On the Vedic Goddess Sarasvatī and the Language of the Vedas

 

Partial translation of “veda bhāṣa” by Late Sri. Vishwanadha Achyutadeva Rayalu in Telugu.

Introduction: This article attempts to illustrate a method to explain how the devatās declared in the Vedas, in an abstract or conceptual form, are given a “svarūpam” or a “form” by kalpa sūtra kartas and smr̥ti kartas. The example taken herein is the Goddess Sarasvatī and we attempt to build a form by analyzing the meaning of the individual letters or “akṣara”s forming the word or śabda sarasvatī”. An attempt is also made to highlight a key aspect of the Vedic language, which is that individual akṣaras in Veda have unique meanings, and the meaning of a word or śabda is a collation of the meanings of the individual akṣaras.

Veda is prathamajā – the first born, and hence the language of the Vedas should be the first language ever. Samskr̥ta or Sanskrit language was born from the Vedic language. However, this fact does not seem to be acknowledged now-a-days by both scholars and laity alike.

Let us consider the following text from śatapatha brāhmaṇa (7-5-1-31)

manohi sarasvān, vāk sarasvatī, etau sārasvatā utsau |

         manas is sarasvān, vāk is sarasvatī, and both (these) are sārasvata utsa

Before we delve deeper, let us consider a peculiarity of the Vedic language. The language of the Vedas is unlike any language that we use in our daily life. In the languages that we use, only words have meanings, and the individual letters / alphabets that constitute the word have no significance or meaning. However in the Vedas, every alphabet (known as akṣara in Vedic parlance) of the Vedas has significance and a specific meaning. And multiple akṣaras combine to form a word – a śabda, and the meaning of the śabda is derived from the collective meaning of the individual akṣaras. A group of śabdas form to give meaning to a sentence, and so on. Veda calls this innate ability (of the Vedas) to group “things” as samhitā. samhitā can happen at
various levels – akṣara samhitā, śabda samhitā, so on. And Veda terms such groups taking a “form” or meaning as āyatanaṁ.

This aspect of akṣaras having a specific meaning seems to form the basis of the mantra śāstra and bījākṣaras
in śrī vidyā. 
To understand the meaning of the word sarasvatī, we have to look into the Veda itself, as Veda is its own authority. Let us consider another r̥k from r̥g veda to understand better:

ye te sarasva ūrmayo madhumanto ghṛtaścutaḥ | tebhir no ‘vitā bhava || (R.V. 7-96-5)

ये ते॑ सरस्व ऊ॒र्मयो॒ मधु॑मन्तो घृत॒श्चुत॑: तेभि॑र्नोऽवि॒ता भ॑व

The pada pāṭha for the above r̥k is:

ye | te | sarasvaḥ | ūrmayaḥ | madhu-mantaḥ | ghṛta-ścutaḥ | tebhiḥ | naḥ | avitā | bhava |

ये ते॒ स॒र॒स्वः॒ ऊ॒र्मयः॑ मधु॑ऽमन्तः घृ॒त॒ऽश्चुतः॑ तेभिः॑ नः॒ अ॒वि॒ता भ॒व॒

       O sarasvan! May you bring about / effect avit (protection) on the ūrmas, yours and mine, which are madhumanta and ghr̥taścuta.

The devata of this r̥k is sarasvān – the chief deity that is being invoked. The words in italics are preserved as-is from the original, as these have special meanings and we should not attempt to provide meanings from the Sanskrit language.

Let us attempt to derive the meaning of this devata sarasvān / sarasvan. Maharshi śaunaka has written a great book called “br̥haddvetā” wherein he has chiefly described the devetās in r̥gveda and their key attributes. A part of a śloka from this book mentioning sarasvan:

sarāṁsi ghr̥tavantasya santi lokeṣu yatriṣu sarasvantamiti prāha | (br̥. de. 2-51)

This maharshi did not do a “free” translation of the Vedic words – he preserved them as-is.

Arthur Antony MacDonnell, a renowned 19th century British Indologist translated this great work into English and called it “A summary of the Dieties and Myths of the Rig-Veda”. In this book, he translated the above sentence as:

    “51. Because he has lakes (Saransi) full of ghee in the three worlds, (the Seer) proclaims (him) as Sarasvat.” (Page 42, volume II, 1st Edition, 1904)

In Sanskrit, saraḥ means lake and ghr̥ta means ghee.

Now let us try and understand a bit more about the language of the Vedas and see if we can obtain a deeper meaning for the sarasvan, instead of just this pedestrian, and even nonsensical “one who has lakes
full of ghee in three worlds”.

