Yesterday (by now) marked Saraswati Puja ; and as has become my custom, I present some brief thoughts and enlightenment via way of tribute. Seems the appropriate thing to do, given the nature of the Devi in question, and customary associations of Same.
And speaking of just those customary associations – it seems to me that we often have this mental image of Saraswati as being rather passive; a beatifically calm figure playing a sitar, smiling beneficently, in contrast to the much more fearsomely formidable Mother Durga, and the darkly destructive (yet beautiful – or, perhaps, therefore beautiful) Mother Kali.
Now this is not to say that these conceptions are inaccurate. After all, they have attained quite some currency [not in the Lakshmi sense] for good reason. And partially because we have an almost innate understanding and an appreciation of what it is that a figure with the iconography in question is intended to represent – a bearer, *the* bearer, of art, culture, wit, wisdom, and the Civilization for which the other Devi manifestations we are perhaps better acquainted with visually have taken up arms to protect.
Yet it is a curious thing. If you ask people to identify a Greek equivalent to Saraswati, most of the time they shall point towards [and this is a rather elaborate Dikaiosune reference, also] Athena. “Goddess of Wisdom”, and wise enough to bear arms where necessary. And, often, to wear a helmet – something that we don’t seem to see too much of in artistic portrayals of various warriors and heroes and suchlike, despite the debilitating impacts of head-injury ‘gainst which they necessarily protect.
Now, on the surface of it, this might seem rather odd. Other than both having an interlinkage with the portfolio-area of ‘Wisdom’, what coterminity could there be between the Spear-wielding, Shield-bearing, Gorgon-head-trophy-carrying, Cloak-of-flayed-skin-garbed [yes, this is part of what is meant by “Pallas”…] Patron Goddess-General of Athens …. and a River-Goddess armed with a musical instrument. Guitar solos can be epic, and are played out on an “axe”, but short of bashing somebody over the head with one … or, for that matter, garroting somebody with piano-wire, with the potential exception of dubstep or certain American experiments featuring the theme to Barney the Dinosaur, music is but rarely *directly* weaponized.
And yet, art not so.
I have written extensively elsewhere about how Language, Culture, Art, are in fact some of the *mightiest* weapons in any arsenal; and not least because they are often subtle enough in application to not be *noticed* as the “weapons” that they actually, truly, are. You want to win a war, then as any number of military and political theorists have pointed out … there are several ways to eliminate an enemy; one of the better ones being to make them no longer an enemy, but rather a more amenable party toward you – perhaps even a friend. Which is in part doable via what we would today term ‘soft power’ influence. Hence why Hollywood is such a grand instrument of American hegemony.
And also, I suppose, part of why I am engaged in writing commentaries such as these – to gather, garner, glean the knowledge, and thence facilitate its transmission, its uptake, its re-immanentization into our reality, as ‘weaponized theology’ in service of the Divine Cause.
Yet this is not quite what I am getting at heer.
Rather, that was sparked in part by perusing one of the more famous Saraswati hymnals of the RigVeda, RV VI 61 – and seeing for my own eyes just how Powerful – in the sense of Forceful – that She Can Be.
There are various verses which can be cited to illustrate this observation, for example:
“2 She with her might, like one who digs for lotus-stems, hath burst with her strong waves the ridges of the hills.
Let us invite with songs and holy hymns for help Sarasvatī who slayeth the Paravatas.
3 Thou castest down, Sarasvatī, those who scorned the Gods, the brood of every Bṛsaya skilled in magic arts.”
But one of the most interesting, for our purposes, is line 7.
In the Sanskrit, it reads:
उत सया नः सरस्वती घोरा हिरण्यवर्तनिः |
वर्त्रघ्नी वष्टि सुष्टुतिम ||
Which, per the Griffith translation, is rendered:
“Yea, this divine Sarasvatī, terrible with Her golden path,
Foe-slayer, claims our eulogy.”
Now, it is that first word of the second half of the line which is the key here – Vritraghni. Griffith has translated it as “Foe-Slayer”, and in a sense – as well as following other, Hindu commentators – he is correct with this. It *can* mean “Foe-Slayer”, and more specifically, it *does* mean the slayer of a *particular* Foe. That being Vritra. You may have heard of him – the demon-dragon who disrupts the water-cycle and imprisons the rivers as hoarded wealth. Not hard to see why Saraswati would have a bone to pick with him. That bone, because this is now a slightly involved Puranic reference, belonging to Dadhachi … but again, I digress.
