Saraswati Puja is one of the first event worship / puja as per English Calendar.
Saraswati is the Hindu Goddess of wisdom, learning, arts, knowledge, music and speech. The Sanskrit word “Sara” means “Essence” and “swa” means “self.” Thus Saraswati means “the essence of the self.” Saraswati Puja is observed on the “Basant Panchami” (January/ February) day. Basant Panchmi is the significance of arrival of “Basant” (Spring) after winter season.
On this day, students, teachers, artists, writers, musicians and absolutely anyone connected to the world of knowledge, art and teaching, worship her. This day is considered auspicious for a child to start learning.
Let us run through different aspects of this auspicious event.
Saraswati is having four hands representing four aspects of human personality in learning; mind, intellect, alertness and ego.
She has Holy Scriptures in one hand and a Lotus (a symbol of true knowledge) in the second. With her other two hands she plays the music of love and life on the stringed instrument (veena). She is generally dressed in white (sign of purity) and rides on a white goose (swan). She holds a book and a rosary in her rear two hands.
The lotus denotes of the Supreme Reality, and a white lotus is the symbol of supreme knowledge. Saraswati signifies her deep connection with Supreme Reality and knowledge (as she is sitting on a lotus). The white colour symbolizes purity and knowledge.
The rosary signifies concentration, meditation, and contemplation. A rosary in the rear right hand representing ego conveys that true knowledge acquired with love and devotion melts the ego and results in liberation (moksha) of the seeker from the bondage to the physical world.
The Goddess is shown playing a musical instrument which denote mind and intellect. This symbol conveys that the seeker must tune the mind and intellect in order to live in perfect harmony with the world to utilize acquired knowledge for the welfare of mankind.
The swan symbolizes the power of discrimination (the ability to discriminate between right and wrong or good and bad).
Amongst all the Hindu deities, Saraswati stands out as the most controversial. Saraswati appears through a veil of mystery in any popular ancient mythology such as Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads and so on.
In Hindu mythology, Saraswati is the youngest of the four children of the Goddess Durga. The ancient Vedas give a simplistic depiction of the goddess Saraswati. There she appears in the role of a river, the river Saraswati. The concept of the river symbolizes prosperity and fertility, which subsequently became associated with the Gods and Goddesses.
The later scriptures put Saraswati on the pedestal of learning and arts. The Vedas indicate the great significance of sound (naada), linking the entire creative process to the most potent symbol “OM.” The concept of sound, as the driving force of creation, gave importance to “word,” which consists of sound. Sound with it’s dynamic quality of creation, is pivitol to the image of Saraswati.
According to the Matsya Purana, Saraswati evolved from the mouth of Brahma.
God Brahma (the creator of the universe) was done with his task of creating the physical universe and earth. But there was chaos all over. Brahma was unaware how to bring order. Suddenly he heard an inner voice that knowledge could help him to achieve order. In effect Saraswati evolved from the mouth of Brahma.
Dressed in white, she rode on a swan, with books in one hand and the veena, a musical instrument, in the other. By way of sense, thought, understanding, and communication she empowered Brahma to control disorder into creation.
When she played the veena, he heard the soothing music amidst the roar of commotion. Chaos started taking shape; the sun, the moon, and the stars were born. The oceans started getting filled and seasons changed. The joyous Brahma then named Saraswati, Vagdevi, the goddess of speech and sound. Thus Brahma became the creator of the world with Saraswati as his source of wisdom.
On the contrary Brahma was amazed with her Beauty and grace and started pursuing her. Saraswati was Brahma’s daughter since she was born from him. Hence this idea of him espousing her did not go down very well with her.
Brahma was carried away by her beauty and in effect he grew 3 additional heads in order to see her from any direction. Saraswati skipped into the heaven In order to escape from his ardent glances. So, Brahma grew a fifth head which had a neck long enough to go to the heaven. (How he lost the fifth head, is a separate story). Finally Brahma could convince her to marry him and promised her that through them, the living beings of the world would be born. She agreed.
Now, many years later, Brahma was to conduct a “yagna” in presence of all other the Gods. A yagna is a fire sacrifice where people clean themselves from impurity. A wife always accompanies the husband during a yagya. So, when the auspicious time neared, Brahma was looking for Saraswati and send a few brahmins to call her. But declined since she was not ready and stated she would reach along with other wives. But Brahma got infuriated and engaged Indra to find him another bride – the first spinster he crosses. Indra found a maiden cow-shepherdess, Gayatri and finally she got married with Barahma. Saraswati stepped in alongwith other Goddesses at the time when the marriage was about to get over. In effect Saraswati became furious and immediately cursed everyone present there:
- Brahma – no man would worship him except for one day every year (for setting a miserable example for the mankind i.e. getting a new bride even if the first wife was very much alive)
- Vishnu – he would born 10 times in the ether and would be separated from his wife (for giving away the bride in marriage)
- Shiv – he would lose his manhood (for giving away the bride in marriage)
- Indra – he would be captured, detained and ill-treated by his enemies (for going forth to find the bride)
- The Brahmins who conducted the marriage – they would never be rich and would have to beg to survive.
