Saraswati, sometimes spelled Sarasvati, is a Sanskrit fusion word of Sāra (सार) which means essence, and Sva (स्व) which means one self, the fused word meaning "essence of one self", and Saraswati meaning "one who leads to essence of self knowledge". It is also a Sanskrit composite word of surasa-vati (सुरस-वति) which means "one with plenty of water".
The word Saraswati appears both as a reference to a river and as a significant deity in the Rigveda. In initial passages, the word refers to Sarasvati River and mentioned with other northwestern Indian rivers such as Drishadvati. Saraswati then connotes a river deity. In Book 2, Rigveda calls Saraswati as the best of mothers, of rivers, of goddesses.
अम्बितमे नदीतमे देवितमे सरस्वति |
– Rigveda 2.41.16
Best Mother, best of Rivers, best of Goddesses, Sarasvatī, We are, as ’twere, of no repute and dear Mother, give thou us renown.
Saraswati is celebrated as a feminine deity with healing, purifying powers of abundant, flowing waters in Book 10 of Rigveda, as follows:
अपो अस्मान मातरः शुन्धयन्तु घर्तेन नो घर्तप्वः पुनन्तु |
विश्वं हि रिप्रं परवहन्ति देविरुदिदाभ्यः शुचिरापूत एमि ||
– Rigveda 10.17
May the waters, the mothers, cleanse us,
may they who purify with butter, purify us with butter,
for these goddesses bear away defilement,
I come up out of them pure and cleansed.
–Translated by John Muir
In Vedic literature, Saraswati acquires the same significance for early Indians (states John Muir) as that accredited to the river Ganges by their modern descendants. In hymns of Book 10 of Rigveda, she is already declared to be the "possessor of knowledge". Her importance grows in Vedas composed after Rigveda and in Brahmanas, and the word evolves in its meaning from "waters that purify", to "that which purifies", to "vach (speech) that purifies", to "knowledge that purifies", and ultimately into a spiritual concept of a goddess that embodies knowledge, arts, music, melody, muse, language, rhetoric, eloquence, creative work and anything whose flow purifies the essence and self of a person. In Upanishads and Dharma Sastras, Saraswati is invoked to remind the reader to meditate on virtue, virtuous emoluments, the meaning and the very essence of one's activity, one's action.
Saraswati is known by many names in ancient Hindu literature. Some examples of synonyms for Saraswati include Brahmani (power of Brahma), Brahmi (goddess of sciences), Bharadi (goddess of history), Vani and Vachi (both referring to the flow of music/song, melodious speech, eloquent speaking respectively), Varnesvari (goddess of letters), Kavijihvagravasini (one who dwells on the tongue of poets).
In Nepali language, her name is written Nepali: सरस्वती. In the Telugu, Sarasvati is also known as Chaduvula Thalli (చదువుల తల్లి) and Shārada (శారద). In Konkani, she is referred to as Shārada, Veenapani, Pustaka dharini, Vidyadāyini. In Kannada, variants of her name include Sharade, Sharadamba, Vāni, Veenapani in the famous Sringeri temple. In Tamil, she is also known as Kalaimagal (கலைமகள்), Kalaivāni (கலைவாணி), Vāni (வாணி), Bharathi. She is also addressed as Shāradā (the one who loves the autumn season), Veenā pustaka dharani (the one holding books and a Veena), Vākadevi, Vāni (both meaning "goddess of speech"), Varadhanāyaki (the one bestowing boons), Sāvitri (consort of Brahma), Gāyatri (mother of Vedas).
In India she is locally spelled as Bengali: সরস্বতী, Saraswati ?, Malayalam: സരസ്വതി, Saraswati ?, and Tamil: சரஸ்வதி, Sarasvatī ?.
Outside Nepal and India, she is known in Burmese as Thurathadi (သူရဿတီ, pronounced: [θùja̰ðədì] or [θùɹa̰ðədì]) or Tipitaka Medaw (တိပိဋကမယ်တော်, pronounced: [tḭpḭtəka̰ mɛ̀dɔ̀]), in Chinese as Biàncáitiān (辯才天), in Japanese as Benzaiten (弁才天/弁財天) and in Thai as Suratsawadi (สุรัสวดี) or Saratsawadi (สรัสวดี).
Saraswati is found in almost every major ancient and medieval Indian literature between 1000 BC to 1500 AD. In Hindu tradition, she has retained her significance as a goddess from the Vedic age up to the present day. In Shanti Parva of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Saraswati is called the mother of the Vedas, and later as the celestial creative symphony who appeared when Brahma created the universe. In Book 2 of Taittiriya Brahmana, she is called the mother of eloquent speech and melodious music. Saraswati is the active energy and power of Brahma. She is also mentioned in many minor Sanskrit publications such as Sarada Tilaka of 8th century AD as follows,
May the goddess of speech enable us to attain all possible eloquence,
she who wears on her locks a young moon,
who shines with exquisite lustre,
who sits reclined on a white lotus,
and from the crimson cusp of whose hands pours,
radiance on the implements of writing, and books produced by her favour.