There are two ways to interpret the word. If it means “Foe-Slayer”, then the specific colouring and connotation of referring to Her as Vritra-Slayer [interestingly, this is also the direct cognate term for the Zoroastrian theonym of their ‘sanitized’ version of Indra – Verethragna, ‘Smiter of Resistance’], is intended to equate Her power and potential with that of Lord Indra – i.e. *the* Vritra-Slayer [Vrtraghna being a reasonably attested later Indra theonym, hence the co-option for Verethragna during the course of the latter’s (re-)introduction into the Zoroastrian schema post-“Reforms”]. And that is no small thing!
Yet there is a second interpretation, often less emphasized in favour of the above, but which I consider to be quite important. Namely, that of Saraswati *as* being rather more literally [and I mean that, too, in at least two senses of the term] Vritra-Slayer.
Which is not, of course, to deny Indra – and/or Brihaspati – His (and/or Their) Due. But rather to imply that a co-operation of sorts has taken place.
That the Slaying of Vritra has taken place with Saraswati as the active instrument, the Weapon.
Now we can subtly infer this via making use of any of the several RigVedic Hymnals within which Lord Brihaspati uses *prayer* to kill Vritra and/or Vala. Technically, it is often Prayer summoning/conjuring an Orbital Bombardment via Meteor [‘Call Down The Thunder’, and ‘Death From Above’, we might say]; as the Prayer in question is an expression of Vak – Divine Speech. And what is Saraswati? Purification, per some etymologies, Purifying Speech [‘सरस्’ has a double meaning of ‘Speech’, but also ‘Fluid’, ‘Stream’ – which makes quite some conceptual sense once one thinks about it, and also helps to explain the continual ‘Seven’ metaphor as applies the conduits from Earth to the Heavens … Seven Sages Who Speak and Sing, Seven Tongues of Flame, Seven Rivers, Seven Voices/Metres, … you get the idea.]
Purification carried out through the judicious use of Divine Force. Rendering something Holy … by putting holes in it. Applying the Hallowing Blessings of Lord Agni … via the fire-power (phwer, indeed, in PIE terms for the full doublet!) of the Flamethrower. Or, I suppose, given the context and the content, “Water-Blasting”.
Yet there is also a rather more direct attestation. Indeed, it is the major substance and the subject of RV 8 89 – a hymnal dedicated to Vak Devi, and depicting Vak acting in availment of Indra in His Mighty Deeds, indeed being quite directly responsible for the empowerment and the ultimate cause of the Victory of the Righteous.
“1. I MOVE before thee here present in person, and all the Deities follow behind me.
When, Indra, thou securest me my portion, with me thou shalt perform heroic actions.
2 The food of meath in foremost place I give thee, thy Soma shall be pressed, thy share appointed.
Thou on my right shalt be my friend and comrade: then shall we two smite dead full many a foeman.
3 Striving for strength bring forth a laud to Indra, a truthful hymn if he in truth existeth.
One and another say, There is no Indra. Who hath beheld him? Whom then shall we honour?
4 Here am I, look upon me here, O singer. All that existeth 1 surpass in greatness.
The Holy Law’s commandments make me mighty. Rending with strength I rend the worlds asunder.
5 When the Law’s lovers mounted and ap. proached me as 1 sate lone upon the dear sky’s summit.
Then spake my spirit to the heart within me, My friends have cried unto me with their children.
6 All these thy deeds must be declared at Soma-feasts, wrought, Indra, Bounteous Lord, for him who sheds the juice,
When thou didst open wealth heaped up by many, brought from far away to Sarablia, the Ṛṣi’s kin.
7 Now run ye forth your several ways: he is not here who kept you back.
For hath not Indra sunk his bolt deep down in Vṛtra’s vital part?
8 On-rushing with the speed of thought within the iron fort he pressed:
The Falcon went to heaven and brought the Soma to the Thunderer.
9 Deep in the ocean lies the bolt with waters compassed round about,
And in continuous onward flow the floods their tribute bring to it.
10 When, uttering words which no one comprehended, Vāk, Queen of Gods, the Gladdener, was seated,
The heaven’s four regions drew forth drink and vigour: now whither hath her noblest portion vanished?
11 The Deities generated Vāk the Goddess, and animals of every figure speak her.
May she, the Gladdener, yielding food and vigour, the Milch-cow Vāk, approach us meetly lauded.
12 Step forth with wider stride, my comrade Viṣṇu; make room, Dyaus, for the leaping of the lightning.
Let us slay Vṛtra, let us free the rivers let them flow loosed at the command of Indra.”
