The Changing Faces of the Goddess Saraswatī
The Saraswatī River was an ancient river that flowed through the modern day Thār desert in northern India (Valdiya 6). For the Harappan civilization, the Saraswati was a center for urban development, trade, and culture (Valdiya 76-99). The river became deified, described in early texts both as a mighty river and a goddess. However, by 1900 BCE, the river mostly dried up (Prasad 22). Due to a mixture of tectonic plate movement and changing weather patters (Valdiya 107-108), the Harappan people lost their most important natural resource. Somehow, through this period of transition, the goddess Saraswatī survived, taking on the role as a goddess of speech and wisdom (Ludvik 4). The understanding of Saraswatī as the goddess of knowledge comes from both her original function as a river goddess and her association with other Vedic deities.
Mentions of Saraswatī appear even in the earliest Hindu text, the Rig Veda. There, she is understood as a river, uncontrollable and overwhelming yet motherly and bountiful (Ludvik 15). In Book 6 Hymn 95, it says,
This stream Saraswatī with fostering current comes forth, our sure defense, our fort of iron. As on a car, the flood flows on, surpassing in majesty and might all other waters.
Pure in her course from mountains to the ocean, alone of streams Saraswatī hath listened. Thinking of wealth and the great world of creatures, she poured for Nahuṣa her milk and fatness. (Hare 7.95)
Here, she is first described as a source of protection and one of the great rivers of the world. She is then likened to a cow, bestowing wealth upon the king Nahuṣa and the world. This is unsurprising consider her role in Harappan life. During the mature Harappan period, trade with other Harappans and people living along the Gulf Coast, flourished in a number of port cities, including Dholāvīrā, an urban center on the banks of the Saraswatī. The trade brought the exchange of cultures including items like pottery and jewelry as well as a standardized script (Valdiya 92). The river also became a center for religious life. A passage in the Rig Veda explains that the best place to perform a fire sacrifice is on the banks of the Saraswatī (Ludvik 14). As an important part of economic and religious activity, the river became more than a source of wealth and luck; she became an independent deity.
Beginning in 3000 BCE, the river Saraswatī began wane, though it remained active in some form until 900 BCE. This decline brought changes to the people living along her banks. Between 1900 and 1300 BCE, the art, culture and the civic system of the Harappan civilization rapidly deteriorated (Valdiya 97-98). The once vast urban centers gave way to smaller agricultural settlments spread across the region and port cities on the Arabian Sea, as people moved away from the dying river (Valdiya 98-99). And yet, through this period of upheaval, Saraswatī grew in prominence, gaining additional importance in Vedic religious life, duties whose essence she retains to this day.
Saraswatī’s transformation was not a creation of a new deity with the same name, but rather a gradual shift in responsibilities. The performance of the fire sacrifice along her banks led to her association with goddesses like Ila, Bharati, and later Vāc (Prasad 54-55). Ila was the ghee (clarified butter) used in the sacrifice (Prasad 52) and Bhārāti or Mahī was associated with prayer (Kinsley 11). As crucial parts of the performance of the sacrifice, the location (Saraswatī), the offering (Ila), and the prayer (Mahī) were always invited in before beginning Vedic rituals (Prasad 53). In addition, Saraswatī became involved with dhī or inspired thought (Ludvik 28). Right from the start, in Book 1 Hymn 3 of the Rig Veda, it says,
Wealthy in spoil, enriched with hymns, may bright Sarasatī desire, With eager love, our sacrifice.
Inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thought, Saraswatī accept our rite.
Sarasvatī, the mighty flood,—she with her light illuminates, She brightens every pious thought. (Hare 1.3)
With this hymn, a priest would invite Saraswatī in, praising her both as one who gives wealth and inspires gracious thoughts. These thoughts are only one step away from speech, as speech is just verbalized thoughts (Ludvik 33). Though there is no connection between Saraswatī and Vāc in the Rig Veda—they only merge in the Brahmana period (Prasad 59)—these hymns lay the groundwork for Saraswatī’s continued significance. Her role as the prime location for Vedic sacrifices led to her association with and absorption of other sacrificial goddesses, giving her a new set of responsibilities and additional importance.
The goddess Saraswatī survived the destruction of her earthly body and lived on as a crucial component of ritual practice. Her prominence in the lives of the people of the Harappan civilization allowed them to hold onto her even centuries after she no longer flowed. As their lives changed, they began to understand her significance in a new light. Instead of literally providing life-giving waters, she now bestowed wealth through the vehicle of Vedic ritual practice.