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Raksha Bandhan

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Last week I sent a small coloured thread, a rakhi, in the post to my brother in India which I hope he will receive today and wear it on his wrist as most Indian men will; a token of the quiet but sacred bond between a brother and sister.

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Raksha bandhan is celebrated widely across India in the bright fortnight of the month of Shraavan. Sisters tie a rakhi on their brother’s wrist and pray for his wellbeing. In turn the brother pledges to protect her and look after her till the end of his days. It’s a simple act based on love and trust and celebrates a very special relationship. It is this simplicity that makes this festival  so special. And it’s a joy to see women flock to the markets to select the best rakhis  for their brothers and then the men sporting these colourful bands of various sizes and designs for days afterwards.

This tradition of tying a thread as a talisman to protect the wearer, dates back to ancient times and goes beyond the brother-sister relationship.

The Puranas refer to a battle between devas and asuras. The King of devas, Indra was losing. So his wife Sachi took a thread, charged it with sacred verses for protection and tied it on Indra’s wrist. Through the strength of this thread Indra conquered his enemies.

In Rajasthan when the men went to battle, the women tied a thread around their wrist after applying a tilak or vermilion powder on their foreheads. They believed this would protect their men and bring them victory.

Over time raksha bandhan turned into a scared festival for brothers and sisters.

In one famous instance, the queen of Mewar Mharani Krmavati was under threat from the Muslim governor, Bahadur Shah who had laid siege to her kingdom. Desperate for help she sent a rakhi to the Mughal king Humayun. Touched by the trust placed in him Humayun came to her rescue and freed her from Bahadur Shah and his men.

In Maharashtra, this is also the day when the fisher folk celebrate Narali Purnima. With the sea raging and the rivers swollen from the Monsoon rains, the fishermen go out to sea with offerings of coconuts to propitiate the sea god Varuna, to seek his protection and blessing for the year to come. It is believed that this brings the Monsoons to the their end making it safe for the fishermen to resume work again.

On a personal note as I have only daughters, we have our own tradition at home. They tie each other rakhis and I tell them this means they vow to be stand by each other all their lives. They think it’s cool. They call them Indian friendship bands. That will do just fine I think.

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Saraswati-The Goddess of Knowledge and Learning

She is the sublime Goddess of Knowledge. From her flows all learning. She is ‘Vac Devi’, the goddess of speech who ‘dances on our tongues’ to create the magic of words. It is she who incarnates as Art in all its forms.

While Brahma is the Lord of Creation, Saraswati his daughter is Creativity itself.

You will find her by the river or seated on a lotus flower, dressed in white and gold, radiant like the moon. In her hands she holds the veena, the vedas  and a mala of beads . Lost in contemplation she sits alone with only peacocks and swans for company .

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Her Origin

Saraswati means ‘to flow’, as is the nature of knowledge and creativity. It cannot be contained and must flow freely. Saraswati is also the Goddess of Purity, for the true purpose of knowledge is to purify the mind and lead it to wisdom.

It is also the nature of a river to flow, to purify and to nourish. And, ultimately to merge with the ocean.

No surprise then that the Goddess Saraswati as we know her today started off as the holy river, Saraswati, which once flowed from the East to the West in northern India.

Today only a small part of it remains as the Ghaggar river in Rajasthan; the rest of it long lost under the vast Marusthali desert.

However satellite images and geological mapping show that the Vedic Saraswati was indeed an enormous river, about 1500 kms long and eight kms wide in her prime.  Archeologists believe she played a major role in sustaining the Indus Valley civilization.

Which explains why Saraswati is praised so lavishly in all the Vedas with several hymns dedicated to her. One hymn describes her as the ‘best of the mothers, best of the rivers, best of the goddesses’.

The river was an important part of all Vedic worship and rituals and continues to be an integral part of Hinduism even today.

Around 4000 BC when the Saraswati dried up, the people who had settled on her banks moved eastwards. Thousands of years later, by the time the Upanishads and Puranas were written, the River Ganges had become the most important river and the Saraswati had faded into a memory preserved in myths and stories.

In the Mahabharat she is mentioned as the river which upon entering the desert ‘dived under it’ and disappeared into the sea.

One story in the Puranas tell us how the Saraswati disappeared.

Once upon a time the Gods wanted someone to carry Agni, the scared fire, to the sea. But, no mortal or god would dare to touch the fiery Agni lest they be burnt to ashes except the mighty Saraswati. At the request of the devas Saraswati gathered up all her waters and taking the form of a woman held Agni within her and rushed off to the sea. Agni’s fire was gone and so was Saraswati, lost forever to the sea.

Another tale from the Bhagwat Puranas speaks of Saraswati being born from Brahma’s mouth. Wise and pure, she gave the gift of learning and knowledge to man.

These stories tell of a major change in beliefs and rituals in post Vedic times.

With Saraswati returning Agni to the sea the sacrificial fire appears to have lost its power. The material and animal sacrifices that were once offered to Agni came to be replaced by a sacrifice of self or the (ego), through the pursuit of creativity and knowledge.

This transformation in attitudes is clearly seen in the Upanishads wherein Saraswati now becomes the Goddess of knowledge who leads man to the ocean of Truth.

This idea of Saraswati was later incorporated into Jainism and Buddhism. Through Buddhism it spread beyond India to the far east.

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In Jainism, she became Saraswati, the dispeller of darkness and ignorance. Tibetan Buddhists know her as Yang Chenmo who bestows wisdom and learning.
In Mongolian she is Keleyin ukin Tegri, in Chinese she is called Tapien-ts’ai t’iennu or Miao-yin mu, and in Japan she is Dai-Ben-Zai-Ten, meaning ‘the great divinity of the reasoning faculty’.

                                                                                                                                               Ben-Zai-Ten

                                                                                                                        

Festivals

Saraswati puja is celebrated on Vasant Panchami, the fifth day of the month of Magh which falls anytime from mid-January to mid-February. On this day all children place their books and musical instruments at Saraswati’s feet and seek her blessings while very young children will write their first letter in her presence with the help of an adult.

She is also worshipped in a big way during the festival of Navratri, the nine nights of the goddess.

This lovely prayer composed by Sage Agastya is chanted regularly by Hindus in their homes, schools and any place of learning.

या कुन्देन्दुतुषारहारधवला या शुभ्रवस्त्रावृता

 या वीणावरदण्डमण्डितकरा या श्वेतपद्मासना ।

या ब्रह्माच्युतशंकरप्रभृतिभिर्देवः सदा पूजिता

सा मां पातु सरस्वति भगवती निःशेषजाड्यापहा ॥१॥

Yaa kundendu tushaar haar dhavalaa

Yaa shubra vastra avrita

yaa vina var danda mandita kara

yaa shweta padmasana

yaa Brahmachyutashankarprabritibhir devai sadaa pujita

Saa maam paatu Saraswati Bhagawati nisheshjaadyapahaa

 

Translation:

Salutations to the one who is pure white like jasmine, with the coolness of the moon and brightness of the snow and shines like a garland of pearls

One who is dressed in white

Whose hands are adorned by the veena( stringed musical instrument)

And the boon-giving staff,

And who is seated on a pure white lotus

One who is adored by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and worshipped by all devas.

Goddess Saraswati , I pray, dispel my ignorance completely.

( Can you see how these words could easily be describing the River Saraswati ? !)

You can hear it  sung here  just as I learnt it in school.

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