My conversation in celebration of Vasant Panchami and Saraswati Jayanti:
How did a river become the goddess of speech, learning and knowledge?
The river Sarasvati was one of the rivers mentioned in the Ṛgveda and later Vedic and post-Vedic texts. The Sarasvati River played an important role in the Vedic religion, appearing in all but the fourth book of the Rigveda:
Here is two such verse:
अम्बितमे नदीतमे देवितमे सरस्वति
(Best of mothers, the best of rivers, best of goddesses, Sarasvatī.)
— Ṛgveda 2.41.16
अपो अस्मान मातरः शुन्धयन्तु घर्तेन नो घर्तप्वः पुनन्तु |
विश्वं हि रिप्रं परवहन्ति देविरुदिदाभ्यः शुचिरापूत एमि ||
(May the waters, the mothers, cleanse us,
may they who purify with butter, purify us with butter,
for these goddesses bear away defilement,
I come up out of them pure and cleansed.)
— Ṛgveda 10.17
It is evident then that, in the earliest Vedic prose, Sarasvati was a body of water. If we look at the etymology of the word ‘Sarasvati’, it is even more clear:
Sarasvatī is the feminine nominative singular form of the adjective sarasvat (which occurs in the Ṛgveda as the name of the keeper of the celestial waters), derived from ‘sarasa’ + ‘vat’, meaning ‘having’. Saras appears, in turn, to be the compound of ‘sa’, a prefix meaning ‘with’, plus ‘rasa’, sap or juice, or water, and is defined in the first instance as ‘anything flowing or fluid’. Thus, originally, Saraswati was a Sanskrit fusion word of saras (सरस्) meaning “pooling water”, and later on, also sometimes translated as “speech”; and vati (वती) meaning “she who possesses”. Originally associated with the river or rivers known as Saraswati, this combination, therefore, means “she who has ponds, lakes, and pooling water” or occasionally “she who possesses speech”. It is also a Sanskrit composite word of surasa-vati (सुरस-वति) which means “one with plenty of water”.
Sarasvatī may also be a cognate of Avestan Haraxvatī, perhaps originally referring to Arədvī Sūrā Anāhitā (modern Ardwisur Anahid), the Zoroastrian mythological world river, which would point to a common Indo-Iranian myth of a cosmic or mystical Sáras-vat-ī river. In the younger Avesta, Haraxvatī is Arachosia, a region described to be rich in rivers, and its Old Persian cognate Harauvati, which gave its name to the present-day Hārūt River in Afghanistan, may have referred to the entire Helmand drainage basin (the center of Arachosia).
Thus, the goddess Sarasvati was originally a personification of this river, but later developed an independent identity. The Sarasvati is also considered by Hindus to exist in a metaphysical form, in which it formed a confluence with the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna, at the Triveni Sangam. Superimposed on the Vedic Sarasvati river is the heavenly river Milky Way, which is seen as “a road to immortality and heavenly after-life.”
Ṛgveda and later Vedic texts have been used to propose identification with present-day rivers, or ancient riverbeds. The Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda (10.75) mentions the Sarasvati between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west. Later Vedic texts like the Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas, as well as the Mahabharata, mention that the Sarasvati dried up in a desert. This is plausible as modern day geography has identified a period of Climate Change that resulted in drying up of this river resulting in the migration of the Vedic tribes from the Sarasvati-Indus Basin to the Gangetic plains. This may have also represented the split of one Pre-Zoroastrian fire worshiping civilization that split into Zoroastrianism and Vedic religion. The evidence of the split of Indo-Iranian into Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages also supports this.
The Sarasvati is mentioned some fifty times in the hymns of the Rig Veda. It is mentioned in thirteen hymns of the late books (1 and 10) of the Rigveda. Only two of these references are unambiguously to the river: 10.64.9, calling for the aid of three “great rivers”, Sindhu, Sarasvati and Sarayu; and 10.75.5, the geographical list of the Nadistuti sukta. The others invoke Sarasvati as a goddess without direct connection to a specific river.
In 10.30.12, her origin as a river goddess may explain her invocation as a protective deity in a hymn to the celestial waters. In 10.135.5, as Indra drinks Soma he is described as refreshed by Sarasvati. The invocations in 10.17 address Sarasvati as a goddess of the forefathers as well as of the present generation. In 1.13, 1.89, 10.85, 10.66 and 10.141, she is listed with other gods and goddesses, not with rivers. In 10.65, she is invoked together with “holy thoughts” (dhī) and “munificence” (puraṃdhi), consistent with her role as a goddess of both knowledge and fertility.
Though Sarasvati initially emerged as a river goddess in the Vedic scriptures, in later Hinduism of the Puranas, she was rarely associated with the river. Instead she emerged as an independent goddess of knowledge, learning, wisdom, music and the arts. The evolution of the river goddess into the goddess of knowledge started with later Brahmanas, which identified her as Vāgdevī, the goddess of speech, perhaps due to the centrality of speech in the Vedic cult and the development of the cult on the banks of the river. It is also possible to postulate two originally independent goddesses that were fused into one in later Vedic times. Aurobindo has proposed, on the other hand, that “the symbolism of the Veda betrays itself to the greatest clearness in the figure of the goddess Sarasvati … She is, plainly and clearly, the goddess of the World, the goddess of a divine inspiration …”. taking into account the imagery of a river coming alive at the end of winter and the beginning of spring around the 5th day of spring (Vasant Panchmi), one may say the river is reborn and has come back to life. This narrative makes sense when we consider the birth of Sarasvati (Sarasvati Jayanti) as celebrated on the same day of Vasant Panchami.
So, the earliest known mention of Saraswati as a goddess is in the Rigveda. She has remained significant as a goddess from the Vedic period through modern times of Hindu traditions. Some Hindus celebrate the festival of Vasant Panchami (the fifth day of spring, and also known as Saraswati Puja and Saraswati Jayanti in so many parts of India) in her honour, and mark the day by helping young children learn how to write the letters of the alphabet on that day. The Goddess is also revered by believers of the Jain religion of west and central India, as well as some Buddhist sects.