SARASVATI: The Flowing One
by Deanna McKinstry-Edwards
In the bright world, where
the light of the world opens, In the bright world, at the
furthest border of The Word, Sarasvati poured out her
rivering voices. Down, down, deeply down, the
syllables flowed from the something
that shines at the center of the world.
She came to me when the waters of my life were frozen. I think I’d heard Her name many years ago, but nothing took hold, and perhaps I even heard Her call mine. Some voices sound like the wind. Some like rain. They rustle, they loosen, but its not yet their time to linger, so they pass through you, time and again, rustling, loosening your mind until you can hear and heed them in the language they speak.
I had some exposure in my early days to stories of Goddesses, but I had not heard there was a Goddess who moved the world by a word, a syllable, a voice. Fortunately, weather bristles in one’s psyche when the time is right for all manner of voices and words to be heard, to upend, to reconnect, to sing songs and retell stories long forgotten. These stories work like magnets tugging at the personal story of each person’s life, wresting it from impoverished moorings too isolated from the epic and collective human story, and too fixed with nailed down notions to support the beneficent chaos which initiates birth and creativity.
We were destined to meet, Sarasvati and I, since I have been, an actress, a singer, a writer, a devotee of breath churned into expression through melody and words. For this is Her realm, the domain of sound, singing, eloquent speech, and intuitive wisdom. Originally a river goddess in the ancient Vedic texts, Sarasvati is the archetypal figure who embodies wisdom through the flowing motion of sound and running water. Hers is the archetypal energy that compels us to break loose from inhibiting forces and stuck places, especially those rutted in our minds. She compels each of us to loosen our notions and animate dialogues with ourselves, others, and all life, continually moving our minds like leaves riding a river. It is not closure Sarasvati seeks, but open-ended conversation.
To meet Sarasvati, The Hindu Goddess of Speech, Sound, Music and Wisdom, is to meet the holy rivers veined through the inner and outer landscapes of our lives. “Sarasvati is the Word, and the Word is the way of The Gods.” (Calasso 239) writes Roberto Calasso in his lush and erotic book, Ka; Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. “The Word, and these waters, are the one help we have. We shall follow the Word, so as to be able to leave it behind.” (Calasso 239) Beyond the Word, it was written in the Vedas, was the center of the world. A place known as “Only something that shines.” (Calasso 239)
It was not the fate of all Hindu goddesses to remain important in later Hinduism. But Sarasvati exemplified her own attributes of change and transcendence, by representing a wisdom which permeates all life, that being to remain open to and flowing with life’s ever-changing nature. Something primordial defines Sarasvati which extends beyond cultural associations to cosmic tendencies and attributes, and this feature of her archetypal zest is no doubt key to her continued survival and importance in Hindu culture even today.
David R. Kinsley, author of Hindu Goddesses, describes Sarasvati’s earliest appearance as a river. She is
“no ordinary river. Early Vedic references make it clear that the Sarasvati River originates in heaven and flows down to earth. Physical contact with her earthly manifestation, however, connects one with the awesome, heavenly, transcendent dimension of the goddess and of reality in general.” (Kinsley 57)
Even before Sarasvati The River and The Goddess flowed down from the celestial heavens, another Goddess, her ancestral progenitor, quickened and fertilized the visible and invisible aspects of the world through sound. Her name was Vac. The Goddess of voice. Of word. “Queen of a thousand syllables…” (Calasso 238), “Vac was a power at the world’s beginning.” (Calasso 238) Wherever life grew parched, and living things lost their luster, it was Vac who moistened and brighten them at their source. With sound. Sarasvati emerged from the mythical husks of Vac, and though initially and consistently identified with her, over time Sarasvati came to represent characteristics other than those originally ascribed to Vac.
Although the distinction of sound and speech as primordial factors in the creation of the universe is a post-Rg-vedic concept, nevertheless sound, and speech especially when ritualized, are regarded in the Rg-veda as an integral aspect of cosmic creation and order. Vac’s attributes exemplified the theory prevalent in many mythologies that the origin of the created universe occurred through sound. In Hinduism, Vac besides being a primordial creative force, is also honored as
“the presence that inspires the rsis. She is truth, and she inspires truth by sustaining Soma, the personification of the exhilarating drink of vision and immortality. She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp, and then express in words the true nature of things.” (Kinsley 12)
Bear in mind, Vac was more than an abstract concept. Her essential nature was that of an omnipresent, nourishing goddess, forceful as a lioness, decked in golden raiment, capable of fostering both fiercely and tenderly, organic growth as a result of providing the blessings of language and vision. She is equated no less with the creation of Hinduism’s three Vedas, the earth (Rg-veda), the air, (Yajur-veda), and the sky (Sama-veda). She is a Goddess at the very source of life, and Hinduism’s holy writ. Gradually Vac’s vivid personification was assumed by and metamorphosed into Sarasvati. Centuries later, additional qualities became attributed to Sarasvati which took on a primacy in the shaping of Hindu culture.
