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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Hinduism & Buddhism

Sarasvati Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-Carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-Wielding by Catherine Ludvik Defender of the Dharma (Brill's Indological Library: Brill) The name Sarasvati evokes images of the beautiful vina-playing goddess of knowledge and recalls an ancient river that is now believed to flow underground, meeting the Ganga and the Yamuna at the sacred confluence of Triveni at Prayaga/Allahabad.' The fair Sarasvati embodies beauty, music, flowing water, but above all knowledge, and, as the presiding deity of knowledge, the goddess has been worshipped on a pan-Indian scale among Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike.

This study traces the development of Sarasvati from her riverine origins as depicted in the earliest textual source on the goddess, the Rg Veda composed sometime after 1750 B.C.E., through to her establish­ment as the deity of all forms of knowledge in epic and early Puranic sources (up to the seventh century C.E.), as well as in the oldest surviv­ing Hindu, Jain, and possibly Buddhist images (third to seventh cen­tury), to the goddess's depiction in the most significant Buddhist source on Sarasvati, the Sutra of Golden Light, whose earliest extant redaction is from the beginning of the fifth century changes in the conceptualization of Sarasvati occur, as evidenced by textual and art historical material, in the socio-politico-historical circumstances of the times; I have, furthermore, questioned both the identification of images that have until now been called `Sarasvati,' as well as the dates assigned to them. Moreover, the third part, on the Buddhist Sarasvati, consists of a detailed study of the Sarasvati chapter of the Buddhist Sutra of Golden Light in the extant Sanskrit, as well as in Chi­nese translations from no longer existing Sanskrit versions. This sutra, even in the Sanskrit, has not been used until now for the study of the Indian Buddhist Sarasvati. There are no works that I know of on the Chinese Buddhist Sarasvati (Biancaitian), and while the very modest number of publications on the Japanese form of the goddess (Benzaiten) are at least aware of this chapter in the sutra, none provides a thorough analysis of its contents.2 The Sutra of Golden Light and its Chinese trans­lations offer a wealth of information not found elsewhere on the Indian Buddhist Sarasvati, including also on her interactions with other Indian goddess cults—interactions which turned out to have a determining ef­fect on her East Asian form. The Sarasvati chapter of the sutra is there­fore extensively discussed in this part of my study.

The conceptual development of Sarasvati is examined in the present work through textual sources, artistic representations, and inscriptions. The time period covered stretches from sometime after 1750 B.C.E. with the Rg Veda, the earliest textual source on the goddess Sarasvati, to ca. 700 C.E. with the early Puranas and images of the goddess, as well as with the last Chinese translation of the Sutra of Golden Light by Yijing in 703.

As Sarasvati is a river goddess, my study touches on issues of geog­raphy as reflected in Vedic to epic textual sources. The features of the river are lauded by the poets of the Rg Veda, and her course is delineated in some of the Brahmanas and, in much more detail, in the Mahabharata.

This study combines textual and art historical approaches, but Ludvik has attempted a more in-depth, compre­hensive, and critical treatment of the sources in their respective histori­cal, political, and social contexts. Ludvik has not limited herself to collecting textual references to Sarasvati and listing her images: She studied, for instance, developing themes/stories by examining their sources and each of their retellings within groups of texts, addressing why and how long-standing discussions of `map geography' or geology: Ludvik does not try to identify either the changing course of the river, its location on the map, or the places on the Sarasvati's banks mentioned in textual sources. The Sarasvati was a far mightier river, at least in pre-Vedic times, than dur­ing epic and subsequent periods. Much has been written over the last century and many conflicting hypotheses proposed to identify the 'lost' Sarasvati and to explain the desiccation of the region. The most recent studies seem to indicate that the river flowed from the Himalayas through the present Ghaggar-Hakra bed in Panjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Bahawalpur (Pakistan), and then through the Nara bed in Sind (Pakistan), and finally debouched into the sea at the present Rann of Kutch. As discussed by Yash Pal and others, environmental changes occurred, and since the Sarasvati's channel was structurally controlled by faults, tectonic factors assumed greater importance, bringing about widespread changes in the configuration of river channels. As a result, it has been argued that the Sarasvati as described in the Mahabhharata is either the same river, although much transformed, as the one praised by the poets of the Vedas, or another river bearing its name. At any rate, my treatment of the river Sarasvati here is limited to its depiction in Vedic and epic sources.

