It seems that there was a great and ancient river which flowed in the plains of this sub-continent when the Aryans made their way from Central Asia across the Hindu Kush mountains and landed in the flat fertile land of this subcontinent. They came into the region of Punjab — the land of the five rivers of today.
Saraswati seems to have been a very large and placid river with calm and very tasty water, which also had curative properties. Some historians believe that this river flowed from south to west and was more in Rajasthan and Punjab before it joined the Arabian Sea.
But now, the most accepted theory points to its source being in the Himalayas near Badri Nath where Vyasji wrote the ‘Mahabharat’ and the ‘Bhagwat Puran’ during the Daupar Yug just before ‘Kal Yug’, and it seems that it is about that time that Saraswati vanished as a river due to some great upheaval.
In the Bhagwat Puran, Ved Vyas seems to have got angry with her for making too much noise in her happiness on hearing that Vyasji was going to write the ‘Bhagwat Puran’. The noise disturbed Vyasji’s concentration and he just ordered her to vanish. She went underground.
Anyway Saraswati was then supposed to have again appeared and joined the Ganga and Jamuna at Allahabad where the holy ‘Sangam’ is still recognised — people believe they can still see the golden waters of Saraswati coming out and joining the Ganga and jamuna and the three in their Sangam are known as Triveni.
Some historians and researchers believe that the upheaval broke the smooth passage of Saraswati and several large ponds, lakes and streams came up at different places whatever the underground river could find an opening on the surface of the earth.
Both Punjab and Rajasthan claim such reservoirs of water which are held as extremely holy and bathing in it takes one straight to heaven. Great ‘Nahans’ are held on auspicious days even today when millions take their bath at Kurukshetra, Pushkar and other places.
One doesn’t really know where this ancient river flowed, but it was the biggest river of the time when the Aryans came into the land which they called ‘Aryavarta’. It was for the first time that they found a place with plenty of fruits, herbs and eatable roots growing around the banks of the mighty river. It was a most inviting place for the Aryans to settle down and leave their nomadic life-style.
On settling down they found that they could use their vast intellect to code an harmonious co-existence between man and nature instead of perpetually running in search of food and shelter. They built permanent hamlets and cities on the banks of Saraswati which to them became a ‘Goddess’ in the style of their philosophy and since it gave them life and sustenance, they thought of her equal to the Creator and soon she became the ‘Power of the Creator’ and Saraswati — the river became synonymous with the consort of Brahma and this river whose waters they believed gave them the power to think deeply as they conjured up the wisdom of the Vedas on its banks.
The two could not be differentiated and both were given the name Saraswati; which was named first is not known and in the romanticism of the Hindu thought it does not matter. Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom, was embodied as a most beautiful woman in white with all the purity that could be bestowed on a perfect woman.
The sites of Mohanjadaro and Harappa, which seem to be two of the earliest Aryan settlements, seem to have been on the banks of Saraswati according to some researcher, but they could very well be on the banks of the ‘Sindhu’ which was equally huge but did not have the same curative properties. Since there is no account in the Vedas as to its location, one can only go alongwith one or the other theory of those that are doing research.
One thing is certain that such a river existed before the Ganga was brought down from the high Himalayas, down to the plains of northern India by the efforts of Daleep — the’father of Bhagirath — who spent a life-time in the Himalayas in his efforts to find the easiest way and method to bring this river down to ‘Aryavarta’ through the huge valleys and mountains of the Himalayan range.
It was left to his son to eventually bring it physically to flow in a stretch of land where only the Jamuna flowed, as Saraswati seems to have vanished by that time. Jamuna, and Ganga, the twin rivers, made that area one of the most fertile and safe for the coming generations and it has been difficult for the inhabitants of ‘Bharat’ to find a better location for governing the subcontinent, as it slowly became one country.
Ganga took over from Saraswati the glory attributed to a river which gave life to its inhabitants and was also accepted as a Goddess, but the glory of Saraswati can never be forgotten since it reached the status of Brahmas’ consort.
The stories interwoven in bringing home the truth of the teachings of the Vedas differ sometimes in different Puranas as they were compiled by different sages and rishis. They are all accepted by the Hindus in his pragmatic attitude towards these stories which he understands are really to illustrate the right act against wrong actions and the result thereof, especially for the uneducated and the children.
Those who having been brought up with these stories have a natural desire to go deeper into the true philosophy of Hinduism, and each one finds a meaning to quench his thirst — according to the limit of his understanding, and as the philosophy gets deeper and deeper, the understanding also gets deeper and deeper — that is how Hinduism has not lost its essential spiritualism and depth.
Both the educated and uneducated accept the stories and mythology in their stride. One with intellect and the others as lessons from what they consider actual authentic doings of the Gods and whom they accept as the form of the ‘Unmanifest’, without question.
I shall tell you a story where Saraswati, Ganga and Laxmi are all really wives of Vishnu. Ganga and Saraswati were jealous of Laxmi who has been pampered by Vishnu. Laxmi decided to pacify them, but they both got very angry with her. Lord Vishnu got very annoyed at Laxmi’s efforts having been spurned and he just told Saraswati and Ganga that henceforth he will accept only Laxmi as his Consort and the other two will have to go down to ‘Mrityu Lok’ as rivers.
Ganga in the meantime cursed Laxmi to become a tree in Mrityu Lok and so she became the ‘tulsi tree’ which is the most revered in a Hindu household as it is very dear to Lord Vishnu. Tulsi has the most amount of medicine value and by this story the sages assured that each household would keep a ‘tulsi plant’.
Lord Vishnu of course told both Ganga and Saraswati, after He had cooled down that they will be sacred rivers and will remain near His heart always. Therefore, the Hindus without question thinks it the gateway to heaven if he takes a dip in the holy waters of Ganga and the ponds and lakes that ‘Saraswati’ is supposed to have become, because it is true that the waters of Ganga never get putrid or have any sort of impurity even if kept for years.
It is as sparkling as it was when taken from the river especially near Haridwar and above. The waters of Saraswati also seem to possess such property which no other river in the world can boast of. It is believed that perhaps they flow over a field of radium during their journey through the mountains and no bacteria can survive in the waters — Ganga as a river and Saraswati as ponds and lakes still retain that quality.
Saraswati as a Goddess is usually shown alone, and seldom shown with Brahma in pictures and sculptures. She is a Goddess worshipped in temples or shrines because her true place is in the heart and mind, but pictures and sculptures are seen in homes — especially those that prize knowledge more than any material benefits, and it is often said that Laxmi does not reside along with Saraswati as they do not get along.
But usually in any picture of Laxmi, one will find a small image of Saraswati, because man although extremely fond of wealth would not like to be known as a man without knowledge and therefore would not like to ignore either of them.
Saraswati’s vehicle is a white long necked Swan. She is shown either on a lotus or sitting on the back of a white swan. She is also known as Savitri and Brahmani, Shatroopa and even Gayatri although in one story she is a ‘sautun’ of Gayatri when Brahma makes Gayatri sit beside him during a havan because Saraswati got late in coming!!
Saraswati puja is done on Basant Panchmi when the yellow Sarso greets the oncoming summer months as it is about that time she was created by Brahma. This puja is done as is usual with roli, Aapan and rice and the prasad that is offered is clarified butter, curd, honey — till, milk and ladoos. The juice of sugarcane and coconut, plums and bananas are also offered as prasad.
When a child goes to school for the first time, the name of Saraswati along with Ganesh is evoked and the child is asked to pray to the goddess to give him great knowledge, understanding and wisdom.