The Imagery of Saraswati in Indian Art as the Goddess of All Knowledge

The Imagery of Saraswati in Indian Art as the Goddess of All Knowledge

When we observe the sculptures and paintings created from pre-historic to contemporary times it is quite true that at any given point of time Indian art is expressed with higher emphasis on the depiction of female figures. The renowned art historian Stella Kramarisch is completely right in giving this opinion. The feminine form has caught the interest of the artist as well as the devotee and they cease to get weary in creating or viewing the female form in all its manifestation.

The very process of imagination involves idea and form, which transforms into a concept and the concept manifests into tangible forms. In order to concretise the form visualized, the artist prepares number of sketches by composing along with juxtaposing human forms with inanimate as well as animate forms. Then he treats the transcended form in a passionate manner. Thus the emergence of form is the internalised and personalised experience of an artist and being faithful to form in all its manifestation matters the most. Conceiving of the form is a spiritual phenomenon; the treatment of a form is a technical evocation where the artist is completely involved. Indian aesthetic theories lend higher insights into the creative process and the ability of an artist is very much depended on the way the form is significantly treated.

Formation of Imagery

To embellish form the artist uses decorative treatment, to bring serenity in form he may take up the divine approach, to beautify the form he would search parallels in nature, to get a vicarious pleasure he would distort the form or to obtain an empowering form he would exaggerate the normal form by filling up with strength and vigor. These are certain ways in which the artist transforms the imaginative form he had visualised into tangible form. While interpreting the ‘form’ which is one of the primary element of visual language, Niharanjan Ray puts it very appropriately as ‘forms comes out of idea, in other words form inheres idea as a possibility or potentiality. Or to say the same thing in a different language, idea is impregnated with form, and that creation of form proceeds from the unformed to the formed, from the less formed to the more formed, that there is any activity towards form, a progressive realization of idea’. Thus when the form rises beyond the visual properties it is relished with the ultimate level of ananda, which is shared by the artist and the viewer through the work of art and this is how the imagery of gods and goddesses are formed.

Bearing this in mind one may call the picture of a goddess as symbolic; it follows formal cannons. A large number of bodily attitudes and expressive gestures of the limbs (bhangas and mudras) may be observed as three important groups of distinctive characteristics: first, the contemplative, quietly poised attitude (sattva), second, the representative disposition emphasizing power and strength (rajas); and third, the lively temperament exhibiting the might and force of the goddess by her gestures which indicate destructive and bellicose activities (tamas). The three postures, sitting, standing and moving, seem organically well adapted to these three “virtues and attitudes” (gunas).

In the popular art of India the imagery of goddesses are contemplated according to their expression of power and function. Mahishamardhini, Durga, Chamundi, Kali and gramadevatas occupy the first place. The next place among the goddesses, second only to that of Durga is claimed by Lakshmi, the female counterpart of Vishnu, has a certain individuality. She is called Sri, the goddess of fortune, generally she is friendly and of a pleasing appearance. The third among the great goddesses is Saraswati, the wife of Brahma, whose appearance in art is clearer than that of her male counterpart Brahma. She might originally have been a local river-deity, but later became the goddess of speech and learning, and was particularly appreciated in literature. She alone seems to have nothing in common with the original mother-deity.

The Imagery of Saraswati

The imagery of Saraswati is visualized by our ancient people as the goddess in the form of a woman clad in saree with four hands, playing on the veena, her other two hands with akshamala and pustaka. But as an abstract concept, Saraswati is the Supreme Reality of one’s own consciousness. Thus one can imagine her in a concrete feminine form while in the other sense Saraswati is formless.

In Indian context the sculptures, paintings and icons are made not only with special significance but also they are created with a degree of cultural awareness. If they are to be placed in the Sanctum of a temple or a shrine, or for domestic shrines they have to be created by a sculptor who is well-versed in agamas and shilpa texts. Such images are not to be treated as memorials or statues to be placed in public places or keep in galleries or drawing rooms. In India the idea of a divine image, conceived in terms of human form, elevates theoretically to supra-human level and adds to its possibilities in this direction. With the complete realization of these possibilities the visible image becomes the vehicle of the invisible divine concept and the plastic art reaches its destined spiritual goal’ .

Saraswati has been identified as the Goddess of all knowledge including the fine arts. Several Shilpa and agama texts have specified the iconic imagery of Saraswati. There are not many variations among these texts on the form, attributes, postures, mounts and attire of Sarasvati when compared to the other Gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi and Durga. They appear with several incarnations and forms but for the depiction of Sarasvati in art this kind of complexity is rarely encountered and more so even the texts have minimum disagreement regarding iconographic features of Sarasvati.