This study is divided into four parts: I. Vedic Sarasvati, II. Epic and Puranic Sarasvati, III. Buddhist Sarasvati, and IV. Images of Sarasvati. The first three parts are textual studies (Vedic, Epic and Puranic, Bud­dhist), while the fourth one discusses art historical representations.

The first part on the Vedic Sarasvati revolves around the gradual trans­formation of the river goddess into the goddess of knowledge, examin­ing the depiction of Sarasvati in the Rg, the Atharva, and the Yajur Veda Samhita, as well as in the Brahmanas. The Epic and Puranic Sarasvati draws on the Mahabhharata and the early Puranas, addressing, in the epic, the mythology of the river and its fords (tirtha), and the definitive establishment of Sarasvati as goddess of knowledge, and taking up, in the Puranas, the fully-developed Brahma-Sarasvati myth, in addition to the names, worship, and iconography of the goddess. The Buddhist Sarasvati centers on the contents of the Sarasvati chapter of the Sutra of Golden Light in the extant Sanskrit and in Chinese translations. The three­fold depiction of the goddess as a deity of eloquence, as one who teaches a ritual bath, and as a battle goddess are discussed. The fourth and final part turns to art historical evidence: in its first half, early Hindu, Jain, and possibly Buddhist images of Sarasvati are introduced and exam­ined, whereas its second half takes up representations bearing icono­graphic similarity to the eight-armed battle goddess of the Sutra of Golden Light invoked as Sarasvati. Through both textual and art historical sources, the present study traces the conceptual development of its 'presiding deity' Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge, from the riverine origins of the manuscript-carrying vina-player to the weapon-wielding defender of the Dharma of the Sutra of Golden Light.

The beautiful Sarasvati, riverine goddess of knowledge, has taken us on a long journey through texts and images: from the Vedas to the Puranas, to the various recensions of the Buddhist Sutra of Golden Light; from Jain to Hindu, to Buddhist representations, from the manuscript and vina-bearing goddess of knowledge and music to the Buddhist weapon-wielding defender of the Dharma modelled on the demon-slaying Mahisasura­mardini.

This study begins by looking at the Vedas, where the river goddess, through her association, on the one hand, with the recitation of hymns accompa­nying rituals performed on her banks, and, on the other hand, with in­spired thought (dhi) inseparably tied to the composition of these hymns, was identified with speech (vac). In the complex and highly organized ritual life instituted by the Kurus in the establishment of their realm in the twelfth to the ninth century B.C.E., speech, which was considered immensely powerful, was of central importance, as the performance and success of sacrifices both depended on flawless utterance. In its effi­cacy, as we have seen in the Sautramani ritual, speech also functioned as a healing device, appropriately placed in the hands of Sarasvati, who was identified with it. Furthermore, not only potent in sound, but also endowed with meaning, speech conveyed knowledge, most particularly the Vedas, thus transforming Sarasvati into the goddess of knowledge, as evidenced in the Mahabharata and the early Puranas.

Sarasvati's increasing involvement with speech was paralleled by a systematization of the rituals performed on her banks. The Pancavimsa Brahmana describes a series of sacrificial sessions held at different stages on the Sarasvati's shores, proceeding upstream from the place of her disappearance in the sands at Vinasana to her source at Plaksa Prasravana. These mobile yatsattra were then recast in the Mahabharata, in true epic proportions, into a lengthy upstream pilgrimage, with stops at nu­merous tirtha, where elaborate myths replete with Vedic allusions were recounted. The shift in religious practice, from complex, costly sacrifices to the simpler, devotional pilgrimage to sacred sites, reflects a change in the audiences of the respective texts: while the Vedas and their rituals were accessible only to the twice-born, the epics and the Puranas were Ludvik addressed to the widest possible public and hence many of the practices they described and advocated were open virtually to anyone.