Let us first examine the structure of the Vedic Alphabet:

Vowels

(svara)

Consonants (varṇa)

 

Stops

(sparśa)

Nasal

(anunāsika)

Semivowel

(antastha)

Fricative

(ūṣma)

a

ka

ga

ya

ha

i

ca

ja

Ñ

ra

ṣa

u

ṭa

ḍa

ṇa

la

śa

ta

da

na

va

sa

pa

ba

ma

 

 

 

Note: Other alphabets have not been shown, as they can be derived by combining letters in the chart above. E.g. a + a = ā; a + i = e; ka + ha = kha; etc.

Veda uses each of these akṣaras with a specific intent and for a specific purpose and meaning. Some are given below that will aid us understand the meaning of the word sarasvati which we initially started with:

Vowels:

  • a – the ability or śakti we are born with, which we will utilize throughout our life to realize our desires
  • i – signifies the current or now – vartamāna, yajṅa samaya
  • u – signifies the future – bhaviṣyat, yajṅānta
  • r̥ – signifies brahman – that the jīva cannot grasp. That is why when we try to utter the vowel r̥, we end up uttering ra

Consonants:

sparśas:

  • ka, ca, ṭa, ta, pa – used when Veda wants to refer to jīva’s activity or bhoutika loka
  • ga, ja, ḍa, da, ba – used when Veda  wants to refer to devata’s activity or ūhā loka
  • ṅa, ña, ṇa, na, ma –  used when Vada wants to refer to jñāna loka

antasthas:

  • ya – signifies prayatna – jīva’s effort ·   ra – signifies jīva himself
  • la – signifies jīva’s state of mind when he is in devatā bhāva and has forgotten himself
  • va – signifies the ṣakti that facilitates jīva to express his desires, his life

ūṣmas:

  • śa – protection of prāṇa, auspicious or what is desirable
  • ṣa – devata’s prāṇa
  • sa – sakala or universal prāṇa
  • ha – jīva’s or individual prāṇa

Note: These meanings attributed are by no means definitive, but were arrived at by conducting a study into how Vedas used these akṣaras throughout the book. The discerning reader is encouraged to conduct his own study to arrive his own interpretation

Let us first inquire into the meaning of the śabda saraḥ. As seen from above, sa signifies the universal prāṇa or the prāṇas of all prāṇis in this creation and ra signifies the individual jīva. ḥ is a akṣara that lies between “a” and “ḥ”, and is called visarga. It symbolizes a state (of manas) when the pronunciation is transitioning from vowel to a consonant. In the context of the word saraḥ it tells us not to consider “sa” and “ra” separately, but visualize the state when both become one. Thus saraḥ symbolizes the place or state when prāṇa and the jīva (that is going to take on prāṇa) become one – the “place” of creation, of sr̥ṣṭi.

Now that we have identified what “sara” of the word “sarasvati” signifies, let us move on to the next akṣara, “sva”. Once “sa” has reached “ra” – the jīva, the jīva then asks “sa” – the prāṇa to declare, to express its iccha – desires, jñāna – knowledge, its ānanda – happiness, its life as a whole.

The universal prāṇa – “sa” then prevails upon vāk to declare this jīva’s life. Vāk is the method prāṇa utilizes to declare jīva’s attributes. Thus “sva” means what I like, what I desire, what I have achieved. Veda has formulated words with “sva” with very deep significance. E.g. svāhā, svadhā, vaṣaṭ.

So where is this “I” ness that “sva” symbolizes? Not the “sa”, not the “va” but the “ra” behind both these! Whenever in Veda mantras a context comes to signify “O God, give this to me!” Veda introduces the “ra” –individual jīva in the spot. E.g. agnir r̥ṣiḥ ya sahasrā sanoti (kr̥ṣṇa yajurveda samhita 2-2-12). In this mantra, “r” stands between the giver agni and the “r̥ṣi” perspective he gives!

We have now reached “sarasva”. If we combine this word with “ta” or “ti” we will have with us “sarasvata” and “sarasvati” respectively. “ta” symbolizes the jīva’s current status, its sthiti, its pratiṣṭha. Thus the state of being “sarasva” is sarasvata and the śakti or the devata that presides this state is “sarasvatī”.

Thus sarasvati can be interpreted as the devata that controls the ability of the jīva to declare its life, its desires and its feelings and in reverse, understand or translate such expressions of other jīvas and deliver them to the jīva inside. The place where the jīva, the prāṇa and sarasvati interact together is the manas. “sarasvān” is another name given for manas by Vedas.

manohi sarasvān, vāk sarasvatī, etau sārasvatā utsau | (śatapatha brāhmaṇa 7-5-1-31)

         manas is sarasvān, vāk is sarasvatī and both these are sāravata utsas!

This is how Goddess Sarasvatī is the presiding deity of all knowledge, wisdom, music and creativity – and bestows upon us the ability to understand this creation to express our thoughts and feelings efficiently!

May Goddess sarasvatī ever dwell in our manas, remove completely our ignorance, sluggishness and lethargy, and enable us to realize the Universal Spirit!

And namaskaaram to Veda māṭā that has revealed Goddess sarasvatī to us!

 

 

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