Studies from an eastern home
The Saraswati Puja
WE realise too little that the world's greatest images and temples are but as mountain-peaks, in which culminate the private adorations of the soul and of the home. Out of the spoils of Marathon, Athene Promachos was set to watch, from the rocky summit of the Acropolis, over the city of violets, only because, beside the hearths of Athens, for more than two centuries before the time of Pheidias, her name had been a household word. But if we would know something of that long anterior thought and dreaming that made her and the Goddess of the Parthenon what they have become to us and to our children, we cannot do better than study the question here in Bengal, in the simple worships of the months as they go by. For Greece in her golden age, though politically emancipated, was intellectually but a province of Asia, and in Hindu India to-day that same Asia is still alive and in full vigour. Pater's Roman study of Marius the Epicurean, laying his violets and cake with the fragment of honeycomb on the votive shelf before the tablets of his ancestors and
of the gods, would apply with precision to the Bengali woman of this present year of grace, offering prasadam and flowers, with grass and water, before the household deity in her thakur-ghar. The thakur-ghar, or private oratory, is sufficient for the needs of the daily worship of the family. But when the great pujas come round the image is erected downstairs, in the hall that runs along the side of the front court--the noblest apartment in the house--and the whole dwelling falls into subordination as a temple of the gods.
Man has had many dreams of the Divine Wisdom, but surely few so touching as this of Saraswati in Bengal. A simple woman, ascetic and poor, standing on the white lotus, surrounded by flowers, not jewels, suggestive of all things white and colourless and simple, and carrying the mystic Vina, from which the touch of her hand is bringing a secret music--this is she who has been our guest. In the Dekkan and in Maharashtra, they picture her riding on the peacock, and Mhattre's beautiful statue, with its decorative draperies and crown-like hair, carries not a little splendour with it. But in Bengal the goddess is somewhat widowlike--not actually a widow, for among her offerings is the iron bracelet of the wife--true daughter of the ascetics and patron of poor students, impossible to confound with Lakshmi, her sister of Good Fortune.
Seeing it for the first time at sunset or at dawn, one learns to appreciate the dainty curves of the image: the gleaming white, the light and springing attitude, as of one scarcely touching the flower on which she stands. But it is not even necessary to have an image in order to worship Saraswati. It is quite sufficient, instead, to set one's inkstand and pens in her hallowed place, and offer to them our salutation and affection. For Saraswati dwells and is found in these, the humble creatures of learning; and in token thereof--in full accord with the Hindu horror of confounding use and worship--her worshippers are forbidden to open a book or touch their writing materials throughout her festival.
A world of childish associations and tender joys lies hidden beneath the observance of the Saraswati Puja. Kind uncles and fathers stay at home today, and prove the value of leisured masculinity by their readiness to ascend step-ladders and nail the auspicious strings of mango-leaves above the entrance, and carry pots of water and place them, covered with cocoanuts, and embowered beneath tall plantain-sterns, against portals and pillars everywhere. And the children themselves are all hilarity. To hold hammer and nails, or carry flowers and mats, seems the height of glory. In the kitchen the ladies of the house are busy preparing food and dressing many-coloured fruits. The happy
bustle of an English Christmas prevades the household, all to culminate in the solemn worship, about noon, when the Austere Spirit of Learning will be invoked, and implored to make this hospice of her two-days' visitation her home and abode throughout the coming year.
In the making of the altar-place itself, how much to do! First must the place be cleansed and sanctified. Then, on a wooden stand, the image is set up and all the necessary appurtenances of Saraswati's manifestation arranged about her in due order. Reed pens of an ancient make, curious earthen ink-wells, of no modern pattern, a quaint toilet-basket, with combs and scented oils, a small round mirror, and powders and earthenware vessels innumerable, are all de rigueur on this occasion. Let priests and theologians explain the mirror how they will, as symbolising the reflection of the Divinity in the unclouded mind, or buddhi--it strikes the newcomer very forcibly that, in sentiment at least, the goddess is to some extent a lady visitant, to whom the privileges and courtesies of womanhood must be extended; for whom, indeed, her sister-women will think many luxuries necessary that they could by no means afford for themselves. Last, and most striking, perhaps, of the preliminary ceremonies is the enclosing of the sacred space. Balls of mud are set at the four corners. In these are placed arrows with the
points downwards, and then--in the case of Saraswati white, in that of other images red--thread is passed from corner to corner, a palisade of cord and arrows. Under what conditions of forest and hunt were the Hindu images first set up for worship?
