Hoping to learn a bit more about the temples and shrines of India, I picked up Devdutt Pattanaik’s Seven Secrets of the Goddess from the reading room in our hotel at Karaikudi. On the back cover language was specifically mentioned as one of the attributes of the goddess Saraswati – along with knowledge, education, and music.
Saraswati is portrayed as a beautiful woman, often with four arms, holding a veena (stringed instrument) and symbols of knowledge such as a book, pen, and string of crystals. Once I knew this I began noticing how often her image appears. The photograph was taken during our visit to the medieval Saraswati Mahal Library near Thanjavur. This image does not include the traditional animal she rides – a hansa or mythical white bird, which may be a swan or a goose. The hansa has the strange ability to differentiate between milk and water. I was intrigued, and found an explanation which included this stanza from a Sanskrit poem:
An endless science, as we know, is grammar.
And life is short; the hindrances are many.
Essentials keep, leaving the non-essential,
As swans drink up the milk, but leave the water.
Some useful philosophical points in there, particularly for me as a former English grammar teacher! And as a New Zealander from Canterbury, where the dairy industry is sucking up our water resources, an ability to distinguish between milk and water is an appealing metaphor. Although in fact it turns out that the milk of the story may be referring to the sap of lotus plants (not so prevalent in Canterbury, and in any case our New Zealand swans are black).
Saraswati has other names which refer to her as goddess of speech and writing. And indeed India is plentiful in both, with around 450 different languages and a dozen or so different writing scripts. I started asking people about Saraswati. Everyone knew of her power. A tour guide said that families often have a shrine inside the house so that their children will do well at school and in music. A shopkeeper extolled her beauty (as he pointed her out in a picture he was keen to sell). A group of bartenders became animated in discussing whether or not as a goddess Saraswati can really be married to Brahma. Then the head bartender cut across their talk, fixed me with serious dark eyes, and stated, ‘She is true.’