Sarasvati or Sarasvatī is described in 72 mantra-verses of Rig Veda Samhita, some of which are repeated in Yajur Veda. Even though there was a river of that name flowing in North India in Rig Vedic times which is now dry, the mantrās deal primarily with the goddess of inspiration and this was recognised by the rişhis even though the commoners of that age, like the moderns, believe that Sarasvati described in Veda is a mere river or atmost a river-goddess, whatever it may mean.
We will pose here some popular questions and give our answers in the next several sections. The first question is, “what is inspiration, why is it needed?” The more aggressive ones declare, “inspiration is needed only by poets and writers; it is irrelevant for others”. It is this attitude of judging an issue without even bothering to get its essentials that is preventing many persons from deriving the benefit of Veda mantrās. The attitude of these persons is similar to those who have no interest in the topic of well-ness or health till sickness hits them.
Questions of the second group state, “we have read in the translations of Rig Veda by eminent Western Indologists like Wilson (or even the famous Sāyaņa) that Sarasvati is a physical river which rises in the Himalayas; here and there she may be described as dealing with prose and poetry (described as gadya padya, commentary of Sāyaņa on RV (3.54.13)). You state that she represents the power of inspiration. What is your basis? Why should we believe you instead of the earlier mentioned eminent scholars”. We give a glimpse of the foundations of the Vedic interpretation according to Sri Aurobindo. The first principle is that we should focus only on the mantrās of Rig Veda Samhita and not introduce passages from Purāņa, Rāmāyaņa, Brāhmaņa books like Taittirīya Brāhmaņa etc., which are thousands of years later than the Veda mantrās. Secondly fix one meaning for each word and not give ten or twenty meanings to the same word as Sāyaņāchārya does to force ritualists meaning he wants. In the fifth section we detail many epithets for Sarasvati from the Veda such as awakening the consciousness (chetanti), the thoughts (dhiya), etc. All these epithets are consistent with the labeling of Sarasvati as the goddess of inspiration, only a few epithets are consistent with Sarasvati as a physical river.
The questions of the third group state, “There are many stotras of Sarasvati in Purāņa and Rāmāyaņa. There is also the Mahasarasvati stotra in the Durga Saptashati. What is the difference between them and Veda mantra? Why are Veda mantrās regarded as more powerful?
We give the annotated translation of most of the mantrās, divided into 3 categories. In the first group, we consider the sūkta and mantrās specifically dedicated to Sarasvati such as the complete sūkta (6.61), (7.95) and (7.96) the subhymns each having 3 mantrās in RV (1.3), RV (2.41) and others. We give the detailed translation of all these mantrās.
In the Rig Veda there are 10 sūktās called Apri sūktās in which there is one mantra (in each sūkta) dealing with the three goddesses Sarasvati (inspiration), Iļā and Mahī or Bhārati.
There are 25 mantrās dedicated to other gods like Agni or Vishvedevās, in which the word Sarasvati occurs.
Nature of Inspiration
Inspiration is a power of Truth (satyam). Truth is intimately connected with beauty and harmony,sundaram and shivam, not only at the individual level but at the community level. In a sense Truth is the path and all-round bliss is the goal. Sin or falsehood is merely wrongly inspired emotion, wrongly directed will and action. We tell a lie because our ego tells us that the actual telling of the limited truth on the occasion is not palatable to the emotion. Similarly a person indulges in an illegal or immoral action because the ego directs the will for its own reasons of security. For most of us the central idea of our everyday life is permeated by falsehood. The wrongly directed emotion, will and action leads to a completely distorted results.
Inspiration is that power which leads to a perfect action (perfect with respect to time and space) by means of steps which are not perceivable to our mind. The perfection is all-round; beneficial to the individual and the community, harmonious. The result of the action directed by inspiration leads to a result pervaded by beauty and harmony.
The action may occur in any field, poetry, carpentry, science, technology, music.
But we cannot order the inspiration to come; it comes to us when it likes; we have to understand its operation for its manifestation.
“Truth comes to us as a light, a voice, compelling a change of thought, imposing a new discernment of ourselves and all around us. Truth of thought creates truth of vision and truth of vision forms in us the truth of being, and out of the truth of being (satyam) flows naturally truth of emotion, will and action. This is the central idea of the Veda.” (Sri Aurobindo).
