Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saraswati: She Who Sits on the Tongues of Poets

This article was originally published in the Winter 2000 issue of Ascent
and reprinted a few years later in Yoga Chicago.

Glory to you, O Mother, You are creative sound and sacred speech.
You play on the vina and are the supreme goddess of the world.
O Saraswati, make my throat your dwelling place.
Bless me with the strength of wisdom and the power of knowledge.
The seven musical notes and all mellifluous speech are the sacred
water flowing from your feet.
goddess of creative art and its embellisher;
you dwell on the tongues of poets and minstrels. Glory, all glory to you.

There were once three sister goddesses whose names were Ganga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. Perfect equals in every way, their radiance shone throughout the three worlds. When they came of age, all three were given in marriage to Lord Vishnu. Whereas their sister Lakshmi was content, Ganga and Saraswati wanted to be free. Vishnu however, was quite attached to all of his wives. Without some trickery there was no escape. The three devised a plan. Ganga and Saraswati would feign a bitter feud between them. Lakshmi would try to mediate and fail. Vishnu, in a fit of rage would send away his warring wives. The plan worked. Lakshmi remained in the realm of the gods where to this day, she showers radiance, abundance, and good fortune upon the earth. Ganga and Saraswati took the form of rivers, flowing from the heights of the heavens to the depths of the seas. Ganga still flows today as Mother Ganges, the great holy river of India. As for Saraswati, most say that sometime around the year 3000 BCE, her waters began to recede until they dried up and disappeared. But others tell it very differently. Out of her great love and compassion for the human race, the mighty Saraswati transformed herself from a river of water into the river of inspiration, flowing through the human heart and soul.

The goddess Saraswati has always held a fascination for me, but for many years it was mostly intellectual. That changed about ten years ago when I was on retreat at the ashram where I spent the formative years of my sadhana. I came into the meditation hall one morning and was greeted by a most amazing sight. A magnificent statue of Saraswati had been installed on one side of the room. Carved from a huge block of sandalwood, the goddess came alive before my eyes. I sat there spellbound, riveted to the form, realizing that in my life as a musician and composer, Saraswati had always been there, singing from deep within me, yet I’d somehow never recognized this before. It was like meeting a mysterious stranger who had supported me since my birth and was finally revealing herself to me. Then tears came, long and deep, as I faced the many ways I took my musical gifts for granted. In a moment of exquisite and excruciating pain, the reality of this mysterious goddess broke open inside my heart.

In India, the worship of Saraswati begins in the ancient Vedas where she is associated with the Saraswati River, which flowed through northwest India during the second millenium BCE. As a river goddess she was worshipped for the fertilizing, purifying, and life-giving powers of her waters. Even during this early stage, when she was still primarily a river goddess, the hymns of the Rg-veda describe Saraswati as the “inciter of all pleasant songs and gracious thought.” As the early Vedic religion grew into the Hindu tradition, Saraswati came to be equated with Vac, the Vedic goddess of speech.

In time, Saraswati’s river nature merged with the three key powers identified with Vac — truth, sacred vision, and language — and Saraswati became the great goddess personifying the highest faculties of human creativity. She has ever since been lauded as the supreme patroness of music, the inventor of language, and the source of insight and wisdom.

Saraswati is a vast constellation of archetypal energy. In her transcendental aspect, she is considered the shakti or power of Om, the sacred sound from which creation springs. Some tantric sources equate Saraswati’s riverbed aspect with sushumna nadi, the central channel and repository of the major chakras, while others equate her flowing waters with kundalini, the supreme light of consciousness. Saraswati is also praised as the elemental force that gives mantras their special power and she is strongly identified with the Gayatri mantra, revered by many as the sound form of light.

In his book Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine, David Kinsley writes that from the tantric perspective “the deities are thought of as aspects of the cosmos that correspond to aspects of the human organism.” He says that “the aim of tantric sadhana is to establish identity with the deity worshipped [and] to awaken that deity within oneself.” For me, the brilliance of the tantric system is in this teaching. Sadhana is not about outer worship of a god or a goddess whom we perceive as separate from ourselves. Ideally, we establish identity with a deity to awaken the energy stream personified by that deity within ourselves. While outer worship has its place, if we don’t work to embody our chosen deity, we risk falling into the trap that Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rimpoche called “spiritual materialism.”

Over the years I’ve developed practices to awaken my inherent Saraswati energy, working with mantras and visualizations and contemplating the myths, iconography, and scriptural references surrounding her. All of this makes wonderful food for body, mind, and soul, but the truth is, when Saraswati comes, it as a grace, unexpected and unabashedly divine. As a musician, I often feel her presence when I sing. I also feel it when I’m teaching and performing. For me, the challenge has been in learning to get out of the way. I find that a steady diet of meditation, chanting, and hatha yoga does wonders in this regard.

Saraswati energy pulsates with the power of revelation, creativity, and the Word. Like water, it has the capacity to cleanse and refine. Once awakened, the Saraswati impulse slowly washes away the clutch of ego and wrong understanding and in the open space that is created, reveals the knowledge of the Self. Saraswati is elusive and mysterious. Her gifts of insight and inspiration are not so freely given. As everyone knows, water is slippery. To keep Saraswati’s waters vital and flowing, we have to work hard to hold them. Discipline, purity, and noble thoughts are a crucial key. As the force of inspiration, Saraswati is present at the beginning of any creative project, however, the way in which we shape the initial vision seems to determine how much of her light will infuse the finished work.

Saraswati’s nature is completely sattvic. She personifies the purest of the pure. Visualized in white, holding a vina, a mala of crystal or pearls, and a book, her mount is the white swan. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa and in India, those beings who have attained enlightenment are called paramahamsas, “Great Swans.” One might say they have become vehicles able to carry the full weight of Saraswati. Needless to say, those of us who wish to court the energy of this goddess do well to study the ways of these great swans.

The other day I was contemplating the painting of Saraswati that has held a special place in my studio for many years. I’d always seen her vina as symbolic of Saraswati’s identification with music and sound, but suddenly I realized, that vina is me! That vina represents each one of us who longs to merge with her. It was one of those moments when something we’ve taken for granted suddenly breaks open and we see it in a whole new way. I sat down to meditate and began to feel her waters streaming through me. I gave myself over to the experience, letting it move my upper body in graceful, fluid motions. My fingers flowed into mudras. I felt my trunk expand until my head and heart both seemed to touch the sky. My lower body, though feeling weightless, stayed rooted to the earth and I was enveloped in what I can only describe as the most beautiful music. I couldn’t actually hear this music, but I felt myself becoming one with it. There was no separation between me, Saraswati, and the song. There was only music spilling out from every cell of me, as me.

My teacher always told us that the mantra, the deity of the mantra, and the one who sings the mantra are the same. Although I understood what he was saying, it was only intellectual. Now I grasped it with my entire being. Ever since, I have felt a deeper sense of oneness with Saraswati than ever before — and a quiet inner knowing that even when I cannot feel her presence, she is always here, singing the eternal song of the Self and playing on the strings of my heart.

Welcome Saraswati. Make her your friend. Discover that of all the energies of consciousness, Saraswati is the force that can transform everything you do into art. And you will come to know yourself as music in the cosmic symphony of which we are each a small and glowing part.

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