Amshumadbhedagama recommends seating posture for the image of Sarasvati, with four hands. In one of the right hands she holds the akshamala and the vyakhyana mudra in the other. The left hands hold a lotus and palm-leaf text. Around her are a number of sages who worship her. Here the Veena has not been associated with Sarasvati. She wears yajnopavita indicating her position in the Vedic pantheon, with hair in the form of jata-makuta or decorated with jewels, specially with ear rings encrusted with rubies, while Purva Karanagama prescribes pearl ear rings. But Vishnudharmottara has another version where the goddess is in the standing posture on a white lotus and kamandalu, signifying the treasure trove of knowledge, the jnanabhanda substitutes the lotus in the left hand; in the right hand she carries a veena with a bamboo stem. We have another description in Suta-Samhita of the Skanda-purana where she has a jata makuta with a crescent moon inserted. Her neck is blue in colour and she has three eyes.

The shilpa text Roopamandana has included veena as one of the weapons, but she is in the satvik form. The epics refer to the veena of Sarasvati as kachchapi. The single gourd veena was popular even in the Gupta period and we find their representation in the Ajanta paintings. Yazdani observes that a very light gourd is attached to the veena and kept on the shoulder while playing. The Sarasvati sculptures of Hoysala period invariably hold this type of veena in hand and it came to be called as Saraswativeena.

The mount of Sarasvati is usually a hamsa (swan), the symbol of purity and knowledge: and occasionally a suka(parrot) or a mayura(peacock). Her attitude is serene, with a sublime expression on the face and denoting a high composure in the posture. She is very fair complexioned and attired in white colour garments. She is the icon of purity and sublimity. Saraswati is hailed as the patron goddess for the thought process and all creative arts.

Saraswati is also depicted in the Shakti(powerful) aspect as Maha Saraswati. She is the presiding Goddess of the final episode of the Devi Mahatmaya where she is believed to be one of the forms of the trinity of Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati. The imagery of Maha Saraswati is conceived in the dhyana shloka as a powerful warrior with eight-arms holding in her lotus like hands weapons like the trident, ploughshare, pestle, discus, conch, bow and arrow and a bell. She has originated from the body of Gowri and is the sustaining base of the three worlds with radiant. Three episodes are associated with the three powerful feminine forms of Devis. As Mahakali she kills the demons Chanda and Munda in a fierce battle, as Mahalakshmi she kills the demon Mahisha and as Mahasaraswati she pitches a terrible battle and vanquishes the demons Nishumbha and Shumbha the symbols of high negative energy. The episode of Mahasaraswati is the longest in the Durga Saptashati.

In all these forms the imagery is powerfully depicted with number of arms and weapons in action. In paintings they are differentiated with the colours of their skin and costumes and particularly Mahasaraswati is attired in white clothing with a serene expression on her face.

Saraswati Sculptures and Paintings

Since Saraswati is mainly visualised as the Vedic deity, her imagery in folk forms are not popular. The Vedas are regarded as the manasaputras of Saraswati, she presides over the knowledge circles and the learned class considers her as the mother of all kinds of knowledge. In this context Saraswati’s images in sculpture and paintings have few and definite illustrated forms which are highly popular and deviation to this imagery is not acceptable. Saraswati images are traceable to the early part of the first millennium and continue even in contemporary times. Of them the earliest image of Saraswati holding the palm-leaf text is traceable to 2nd century AD owing to a place known as Kankalitila near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.

During the Gupta period though Saraswati is profusely eulogized, in contemporary times it is rarely represented in Sanskrit literature, sculpture and painting. The imagery tradition and its application is significantly far reaching and prominently evident in the multiplied activity of temple building in Chalukya, Pallava, Rashtrakuta and Paramara period. The art and science of image making for worship and also for enhancing the beauty of the temples reached great heights starting from this period. The images of Saraswati do not figure much in the temples built during these periods. But the Paramara period has produced few of them in Raja Bhoja’s times. A sculpture of Saraswati playing on the veena seated in leelasana belonging to this provenance is in the collection of the Houston Museum.

During the time of Kalyana Chalukyan, Saraswati images were placed in devakoshtaka either in the Navaranga or on the exterior wall of the temple. Probably wherever the agraharas were associated with the temples the image of Saraswati was placed in the temple and worshipped. This period has also seen an exclusive ornate temple built and dedicated to Sarasvati within the Trikuteshvara Temple complex, in Gadag near Dharwar.