A full exegesis upon the meanings drawn upon in this Hymnal is beyond the immediate scope of this piece; but suffice to say that it is absolutely uncoincidental to find the direct linkages of The Waters, The Ocean, The Floods , to and via the Divine Speech, to the provision of the Soma, the Bolt-weapon, the power and the velocity and the motion and force of Speeded Thought.
Now all of this relates rather well to both who and what Saraswati *actually is*.
You will hear more euhemeric-ally minded persons, often with a vested interest in pushing the OIT barrow, attempting to reduce Saraswati down to a mere [yes, PIE pun] terrestrial river. And while that isn’t *quite* as egregious as making a Milky Bar out of the Milky Way [‘सर’, as it happens, can also mean Milk; ‘सार’, Cream – i.e. *Churned* Milk], it nevertheless seems a bit peculiar, a bit reductionist, a bit overtly lacking in grandeur to downplay or even outright *ignore* the reality of the *Celestial Saraswati* (“She Who hath filled the realms of earth, And that wide tract, the firmament!” [RV 6 61 11]), the River of Stars twinkling up there across the Night’s Sky, to only focus upon a (potential) terrestrial counterpart.
[And that is leaving aside the rather intriguing question of just *which* terrestrial counterpart … one of the hypothesized now-long-dried-up river-systems that once existed in North-West India of ‘convenient’ timing in ongoing rear-guard actions against the relentless march of all the assembled knowledge-spears of other fields? [How sadly ironic that a dusty gulch would be feebly fortified against this veer-y Saraswati-aligned onslaught of newly found and anciently re-pieced together information.] Or perhaps a similarly named river of Afghanistan, or what is tantalizingly talked about in Persianate sources, wherein the Saraswati-equivalent Goddess has a cloak comprised of the skin of the Eurasian Beaver, found north of the Caucasus, etc.]
No, that would not even be on a par with insisting that the only Ganges which matters is the physically observable one flowing out into the Bay of Bengal.
And I mention the Ganges not only via way of immediate comparison in the sense that it has long been acknowledged that the physical water-course coming down below GauMukh and onward, is a *bearer* for the Metaphysical Ganges, the Supernal Ganges, the on-Earth flow of the *Celestial Ganges*, that RIver of Suns’ Course earlier aforementioned … nor even due to the longstanding awareness of the Milky Way as that veer-y same Celestial Ganges aforementioned.
But rather, because of how we see the ‘translation point’ between Celestial Ganges and Terrestrial Ganges to take place within the appropriate [Shaivite] mythic cosmology: Namely, She pours down from the Upplands beyond this World, beyond this Universe, beyond the Stars Themselves, with the full-force of the conceptual downpour from Brahman … to the head, to the hair, to the Mind of Lord Shiva Himself – the only ‘Man’ [and I do not mean ‘human’, but rather in the PIE resonant sense wherein it relates to ‘Mind’, this also standing at the root of terms such as “Mantra”, and as we shall see when I get on with the next installment of the Mytholinguistics of War series – Manyu, and also Minerva; The ‘Empowered Mind’, the ‘Focused Mind’, the ‘Sharp Mind’, the ‘Pious Mind’ is indeed the mightiest of weapons!] able to handle such Insight, such Inspiration, such Inception … such Knowledge, which is then radiated outward, amidst His Whirling Hair like darting thoughts, in a manner akin to both cultural and meteorological diffusion, even as the main course’s ‘cushioned’ upon landing ‘essence’ makes Her way out through the Glacier, the Cow’s Mouth [and you can see from the above Hymnal of the 8th Mandala how the Cow’s Mouth and Vak are closely aligned in principia ! ] , and then down out through the Gangetic Plane, to Varanasi/Benares/Kashi, and the Sea. [From Ocean to Ocean, Star to Indian, Respectively, we might, perhaps, say.]
Now, in terms of how all of this fits into the broader Indo-European mytho-religious schema … not only do we have a typological model to help explain the mysteries inherent in ShivLingPuja (wherein, per the concept of Eternal Return a la Eliade, the pouring of Milk [‘Saras’, remember?] upon the ShivLing, Which then flows over, down, and thence on out … is in fact a microcosmic model of the macro-cosmos; and the investiture of inspirational essence therein to, to meet the Stone, the Mountain, Who Is Already There (A)Waiting] ; but we have *also* just helped to explain what is going on when Lord Odin sups from the Well of Mimir, the Mimisbrunr, via which He is granted knowledge, wisdom, insight further to His already considerably capacious means; and, for that matter, likely also what is going on with the pouring of the white, hallowing libation at the Well of Urdr, Urdarbrunnr, upon the local root of Yggdrasil, the Axis Mundi [akin to the ShivLing in multiple senses, in this term].
