The river of knowledge – the cult of Saraswati

Saraswati & Sikkil-page

She is pristine and a symbol of purity. Several hymns have been written in praise of Saraswati in the Rig Veda. The idea of Saraswati has evolved since then in India. Some believe the name is derived from sara (which means essence) and sva (which means one’s self). So the word Saraswati means the one who leads us to essence of self-knowledge.

But there are other interpretations as well. According to Nandhita Krishna of CP Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, as the river Saraswati of the Rig Veda disappeared, she continued to live on as a Goddess. Even the word saras refers to a lake.

In the Devi Bhagavatam, Yajnavalkya says the world is futile and lifeless without the benign blessings of Saraswati, who, as akshara rupa, becomes the fundamentals of the written language. She is also the basis of numbers and measuring units without which there could be no counting or accounting and quantification and evaluation. By the time the itihasas are written, she is the mother of vedas and also an important force behind the creation and sustenance of the world.

In the south, there is a strong cult of the Mother Goddess and yet, one doesn’t see many temples of Saraswati.  “One reason could be that Saraswati was seen as a river. If you see, all the three Goddesses — Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati — are from some force of nature. Parvati is the daughter of the Himalayas and is related to Ganga. Lakshmi comes from the ocean and Saraswati was worshipped as a river. The worship protocols then were different and rivers were significant in the rise of civilizations,” says Pradeep Chakravarthy, behaviourist and temple historian.  “As urbanisation happened, wars were fought and Shakti assumed significance. Money became important as economy developed. Saraswati symbolised that section that was engaged in education and the creation of knowledge.”

The village Koothanur was gifted by Raja Raja Chola II to the poet Ottakoothar who was working in his court and thus the name Koothanur. According to temple historian Chithra Madhavan, in Tamil Nadu, a temple of note dedicated to Saraswati is located here. “This Saraswati temple  near Mayavaram is one of the rare temples dedicated to the deity in Tamil Nadu. Another prominent temple is the Saradambal temple in Sringeri, in Karnataka,” she says.

Sringeri was the first place where Adi Sankara is believed to have established one of the four major mutts. He consecrated the temple and later, the Vijayanagara kings added more glory to the temple. “It is to be noted that temples received endowments from the rich and they were worshippers of Vishnu, his incarnations and Lakshmi. The traders needed wealth and were Lakshmi worshippers. The rulers who built temples needed power and were worshippers of Shiva and Shakti. Adi Shankara, on the other hand, was a worshipper of knowledge and hence the Sharadambal temple came up in Sringeri,” says Nandhita.

According to Chithra, another reason why there are less number of temples for Saraswati is that she’s the consort of Brahma. “The deities Shiva-Shakti and Lakshmi Narayana are often worshipped together. Since Brahma doesn’t have many temples dedicated to him, Saraswati also doesn’t have temples in her name,” she says.

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