its current and learn to flow eloquently with its spontaneous enactment of Truth.

O Bright Harbinger of Awakening,
Lay thy Word upon my tongue.
Let thy shruti flood my mind,
That my Speech be heaven-won.