To understand Sarasvati’s transitions from earlier associations with Vac into her own Goddessdom, and from her earliest identification with the cleansing purity and fertility of the Sarasvati River, and rivers in general, one needs to consider the historical and cultural transitions occurring when nomadic life in India metamorphosed into agricultural, village societies. Rivers were the life blood to these societies. Understanding the nature of rivers was mandatory to survival. Sarasvati’s river heritage affirmed a tendency in classical Hinduism to perceive the landscape itself as something sacred. Rivers were considered symbolic places for planting, for healing, where one could cleanse one’s body and spirit. Furthermore, not only were rivers places into which one could immerse one’s bodily self, metaphorically they assumed imagery indigenous to all three Indian religions, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—that being the fording of a body of water, be it river or stream for spiritual attainments. By crossing over to the other side of a river, one drowned the deadening beliefs of the old self to be born afresh, to be liberated from the past, towards a new, more enlightened way of being in the world.
It is not known exactly, how The Goddess Sarasvati became less connected with her original river goddess status, and more associated with another Goddess, Vagdevi, the Goddess of Speech. Kinsley speculates that,
“Perhaps the centrality of sacred speech in Vedic cult and the importance of Vedic rituals being performed on the banks of the Sarasvati River led to the identification of the two goddesses. In any case, Sarasvati increasingly becomes a goddess associated with speech, learning, culture, and wisdom; most post-Vedic references to her do not even hint that at one time she was identified with a river.” (Kinsley 57)
I would suggest also that the transition Sarasvati traveled from ancient river status into the goddess of speech expresses an archetypal connection between a river’s ability to carry earthly sediments, and the voice’s ability to carry emotive sentiments. Intrinsically linked, voices and rivers move and shape inner and outer topographies. Soul as soil, soil as soul.
Insofar as Sarasvati would eventually become a goddess equated with the refinements Hinduism attaches to culture and transcendence of the natural world, Sarasvati could be said to have come full circle. That is, as a Goddess of learning and wisdom, such as it is attained through language, She has, in a sense, returned to her celestial fount in the heavens, a domain above human travail. But even though Sarasvati in present times is often represented as transcendent, purified knowledge and wisdom, riding a heavenly swan above the toil and turbulence of the natural world, she can also be Sarasvati seated on a lotus, rooted in the muck of earthly bogs.
Although rooted in the mud (like man rooted in the physical world), the lotus perfects itself in a blossom that has transcended the mud. Sarasvati inspires people to live in such a way that they may transcend their physical limitations through the ongoing creation of culture. (Kinsley 62)
Sarasvati upholds a theme in Hinduism that affirms that human destiny is inextricably tied to notions of the refinement of nature. Nature without these cultural refinements is not considered suitable for the fullest unfolding of a human being in Hindu thought. These sentiments regarding the refinement of nature as essential to a human’s fullest potential possess a Western bias as well, and in so doing tend to emphasis and esteem certain human attributes at the expense of others. With the more recent emphasis on purity and transcendence of the physical world, India’s present day Sarasvati appears more disembodied than her earlier incarnations. But for all Her purified, sattvic nature, Sarasvati remains a Goddess of music as well as speech. Music is untethered speech. At her core, Sarasvati contains the fertile, rushing sap of Her beginnings; a juice squeezed from the Vedic philosophy of the primacy of syllables. Jonathan Levi, in his review of Literature and The Gods, by Roberto Calasso, in The Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2001, quoting from Calasso, writes, “One squeezes juice, from anything, but not from the syllable: Because the syllable is itself the juice of everything…And from the syllable all else flows.”
Sarasvati is a particularly juicy goddess for modern times, especially perhaps, for modern day women. She is not a goddess of motherhood, or the fertility of the fields, except metaphorically. What She gives birth to are creations other than human progeny. Hers is not a domestic presence in the traditional sense of keeping house, but of housekeeping by creating eloquence, art, wisdom through artistic discovery, poetry and music. With words She tills the fields of human longing and imagination. She is the running dialogue at the center of human affairs, spinning the stories within which we nourish our lives. “The world is made up of stories, not atoms”, wrote poet Muriel Rukeyser. The sounding harp of the Universe is plucked by Sarasvati, and key to understanding her wisdom, is hearing and releasing the sounds She makes, allowing them their ever flowing, ever-changing-ness.
