The River Sarasvati flowed in the North Western part of India through Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The river has gone dry in the last few millennia, but the Sarasvati festival is celebrated on Basant Panchami in February, popularly called as Sarasvati Puja. Sarasvati is the name of a river as well as the Divinity for knowledge.
Vak devyaicha vid mahe
Virinji patnicha dheemahi
Thanno vani prachodayath.
O Divinity of Vak, I take cognizance of you
O consort of Brahma, I think of you
O Vani, May you kindle my intellect.
This verse is the invocation to the divinity Sarasvati who has been the embodiment of knowledge in this land from as far as one can trace the source of knowledge. Knowledge in this land has been synonymous with Sarasvati, also called Vak Devi, the divinity for Vak.
What is Vak?
What have Vak and Sarasvati got to do with knowledge?
Vak can be limitedly explained as “speech”. It is speech that forms the backbone for communication and it is communication that forms the backbone for knowledge transmission.
But Vak goes beyond mere speech. It transcends into the realm where thoughts originate. It goes into the thought itself. It takes the shape of words that describe that thought. It forms the speech sounds that enable the words to be spoken and thus the thought to be carried across, for it to be heard.
Vak is thus the subtle, yet perceivable form of thought, intellect, knowledge.
The domains traversed by Vak, speech, in Indian thought has been understood and described through various stages.
These four stages of speech have been further listed from the subtlest to the human sounds as,
– Para, the origins of an idea or thought in the mental realm, beyond description (para means beyond grasp)
– Pasyanti, that which emanates as an impulse to talk and is the first “visible” sign in the body of the thought (Pashyan means to see)
– Madhyama, the intermediary stage between the impulse and the actual voicing of the thought, the stage where thought takes form of words (madhyama means intermediate)
– Vaikhari, when it finally emerges as sound from the mouth, after passing through the vocal chords and getting manifested as sound waves (khar denotes solid, vaikhari is that solidly manifested utterance )
These subtle aspects of Vak, communication, have been brought out beautifully by the medieval poet Kalidasa in his ballad Raghuvamsa, through the verse.
Vagartha Viva Sampruktau
Jagathaph Pitarau Vande
– Raghuvamsa by Kalidasa
A speaker should
Speak what he means and mean what he thinks.
A listener should
Listen to what is said, Understand what is meant and Assimilate the thought behind it.
The speaker and listener are complementary to each other and form a pair similar to the divine pair Parvati and Parameshwara.
It is only then, does complete communication take place.
Parvati – Parameshwara
Vak embodies all these aspects of thinking, meaning, speaking and communicating, all of which are vital for transmission of knowledge in a society.
The knowledge expressed by the power of Vak goes beyond knowledge needed for day to day living and the various sciences. It transcends into the realms of knowledge of the gross as well as the subtle Universe, knowledge of the self and knowledge of knowledge itself.
Knowledge thus stretched from Vignana – sciences, to Pragnana – wisdom, to Gnana – knowledge.
The root Gna, in the word Gnana is the root for words related to “knowing” in Latin and English such as gnostic, gnosis, gospel, know and knowledge.
Sound – A Sound Carrier
While mind, memory and intellect give rise to the thought, it is speech with sound, Vani, that acts as the medium for transmitting the thought, knowledge in a communication.
This is the power of sound, vani.
Sound travels as waves agitating all the particles in its path and in the process transfers its contents, its payload, its energy, through vibrations. Sound attracts and captures attention. It focusses the mind. When we hear any sound, our mind is immediately drawn to it and what it is conveying, i.e. the thought it is carrying. Other thoughts vanish.
This is the power in sound, vani.
Thus the medium of sound has been an effective carrier of knowledge, communication, wave after wave, across generations.
Knowledge Flows With Grace
These concepts of Vak – speech, Vani – sound and Vidya – knowledge, are symbolized by the divinity Sarasvati also called Vak Devi, Vidya Devi, Vani.
Sarasvati, means “one who flows gracefully”.
Sarasvati is the embodiment of a ceaseless, unending, graceful, gracious flow of knowledge.
It is along the banks of the wide Sarasvati river that much of the Veda were composed many millennia ago. Her gracefully flowing waters carried this knowledge, nurturing the civilization living by her side to flourish and carry this knowledge further into lands spread far and near.
Sarasvati is depicted as a gracious lady seated on a solid rock in a gracefully flowing stream, playing a stringed instrument called Veena, flanked by swan like birds called Hamsa.
Sarasvati, courtesy Ravi Verma
The rock symbolizes the soundness of wisdom that can make one stand rock solid even amidst flowing waters.
The graceful, legendary Hamsa is a bird that had the singular prowess to separate milk from water. Sarasvati flanked by these Hamsa, symbolizes the ability to discern and seek out true knowledge.
The Veena is a stringed instrument that can produce discrete notes like that of the human voice. Strings, with their visible wave like vibrations, depict sounds, harmonics and resonance, visibly.
The stringed instrument, Veena, in Her hand draws our mind to the nature of knowledge to flow gracefully, wave after wave, generation after generation, over the medium of sound, speech, vak.
The metaphor and symbolism in Sarasvati, speaks volumes for the manner in which this civilization has held knowledge dear and relished it. It also speaks volumes for the sublime expression of how knowledge flows gracefully.
It is a civilization that has connected sound and knowledge to create impressions that have lasted millennia.