Appreciating Hindu symbolism — Sandeep Balakrishna

sarasvatiWhat does Sarasvati symbolize? — Sandeep Balakrishna

Some years ago, a reader wrote to me with an experience that he said vexed him. The relevant portion of his email is produced below:

…during a talk with a liberal friend of mine, regarding the MF Hussain episode…friend talked on the lines of what liberals usually speak i.e. Kamasutra, Khajuraho…But…his explanation that Brahma marrying his creation (daughter) Saraswati amounted to incest which according to him means Hinduism sanctifies such relationships…made me quite uncomfortable and disturbed.

This kind of “explanation” typically stems from the Wendy Doniger school of Indic distortion, which, intentionally confounds the symbolic with the literal and sees sex and perversion everywhere in Sanatana Dharma. In this light, we don’t need to attach any importance to such intentionally malicious readings and leave them to their devices after applying this terse Sanskrit proverb that describes such mental disturbances: यद्भावम् तद्भवति (you perceive things according to your mental makeup).

If viewed only literally, Brahma who married his own daughter, Sarasvati is definitely a case of incest. At the risk of oversimplification, one can reasonably say that the traditional method of interpreting our lore—Vedas, Itihasas and Puranas—falls under three categories:

  1. Adhibhautika—pertaining to the “bhuta” or living beings including humans.
  2. Adhidaivika—pertaining to unseen forces, fate, Gods, or simply, the supernatural.
  3. Adhyaatmika—pertaining to the “atma,” or “soul.”

And so, to interpret any of the vast corpus of our lore, it requires years of study and training in numerous auxiliary disciplines—such as the Vedangas, for example—to recognize to which category a particular story, allegory, event, or even a mantra falls and how its actual meaning must be arrived at.

Now, different Puranas have different versions of how Brahma was born but the most popular one is this: Brahma was born out of the lotus that grew from Vishnu’s navel (hence his name, Nabhija; the word nabhi means “navel”). After he was born, he created a female form, Shatarupa, who later came to be known as Sarasvati. To cut a long story short, Brahma essentially fell in love with his own creation and ended up marrying her.

At a very mundane, everyday level, if we create something from our own imagination—a painting, a poem, a tune, a sculpture–it becomes ours in the sense that it is something we gave birth to using our imaginative, mental, and physical faculties. It does not become ours in the sense that we purchased it by paying cash or via barter. Which is typically why we take for granted the meaning of these familiar and colourful phrases describing creative output: “labour of my love,” “my baby,” “breathed life into it,” “manifestation of my creativity,” and so on.

Equally, we don’t hear anybody expressing a desire to feed their artistic creations with milk and food. Neither do these creators/artists nurture any delusions that their painting or novel will crawl after three months and grow up into a fine young man or woman. However, if someone starts talking about taking the tune that they composed in say, Raga Abheri to the doctor for giving it polio drops, you know which institution they must be admitted into.

In other words, when you describe your artistic creation as your baby, it is implied that you are only talking figuratively, not literally.

This rather simplistic background is essential to understand Brahma’s supposedly-incestuous marriage to Sarasvati.

Now, Brahma is the God of Creation. But is that all there is to it? The answer is yes if you take the marriage literally—that is, at the Adhibhautika level, or physically, as in a marriage between a man and a woman. But if it’s nothing more than a marriage between a man and a woman, why was Brahma so attracted to his own daughter? Being Creator, how difficult was it to create a wife for himself?

And this question is what prompts us to look beyond the mere Adhibhautika level and at the symbolism behind the supposedly incestuous marriage.

As Creator, Brahma brought to life Existence itself: both the sentient and the inert. This means he created the physical world that we perceive through our sense organs and try to understand that world using our mind. And how does the mind make sense of this physical world?

If we talk about the physical world of shapes and forms, we need to give it a definition, a name or label. In the Indian tradition, this process of understanding the world is typically expressed as “the world of Nama(Name) and Rupa (Form/Shape),” both Nama and Rupa being inseparable. To put this in plain language, we look at a tree and our mind won’t rest in peace unless it finds a word (nama) to define it accurately so that when you say “tree,” you know exactly what it is without having to actually look at it with your eyes.

It is evident that this process of defining the physical world falls in the realm of thought. And any thought is expressed through speech, which when heard once again transforms itself as thought in the mind of the listener. It is for this reason that most ancient methods of learning placed enormous emphasis on mastering language.

What follows from this is rather simple. The shapes and forms that Brahma gave to his thoughts became the physical world. When he expressed it in language, it became speech. And this speech is Sarasvati, his daughter. This stands to reason when we observe the fact that the Indian tradition worships Sarasvati primarily as the Goddess of Speech (or vaak), language, and learning.

