Wednesday, June 18, 2014

She of Many Waters

It's time for more requests! This week, we have a write-in that says: I love the Wednesday posts about badass women from myth, and I was wondering if you could do one on Sarasvati? I feel like she does't get the same kind of publicity that Lakshmi or Parvati get, and it would be really cool to have a post on her. I think that's a fair assessment; like her husband Brahma, Sarasvati is still very important but often seems less prominent when compared to the other members of her triad. (Of course, that's Brahma's own fault, but Sarasvati doesn't have any similar tales of infamy to mar her reputation!)

So: Sarasvati. Just as Parvati and Lakshmi are both perfect complements to their male counterparts among the Trimurti, so Sarasvati is the ideal partner of Brahma, the mistress of artistic and informational creation as counterpoint to his physical and magical creation; and just as the Trimurti form a triple alliance of the elemental powers of the universe and balance one another, so do the Tridevi represent the forms of female power that animate the universe. Sarasvati is an integral and important part of this triad of power, and represents female creative genesis and the ability to give life. She does this both spiritually, as the font of knowledge and learning, and in an elemental manner in her ancient role as the goddess of the life-giving waters of the river that shares her name. She is critically important as the equal partner in all creation; Brahma makes the world and all things in it, but it is Sarasvati who gives the world meaning, because without knowledge creation is purposeless.

She's also moderately famous for being the member of the Tridevi with the most headstrong temperament and the least interest in doing what the Trimurti want just to make their lives easier. It shouldn't be too surprising that the goddess of knowledge requires even gods to exhibit a certain amount of wisdom in order to earn her consideration.

Sarasvati represents pure knowledge, reason and thought, and in keeping with that role she was created from pure thought, when Brahma caused her to come into being from his own essence (in some versions, she is literally made from his flesh; in others, she was born from the words he spoke to create the world, as she is the mistress of all words and speech). Sarasvati was incredibly beautiful and Brahma, upon seeing her, fell in love with her immediately; however, Sarasvati avoided his advances (not least because, as her creator, he was her father and therefore any marriage between them would be incestuous), and tried to find somewhere to hide to avoid his lustful gaze. Brahma responded by growing extra heads to make sure he could look in every direction at once and therefore be assured of always looking at her no matter where she went. In an attempt to escape him, she tried flying directly upwards, but even that didn't work; he simply grew a fifth head and used it to follow her there as well.

At this point in the story, Brahma's multiple heads become a problem for everyone and are dealt with, although the manner varies in different regional tellings. In some, Shiva notices what is happening and, irritated by Brahma's incestuous behavior, appears suddenly and cuts off the fifth head before lecturing him on his deplorable behavior. In another, Sarasvati transforms herself into a cow and flees him in this form, but he chases her as a bull, after which she turns herself into a swan and he becomes a male of the same species, and so on and so forth until he has mated with her in spite of her attempts to escape in the form of every animal in existence, and she has given birth to the first animals of each species in the world, and only then does Shiva arrive to put a stop to all these shenanigans. In yet another, Sarasvati called upon Vishnu to help her and moved into his house (in some accounts even becoming his wife), but he found multiple wives too difficult to manage (or, alternatively, Lakshmi was not pleased about the situation), so he called upon Shiva to deal with Brahma so he could send her back to him with a clear conscience.

Regardless of the version, Sarasvati will have nothing to do with Brahma and his lustful leanings toward incest until Shiva kicks his ass, at which point he realizes that he's not exactly being a model for spiritually acceptable behavior.

Once he's been deprived of his fifth head, Brahma undergoes severe penance to make up for his behavior, and only after that does Sarasvati agree to marry him, on the promise that their marriage be celibate to avoid any lingering threat of incest. As the enlightenment that gives meaning to creation, Brahma needs Sarasvati but also cannot directly touch her, and together the two of them become a true creative force that can work in harmony for the betterment of the universe.

Sarasvati may be occasionally overlooked in favor of the passionate myths of Parvati's rebirth and wooing of her husband or the ongoing drama of Lakshmi's domestic squabbles with hers, but she is every inch a cosmic power over the universe. In another myth, Brahma prepares to perform a sacred fire ritual and invites a great number of sages to witness it with him, but they arrive and get the party started before Sarasvati is ready to attend herself. She informs them that since the other ladies who were invited have not yet arrived, she can't receive them because it would be improper for her to enter a room full of men alone, leaving them to fend for themselves until either Brahma or the other goddesses show up. When Brahma discovers this, he is so infuriated by her actions that he demands that Indra find him a new wife; Indra hunts around a bit and presents the goddess Gayatri as a a likely candidate, and Brahma begins the wedding ceremony to marry her, certain that this new wife will be much better than the old one.