In my own life, Sarasvati’s presence has been especially potent and integral these past few years. A story about Her swayed my decision as to where and how I should continue my education following a return to school to complete a bachelor’s degree begun over thirty years ago. Drawn to Pacifica Graduate Institute, torn between a degree in Psychology, which I perceived as possessing definite financial largesse somewhere up ahead, and The Mythological Program which seemed possessed with as sure-footed a financial future as the acting profession, I cast my net for a sign, an omen. I got a story.
Once upon a time in a faraway land, a man went into the forest to see his spiritual master. “I want to have unlimited wealth, and with that wealth, I want to help and heal the world. Will you tell me how to create this affluence?
The spiritual master replied. “There are two goddesses which reside in the heart of every human being. Everybody loves these two goddesses, but there’s a secret you need to know, and I will tell you what it is.”
Although you love both of these goddesses, you must pay more attention to one of them. She is the Goddess of Knowledge, of speech, music and sound, and her name is Sarasvati. Pursue her, love her and give her your attention. For when you pay more attention to Sarasvati, the other goddess, Lahksmi, the Goddess of Wealth, will become extremely jealous and pay more attention to you. The more you seek Sarasvati, the more the Goddess of Wealth will seek you. And she will follow you wherever you go, and never leave you.
In that mysterious way our Psyche senses even seizes what it really wants…and, in the gap between that psychic sensing and fearful admonitions of the ego, responses glimmer. Of course, I already knew which program it was I wanted. The Myth Program. The one with the knowledge that really called to me. It was just a question of how much faith and derring-do I still retained. It was just a question of letting a story reconnect me back to the source of something shining.
Certainly a most shining manifestation of Sarasvati in Buddhism was a woman who became the first Tibetan to attain complete enlightenment. Her name was Yeshe Tsogyal, and her life story is written about in a book, Lady of the Lotus Born. She is often referred to as The Great Bliss Queen.
For Padmasambhava, the guru who brought Buddha’s teaching from India to Tibet, to propagate his teaching of the Secret Mantra, he felt the time had come for an incarnation of Sarasvati to appear. Yeshe, whose birth reverberated a Sanskrit mantra through the air so powerfully that a nearby lake increased to almost twice its size, was the wife of Emperor King, Tri-song-dat-tsen of Tibet. It was Tri-song who invited Padmashambhava to Tibet to spread the new tradition of Buddhism. With his consent, Yeshe became Padmasambhava’s consort and foremost disciple. She was the embodiment of the Sarasvati he was looking for.
Yeshe and Padmasambhava through sexual union, mantras and chanting dissolved artificial boundaries between the mind and the body. Rather than forsaking and attempting to transcend the body, the Tantric wisdom that Padmasambhava advocated engaged both body and mind for enlightenment. Creating a bridge of sound between mind and body composed of sounds and sacred syllables facilitates an enlightening, informing dialogue between them. Keeping this river of sound flowing and being aware of its ever-changing, interdependent behavior is the heart of Buddhist wisdom. Buddhism’s most reknown Sarasvati, Yeshe Tsogyal, learned how to make her body sing, and became both the singer of her life’s song, and the song itself.
Sarasvati, such as She manifested in the bodhisattva archetype of Yeshe Tsogyal, presents an embodied Goddess who has married within herself the heavier, darker emotional sounds of soul as they move through the human body, and the flute-like soaring sounds of spirit, such as they leap from the human mind. This Sarasvati appeals to me immensely, for no parts of Her appear to be in exile.
Today, with so much talk about creating a sense of community in our lives and world, saturated as they are with feelings of alienation, I feel Sarasvati’s presence holds a promise. As the Goddess of speech and music, She carries the virtues of connection and communication. Robert Sardello writes in his book, Facing the World With Soul,. “When community does show forth among people it shows in the word, the living, creative, unexpected, heartfelt, spontaneous, thoughtful, reflective speaking through which the soul of the world finds voice.” (Sardello 181). This is Sarasvati’s Queendom, the shining place where words wait to be born in the mouths of living things. Voice is how the soul speaks
In speaking the breath connects us to each other. When we bank and shape this breath with the consonants and vowels of whatever language we speak, we become like the earth, banking the forces of a river so it can meander with some depth through the landscape moistening and moving it with life’s running waters. It is a sacred thing we do with breath and speech that Sarasvati oversees. It came to me so vividly just a few nights ago, as a small tree rat lay dying in the street by my driveway. I knew not what had happened to it. Poison, I assumed. But suddenly I was profoundly overcome. I could not leave him (her). Her tiny eyes seemed to take me in, as I took her into me. We were inhaling one another. We were a community of two, two souls speaking of the deepest things between us. I asked Sarasvati to hold her in Her breath as I lay her small furry body on soft ground under some vines, to expire. I knew She would say the right words. And that the little tree rat would hear her name in Her merciful voice, and be released into Her flowing music as she headed home to the bright world from whence She and she, and all of us came…together.