– On Saraswati, Sarada Tilaka
Saraswati became a prominent deity in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri in 1st millennium AD. In some instances such as in the Sadhanamala of Buddhist pantheon, she has been symbolically represented similar to regional Hindu iconography, but unlike the more well known depictions of Saraswati.
The goddess Saraswati is often depicted as a beautiful woman dressed in pure white, often seated on a white lotus, which symbolizes light, knowledge and truth. She not only embodies knowledge but also the experience of the highest reality. Her iconography is typically in white themes from dress to flowers to swan – the colour symbolizing Sattwa Guna or purity, discrimination for true knowledge, insight and wisdom.
She is generally shown to have four arms, but sometimes just two. When shown with four hands, those hands symbolically mirror her husband Brahma's four heads, representing manas (mind, sense), buddhi (intellect, reasoning), citta (imagination, creativity) and ahamkāra (self consciousness, ego). Brahma represents the abstract, she action and reality.
The four hands hold items with symbolic meaning — a pustaka (book or script), a mālā (rosary, garland), a water pot and a musical instrument (vīnā). The book she holds symbolizes the Vedas representing the universal, divine, eternal, and true knowledge as well as all forms of learning. A mālā of crystals, representing the power of meditation, inner reflection and spirituality. A pot of water represents the purifying power to separate right from wrong, the clean from the unclean, and essence from the inessential. In some texts, the pot of water is symbolism for soma - the drink that liberates and leads to knowledge. The most famous feature on Saraswati is a musical instrument called a veena, represents all creative arts and sciences, and her holding it symbolizes expressing knowledge that creates harmony. Saraswati is also associated with anurāga, the love for and rhythm of music, which represents all emotions and feelings expressed in speech or music.
A hamsa or swan is often located next to her feet. In Hindu mythology, the hamsa is a sacred bird, which if offered a mixture of milk and water, is said to be able to drink the milk alone. It thus symbolizes the ability to discriminate between good and evil, essence from outward show and the eternal from the evanescent. Due to her association with the swan, Saraswati is also referred to as Hamsavāhini, which means "she who has a hamsa as her vehicle". The swan is also a symbolism for spiritual perfection, transcendence and moksha.
Sometimes a citramekhala (also called mayura, peacock) is shown beside the goddess. The peacock symbolizes colorful splendor, celebration of dance, and - as the devourer of snakes - the alchemical ability to transmute the serpent poison of self into the radiant plumage of enlightenment.
She is usually depicted near a flowing river or other body of water, which depiction may constitute a reference to her early history as a river goddess.
In some regions of India, such as Vindhya, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam, as well as east Nepal, Saraswati is part of the Devi Mahatmya mythology, in the trinity (Tridevi) of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati. This is one of many different Hindu legends that attempt to explain how Hindu trinity of gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and goddesses (Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati) came into being. Various Purana texts offer alternate legends for Maha Saraswati.
Maha Saraswati is depicted as eight-armed and is often portrayed holding a Veena whilst sitting on a white lotus flower.
Her dhyāna shloka given at the beginning of the fifth chapter of Devi Mahatmya is:
Wielding in her lotus-hands the bell, trident, ploughshare, conch, pestle, discus, bow, and arrow, her lustre is like that of a moon shining in the autumn sky. She is born from the body of Gowri and is the sustaining base of the three worlds. That Mahasaraswati I worship here who destroyed Sumbha and other asuras.
Mahasaraswati is also part of another legend, the Navdurgas, or nine forms of Durga, revered as powerful and dangerous goddesses in eastern India. They have special significance on Navaratri in these regions. All of these are seen ultimately as aspects of a single great Hindu goddess, with Maha Saraswati as one of those nine.
In Tibet and parts of India, Nilasaraswati is a form of Mahavidya Tara. Nila Saraswati is a different deity from traditional Saraswati, yet subsumes her knowledge and creative energy in tantric literature. Nila Sarasvati is the ugra (angry, violent, destructive) manifestation in one school of Hinduism, while the more common Saraswati is the saumya (calm, compassionate, productive) manifestation found in most others. In tantric literature of the former, Nilasaraswati has a 100 names. There are separate dhyana shlokas and mantras for her worship in Tantrasara.