Indeed, there is no word in any language which is devoid of meaning because every word is both an idea and its expression—it represents something: a thought, an object, anything. In other words, a word cannot be divorced from its meaning. Even in the case of names of people—if we utter the name of a person, it conjures up an image or some sort of association related to that person. In this case, this meaning of the word is again represented by Sarasvati, now donning the role of Brahma’s wife.

Perhaps the simplest and best exposition of this relationship between word and meaning and Brahma and Sarasvati has been given by Kalidasa in this immortal opening verse of his grand Raghuvamsha:

वागर्थाविव सम्प्रुक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये |
जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ ||
I bow to parents of the world, Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati
who are inseparable as speech and its meaning to gain knowledge of speech and its meaning.

As symbolizing the meaning of the word, Sarasvati is Brahma’s wife, inseparable like the wife who stays with her husband for life, through good and tough times. This symbolism is pretty much true for example, of Vishnu. As the wife of Vishnu the Preserver of the world, Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth. One cannot hope to attain peace and order in the world without prosperity, and vice versa.

This then is the symbolism behind Sarasvati as both Brahma’s daughter and wife. Yet, for millions of Hindus over thousands of years, Brahma and Sarasvati have continued to remain revered as man and wife, even, purely at the Adhibhautika level. Indeed, the last thought a practising Hindu will have about Sarasvati is her so-called “incestuous marriage” to Brahma.

There’s a reason that symbols and myths in Hinduism have an enduring quality about them: they make highly abstract philosophies and concepts readily accessible to us by making them part of our daily life. It is easier telling a child about the importance of learning by narrating the importance of worshipping Sarasvati than it is to threaten it to study “or else!” Equally, it is easier to explain abstract concepts of thought, words and meanings to a layman using this story than conduct a theoretical seminar. Or to borrow from the venerable Prof. M Hiriyanna, the fact of word and meaning has been elevated to a value by worshipping Sarasvati as the Goddess of Learning:

In modern philosophy, ever since the time of Descartes and Locke, the theory of knowledge has usurped the place which is due to values; and it is only in recent times that, as a consequence of the total divorce of philosophy from life to which that practice naturally led, there has been a gradual shifting of interest from it to the problem of value. One of the distinguishing features of Indian philosophy is that, throughout its long history, it has consistently given the foremost place to values. In some early works, this problem receives almost exclusive attention. For example, the Upanishads speak more often of the final goal of life, the means to its attainment and the inner peace and joy which it signifies than of ‘being’ or of ‘knowing’, as such. [Emphasis added]

However, in this age of absurd insistence on literality and realism-in-everything (including in fiction) we have become conditioned to look for literal meanings in places where finding literal meanings is both irrelevant and misleading without a proper grounding in symbolism. An outlook shaped by and steeped in literalism and hard realism has indeed led to the near-total destruction of classics—Greek, Roman, and Indian—in both the academia and popular imagination. It is not wholly inaccurate to say that a great degree of emotional refinement and retaining a sense of innocence is a prerequisite to appreciating symbolism.

Equally, we can’t be selective in choosing literal meanings for some, and symbolic meanings for others. For instance, we can consider the story of the trimurtis. Why do those who accept the symbolism—not literalism—of the trimurtis as symbols of creation, preservation, and destruction selectively look at the literal meaning of the marriage of Brahma and Sarasvati?

This selective tendency in a large number of cases is premised on dubious if not sinister motives, and is one of the main reasons Hindus are upset with the likes of Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, et al., who read literal meanings because it fits the conclusion they want to derive.

Reverting to the beginning of this essay, there’s a deeper reason Hindus are outraged by M F Hussain’s pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Hindu art, according to Ananda Coomaraswamy, moves from the impersonal to the personal. For example, if I paint a microphone and say, “This picture is an artistic representation of the triumph of technology to improve the quality of our lives,” it draws absolutely no outrage. On the other hand, if I caption the same picture with, say, “This is the penis of my friend Robert’s father, and shows the virile nature of the force behind all creation,” what is your guess as to how Robert will respond?

Given the deeply personal nature of our mythology, Sarasvati, Sita, et al. are as much—if not more than—our family members as our parents and siblings are: in other words, they are not merely paintings of just any nude female form. It is this that upsets Hindus not to mention the way Hussain takes perverse liberties with Hindu mythological tales. And this is also why Hindus aren’t upset with Khajuraho sculptures but instead visit the temple and pay their respects to the Gods there.

Sandeep Balakrishna sarasvati What does Sarasvati Symbolize? sandeep b

Sandeep Balakrishna

Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, blogger, translator, and socio-political analyst. He is the author of “Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore” and “The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History.” He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s magnum opus “Avarana” into English.
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