Honouring Saraswati

by Susan Allen

“Saraswati is all that is good within. When I pray to Saraswati, I pray to knowledge itself for through knowledge and wisdom, I come to know my own goodness and the correct ways to act in life to promote harmony, love and peace.”
I Nyoman Setiawan, Mask Carver and Dancer

In the Balinese 210 day calendar when the day called “Watugunung” falls before the day “Sinta” the Hindu-Balinese on the island of Bali pay their deepest respects to the Goddess Saraswati. Looking deeper into why Saraswati is honored only at that time, we find the reason rooted in an ancient folktale. The tale reveals that ‘Watugunung’ was the son of ‘Sinta’. As a child he was naughty and hurt himself in the head leaving a deep scar on his skull. Over the years, son and mother were separated and met again once the son was full grown. They married and only after Sinta discovered the scar on Watugunung’s skull could she discern that she had done a forbidden act. Through the awareness of the meaning of the scar, Sinta could correct her action, and ask for forgiveness thereby living in accordance with harmony and peace in the Balinese tradition.

At first glance, when we looking into the nature of this goddess, we come to understand that ‘she’ is a symbol of profound depth. Saraswati, is a Sanskrit fusion word of Sāra (सार) which means essence, and Sva (स्व) which means one self, the fused word meaning "essence of one self", and Saraswati meaning "one who leads to essence of self knowledge". In many English language explanations of Saraswati we find the description that ‘she’ is the goddess of the arts, beauty and knowledge. This may seem straightforward, but one must wonder about the lived reality of those who venerate Saraswati – how do they personally understand and experience this goddess on Saraswati Day and in their daily live

I asked my friend and master mask carver and dancer, Nyoman Setiawan and he replied: “Saraswati is all that is good within. When I pray to Saraswati, I pray to knowledge itself for through knowledge and wisdom, I come to know my own goodness and the correct ways to act in life to promote harmony, love and peace.” He added: “I never want to stop learning for through learning, I come to understand more and more and therefore am able to better orient myself and my behavior to act in line with dharma (correct action – action that doesn’t cause harm or misunderstanding).”

Saraswati is symbolized in sculptures and painting in the Balinese artistic expression by a beautiful woman with four hands, riding on a white swan among water lilies. Her hands hold a lontar, (a traditional book which is the source of science or knowledge); a chain (genitri with 108 pieces) symbolising that knowledge is never ending and has an everlasting life cycle; and a musical instrument (guitar or wina) symbolising that science develops through the growth of culture. The swans symbolise discernment, so that one's knowledge may distinguish between good and evil. The water lilies (lotus) are symbols of holiness for the Hindu Balinese.

In ancient texts, lontar, much is written about Saraswati and her intricate connection to the Balinese alphabet, the aksara. It is through the ancient script, the aksara, through language and literature humans can begin to reflect and discern how to live so as not to create conflict, hatred, war.

The culmination of reverence for Saraswati happens on Saraswati Day, when across the island the Hindu-Balinese honor what the Goddess symbolizes through dance, drama, offerings, rituals, prayers and ritual gatherings at temples, homes and schools. For the Hindu Balinese, to honor Saraswati is to remember – the act of the ritual ceremony on that day every six months is an act of collective remembering. Through this collective remembering people can reflect and look at themselves – what needs to change, where have we been misled, misguided or what to we misunderstand and how can we correct this.

Understanding the meaning and significance of Saraswati in Bali is a lifelong process. The depth to the history and rituals connecting to ‘her’ is as infinite as our journey in expanding our own knowledge and wisdom over our lifetime(s). May we learn from this beautiful and honorable reverence held by the Hindu Balinese and remember how has and how does gaining knowledge and wisdom change us, how does it better our relations and how to we continue to learn with humility and openness.

Sources: Ron Jenkins, Saraswati, interview with I Nyoman Setiawan, mask carver and dancer, Gianyar, Saraswati Day (www.indo.com).
Iliustration: artwork by Kuncit Ketut, photo by Alina Vlasova

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