Saraswati is the Goddess of knowledge. She is the Goddess of speech (in Sanskrit Vac), that which Flows. This also has an association to water. It is said Saraswati was the Goddess of the river of the same name. On the banks of the river Saraswati, sages developed language. She revealed language to man. Thus she is the Goddess of knowledge and learning. She represents the union of power and intelligence from which organized creation arises. Saraswati possesses all the learning of the Vedas, scriptures, dancing, music and poetry. Her origin is in the lost Vedic river Saraswati. This is the source of her profound connection with fluidity in any aspect (water, speech, thought…). She embodies wisdom, fortune, intelligence, nourishment, brilliance, contentment, splendor and devotion. She is depicted as a gracefully seated or standing goddess, holding a veena, a musical instrument, a rosary and the scripture. The ‘bahon’ are the swan and the peacock. The instrument symbolizes knowledge of the arts held in high esteem in Vedic tradition. The rosary points to the meditative qualities necessary to acquire knowledge. The scripture is knowledge in itself. The swan signifies discrimination between right and wrong, while the peacock points to the mundane, the unstable.
Saraswati Puja has tremendous importance among Bengalis. Ma Saraswati is the Goddess whom we all worship to get her blessing to do well in our studies. Saraswati Puja is celebrated to pay obeisance the goddess of knowledge and learning and is held in January/February when winter is coming to an end, spring’s starting. It falls on fifth day of the waxing moon of the Magha month of the Indian solar calendar. The day is called 'Basant Panchami'. She is daughter of Durga and wife of Lord Brahma. She is also known as Gayatri. Saraswati possesses powers of speech, wisdom and learning. In fact her knowledge is regarded to be more superior than the Vedas, She embraces almost all the arts and sciences. Saraswati does not do any saj-goj (deck herself with costly gems and jewels). Dressed in pure white, she rides a rajhansa (swan). She is believed to illumine whole world with light of knowledge and dispel darkness of ignorance. She holds book in one hand and veena in another. She may come with four hands too - symbolizing learning, intellect, alertness and ego respectively. Students pray to her for her blessings so that they can excel in studies.
Saraswati is essentially an Aryan Goddess. Aryan settlements of ancient India were mainly along the banks of the rivers. Saraswati was one such river. Accumulation of wealth provided Aryans with leisure which in turn created an ideal situation for growth of knowledge, arts and crafts. Saraswati as Goddess of learning was now treasured. Once King Ambuvici, after having known the great powers of Saraswati, made an earthen image of hers.
The idol of Saraswati wears white clothes, to indicate the onset of spring and the blossoming of mustard flowers. Families dressed in bright yellow gather together before the idol of Saraswati and pray for the blessing of knowledge. Flowers and wild berries are offered to the goddess and students place their books before the deity and do not do any reading or writing that day. An elaborate puja, with sandalwood, ghee, joss sticks, and incense is done to the sound of shlokas, conch shells, and drums.
Saraswati Puja is also known as ‘Boi Puja’ (a worship of books) in Bengal. The puja starts early in the morning with ‘aaroti’. Students are supposed to be on a fast before the puja. Books, pens, pencils, musical instruments, chalk are kept before altar of the Goddess. ‘Boi’ (books) is almost considered as the soul of Ma Saraswati. So, when one accidentally puts his feet on even a page of a books, he makes a ‘pronam’ (bows ones head with respect) in order to undo his misdeed of trampling on Ma Saraswati’s soul. An earthen pot is decorated with mango leaves and floral designs are drawn with rice grain paste. Incense, green and dry fruits are offered to Goddess. Saraswati Puja ends with ‘pushpanjali’ which is performed thrice. Then pushpanjali (floral offering) is performed by reciting the following mantra thrice:
Saraswati mahabhage vidye kamalalochane
Viswarupe vishalakshi vidyangdehi namastute
Esho shachandana pushpa bilvapatranjali
Namo Saraswatvayi devyayi namoh
An intrinsic aspect of the puja is a child’s ‘Hatey Khori’ - the inauguration ceremony to a child’s learning - the child writes some letters in front of Goddess. After the pushpanjali, the father or any other elder and guides the child's hand on the slate to write the first letter. This is Aum. This is followed usually by a few letters of the Bangla vowels and consonants and nowadays, the English ones as well. It is considered an auspicious day to begin a child’s education.
This puja is celebrated in all schools and colleges. Schools, colleges and educational institutes are closed whole day. Students take break from their studies for the day to pay their respect to Goddess Saraswati. Young boys and girls could be seen engaged in the preparation of pujas from early morning. From cutting of fruits to assisting the priest, everything is taken care of by the students. No matter whether a student is religious or irreligious, everyone participates in this in the hope of doing, well in their examinations. The young girls wear ‘Basanti’ (shade of orange) coloured sarees and put ‘alta’ on their feet and go to school. The demure footsteps delicately balancing their sarees are wonderful scene. The elders think that their younger daughters have suddenly grown. In evening they put up cultural programmes accompanied by dance and drama. The following evening the images of the Goddess go for ‘bisorjon’ in Ganges.
Saraswati Puja is also the day of eating plums. Plums, called ‘kool’ in Bengali is the most sought after fruit on the day of Saraswati Puja. ‘Kooler Chatni’ and ‘Kooler Achar’ is a must for that day. Kool or plum is a fruit of spring time.
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