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The Concept of Sarasvati

Author: Madhusudan Mishra

© 2001-2002 Indus Script

In my young age, on every occasion of the Sarasvati-Puja, I used to wonder how the goddess Sarasvati came to be associated with learning. There is no story of her birth as in case of Lakshmi and Parvati, for example. Therefore, the period of her appearing as goddess of learning cannot be easily determined.

Sarasvati appears first of all as a mighty river in the RV. She is said "to flow from the mountains upto the sea" (7,95,2), "to swell by getting waters from the rivers" (6,52,6), and "to be the seventh river, fed by (other) rivers" (7,36,6). All these facts from the family-books of the RV attest the intimate relation of the RSis with the river Sarasvati, but elsewhere (e.g. in 10,17,7-10) she appears to be deified , as if those RSis had only heard about her. The other Vedic Samhitas and Brahmanas do not refer to her physical form, but regard her as goddess. She is not merely a river there.

At the isolating stage of the Aryan speech, nothing was known by its name. There were only clauses to mention a thing. If there was a river, it could be refer to as "it flows". Though the river, later called Sarasvati, might have been flowing very mightily at that time, an Indus text simply says: Sa (nipple) ra (speed) Sa (end), meaning 'from the mountain it flows and stops on the way'. There is also a clause Sa ra Sa gha which seems to say : the waters flowing from the mountain will stop. Though the river might have been flowing from the time immemorial, it was seen slowing down after the rainy season, and it was destined to stop later.

Fearing the scanty flow of the waters periodically and to avoid pressure a single river, the Aryan people would have spread westward upto the river Indus and eastward upto the river Ganga. When they would have settled peacefully in this vast area, an urban culture would have sprung up.

The language had hardly made a departure for the agglutinative stage when they needed it in visible form to cope with the requirements of an urbanised society. The roads meeting at the right angles necessitated signs-boards for the traffic control, etc. The detailed study of the Indus inscriptions is yet to be made, but whatever has been comprehended say much more and other than the material advancement. They reflect more vividly in the later Vedic literature.

When the material life reached the dizzy heights and there was confrontation with the laws of nature, there was an unprecedented catastrophe and the society disintegrated tremendously. They spread in different directions.

The most robust and enduring among them did not leave the heartland. They moved away from the devastated area to what was later known as 'the land of the seven rivers' Sarasvati being the seventh. Then they began to cultivate a pastoral culture, because the collapse of the urban culture was almost total. The linguistic material of the urban culture imperceptibly entered the pastoral culture and was fully naturalised. An extensive excavation has to be carried out along the bed of the river Sarasvati when it is identified, and then more information will be available.

But a group went as far west as the land of the Soma plants on Iran-Afghan border. Another group went to the extreme south, in the country of the hot sun. The third group went to the hills and forests of Central India.

In the south and east the Aryan language was crippled and remained limping on the agglutinative stage for all time to come. But the same on the main heartland, the land of the seven rivers, and on the Iran-Afghan border found favourable conditions for the growth. The agglutinative Aryan speech reached the inflexional stage.

By that time, the clause Sa ra Sa had contracted as sa'ras which began to refer to the hundreds or thousands of lakes and ponds which were visible in the bed of the river. It was still flowing mightily during the rainy season, though during the dry season the flow was slowed down and ponds or lakes were clearly visible. It was here that the river got the name saras-vat-I (abounding in lakes and ponds).

When the land of the Soma plants was overpopulated, a group of them marched towards Central Asia on their way to Europe. The group which was left behind developed some sort of pastoral culture. The Soma juice was their favourite drink, and the plant itself became the object of their worship. They also composed hymns in praise of it. But later they had cultural conflict among themselves. A part of the population severed from them and joined the old stock in the land of the seven rivers. The meeting was not quite friendly, but they reconciled anyhow. They had brought hymns composed in praise of the Soma plants, but here they found other gods, Agni, Indra, Rudra, etc., who were probably the historic personages of the Sarasvati-culture, being worshipped and praised for their beneficial deeds. They combined together and laid the foundation of the Vedic culture.

The great centres of learning had grown up on the banks of the river Sarasvati , which were noisy by the chanting of the Vedic mantras. It appeared that they had come from the womb of the river Sarasvati. It was here that Sarasvati was conceived as the goddess of learning.

By 1900 BC the river Sarasvati dried up, because the rivers supplying waters to her changed their courses. But, the centre of learning remained flourishing around the lakes and ponds. By this time, the Vedic Samhitas were already the old documents, and the centre of learning were shifting towards the East.

The deified river was given the form of a divine woman, having flute across her shoulder, which was an emblem of the dried up river. Other aspects of learning were variously symbolised in her form.

Thus, it was the river Sarasvati, on the two banks of which the learning had started growing, which was ultimately deified as the goddess of learning.

It is said that Sarasvati emerged from the mountains and flowing underground merged with Ganga and Yamuna at Prayaga. But, now the scholars say that it flowed parallel to Indus and fell into the Arabian sea. It is, however, true that it lay midway between Ganga and Sindhu and was the main centre of the cultural activities.

What we have been saying as "The Indus Valley Civilization" is actually "The Sarasvati Civilization".

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