Inspiration cannot be developed by any mechanical procedure. The three mantra verses RV (1.3.10) – RV (1.3.12) give us some hints only to develop the inspiration, that too in stages. The full text and translation of the three verses is in section 8, along with others.
The first step is to become conscious of the work to be done in all its details, i.e., we become aware of the details noting both the things we claim to know and those which we do not know. We must establish some measure of mental tranquillity in us. Then the person has to become conscious that he is an instrument and the real doer is the supreme energy. Even though the supreme spirit or shakti is pouring in the energies, the person is blocking its flow by his feelings of egoism, petty emotion etc. He/she must try to counter the psychological foes like greed, delusion etc., systematically. Then we have to regard the work on hand, in which the inspiration is needed, as a self-offering (yajňa) to the divine. Next recognize that Sarasvati can give plenty of everything in all possible forms. The Sanskrit word is vaja, the plenitude, plenty of everything or all-forms. Hence there is no reason for us to indulge in the inimical acts like hoarding or being greedy, jealous, arrogant etc. We always get our turn, there is no need to be jealous etc. She is also rich in thought or rich in the substance of thought (dhiyavasu). First she uses her powers to purify (pavaka) us, i.e., remove the layers of falsehood embedded in our emotions, will and action. These are all negative thoughts and they can be neutralized by positive thoughts. The falsehood should go. She can do it because she is rich in the substance of thought.
Next she introduces her positive powers of thought and consciousness. She is the impeller (chodayitri) of happy truths (sūnŗtānām) and the awakener in consciousness (chetanti) of right mentalising. Sarasvati’s power makes us became more and more conscious so that our emotions do not jump to the path of falsehood. She creates in us the right states of emotion and right movement of thought which are in accordance with the supreme Truth. She pours her illumination; she impels the truth to manifest in our emotion, will and action. She thus liberates our life and being (the so called individuality) from falsehood, weakness and limitation. Then only are the un-opened doors of supreme felicity become open.
By this constant awakening and impulsion represented by the word ketu, Sarasvati brings down the great flood of Truth into the active consciousness in the human being. She illumines all the aspects with this consciousness. Thus our emotion, will and action become coordinated with this divine truth; and action naturally leads to a stage of perfection consistent with the time and space. Complete perfection cannot come in a single step.
Action is very much necessary even if we have ample inspiration. Completely false is the idea that chanting of the mantra will yield the required physical results without any physical action.
We will give here an anecdote of an eminent yogi and engineer (MKG) regarding the play of inspiration. MKG has a bachelor’s degree in biology and he has no degree in engineering. Still he became a senior engineer in a company which had collaboration with the famous Japanese company Mitsubishi. Different metals like steel, aluminium, silicon have different properties of strength. The properties of many metals are complimentary, i.e., the properties which are weak in one will be strong in other and vice versa. So combining two or more metals into a single one is called a composite so that the composite has all the good properties of its constituents. But the constituents have to be bonded, a procedure which is a secret of the supplier to the Japanese Company. MKG was faced with developing a composite. He could easily fix the types of the constituents with his intuition. However he had no clue to the bonding. He focussed all his thought to apparently no avail. The next day was Sunday; in the afternoon nap, he distinctly heard the sound ‘four’ repeatedly. It was around 5 pm. MKG got the clue that, “for bonding, the requisite metals should be dipped in the liquid aluminium-silicon bonding material for about 4 minutes”. He went to the workshop and did the experiment. The new composite had properties which even the Japanese material did not have. MKG promptly sent a sample to the head office of the Mitsubishi in Japan. Reply by cable came 2 days later, “we are amazed at your achievement, we have not been able to develop a composite with such properties. Your product has one hundred and fifty percent strength of our product.”
Other anecdotes: The biography of the famous fighter for freedom, poet and savant entitled, The glory of Vasishtha Ganapati Muni (published by SAKSHI, 1999) has numerous anecdotes dealing with the inflow of inspiration in a variety of circumstances including the harassment by police, composition of poetry, accidents etc. Many persons who have done some spiritual practice can relate incidents involving inspiration in their lives. The disciples of Sri Aurobindo have written many books detailing their own experiences.
