Sarasvatî is a goddess of primary importance. She is accepted by Hindus as the goddess of learning, the arts, and scholarship. However, Sarasvatî’s nature is far more complex and her mythology more interesting than is widely known. Sarasvatî, whose name means “flowing” and “watery,” has been associated with an ancient river that was quite important in the Vedic period but eventually dried up because of a desertification that was occurring in the region.
During the early Vedic period Sarasvatî was associated with Agni, as one of the three flames of his fiery tongue (along with Ilâ and Bharatî) or as his wife. In the multiple traditions reflected in the earliest Vedic hymns, Sarasvatî next became the partner of Indra and then the As´vins, the twin physicians of the devas (gods).
Sarasvatî healed with her purifying waters, and her banks were particularly sacred for the Brâhmanical animal sacrifices of that period. Ram and ewe were her favorite offering. In a time of intertribal warfare she granted absolution from the worst of Aryan crimes, brâhmanicide (brahma-hatyâ).
From the earliest hymns Sarasvatî was associated with knowledge and learning, and in the Yayurveda she was identified with Vâc, goddess of sacred sound. In the Brâhmanas Sarasvatî had become the wife of Brahmâ, at a time when his cult was the strongest—before Buddhists and Jains made Brahmâ the chief target of their anti-Vedic, anti-deva message.
But Sarasvatî survived these attacks, even finding a place of honor in these heterodox and heteroprax traditions. In the Purânas Sarasvatî was made the daughter of Brahmâ, being born from his face, and charged him either with lust or incest in his desire of her. Brahmâ grew heads in each direction because he could not keep his eyes off Sarasvatî.
When Brahmâ was totally discredited, Sarasvatî became the spouse of Vishnu— or for most Hindus, a goddess without a husband, worshipped separately, clad in white and sitting on a white lotus—and on the tip of the tongue of students and scholars who worshipped her. Her vina (lute), a manuscript, a white lotus, and a rosary or a water vessel adorned her hands.
At her side was her vehicle (vahana), a swan (hamsa) or (rarely) a ram. In the Mahâbhârata Sarasvatî had a son named Sarasvata, whom she kept alive during a twelve-year drought by feeding him her fish. He had the strength to keep the Vedas alive when other brâhmins became too weak to remember them.
Several Purânas described the constant quarreling of the three wives of Vishnu: Sarasvatî, Lakshmî, and Gangâ. Finally Vishnu gave two away—Sarasvatî to Brahmâ and Gangâ to S´iva. Currently, Sarasvatî is especially celebrated on the ninth day of the Navaratri festival (also called Durgâ Puja) with rice and barley offerings. Invocations to her call her by several other names: Gayatrî and Sâvitrî.