In the holy trinity of Indian goddesses, Saraswati, the goddess of learning and arts has a special place. Not only is she India’s ‘oldest’ Goddess, her worship transcends geography and faiths!
Saraswati is India’s ‘oldest’ Goddess
The earliest reference to the goddess appears in the Rigveda, where Saraswati appears as a river as well as a goddess. The poet venerates her comparing her to ‘the best of mothers, the best of rivers and the best of Goddesses.’ In fact, her origins are evident in her name. Saraswati, is a fusion of two Sanskrit words of sāra or essence, and sva - which means one self. In other words, the ‘essence of oneself’, Saraswati, the name could have also originated from another Sanskrit composite word surasa-vati which means ‘one with plenty of water’.
Given the ancient origins of this goddess, there are those who have drawn linkages between Saraswati, the wife of Brahma and Sarah, the wife of Abraham. There are also parallels drawn between Saraswati of the Aryans and Anahita of the Zoroastrians.
It is a testimony to Saraswati’s great appeal that her stature continued to grow through the later Vedic period and well into the medieval times. Purity, virtue, knowledge and the arts remained her domains even as she managed to cross geographies and faiths.
While Saraswati is known by different names in India - from Brahmani, to Vani and Varnesvari, there are also references to her across South East Asia.
In Myanmar, the Shwezigon Mon Inscription dated to of 1084 AD, near Bagan, refers to Saraswati as embodiment of wisdom of eloquence.
Purity, virtue, knowledge and the arts remained her domains even as she managed to cross geographies and faiths
In Buddhist art, she is called Thurathadi (or Thayéthadi) and students in Myanmar pray for her blessings before their exams, even today. She is also believed to be in the Mahayana pantheon of Myanmar, as the protector of Buddhist scriptures.
Further afield in Japan, Saraswati appears as Benzaiten . The worship of Benzaiten arrived in Japan during the 6th and 8th centuries. She is often depicted holding a biwa a traditional Japanese lute. There are numerous shrines dedicated to her across Japan.
Saraswati finds frequent mention in Cambodian literature and temples as well. The earliest epigraphic reference to the Goddess comes from the 7th century CE. She is also referred to as Vagisvari and Bharati in Yasovarman and Khmer literature.
In ancient Thai literature, Saraswati (Suratsawadi) is the goddess of speech and learning, and consort of Brahma. Over time, Hindu and Buddhist concepts on deities merged in Thailand.
Saraswati is an important goddess in Balinese Hinduism as well. She shares the same attributes and iconography as Saraswati in the Hindu literature of India - in both places, she is the goddess of knowledge, creative arts, wisdom, language, learning and purity. In Bali she is celebrated on Saraswati Day, one of the main festivals for Hindus in Indonesia. The day marks the close of the 210-day year in the Pawukon calendar.