There are many temples dedicated to Saraswati around the world. Some notable temples include the Gnana Saraswati Temple in Basar on the banks of the River Godavari, the Wargal Saraswati and Shri Saraswati Kshetramu temples in Medak, Telangana. In Karnataka, one of many Saraswati/Sharada pilgrimage spots is Shringeri Sharadamba Temple. In Ernakulam district of Kerala, there is a famous Saraswati temple in North Paravur, namely Dakshina Mookambika Temple North Paravur. In Tamil Nadu, Koothanur hosts a Saraswati temple about 25 kilometres from Tiruvarur. In her identity as Brahmani, additional Sarasvati temples can be found throughout Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
In West Bengal, Saraswati is worshipped on Vasant Panchami, a Hindu festival celebrated every year on the 5th day in the Hindu calendar month of Magha (about February). Hindus celebrate this festival in temples, homes and educational institutes alike.
In Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka, Saraswati Puja starts with Saraswati Avahan on Maha Saptami and ends on Vijayadashami with Saraswati Udasan or Visarjan.
Saraswati Puja calendar:Saraswati Puja Avahan – Maha Saptami – Triratna vratam starts in Andhra Pradesh.
Saraswati Puja (main puja) – Durga Ashtami
Saraswati Uttara Puja – Mahanavami
Saraswati Visarjan or Udasan – Vijaya Dashami
Saraswati Kartik Purnima on (Sristhal) siddhpur of Gujaratis ancient festival since Solanki ruling of Patan state.
In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the last three days of the Navaratri festival, i.e., Ashtami, Navami, and Dashami, are celebrated as Sarasvati Puja. The celebrations start with the Puja Vypu (Placing for Worship). It consists of placing the books for puja on the Ashtami day. It may be in one's own house, in the local nursery school run by traditional teachers, or in the local temple. The books will be taken out for reading, after worship, only on the morning of the third day (Vijaya Dashami). It is called Puja Eduppu (Taking [from] Puja). Children are happy, since they are not expected to study on these days. On the Vijaya Dashami day, Kerala celebrates the Ezhuthiniruthu or Initiation of Writing for the little children before they are admitted to nursery schools. This is also called Vidyarambham. The child is made to write for the first time on the rice spread in a plate with the index finger, guided by an elder of the family or by a teacher.
In Burma, the Shwezigon Mon Inscription dated to be of 1084 AD, near Bagan, recites the name Saraswati as follows,
"The wisdom of eloquence called Saraswati shall dwell in mouth of King Sri Tribhuwanadityadhammaraja at all times". – Translated by Than Tun
In Buddhist arts of Myanmar, she is called Thurathadi (or Thayéthadi). Students in Myanmar pray for her blessings before their exams. She is also believed to be, in Mahayana pantheon of Myanmar, the protector of Buddhist scriptures.
The concept of Saraswati migrated from India, through China to Japan, where she appears as Benzaiten (弁財天). Worship of Benzaiten arrived in Japan during the 6th through 8th centuries. She is often depicted holding a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute musical instrument. She is enshrined on numerous locations throughout Japan such as the Kamakura's Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine or Nagoya's Kawahara Shrine; the three biggest shrines in Japan in her honour are at the Enoshima Island in Sagami Bay, the Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa, and the Itsukushima Island in Seto Inland Sea.
Saraswati was honoured with invocations among Hindus of Angkorian Cambodia, suggests a tenth-century and another eleventh-century inscription. She and Brahma are referred to in Cambodian epigraphy from the 7th century onwards, and she is praised by Khmer poets for being goddess of eloquence, writing and music. More offerings were made to her than to her husband Brahma. She is also referred to as Vagisvari and Bharati in Yasovarman era Khmer literature.
In ancient Thai literature, Saraswati (Thai: สุรัสวดี; rtgs: Suratsawadi) is the goddess of speech and learning, and consort of Brahma. Over time, Hindu and Buddhist concepts on deities merged in Thailand. Icons of Saraswati with other deities of India are found in old Thai wats. Amulets with Saraswati and a peacock are also found in Thailand.
Saraswati is an important goddess in Balinese Hinduism. She shares the same attributes and iconography as Saraswati in Hindu literature of India - in both places, she is the goddess of knowledge, creative arts, wisdom, language, learning and purity. In Bali, she is celebrated on Saraswati day, one of the main festivals for Hindus in Indonesia. The day marks the close of 210-day year in the Pawukon calendar.
On Saraswati day, people make offerings in the form of flowers in temples and to sacred texts. The day after Saraswati day, is Banyu Pinaruh, a day of cleansing. On this day, Hindus of Bali go to the sea, sacred waterfalls or river spots, offer prayers to Saraswati, and then rinse themselves in that water in the morning. Then they prepare a feast, such as the traditional bebek betutu and nasi kuning, that they share.
The Saraswati Day festival has a long history in Bali. It has become more widespread in Hindu community of Indonesia in recent decades, and it is celebrated with theatre and dance performance.