By Radhika Srinivasan
While the West may still grapple with the problem of reconciling religion with science, here’s a community that has carved a singularly unique concept in Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of Science and Art. Sara is essence and swa means the self and hence Dewi Saraswati is the embodiment and essence of the Self represented by the goddess’s vehicle, the swan, says one interpretation. Another says, Saras is the flow of the river of knowledge and wati is the one who rules and guides that flow. Yet another interpretation refers to this queen of wisdom as Swarawati, she being the fountain source of all Balinese music.
Whichever way one looks at this Hindu inspired Balinese goddess, she evokes awe and inspiration like none else. Being Brahma’s manifested shakti, Saraswati naturally is endowed with all the attributes that the Hindu in India associates her with. But, in Bali, she is more specifically the goddess of Science, being endowed with the discriminating wisdom, Viveka and Vijnāna. Yet, she is beyond both, epitomizing Prajnāna, reminding us of the Upanishadic Mahāvākya, Prajnānam Brhma.
The two front arms indicate her activity in the physical world and the two back arms signify her presence in the spiritual world. The four hands represent the four elements of inner personality. The mind manas, is represented by the front right hand, the intellect buddhi by the front left hand, the conditioned consciousness chitta by the rear left hand, and the ego ahankara by the rear right hand. The left side of the body symbolizes the qualities of the heart and the right side symbolizes activities of the mind and intellect.
Saraswati is not just a goddess of learning, as reflected in the lontar leaf she holds; she is herself the body of sacred music in Bali, having all the seven notes as strings tightened around her slender, nubile form. Captured in a charmingly stylized Tribhanga or deflexed dance-like pose, this shariri veena Devi emerges out of a white lotus not like a frozen icon but an enchanting personification of music and dance. Each string on her torso represents a chakra, fine-tuned to activate the universe. Through sound and movement, she springs to life, blessing the artists and scientists alike with her aesthetics and wisdom.
A festival in her honor is known as Saraswati Day, which roughly corresponds to our Saraswati puja but is based on the Pawukon or the Balinese calendar system, which celebrates her once every 210 days roughly, always falling on a Saturday, Sanischara. Pangredanan is the day before Saraswati Day. All the books and lontar (palm leaf manuscripts) are collected together, cleaned and dusted. The next day, the women get up early in the morning, clean up and decorate their home and ancestral altar called, Sangga Kemulan, and pray to Saraswati for knowledge. Children are given rest from reading or writing and in the evening, people read from their sacred classics called Malam Sastra.
The day after Saraswati Day is Banyu Pinaruh. Banyu means water and Pinaruh mean wisdom. In other words, they pray for the even flow of wisdom by taking a bath in the sea, lake or river and drink traditional herbal medicine for enhancement of the intellect. Banyu Pinaruh turns the goddess of wisdom into an art of life to the Balinese.
Saraswati is not just a goddess of learning, as reflected in the lontar leaf she holds; she is herself the body of sacred music in Bali, having all the seven notes as strings tightened around her slender, nubile form.
A temple dedicated to Saraswati is Pura Saraswati on top of the Monkey Forest, near the royal palace in Ubud, Bali. Built by the sculptor- architect Gusti Nyoman Lempad, this temple is so serene and tranquil that one is transported to Brhamloka even as one enters! The temple has a spectacular entrance gate and open stage, where dance performances are regularly scheduled in the evening. During the day, there are often ceremonial processions arriving at the temple to either celebrate the beginning of mask carving or to joyfully bring Barongs or masks back to home temples. These processions are remarkable for beautiful color and music and the entire village turns out in ceremonial Balinese dress. The youths in particular, pray for knowledge and parents pray that their children should do well in music and dance, apart from studies.
Walking down the lotus ponds on either side of the courtyard, one comes to a brilliantly carved lotus throne meant for Sanggyang Widhi Wasa, the Supreme deity. The reliefs on the walls are delicately delineated and on festive occasions, the deity Saraswati is decked and placed on the altar with very neatly arranged fruits and flowers as offerings. She is known as the Mother of the Vedas and the repository of Brahma's creative intelligence, and as the one who blends science and art into a harmonious whole.
There are restaurants and hotels named after Saraswati; villas and retreats are dedicated to her name; musical Gamelans are performed to sing her glory; artists and craftsmen fill their shops with slender rosewood and ebony wood figurines of Saraswati, integrating art and religion with every aspect of their daily life.
Saraswati defines the whole Balinese philosophy of how the world is interrelated and interconnected, there being only one God in the world, Sanggyang Widhi Wasa. The Balinese version of Saraswati may not be very different from our own, but the manner in which she is celebrated is a humbling essay in beauty, serenity and piety.
(Article credit: Heritage Trust, Bangalore)