Unfortunately for him, Sarasvati enters at that moment, flanked by Lakshmi and Parvati, in a blaze of righteous wifely fury. She lays mighty curses upon all of the Trimurti as well as the king of the gods for daring to interfere in her marriage, starting with Brahma himself, who she curses to never be worshiped except for a single day out of the year, which explains why there are so few temples and festivals dedicated to the creator god (there are other myths that claim different origins for the curse that prevents Brahma from being popular, so this one may conflict with those - or possibly Brahma just screws up and gets the same curse levied on him multiple times in Hindu myth). She then curses Vishnu for giving away the new bride to Brahma, thus implicitly supporting this attack on her marriage, that he will be separated from his wife; this happens several times in the future, when Vishnu accidentally insults his wife and she leaves him temporarily on a number of occasions, leaving him luckless and destitute until she returns, and also causes him to be separated from his wife each time he incarnates as an avatar. The third curse goes to Shiva, also for giving away the bride along with Vishnu, and Sarasvati declares that he will lose his manhood; although this does happen, Shiva's phallus is so powerful that it escapes and begins rocketing around the universe, forcing Parvati to offer up her vagina as a safe place to contain it, thus explaining why Shiva's lingua is worshiped separately from him and why it is always shown with Parvati's yoni attached (again, there are other myths explaining how this happened to him, or else it's a recurring problem for Shiva). And finally, Sarasvati curses Indra for procuring the new bride for Brahma, and foretells that he will be captured and tortured by his enemies in order to feel the humiliation he has visited on her, which later comes true when Ravana captures him, drags him behind his chariot and ties him up in his palace for all the rakshasa to ridicule. Oh, and she also curses all the sages that caused this problem in the first place, dooming them to become poor beggars for the rest of their lives.

Then she sweeps out like the queen of the universe she is, and all the dudes commence panicking because, post-curses, they realize that this whole "get a new wife to punish Sarasvati" idea might have actually been a really terrible plan that ruins everything.

(Incidentally, Gayatri is an awesome lady in her own right, and is considered the combined form of Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati together. Which probably explains why the Tridevi totally ignore her in this myth - they are her. And anyway, it's not her fault Brahma's being kind of a jerk.)

The fun doesn't even stop there; after Sarasvati storms out with her ladies, they accompany her for a while but then decide they want to go back to their husbands. Sarasvati is having none of this treasonous misters-before-sisters attitude, so she also curses all of them. Lakshmi is cursed that she can never be content or peaceful in a single place and that men will always desire her, which describes both the way humanity constantly craves wealth and the way Lakshmi's incarnations are always kidnapped by enemies; Indrani is cursed so that she will be forced to wait on and treat Indra's conqueror as if he were her husband during the period of Indra's conquest; and the wives of the sages are all cursed with permanent barrenness.

Later, Sarasvati is mollified enough to slightly lessen the curses she has placed, although she can't completely remove them, so that Vishnu and Lakshmi can still be reunited after their separations and Indra can be rescued from Ravana eventually. Brahma has to suffer her displeasure pretty much eternally, though.

Sarasvati embodies the axiom that knowledge is power; she is all words and all words come from her, and when she says those words, they become truth at her will. Many of her stories involve curses in some form as a result - for example, there is also a myth of a circular curse at work between herself and the goddesses Lakshmi and Ganga, in some versions as part of a squabble over Vishnu during the time period when they were all married to him, in which all three of them curse one another so that Sarasvati and Ganga are forced to appear as rivers while on earth and Lakshmi as the tulasi plant. Sarasvati is herself the target of curses sometimes as well, such as when the jealous sage Vishvamrita cursed her waters to become blood when she refused to aid him in drowning his rival, although she was later purified of the evil spell by the intervention of some more friendly holy men who discovered her plight.

Knowledge is power and words are merely the audible form of knowledge; Sarasvati makes them real, whether they are directed for or against her, because that is her very nature. But regardless of her occasional temperamental outbursts, she is rightfully one of the most beloved of goddesses; her gifts of artistic inspiration and learning are the very soul of humanity, and even the greatest among the gods knows that creation would be barren without her.