The name Saraswati occurs in the Vedas themselves, and we can gather its primitive significance from the fact that it was applied to that river on whose banks were performed all the holiest sacrifices. The word is a synonym also for Savitri, which is one of the names of the Gayatri, or national prayer. So that in a very special sense it is said by Hindus of this, their Divine Wisdom, that she is the eternal consort of the Creator, and sprang, full-grown, from the countenance of Narayan, the Lord of the Worlds. "O Thou without Whom the Creator Himself abideth not, abide with us!" runs one of the prayers, and the enumeration that follows of the eightfold desirable attributes of the mind is curiously subtle. A distinction is drawn, for instance, between memory and the power to call up the thing remembered at the right time and place.
There is, humanly speaking, understood to be a silent unyielding grudge between Saraswati and her sister Lakshmi, the Mistress of Fortune. To be entirely abandoned by Lakshmi is a terrible
curse. It means to become devoid of all beauty and charm of every kind; to be, in the world of men, as an owl hooting in the wilderness. Even Saraswati, too, must have recourse to the good offices of Lakshmi for that measure of oats and midnight oil which is the essential wealth of the poor student. But it would be foolish to look, in the case of either sister, for the bestowal of the fulness of her benediction on the ardent adorer of the other. Each is very jealous, and gives herself completely only to a whole heart and an undivided affection. Especially is it true of this plainly-garbed Mother, throned on the white lotus, that she stands in right queenly strength on her own simplicity, and grants but the crumbs of her feast to him who has a squinting regard for the good things of life's banquet. How quietly thus, in a half-sarcastic myth, has India foretold the disaster to learning that would come of modern commercialism! The lore of Saraswati has other points of significance. All books and manuscripts--Persian and English to the full as much as classic Sanskrit--are sacred to her. We find plenty of science and geography among the schoolbooks that the boys place on her altar shyly, to be blessed by the touch of her feet. There is no suspicion in India of divorce between faith and knowledge, between the Divine Creator and the Divine Wisdom. The thing sounds foolish. Is
not religion the highest knowledge, knowledge itself the highest faith?
Thus we gather that there is in Hinduism full sanction for the difficult intellectual transition through which the present generations are passing. The Mother blesses that absorption in intellectual problems that forgets her name. She accepts such oblivion as the most precious form of worship. But it must be the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not for that of its loaves and fishes. Those of us who have learned to regard the present Indian crisis as one almost entirely of mind and thought will realise the dynamic power of these conceptions. For on no other terms than those of a complete appropriation of new forms of disinterested culture can the nation hope to take its true place in the modern world. And to such an excursion of the intellect its ancient sources of authority offer full encouragement and benediction. Without any break with her own past, India might learn to stand in the very van of modern progress. Some understanding of such facts, more or less dim, penetrates even the humblest household in which the image of Saraswati is set up. What is lacking is a sense of contrast, the knowledge that in such a breadth of view there is anything startling or extraordinary.
Saraswati in modern India is the favourite goddess of every home, even as Athene must have
been in almost prehistoric Athens. But the altar of Athene was the cradle of a great civic life and organisation, and the throne of Saraswati has up to the present inculcated only an invisible culture--mediæval in its intensity--of heart and soul. Treasures of Indian psychology, treasures of Indian thought, lie scattered by the roadside for him who cares to follow out with attention the winding paths of Hindu worship. Yet none who has watched the procession of the image to the river can doubt that the Indian pujas of to-day, like the Greek of old, contain within themselves great civic possibilities.
For the two days, with their constant succession of sacred offices, are gone. All night long the lights burned about the shrine, and long after evenfall an occasional passer-by, noting the garland of leaves above the entrance, would push open the door and enter the courtyard to spend a few moments in the presence of the altar. Ever since the consecration of the image we have gone about on tiptoe and spoken almost in whispers, feeling that the house was not our own, but the dwelling-place of gods. And now the second evensong is come, and after the pathetic ceremony of the Farewell Charge is done among the women, the goddess goes forth, amidst attendant drums and heralds, to disappear from the eyes of mortals in that flood wherein all that is is holy. Crowded
streets and river-bank await her coming, and even as the one procession goes out it meets another coming in, bearing the pots of Ganges water from which in the growing dusk the "water of peace" will be sprinkled on kneeling worshippers, while the last blessings are pronounced in the chamber where for two days she had stood. How exquisite is this moment of "the water of peace"; how full of devotion are prayers and prostrations! And among the lengthening shadows there steals about us the sense of something more real than physical presence, and we wonder if to us also has come some of the fruit of the ancient prayer to the Divine Wisdom, "O Thou without whom the Creator Himself abideth not, abide with us!"
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.