By Welatantrige Chandana Boteju
Saraswati is like that mythical river by the same name, flowing calmly and unhurriedly while nourishing the mind of the devout with its serenity, profundity and peaceful pulchritude.
The divine inspiration which rouses man to commit a particular creative work has Saraswati as its residing deity. It is at her behest that we act. This quality of Saraswati’s is averred through a variety of mythological allusions. Ramayana has abundant references to her as Sharada. When Hanuman’s death was pronounced by Ravana after he was captured and produced before the king of Lanka, on Vibhishana’s suggestion the death sentence was reduced to just setting fire to his tail. The advice was that this way Ravana would be saved from committing the heinous deed of causing the death of a messenger. At that very moment Hanuman apparently thought to himself ‘now I feel the goddess Sharada has come to my rescue through Vibhishana’s words’.
According to professor Sivathambi, belonging to the Tamil Shaivaite tradition popular in Sri Lanka, she is the Shakthi of Brahma, the creator. As the diya is nothing with out the oil that feeds the light and the cotton that holds or preserves it till the oil last, Brahma is sterile without his shakthi, who is personified as Saraswati. An apt term that defines what is necessary for creation: knowledge.
So, she’s the goddess of wisdom for it is through our wisdom that we realise the need of performing any action or conveying our decision through speech. In Tamil, she’s called interestingly as Namahal, ‘she’ of the tongue, the speech. She’s also called Kalaimahal, she of the arts.
Sakalakalavalli Maalai, a Tamil book of 16th century first mentions her as a separate deity. There is no mention of her to be found in Sangam or post-Sangam literature, definitely no mention of her in Chola period.
In the particular case of Sri Lanka there is no separate worship to be found. Saraswati puja is performed under the general framework of ‘Navaratri’, as practiced by Hindus of the island. Still, worshipping a 'mother goddess’ has been an ancient practice in the island. For the island is famous for her pre-Mahavansam female ruler who was subsequently elevated in to veneration among indigenous community.
So to come back to the familiar question, who is Saraswati, as understood by the people of the island, the definition varies according to which sect you follow or from which part of the island you come from. There have been attempts to standardize her worship among all the different communities. All of them agree that Goddess Saraswati represents Knowledge and Performing arts.
Among the majority of Buddhists in Lanka the worship of Saraswati is generally popular among artists as well, as she is invoked during the initiation of a child to learning. Even in their respective Budukutiya, a place were the image of Buddha is kept and worshipped, one can generally find a statue of her placed next to him though this is never the case in a Tamil household.
The general custom is to worship Saraswatidevi, as the Sinhalese would call her before starting anything that is to do with performing arts. There are many famous songs and paeans sung in her praise even in Sinhala language. During the last five hundred years when Christian tradition started taking root in the coastal belt of the island, the converted communities were told to substitute the slokas written in Sinhala in praise of Saraswatidevi with paeans written in praise of Virgin Mary. This substitution was also extended to other personifications of mother goddess found in the Island.
Modern day Hindu temples have a small shrine for Goddess Saraswati also like the famous Bhadra Kali Amman Kovil in Mutwal, Some Sinhala Buddhist temples, have separate shrines for deities like Vishnu, Ganesha and Lakshmi, but do not have a separate shrine dedicated to Goddess Saraswati.
Famous astrologer Wijyasiri Vidyarathna, when asked for an explanation about this peculiarity, aptly remarked the utter nullity of having a separate place for her worship as her abode is ones mind and thought always, all the time!
(This article was first submitted to Heritage Trust, Bangalore)