Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge and creativity. She symbolises mindwork in all its forms - arts, science, music, language and mathematics. As she is the wife of Brahma, she is also seen as the co-creator of the universe. The goddess is the personification of the ancient river Sarasvati, and her name can mean 'the flowing' or 'the beautiful one'.
According to legend, Saraswati was the one who tamed Brahma and brought order to creation. Just after he had created the universe, Brahma became infatuated with his first creation - Shatarupa, the goddess of material existence. So great was his enchantment that he sprouted five heads in order to be able to watch her all the time. Wherever she went, he followed, but she was too fleeting for him to grasp.
Shiva, the more ascetic god, wrenched off one of Brahma's heads to sober him down a little. His mind cleared, Brahma instead looked to Saraswati who taught him how to master his senses. Her children, the Vedas, showed him the way away from mindless sensuality. From that day on, Brahma began chanting the four Vedas with his four heads.
The goddess is said to have given humanity the art of writing so that they could write down her songs - the aforementioned Vedas. As speech is the way knowledge expresses itself, Saraswati is also thought of as the goddess of eloquence. She is then called Vagvadini or Vak. She is the rival of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and will abandon those who seek wealth only.
In her human form, Saraswati is always depicted as a light-skinned woman, serene and beautiful, dressed simply in a white sari and without jewelry. Other characteristics differ. She may have the normal number of arms, or she may have two pairs of them. She is often seated on the back of a swan, on a peacock, or on a water lily. If she has only two hands, she uses them to play the vina, a lute-like instrument, or to hold a book and a flute. If shown with four hands, she uses them to hold four symbols: A flower for her husband in one hand, a book of palm-leaves in the other, a string of pearls (Shivamala, Shiva's garland) in the third, and a small drum in the fourth.
Saraswati is the patron of libraries and schools, and in Hindu institutions of this kind is common to have a statue of her in a prominent place, such as the headmaster's office. The goddess can also be symbolised by something as simple as a book, or an inkstand and a pen. School children, students and teachers are her main worshippers.
Traditionally, a prayer to Saraswati began the school day for many Indian school children. With the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the prayer has been banned in many state schools as offensive to the non-Hindus. It is still a major political issue.
is celebrated on various days. In the north of India her day is Vasanta Panchami, the fifth day of spring in the month of Magha
. Spring is the time when light wins over the darkness of winter. Likewise, knowledge can conquer the dangerous darkness of ignorance. In the south, her day is on the ninth day of the Navaratri
celebration, a mid-autumn festival which also celebrates the victory of light over darkness and culminates in Dasharra
On her day of worship, offerings and flowers are placed in front of a symbol of the goddess and prayers are chanted. Students set a book aside for her to bless. Workers of other trades worship their tools - ploughs, carts, trains, or computers - because in Hinduism, wisdom can also be acquired through work.
The correct way of spelling the goddess' name in Sanskrit is Sarasvati. However, due to the common Indian failure to distinguish between v and w, she is known equally well under both that form and the one used here. I have chosen to follow Webster's example in this case.
The suffix Saraswati is also used as an honorific title for the five abbots concidered to be the heads of the advaita sect of Hinduism.