She left the hall immedaily after cursing alongwith other Goddesses though the other goddesses were interested to join their husbands. This infuriated Saraswati further and she cursed each one of them :
- Laxmi – She would never be stagnant at any place, she would keep moving around and be coveted by greedy men.
- Indra’s wife – When Indra’s kingdom is usurped, the conqueror will want her to wait on him and treat him as Indra, else he would kill all Gods.
- Other Brahmin wives – They would remain unfertile.
One version of the story says that after a while Saraswati returned to the hall modified the curses with apologizes. The other version says that Gayatri modified every one’s curses when the wives returned back to the hall, But the curses once spelt out, cannot be revoked. However, we do notice a few effects of these curses till date:-
- Brahma – There is no temple in his name as yet.
- Vishnu – was separated from his wife in all his births (though Laxmi and Vishnu are together eternally).
- Shiva – though he lost his manhood, he is still worshipped and does have 2 sons.
- Indra – was conquered and detained by enemies. But his son did rescue him.
- Brahmins – though normally poor, find enough donors to support and provide enough for their daily living.
Tradition and Trends
Bengalis worship Goddess saraswati on the day of ‘Vasant Panchami’ (the spring festival) which is actually the fifth day of the ‘Magha’ month of the Hindu calendar ( I wonder how many of us follow Bengali/Hindu Calender other than enjoying the festival).
Saraswati Puja is normally enacted amidst chants of ‘mantras’ and ‘Shlokas’. Puja is performed by using sandalwood, ghee and burning of ‘Agarbattis’ of various types. Different fruits, “Nakul dana”, “Kadma”, “Batasa”, “Khelna” (different forms of Sugar), Khejur, Khoi with Gur, Coconut are offered to the Godess during Puja. Among other fruits, ‘Kool’ or Plums are offered to the goddess and later eaten as ‘Prasad’.
Bengalis don’t eat Plums before Saraswati Puja as an age-old belief. ‘Palash’ flower blooming in the spring season forms an integral part of this Puja.
‘Aamer Mukul’ or the mango flower, another occurrence of the spring season is also an essential element which is placed on the ‘Ghat’ or the small pot in front of the deity.
“Doat” (Inkpots), filled with milk (substitute of Ink) and bamboo quills are also being offered for her blessings and “Bel Pata” (bael leaf) are being used to write ”Mantra” next day morning after the puja. With that bael leaf and flower , the students start their study in full enthusiasm.
Bengalis wear ‘Vasanti’ or Orangish yellow clothes on this day to mark the beginning of the season “Vasanta’ or spring and also to represent the colour of the blooming mustard flowers in the fields of Bengal. Generally Bengali devotees blend “Kachi Halud” (turmeric) with mastered oil and apply on the skin before taking morning bath. This occasion is also very auspicious for the students as they don’t study for the day and keep their study books near the feet of the deity for her blessings which they believe is essential for their exams.
Bengalis celebrate a function called ‘Haatekhori’ on the same day where kids are made to learn writing for the first time using slate and chalk. Schools and colleges organize special prayers for this occasion for the students.
Often the Puja is hailed as the Bengali form of the Valentine’s Day with young, would be couples going in for a date and the ones without them to find their perfect soul mate. The Saraswati Puja is one of the most important socio cultural events after Durga Puja in the Bengali society that still invokes the excitement and passion of the young and new.
In my school days, this was one of the most important events in schools where the students were getting change to organize it. I still remember during our higher secondary our class was taking charge of the event and we spent lot of time organizing the same. The overall arrangement, procurement, designing, interiors, drawing, selection of foods, collection of money , distribution of Prasad and maintaining the discipline of the overall program were the initial learning with excitement and indeed still remains a stepping stones of life.
Besides, I still remember in every Saraswati Puja in childhood, I used to go the Kolkata Book Fare (after the puja over in Home) in second half along with Parents. The kind of excitement on nurturing books, handing it and finally purchasing a bagful of books were really amazing excitement.
And yes we finally landed into the topic which the reader might have observed in almost all my articles.
Readers might be wondering what is the relationship here. There is definitely a connection.
Like all other Puja is Bengal, it is like a festival. The kind of small businesses, festive specific business rise during this small tenure is really amazing. The “ Murti” (idol of deity), different fruits, sweets, Khejurgur / Nolen Gur (molasses/ Jaggery prepared from new date-juice) , the accessory sellers, and others boom during this 3- 4 days tenure and survive. The “spikes” of this kind of festivals (like so many others during the year), give them breathing space and they can survive and grow.