Just as Hindus recognize Lakshmi as the Goddess of wealth by the golden coins that flow from her hand, Hindus recognize Saraswati as the Goddess of the arts and knowledge by the veena (a South Asian stringed instrument) that she holds in her arms. Saraswati is the divine consort of Brahma (the creator of the universe). Since Brahma is rarely depicted in visual form (there are different narratives that explain why), Saraswati appears alone. As is the case for many Hindu deities, the occasions and reasons for worshiping Saraswati range from fulfilling the needs of daily life to more esoteric or spiritual concerns. Growing up in a Hindu household, I associated Saraswati simply with Her ability to bring good fortune to my schoolwork and extracurricular musical activities. Every autumn during the annual Saraswati puja (ritual), my parents would ask my brother and me to place a couple of school books in front of the altar as a symbolic gesture of asking for the Goddess’ blessing for the school year.
The understanding of Saraswati as a bestower of blessings for success in education and the arts is modern and pragmatic. However, the Goddess also bestows a kind of divine wisdom that runs much deeper. The presence of water in many depictions reminds the worshipper that Saraswati is a river Goddess (as there is an actual Saraswati River in India considered to be the Goddess Herself). One finds either a river in the background of the portrait or Saraswati holding a pot of water in one of Her four arms. On a more symbolic level, water illustrates freely-flowing, abundant spiritual knowledge that liberates the worshipper. White dominates Her portrait and emphasizes various aspects of this deeper wisdom. The white lotus She sits on represents divine knowledge. Her white sari (characteristic dress of South Asia) represents purity of knowledge and a white swan represents intellectual seeking.
Saraswati is sometimes depicted holding a scroll which symbolizes the sacred scriptures that reveal divine knowledge. In some portraits, She holds a mala (a string of beads used in meditation to count the repetition of spoken chants (mantras)) which is a direct reminder of spiritual practice and knowledge. She is not only the Goddess of the knowledge acquired by reading the written word, but also of verbal expression and speech.
The complexity and detail of Saraswati’s physical representations serve to show that she is the embodiment of the divine, radiant wisdom that is the source of all forms of learning and expression—from music, to speech, to the written word, to spiritual practice. To turn to the Goddess Saraswati when asking for blessings in art or learning entails the surrender of one’s own limitations for divine wisdom.