Who Is the Goddess?
Learning about Saraswati, Wealth, and Power.
This painting by Western artist Amanda Giacomini depicts Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, wisdom, and the arts. As with many of the gods in the yoga pantheon, her name has a great number of meanings—as do most Sanskrit terms!
One of Saraswati’s names relates to an important Indian creation myth, in which the first thing that existed was the Golden Egg (Hiranyagarbha). In this myth, the Golden Egg split into the gods Saraswati and Brahma, which became water and breath. Saraswati is water, with saras meaning “anything flowing or fluid”—hence, one meaning of Saraswati can be “she who flows like water.” Because water is a metaphor for wealth (and rayi means both “water” and “wealth” in Sanskrit), Saraswati holds a place in the Hindu pantheon, as does the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi (along with many other female deities). It is common for goddesses in many traditions to symbolize not just wealth, but also wisdom. We may think of Sophia in this regard—a Judeo-Christian representative of the wisdom of the feminine.
Saraswati also means “she who has speech,” as saras means “speech” as well. Think of the water-like flow of your thoughts, or the wisdom-flow of speech. Saraswati’s identity, in this case, partly evolved from that of the older goddess Vac (vac being the root of “voice”). In the Vedas, India’s first sacred texts (c. 1800–800 BCE), Vac was the goddess of speech. Vac was an important deity at that time because the agni hotra (or “fire ritual” central to Vedic culture) depended on mantras being spoken very precisely in the Vedic language, which later became Sanskrit.
As the goddess of learning and the consort of the creator god, Brahma, Saraswati represents a reversal of a common male-female duality in the Hindu tradition. The active force in the universe appears as female in most Indian 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. 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 activity, power, and manifestation in the universe. In Samkhya philosophy, purusha (which is Prakriti’s fundamental opposite) is 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 “the first man.”
The goddess Shakti, who became popular during India’s tantric Middle Ages (700–1100 CE), is also associated with the principle of action. Her name is a synonym for “power.” She is the active force of shift and change in all things. In later mythology, her descent from the realm of emptiness is the first cause of creation. This is another creation myth! In that myth and many others, her male partner, Shiva, symbolizes emptiness and meditative stillness.
Her name is a synonym for “power.” She is the active force of shift and change in all things.
As Saraswati arises from the Golden Egg (Hiranyagarbha), she first emerges as speech, thought, and wisdom (like the male-identified purusha, or the consciousness-associated Shiva). Her counterpart, Brahma, who arose with her, is the active one. As the god of creation (like Prakriti or Shakti), Brahma is associated with rajas (“activity”) in the yogic traditions.
But let’s return once again to a time before the Middle Ages. There we’ll find other mythic material on Saraswati that both expands her mythic meaning and tells a changed story about her origin.
In the Matsya Purana (c. 200 CE), we get another reading of Saraswati. She is called Satarupa, or “she of the hundred forms” (sata means “a hundred,” and rupa means “form”). The “hundred forms” suggests the infinity of references found within all the words in language—which she signifies.
The Hindu goddesses (and most goddesses in general) rule over fertility. Hence, large numbers, like sata, get attached to their names. The lak in Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, means “a thousand.” As a goddess of multiplicity, wealth, and fertility, Lakshmi is “she of the thousands.”
In the Matsya Purana creation story of Saraswati—which comes more than a thousand years after the Vedas—Saraswati emerges as the daughter of Brahma. Nonetheless, because they are gods, and because this occurred during the brief period before the appearance of the universal law forbidding incest in societies—they become loving partners. They copulate, birthing all beings. Their firstborn is Manu. In this myth, Manu is known as “the first man,” like purusha was before him. Ironically, Manu is the lawgiver!
In the descriptions of Brahma’s and Saraswati’s powers in this Purana, we see the same male-female reversal. The ability to birth belongs to the male principle, Brahma. The force of intellect/consciousness belongs to the female Saraswati, our goddess of learning, who is considered knowledge itself.
The goddesses and gods also have a relationship to the three basic vibrations of life, called the gunas—which also come from Samkhya philosophy. In Hinduism we have the trimurti, the three main forms of God—Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Each of these male gods, along with their female consorts, is seen as sharing the vibration of one of the gunas.
In this schema, Saraswati, as Brahma’s partner, is associated with rajas—the active, light, creative energy. Thinking of the definition of Saraswati’s name as “she who flows” helps in understanding her relationship to rajas (and activity) in this case. Kali, one of Shiva’s female counterparts, is associated with tamas—yin, slowness, darkness, and destruction. Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, is associated with sattva—the balanced, luminous energy that some say is the resultant balance of rajas and tamas (like the yang and yin that compose the Tao in Chinese philosophy).
Saraswati is also the name of a river that once flowed near the border of India and Pakistan. Here, archeologists have discovered what’s called the “Indus-Saraswati” culture. It pre-dates the Vedic period, commonly dated c. 3000–1800 BCE. The oldest evidence of yoga has been found in artifacts from that civilization: The initial Pashupat, “lord of the animals” seal, was excavated in strata there that was dated to 2900 BCE.
In the painting by Amanda Giacomini (the full version can be seen here), Saraswati wears white, which represents the purity of divine knowledge. She sits on the lotus, which represents vijnana, or “higher knowledge.” Saraswati has four arms, suggesting her power. She plays a stringed instrument called the veena, symbolizing music and mantra. It also represents the divine vibration (called spanda) that lies behind everything in the universe. In other hands, she holds a book, representing the sacred knowledge of the Vedas, along with a crystal mala, which represents the power of meditation (but doubles as a symbol of the linguistic clarity of poetry). Another arm holds a pot of sacred water, which harkens to the alternate meaning of her name as well as to the “flow” of the mind. It also relates to water as wealth. And esoterically, the liquid is associated with amrta—the fluid of immortality that is said to drip down from ajna into the throat, and to be cultivated by yogis.
The Saraswati mantra written below Giacomini’s image makes use of a common four-part formula. Om is the pranava, or “universal sound,” that hallows a mantra. We begin with om to bless the words that follow and open the heart. Shreem is the bija (seed) mantra of beauty that resonates within our gross and subtle bodies to purify them, while harmonizing us with the universal rhythm. Of course, by now we know what “Saraswati” means! 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 little ego!”
Recently, kirtan has emerged as a dynamic companion to everyday yoga, and the aesthetic aspects of pose work have come to the fore. Hence, Saraswati takes her place as a yogic deity with fresh meaning for the new tradition. She represents both art and the art of yoga.
Saraswati’s image is found in yoga studios everywhere. Sometimes we even hear her mantra chanted by a teacher to bless the students in her class:
“Om Shreem Saraswataye Namaha!”
Eric Shaw, MA.SE, MA.RS, MA.AS, has studied yoga and meditation for 30 years and taught both since 2001. He maintains a lively international teaching schedule and is the creator of both Prasana Yoga—a form that reveals alignment in movement—and Yoga Education through Imagery—lecture programming that teaches yoga’s traditions through archival imagery and new scholarship. He is an E-RYT 500 with two degrees in Art, and Masters Degrees in Education, Religious Studies and Asian Studies. His... Read more>>