Understanding Veda – Sri Aurobindo’s Approach
The Rig Veda is dated much prior to 4000 B.C.E. Still Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) was the first person to write in detail defending the Rig Veda mantrās as dealing with knowledge, specifically the philosophical and psychological wisdom. In addition to writing essays of about 1500 pages, he translated roughly 3000 mantrās out of 10,512 in Rig Veda, often giving a detailed explanation for the assignment of the meanings of words.
There are 4 key steps in his unraveling the secret in the Veda:
- Fundamentally Veda is a spiritual document, Veda is book of knowledge, not of rituals.
- In the Indian tradition, the rişhis to whom the mantrās were revealed are regarded as yogins or men of wisdom. However in the current translations of Rig Veda Samhita by Griffith or Wilson who follow closely the Sanskrit commentary of Sāyaņa, many mantra-verses do not have any coherent meaning; there is no coherence between the several mantrās in the same sūkta. Then there are only two alternatives:
- a) Accept the validity of ritualist commentary of Sāyaņa in which there is no coherence in many verses in the same sūkta and thus accept that rişhis are not men and women of wisdom.
- b) Accept the rişhis as men and women of wisdom, accept that mantrās are coherent, then automatically reject the supreme authority of the Sāyaņa commentary; the commentary is still very useful even though it is not accepted as the final authority.
Sri Aurobindo clearly prefers the alternative (b). As he would say, the obscurantist tendency in the decadent era is so strong that the mutual exclusiveness of the two alternatives is not even acknowledged; the people want to venerate both the rişhis and the commentary of S, but refuse to acknowledge the incoherence in the meanings of the mantrās in the commentary.
3) Assignment of meaning for words in the Veda: collect all the verses having a given Samskŗt word and assign the most appropriate meaning to it valid in all these verses. Each word should have one meaning. To force his ritualist interpretation, Sāyaņa gives ten to twenty meanings for the same word. For instance he assigns 30 meanings for the word gau, cow in popular parlance. In Veda gaumeans a ray of knowledge. Hence Sri Aurobindo translated gau as Ray-Cow. Similarly dhi in Veda is thought or intellect; S would accept this meaning in some places, but also translate dhi as anna(food) in many places.
4) Veda reveals its own secret. Trying to understand Veda through the legends in Purāņa or Rāmāyaņa or the Brāhmaņa books leads to incoherent results. The symbolism and aims of these books are different. Brāhmaņa books emphasise rituals only and scarcely acknowledge any wisdom in the mantrās. Purāņa and Rāmāyaņa emphasise the strife between rişhis or gods. Veda simply states that the Gods overcome the demon of falsehood and help the human beings.
Sarasvati is not a mere river – epithets of Sarasvati dealing with consciousness
River Sarasvatī: Sarasvatī was undoubtedly a mighty river in the Rig Vedic age which flowed from the mountain heights to the sea as declared in RV (7.95.2). The Sarasvatī verses were revealed or composed more than eight thousand years before the present era. According to geologists, “this time synchronizes with the first interglacial period in the Holocene age marking the break up of the glaciers and release of the pent up waters which was the source for the rivers Sarasvatī and Sindhu. The next three thousand years did not witness major changes in climate as revealed by the lake sediments. At the end of this period, tectonic disturbances caused major changes in drainage. As a consequence the upper course of Sarasvatī in the mountain – bound Himālaya was diverted South Eastward to Yamuna; Sutlej, which earlier had joined Sarasvatī, changed its course, migrated westward and became a tributary of Indus… The consequence of these changes was the drying up of the river Sarasvatī which was cut off from the perennial source of water from the snowy Himālaya. It became an ephemeral stream, and finally lost itself in the sandy desert of Thar.” [B.P. Radhakrishna, Jour. Geological Soc. of India, Vol. 51, June 1998]. The drying up of Sarasvatī made its inhabitants move westwards resulting in the new civilization- the Indus Valley Civilisation (3100-1900 BCE). In January 1997, the scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Energy Research Center have reconfirmed the existence of the Sarasvatī river and its associated ground water sanctuaries and aquifers by using water samples collected from the deep wells in the Jaisalmer regions and North Eastern Rajasthan to conduct tritium (hydrogen isotope) analysis to establish the quality of water, flow and the age of water [ranging from 4000 to 8000 years before the present era]. More information is available in the monographs, “Vedic Sarasvatī River”, by Kalyanaraman and “Vedic Sarasvatī”, by B.P. Radhakrishna and S.S. Merh (ed), published by the Geological Society of India, 1999.
