Saraswati is an interesting woman.
As an expression of female creative energy in Hinduism, she carries a lot of power, said to act as the goddess of music and poetry, the visual arts, literature, and knowledge. All knowledge. There are varying accounts of her origins — some say she was the daughter of Brahma and Durga, the pure embodiment of feminine creativity; other accounts claim that, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, Saraswati emerged as a natural product of Brahma’s own creative force. Either way, Saraswati exists not only to drive creativity but also to control it through education and wisdom — because, as we all know, raw creativity unleashed in our lives is sometimes a chaotic force!
A multi-talented goddess, Saraswati influences intelligence, consciousness, education, and enlightenment as well as creativity, music, and the arts. She also oversees power in general (because she knew before Francis Bacon did that scientia potentia est). And those who worship her understand that she controls not only secular knowledge but also the more esoteric knowledge of divinity, necessary to achieve moksha, or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.
That’s quite a résumé.
And because all that isn’t enough for one woman, Saraswati also is the goddess of water. Her name, in Sanskrit, translates as “flowing water,” and she shares her name with a river in northern India and parts of Pakistan. It is this association that carries over to her worship in Japan, where she is known as Benzaiten. As Saraswati worship traveled through China to Japan, her attributes of fluidity picked up the Chinese and Japanese associations with eloquence (which is what her Japanese name refers to), and so the water goddess’s connection with music, literature and knowledge translated perfectly for the Japanese. Thus she is known as the Shinto goddess and the Buddhist bodhisattva of words — spoken, written, and sung — wisdom, music, and, of course, rivers.* She is also considered one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, which seems to relate, although not intentionally, to the Muses in Greece, who started our Women’s History month of patronage. And, as a bonus for my own views on teaching, she is also sometimes associated with Kannon (known in China as Kwan Yin and in Tibet as Tara), the female bodhisattva of compassion. And why not? Love, too, flows.
In Japan, Benzaiten is also associated with snakes and dragons, since both creatures are, in East and South Asia, considered water creatures. Snakes, tradition has it, serve as her messengers, and — because she is, after all, an embodiment of control and power — she is said to have married a dragon after first subduing him.
That sounds great to me. In the Chinese astrological horoscope, I was born in a Year of the Dragon, and believe me, I could do with subduing sometimes. So here’s to Saraswati and Benzaiten, who not only inspire us to write but also help us find discipline in our creativity and, like pushing our thumbs over the nozzle of the waterhose, help us direct our creative energies into their most powerful form.
* An interesting connection that I haven’t yet seen others make: Tradition has it that Zen practitioners, when composing haiku, would sit in a hut by a stream in which floated bottles of sake. If they could manage to compose a poem by the time a bottle floated past, they would take the bottle and drink, then get back to writing. Each poem meant another sip of sake. Seems like something my college students in the States would love to try, but (in theory, anyway), the idea for these serious meditators and poets was to compose beautiful poetry, not to get drunk. Either way, I wonder if there is some connection between the haiku stream and Benzaiten….