At the Spring of Urdr are also found Swans, and it should by now come as absolutely no surprise to us to hear that the Swan – correlated also with Purity, Discernment, and Wisdom [and, for that matter, with the derivation of the Soma; which, in terms of the Vak and Verse and Metre connectivity, well, Poetry from Pressing-Stones’ Libation – Meath, Mushroom-derived or otherwise, and Madhu-sweetened in augmentation of the substance of the verses’ lustre] … the Swan is *also* the Vahana of Saraswati.
Now there is more, *much* more, that can and should and must be said upon *all* of this [including how the eighth line of R 6 61 relates to the enrapturing concept of Vacam Garjit Lakshanam – “Whose limitless unbroken flood, swift-moving with a rapid rush, / Comes onward with tempestuous roar.” – of which I have often written in the past in the course of my Language, Vak, and Devi commentaries, articles, and insights]; but I think that I have made my point over, and again, and then some; especially with comparative mythographic and Indo-Europeanism for the Modern Age / Mytho-Political facings.
When we think of Saraswati, we often picture that placidly Sitar-strumming figure. And yet, “still waters run deep”, with furiously powerful currents hiding under pleasantly calm surface-exteriors.
If we see Saraswati bearing Culture in the form of music, or literature, or other such things, it is good. Yet not only are these, too, weapons [‘Kulturkampf’ is a concept, for a reason]; but Saraswati *also* bears martial potency which, as we have seen, is at least the equal of Lord Indra. And, in fact, it is not only that She comes Roaring Across The Sky *Bearing* Weapons – but also, that She is The Weapon, Herself!
The Calm Culture-Bringer, in other words, is but one facet of an entrancingly *Deep-a* Goddess. But you don’t have to just take ‘my’ Word for it:
RV VII 95:
“THIS stream Sarasvatī with fostering current comes forth, our sure defence, our fort of iron.
As on a car, the flood flows on, surpassing in majesty and might all other waters.”
And, because it really is a rather excellent Hymnal, the entirety of RV VI 61 [Griffith Translation]:
“1. To Vadhryasva when. be worshipped her with gifts she gave fierce Divodāsa, canceller of debts.
Consumer of the churlish niggard, one and all, thine, O Sarasvatī, are these effectual boons.
2 She with her might, like one who digs for lotus-stems, hath burst with her strong waves the ridges of the hills.
Let us invite with songs and holy hymns for help Sarasvatī who slayeth the Paravatas.
3 Thou castest down, Sarasvatī, those who scorned the Gods, the brood of every Bṛsaya skilled in magic arts.
Thou hast discovered rivers for the tribes of men, and, rich in wealth! made poison flow away from them.
4 May the divine Sarasvatī, rich in her wealth, protect us well,
Furthering all our thoughts with might
5 Whoso, divine Sarasvatī, invokes thee where the prize is set,
Like Indra when he smites the foe.
6 Aid us, divine Sarasvad, thou who art strong in wealth and power
Like Pūṣan, give us opulence.
7 Yea, this divine Sarasvatī, terrible with her golden path,
Foe-slayer, claims our eulogy.
8 Whose limitless unbroken flood, swift-moving with a rapid rush,
Comes onward with tempestuous roar.
9 She hath spread us beyond all foes, beyond her Sisters, Holy One,
As Sūrya spreadeth out the days.
10 Yea, she most dear amid dear stream, Seven-sistered, graciously inclined,
Sarasvatī hath earned our praise.
11 Guard us from hate Sarasvatī, she who hath filled the realms of earth,
And that wide tract, the firmament!
12 Seven-sistered, sprung from threefold source, the Five Tribes’ prosperer, she must be
Invoked in every deed of might.
13 Marked out by majesty among the Mighty Ones, in glory swifter than the other rapid Streams,
Created vast for victory like a chariot, Sarasvatī must be extolled by every sage.
14 Guide us, Sarasvatī, to glorious treasure: refuse us not thy milk, nor spurn us from thee.
Gladly accept our friendship and obedience: let us not go from thee to distant countries.”
To quote from MahishasurMardini Stotram:
“तव चरणं शरणं करवाणि नतामरवाणि निवासि शिवम्”