The Goddess of learning, Saraswati, is one of the ancient deities in the Hindu pantheon. Yet, today, apart from the one obligatory puja every year, she’s largely forgotten,” remarks noted Bharatanatyam exponent Sandhya Purecha, when we catch her on the sidelines of a rehearsal for a Navratri special ballet invoking the Goddess Mahalakshmi at her Central Mumbai dance school.
When we point out that her ballet too invokes Lakshmi, and not Saraswati, she laughs, “In an era when everyone is in a mad rush chasing money, people feel that the blessing of the Goddess of Wealth is all that matters. Perhaps they feel that once you have money, all else will follow.”
She says that there are many beautiful compositions in the Puranas praising Saraswati. “But if not as the wealth-showering Devi, even audiences want to see a goddess as a slayer of demons armed to the teeth, like Durga.” According to Purecha, this is merely a projection of the way society sees women. “If she brings dowry or other material gifts, she gets respect. But if she wants her due otherwise, she has to fight. A mellow woman is often disregarded. Perhaps that’s why, Saraswati, in her white raiments, lost in the notes of her veena, does not have the same resonance as other fiery Goddesses.”
Radheshyam Tiwari, a doctorate in Hindu mythology from Benares, also laments this change. “Knowledge, wisdom and scholarly pursuit were always treated with utmost regard. They were not seen as a means to an end, but as something that people pursued with devotion for the love of it,” he points out.
He also feels that people are uncomfortable talking about Saraswati’s life because of the Matsya Purana. “According to the text, once Brahma created Satarupa (another name of Saraswati) from his own body, he became enamoured by her. To avoid his amorous gaze, she kept shifting, and Brahma created five heads to see her all the time. Finally, she gave in and became his consort. The questions this will raise about incest may be a reason why Saraswati is kept on the margins.”
Tiwari also talks about how Saraswati worship endured the rise and spread of both Buddhism and Jainism. “As Buddhism moved from its earlier Theravada school to Mahayana, many elements from Hinduism were also adopted. In fact, if you see some of the early Buddhist mandalas, you come upon Goddess Saraswati in the south-west of the innermost circle, between Brahma and Vishnu, along with various divinities of Mahayana Buddhism,” he explains. “As the Mahayana Buddhist texts went to Nepal, Tibet, Java, China and eventually Japan, the Goddess finds mention in Buddhist imagery there too. For example in Tibet, she is called Vajra-Sarasvati and wields a thunderbolt. In Japan, she becomes the Goddess Dai-Ben-Zai-Ten or The Great Divinity of Reasoning Faculty.”
While admitting that scriptures, too, talk far more about other Goddesses compared to Saraswati, Hindu religion expert and the father of the iconic Hindu almanac Kalnirnay, Jayraj Salgaonkar, points out how the Goddess almost stops mattering after the first stage of life, brahmacharya. “Later on, from grihastha (family), vanprastha (retired) and sanyas (renunciation), all that people think of is Lakshmi.”
Scoffing at the priorities of today’s materialist world, he underlines how even Adi Shankaracharya, who revived Hinduism around 800 AD, installed the Goddess Saraswati (or Sharada) at the first mutt he established in Sringeri, Karnataka.
Octagenarian Salgaonkar blames patriarchy for the way even Lakshmi is depicted. “It sounds very nice to hear when men talk of their wives as Lakshmi. But even in early Raja Ravi Varma paintings you can see how Lakshmi’s feet are kept well-hidden. Even now people believe that if her feet are free, Lakshmi will move, taking all the prosperity along. This idea came from the desire of men to control women.”
Both Tiwari and Purecha too insist that the “spousification” of Goddesses was “a clever, latter-day masculine ploy” to link the greatness of the Goddesses to their spouses. “In the process, many of our ancient Goddesses of Fertility and Strength were pushed aside to make way for the mainstreaming of the spouses of the triumvirate — Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh,” says Tiwari.
In parting, Purecha nails it: “Women don’t want to be treated like Goddesses and kept on a pedestal, or be treated like objects of lust. When that (the change) happens, our Goddesses will also be unshackled from this masculine paradigm and we will perhaps begin giving Saraswati her place again.”