What does Sarasvati Symbolize?

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 is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural 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.

Prekshaa Publications

Indian Perspective of Truth and Beauty in Homer’s Epics is a unique work on the comparative study of the Greek Epics Iliad and Odyssey with the Indian Epics – Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. Homer, who laid the foundations for the classical tradition of the West, occupies a stature similar to that occupied by the seer-poets Vālmīki and Vyāsa, who are synonymous with the Indian culture. The author...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the sixth volume of reminiscences character sketches of prominent public figures, liberals, and social workers. These remarkable personages hailing from different corners of South India are from a period that spans from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Written in Kannada in the 1970s, these memoirs go...

An Introduction to Hinduism based on Primary Sources

Authors: Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh, Hari Ravikumar

What is the philosophical basis for Sanātana-dharma, the ancient Indian way of life? What makes it the most inclusive and natural of all religio-philosophical systems in the world?

The Essential Sanātana-dharma serves as a handbook for anyone who wishes to grasp the...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fifth volume, episodes from the lives of traditional savants responsible for upholding the Vedic culture. These memorable characters lived a life of opulence amidst poverty— theirs  was the wealth of the soul, far beyond money and gold. These vidvāns hailed from different corners of the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom and lived in...

Padma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam represents the quintessence of Sage Bharata’s art and Bhārata, the country that gave birth to the peerless seer of the Nāṭya-veda. Padma’s erudition in various streams of Indic knowledge, mastery over many classical arts, deep understanding of the nuances of Indian culture, creative genius, and sublime vision bolstered by the vedāntic and nationalistic...

Bhārata has been a land of plenty in many ways. We have had a timeless tradition of the twofold principle of Brāhma (spirit of wisdom) and Kṣāttra (spirit of valour) nourishing and protecting this sacred land. The Hindu civilisation, rooted in Sanātana-dharma, has constantly been enriched by brāhma and safeguarded by kṣāttra.
The renowned Sanskrit poet and scholar, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R...

ಛಂದೋವಿವೇಕವು ವರ್ಣವೃತ್ತ, ಮಾತ್ರಾಜಾತಿ ಮತ್ತು ಕರ್ಷಣಜಾತಿ ಎಂದು ವಿಭಕ್ತವಾದ ಎಲ್ಲ ಬಗೆಯ ಛಂದಸ್ಸುಗಳನ್ನೂ ವಿವೇಚಿಸುವ ಪ್ರಬಂಧಗಳ ಸಂಕಲನ. ಲೇಖಕರ ದೀರ್ಘಕಾಲಿಕ ಆಲೋಚನೆಯ ಸಾರವನ್ನು ಒಳಗೊಂಡ ಈ ಹೊತ್ತಗೆ ಪ್ರಧಾನವಾಗಿ ಛಂದಸ್ಸಿನ ಸೌಂದರ್ಯವನ್ನು ಲಕ್ಷಿಸುತ್ತದೆ. ತೌಲನಿಕ ವಿಶ್ಲೇಷಣೆ ಮತ್ತು ಅಂತಃಶಾಸ್ತ್ರೀಯ ಅಧ್ಯಯನಗಳ ತೆಕ್ಕೆಗೆ ಬರುವ ಬರೆಹಗಳೂ ಇಲ್ಲಿವೆ. ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರಕಾರನಿಗಲ್ಲದೆ ಸಿದ್ಧಹಸ್ತನಾದ ಕವಿಗೆ ಮಾತ್ರ ಸ್ಫುರಿಸಬಲ್ಲ ಎಷ್ಟೋ ಹೊಳಹುಗಳು ಕೃತಿಯ ಮೌಲಿಕತೆಯನ್ನು ಹೆಚ್ಚಿಸಿವೆ. ಈ...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fourth volume, some character sketches of the Dewans of Mysore preceded by an account of the political framework of the State before Independence and followed by a review of the political conditions of the State after 1940. These remarkable leaders of Mysore lived in a period that spans from the mid-nineteenth century to the...

Bharatiya Kavya-mimamseya Hinnele is a monograph on Indian Aesthetics by Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma. The book discusses the history and significance of concepts pivotal to Indian literary theory. It is equally useful to the learned and the laity.

Sahitya-samhite is a collection of literary essays in Kannada. The book discusses aestheticians such as Ananda-vardhana and Rajashekhara; Sanskrit scholars such as Mena Ramakrishna Bhat, Sridhar Bhaskar Varnekar and K S Arjunwadkar; and Kannada litterateurs such as DVG, S L Bhyrappa and S R Ramaswamy. It has a foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh.

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...