The life-size image of the goddess seated in padmasana is a masterpiece of Chalukyan art though mutilated it radiates beauty and elegance. The sculptors who belonged to this guild proudly called themselves Saraswati ganadasi. A sculptor by name Nagoja who carved one of the superb bracket figures placed in the interior part of the Chennakeshava Temple, Belur has inscribed his name on the pedestal of the sculpture as ‘Gadugina Nagoja Saraswati ganadasi’. In Bagali, which was a famous agrahara, an image of Saraswati seated in padamasana with four hands holding the palm-leaf text and akshamala, is probably the icon worshipped by the inmates of the agrahara. During the Hoysala times most of the temples had Saraswati images in seated or in dancing form. The attributes are similar to the earlier representations. But Saraswati is depicted as the embodiment of dance and music besides representing knowledge. She is playing on the veena and also dancing at ease.

In the Chola country the well-known temples: Brihadeshvara from Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram have beautiful Saraswati sculptures housed in devakoshtaka of the temple exteriors. These images are a visual treat providing aesthetic delight. Seated on a full bloomed lotus the goddess is stunningly charming, with prominent yajnopavita flowing down the navel, with four hands holding akshamala, pitcher, a palm-leaf text and chinmudra. The imager radiates poise, composure, serenity and has a sublime expression. They are the supreme master pieces of Chola style of sculpture.

Another most revered form of Saraswati is Sharada worshipped in Kashmir, which is regarded as the land of Saraswati, producing great scholars like Abhinavagupta, Anandavardhana and others. Sharada Temple at Shringeri in Karnataka has a beautiful image of the goddess seated in padmasana, with four hands holding pustaka, akshamala, kalasha and chinmudra. She is resplendent with special jewels and an exclusive kirita, the crown with the crescent. The imagery of Sharadamba is formed in co-ordinance with the description in Skanda Purana.

Sri chakra is the abstract form of the trinity, of Saraswati, Parvati and Lakshmi consecrated with the three satvas into the dynamic form of a wheel and installed by Sri. Shankaracharya at Shringeri. The image of Sharadadevi is placed very close to this Chakra. Thus the imagery of Saraswati has the reference of more than 2000 years of history in Indian sculpture and painting. The most famous among the painted imagery is the oleograph print of Saraswati seated in cross leg position, playing on the veena, holding pustaka and akshamala, against the natural backdrop painted by Raja Ravi Varma. It was the most adored picture found in cultured south Indian families. Through out India and outside these prints were in great demand and even today these prints have their special place. In Bengal Saraswati is worshipped on a special day observed as Basant Panchami. The goddess is clad in a white saree and images are made in clay like Durga images.

Saraswati has Her counter parts in Buddhist and Jaina traditions also. The imagery of Tara corresponds to Hindu Devi images. The Shveta (white) Tara with her several eyes is regarded as the Goddess of learning in Tibetan Buddhism. The Shyama (blue) Tara corresponds to the shakti or Kali in Tibetan Buddhism. The images of Saraswati with four hands holding akshamala, abhaya or chinmudra, pustaka and amruta kalasha in seated position is worshipped in a small shrine in major temples. Several sculptures are found with these iconographic features on the wall portions, pillars or free standing sculptures in Jaina temples of Rajasthan and Karnataka.

The tradition of making the image of Saraswati continues to this day. The craftsmen continue to produce Saraswati images in stone, metal, wood and fiber-glass, silver and even in gold. The Mysore and Tanjore traditional Schools of paintings have retained the tradition of depicting Saraswati with four hands playing on the veena. Every student would still like to have an image or a frame of the Goddess on their study table and worship her. This is one of the striking features of Indian civilization which engages in transforming the outlook of society in a refined manner.

(Dr Choodamani Nandagopal is an Art Historian, Author, and Academician of International repute. She has been bestowed with prestigious International Fellowships for her academic contribution. She is a UK Visiting Nehru Fellow, UNESCO Fellow and UNSW Fellow. She has visited countries like UK, USA, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, France, Nepal, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in connection with her research projects, lectures and consultancy and conferences and to conduct workshops. She is the author of 8 major publications besides 4 in Kannada. Being an artist herself she writes and speaks on Indian art and culture with a great understanding and concern. This article was submitted to the Heritage Trust Bangalore)