chodayatri sūnŗtānām: impelling happy truths, (1.3.11)
chetanti sumatīnām: awakening right thinkings, (1.3.11)
prachetayati ketuna: makes (us) conscious by constant awakening and impulsion, (1.3.12)
yaste stana shashayo: O Sarasvati, the word of yours that is asleep in you, (1.164.49)
yo ratnadha vasuvid: the word that holds the ecstasy and knows the substance, (1.164.49)
divyam suparņam vāyasam: the bird divine of beautiful wings, (addressed to Sarasvati) (1.164.52)
sarasvatīm sādhayantīm dhiyam: perfecting our understanding, (2.3.8)
prashastim naskridhi: make us well known, (2.41.16)
ŗtāvari: possessed of the truth, (2.41.18)
sarasvati vīrapatni dhiyam dhāt: may she, the mate of hero-power, hold our thought, (6.49.7)
shushmebhiĥbisakha ivārujat sānum girinām: by her forces she broke the peaks of mountains (ignorance) like weak fibres, (6.61.2)
sarasvati devanido ni barhaya: Sarasvati destroys the censurers of the gods and the creator of illusory forms, (6.61.3)
dhinām avatryavatu: May the guardian of thoughts protect us, (6.61.4)
vŗtraghnī: slayer of the demonic covering force Vŗtra, (6.61.7)
atannaheva sūrya: she has extended us like the Sun the day, (6.61.9)
trishadhastha saptadhātu: abiding in triple session, with seven elements, (6.61.12)
mahināsu chekite dyumnebhiĥ: becomes fully conscious by the thoughts, (6.61.13)
payasa māna ā dhak: do not burn us with knowledge (payasa), (6.61.14)
eka chetat: she alone became conscious, (7.95.2)
Sarasvati mantras in the Veda and the prayers in Purāņās
There are several prayers or stotrās addressed to Sarasvati in the Purānās. Whereas the prayers in the Purāņās are composed by some spiritual persons, the Rig Veda mantra directly comes from the supreme ether and are revealed to the rişhi. RV (1.164.39) of Rişhi Dīrghatamas states, “The riks abide in the unchangeable supreme Ether (parame vyoman) where are seated all the gods; what can he do with the rik who knows not that?”
There is another mantra RV (1.164.45): “The voice, vāk, is measured out in four steps; the wise persons (brāhmaņa) know them. Three of them concealed in the profound secrecy cause no movements; the fourth step is what men call the human speech”.
Thus the mantrās of Rig Veda were not composed but were seen by the seer (kavi), the hearer of the Truth (satyashrut). Because the paramevyoman the abode of the Gods and the original source of the Veda mantrās is not a creation of anyone, the Veda mantras are also eternal and all-powerful. Hence the common belief that the mantra is an extraordinary means of achieving all the ends of life.
All these powers associated with the Veda mantrās are not associated with any purāņic prayer, even the Vişhņu Sahasranāma or popular verses in praise of Sarasvatī.
Sarasvati in the Tantra Books
The goddess Sarasvati appears in the Tantra as the, ‘secret channel or river’ (guptagāmini). Recall the three channels connecting the bottom centre Moolādhāra to the centre between the eye-brows Ajňa chakra, namely Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. The first two are identified with the subtle currents of the names Ganga and Jamuna. The subtle current flowing in the Sushumna, the middle channel, is Sarasvati. She is asleep normally. When she is activated by spiritual practises, she rises up indicating her manifestation (see RV (1.164.49)). She reaches the ājňā chakra and starts to descend. Her descent indicates the manifested inspirational power is being directed to the performance of actions. The importance of the tāntrik experience and explanation is that it acknowledges that the power of inspiration or Sarasvatī is not only in cosmos (brahmānda) but also in our subtle body (pindānda).