The Sarasvati river itself was depicted in decreasing dimensions, re­flecting what modern geological studies tell us. While the Rg Veda poets invoked the Sarasvati as a mighty, flooding river, flowing from the mountains to the ocean, the Pancavimsa Brahmana informs us of her disap­pearance in the sands at Vinasana. This does not necessarily mean, how­ever, that at the time of the Rg Veda the Sarasvati was still a powerful: river. The poets may have recalled the once unrivalled Sarasvati of legendary renown that had already, to some degree, diminished in size, but, which they nevertheless described in hyperbolic terms.

The Mahabharata, in turn, with its expanded geography, had the river disappearing at Vinasana, as in the Pancavimsa Brahman, but reemerg­ing at various sites, flowing underground, and eventually emptying into the sea, as in the Rg Veda. Not only was the Sarasvati's course made to appear Vedic, but through myths accounting for her Vedic-like geogra­phy, the river's flow came to be determined by Dharma, the central concern of the epic: to avoid the unrighteous Nisadas, we are told, the Saras­vati entered the earth, and to accommodate the twice-born Naimiseya seers, she changed her course. The flow of the waters of the riverine goddess of knowledge thereby metamorphosed into the flow of Dharma.

The Puranas, putting to good use the Brahmana myths, clearly trans­ferred Vac's associations to Sarasvati. While in the ritualistic universe of the Brahmanas the creator Prajapati (sacrifice) produced speech, and through speech, either as words or as his consort, created the universe, the creation myth of the Puranas was taken out of its sacrificial context, further elaborated, and the names of the major players were changed: Prajapati became Brahma and his daughter/consort Vac became Saras­vati. As Speech in the Brahmana myth of the Barter for Soma was asso­ciated with music and with the vina, the Puranic Sarasvati as goddess of knowledge came accordingly to preside also over music, symbolized in iconography by the presence of the vino in her hands: she was wor­shipped, in the Markandeya Purana, to obtain full knowledge of music, and she granted a vina to Skanda in the Vayu Purana.

The Mahabharata and the Puranas introduce the humanization of Sarasvati by depicting her as a woman with newly found relations to other gods and mortals, including her father/spouse Brahma. Sarasvati's human-like appearance occurs as a result of a number of factors, includ­ ing Brahmanical precedent by way of Vac, who takes the form of an attractive female in the Barter for Soma; the emergence of the popular avatara ideology, in which deities incarnate as humans, animals, and fish; and the increasing pan-Indian tendency of producing images of the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist pantheons. Although the Matsya and the Visnu­dharmottara Purana describe Sarasvati as four-armed, carrying vino, rosary, water pot, and book, none of the extant early sculptures of the goddess follows this iconography.

Hence textual sources from the Vedas to the early Puranas present Sarasvati under four distinct aspects: as river goddess, to identify her form; as goddess of knowledge and as goddess of music, to define her functions; and as daughter-consort of Brahma, to locate her in a wider mythological context, where gods and goddesses are paired, in relation to a specific god. In the earliest extant Sarasvati sculptures, both of her functional aspects are iconographically represented: she appears as god­dess of knowledge in five Jain images, and as goddess of music in four (three Hindu and one likely Buddhist) sculptures, with only one (Hindu) of these representations combining both the roles, as Sarasvati plays her vino and her attendant holds a manuscript. However, in the iconography of the early Puranas and in post-eighth-century images, the features de­fining Sarasvati's special connection with knowledge and music, i.e., the book and the vina, are regularly conjoined. It is as goddess of knowl­edge, nevertheless, that Sarasvati predominates.

