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The Symbolism of Saraswati

Author: Sandeep Balakrishna
Publication: India Facts
Date: September 22, 2014
URL: http://www.indiafacts.co.in/symbolism-saraswati/

A couple of years ago, a reader wrote to me with an experience that he says vexed him. The relevant portion of his email is excerpted below (with permission):

…during a talk with a liberal friend of mine, regarding the MF Hussain episode…friend talked on the lines of what liberals usually speak i.e kamasutra khajuraho…But…his explanation that Brahma marrying his creation (daughter) Saraswati amounted to incest which according to him means Hinduism sanctifies such relationships…made me quite uncomfortable and disturbed.

This kind of “analysis” typically stems from the Wendy Doniger school of Indic distortion, which, intentionally confounds the symbolic with the literal and sees sex and perversion everywhere in Sanatana Dharma. There’s a terse Sanskrit proverb to describe this phenomenon: yad bhaavam tad bhavati (you perceive according to your mental makeup).

And so it is with Brahma who married his own daughter Saraswati—a case of incest no doubt. Only if it is viewed literally.

Different Puranas have different versions of how Brahma was born but the most popular one is this: Brahma was born out of the lotus that grew from Vishnu’s navel (hence his name, Nabhija, the word “Nabhi” means “navel.”). After he was born, he created a female form, Shatarupa, who later came to be known as Saraswati. To cut a long story short, Brahma essentially fell in love with his own creation and ended up marrying her.

At a very mundane, everyday level, if we create something out of our own imagination–a painting, a poem, a tune, a sculpture–it becomes ours in the sense that it is something we gave birth to using our imaginative, mental, and physical faculties. It does not become ours in the sense that we purchased it in cash or kind. Which is typically why we hear these familiar and colourful phrases describing creative output: “labour of my love,” “my baby,” “manifestation of my creativity,” and so on.

However, we don’t hear anybody expressing a desire to feed their artistic creations with milk and food. Neither do they nurture any hallucinations that their painting or novel will crawl after three months. However, if someone starts talking about taking the tune that they composed in say Raga Abheri to the doctor for giving it polio drops, you know what number to call.

In other words, when you describe your artistic creation as your baby, it is implied that you are only talking figuratively, not literally.

This background is essential to understand Brahma’s supposedly-incestuous marriage to Saraswathi.

Now, Brahma is the God of Creation. But is that all there is to it? The answer is yes if you take the marriage literally—that is, physically, as in a marriage between a man and a woman. But if it’s nothing more than a marriage between a man and a woman, why was Brahma so attracted to his own daughter? Being Creator, how difficult was it to create a wife for himself?

And this question is what prompts us to look at the symbolism behind the supposedly incestuous marriage.

As Creator, Brahma brought to life Existence itself. Which means he created the physical world that we perceive through our sense organs and make sense of this world using our mind. And how does the mind make sense of this physical world?

If we talk about the physical world of shapes and forms, we need to give it a definition, or a name or label. In the Indian tradition, this process of understanding the world is typically expressed as “the world of Nama (Name) and Rupa (Form/Shape),” both Nama and Rupa being inseparable. In plain language, we look at a tree and our mind can’t be satisfied unless it finds a word (nama) to define it clearly so that when you say “tree,” you know exactly what it is without having to actually look at it with your eyes.

It is evident that this process of defining the physical world falls in the realm of thought. Thought then is expressed through speech.

What follows from this is rather simple. The shapes and forms that Brahma gave to his thoughts became the physical world. When he expressed it in language, it became speech. And this speech is Saraswati, his daughter. This makes is perfectly logical when we observe the fact that Saraswati is primarily worshipped as the Goddess of Speech (or vaak), language, and learning.

Indeed, there is no single word in any language which has no meaning because every word is both an idea and its expression–it represents something: a thought, an object, anything. In other words, a word cannot be divorced from its meaning. Even in the case of names of people–if we utter the name of a person, it conjures up an image or some sort of memory or association related to that person. In this case, this meaning of the word is again represented by Saraswati, now donning the role of Brahma’s wife.

Perhaps the simplest and best exposition of this relationship between word and meaning and Brahma and Saraswati has been given by Kalidasa in this immortal opening verse of his grand Raghuvamsha:
Vaagarthaviva Sampruktau Vaagartha pratipattaye| Jagatah Pitarau Vande Parvati Parameshwaru|| Just as a word and its meaning are inseparable I bow to the Shiva and Parvati, the parents of this world.

As the meaning of the word, Saraswati is Brahma’s wife, inseparable like the wife who stays with her husband for life through good and tough times. This symbolism is pretty much true of all Gods and their wives. As the wife of Vishnu the Preserver of the world, Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth. You cannot hope to attain peace and order in the world without prosperity.

This then is the symbolism behind Saraswati as both Brahma’s daughter and wife. Yet, for millions of Hindus over thousands of years, Brahma and Saraswati have continued to remain revered. The last thought a practising Hindu will have about Saraswati is her so-called “incestuous marriage” to Brahma.

There’s a reason symbols and myths in Hinduism have an enduring quality about them: they make highly abstract philosophies and concepts readily accessible to us by making them part of our daily life. It is easier telling a child about the importance of learning by narrating the importance of worshipping Saraswati than it is to threaten it to “study or else!” Equally, it is easier to explain abstract concepts of thought, words and meanings to a layman using this story than conduct an academic session/seminar. Even without this complexity, the story of Brahma and Saraswati still makes for a fascinating and interesting narrative.

However, in this age of absurd insistence on literality and reality-in-everything, we’ve become conditioned to look for literal meanings in places where finding literal meanings is both irrelevant and misleading without a proper grounding in symbolism. If we do that, we will be forced to read literal meanings even in Atlas’ tale of bearing the weight of the world on his back.

Equally, we can’t be selective in choosing literal meanings for some, and symbolic meanings for others. Why do those who accept the symbolism—not literalism—of the Trimurtis as symbols of creation, preservation, and destruction suddenly look at the literal meaning in the marriage of Brahma and Saraswati? This is one of the main reasons Hindus are upset with the likes of Wendy Doniger et al, who read literal meanings because it fits the conclusion they want to derive.

On a related note, there’s a deeper reason Hindus are outraged by M.F Hussain’s pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Hindu art, according to Ananda Coomaraswamy, moves from the impersonal to the personal. For example, if I draw a painting of a mike and say this picture is an artistic representation of the triumph of technology to improve the quality of our lives, it draws absolutely no outrage. On the other hand, if I caption the same picture with something like, “this is the penis of my friend Robert’s father, and shows the virile nature of the force behind all creation,” what’s your guess as to how Robert will respond?

Given the deeply personal nature of our mythology, Saraswati, Sita et al are as much–if not more–our family members as our parents and siblings are: in other words, they are not merely paintings of just any nude female form. It is this that upsets Hindus not to mention the way Hussain perverts Hindu mythological tales. And this is also why Hindus aren’t upset with Khajuraho sculptures but instead visit the temple and pay their respects to the Gods there.
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