The Sutra of Golden Light, the most significant Buddhist source on Sarasvati, depicts her, in the earliest extant redaction of the sutra repre­sented by Dharmaksema's Chinese translation of 417, as the preserver of the flawless speech and the memory of the sutra's expounder. This corresponds to the first and earliest section of the Sarasvati chapter in the Sutra of Golden Light, to which were added two more, not found in Dharmaksema's version, but included in the extant Sanskrit, in Baogui's edition of 597, and in Yijing's translation of 703: Sarasvati teaches a ritual herbal bath and is then praised by the Brahman Kaundinya as an eight-armed goddess. The bath, as I have discussed, may well be a heal­ing bath inherited from the Vedic magico-religious system of medicine, as well as a kind of consecration (centered on the abhiseka) ritual famil­iar to the ruling class, to whom the sutra promises protection for the state. Sarasvati's well established identity and connections with water and healing in the Vedas rendered the goddess of eloquence and knowl­edge an appropriate teacher for this bathing ritual.

Kaundinya's successive praises reveal the presence of other goddesses, including tapas-practising Parvati and Vindhyavasini, worshipped in the guise of Sarasvati, in addition to an eight-armed weapon-bearing form modelled on Mahisasuramardini and attributed to our goddess of knowl­edge. Yijing's translation provides the most extensive rendering of Kaundinya's praises, including the list of the weapons carried in the goddess's eight arms and a Chinese translation of a hymn to Nidravindhyavasini from the Harivamsa. As we see, there are close iconographic similarities between the Sutra of Golden Light's eight-armed goddess and Indian, Afghan, and Southeast Asian representations of eight-armed, weapon-wielding Mahisasuramardini. Chinese and Japanese images of Biancaitian/Benzaiten were indeed produced on the basis of Yijing's description, but no extant Indian examples, although they might indeed have been made, may be cited. Since the Sanskrit text Yijing was working from no longer survives, it is especially from his Chinese translation (and from the Tibetan versions) of the Sutra of Golden Light that we learn of the impact of the rising Warrior Goddess cult on the Indian Buddhist Sarasvati. In the Chinese and Japanese representa­tions of Biancaitian/Benzaiten derived from Yijing's description, fur­thermore, we can recognize the far-reaching waves of influence of the Warrior Goddess extending from India all the way to the shores of Ja­pan. As noted above, eight-armed Benzaiten, in a partly modified form, enjoys widespread popularity in Japan to this day.

In conclusion, then, a twofold Sarasvati: the goddess of knowledge, as Indians revere her today, with a natural, almost expected, step-by-step conceptual development, versus her battle-goddess appearance, entirely unknown in India, but a very familiar form to Japanese as the eight-armed Eloquence Talent Deity (Benzaiten). While the first is well en­trenched in the Indian psyche, the second seems to have completely dis­appeared from the country of its origin, and, after a journey across East Asia, established herself in Japan. The Sutra of Golden Light, particu­larly in Yijing's Chinese rendering, is a unique document in that it stands straddled between India and East Asia, preserving both of these aspects side by side: the goddess of knowledge, in her anterior embodiment as speech, is known by her name as Eloquence (Talent) Deity and by her function as provider of eloquence and memory; and the eight-armed, weapon-bearing battle goddess is recognized by her form, modelled, as a result of the influence of the growing Warrior Goddess faith, on that of Mahisasuramardini. This newly assembled package embodies the meet­ ing point of Sarasvati and of the great Warrior Goddess, merged into one identity, which, although not surviving in India, by virtue of the enor­mous importance of the Sutra of Golden Light throughout Asia, has been funnelled to East Asia and struck deep roots in Japan. I end, in a sense, precisely where my study of Sarasvati originally began: at the monastery of Todaiji in Nara, in the Hokkedo, which houses a large, eighth-century clay sculpture of the eight-armed Eloquence Talent Deity, pro­duced on the basis of the description of the goddess in Yijing's transla­tion of the Sutra of Golden Light. Eloquence Talent Deity's name and function encapsulate Sarasvati's Vedic, epic, and Puranic background, while her form renders visually manifest the intersection of the Indian cults of Sarasvati and of the great Warrior Goddess, replacing the manu­script and the vino of the ravishingly beautiful deity of knowledge with the weapons of the arrestingly ferocious battle goddess.


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