Iconography of Sarasvati

Goddess of Learning

By Choodamani Nandagopal


The Iconography of Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning

Saraswati: ‘Flowing One’. Originally the name of an ancient river of north-western India personified as a goddess of the same name. In Vedic times the Saraswati River was probably as large as the River Sutlej. The Rig Veda calls her ‘best mother, best of rivers, best of goddesses’, and gives stress on her purification properties. Today, only its dried river-bed remains. The goddess Saraswati has many names including Vac, Vagdevi, Vagisvari, Bharati and Vani.

Saraswati is the goddess of learning. She is also popular among Buddhists and Jainas. She is the deity important to writers, artists and poets. She is the spirit of all fine arts. As Brahma’s consort, she represents his power. Later, she was regarded as Vishnu’s wife.

Saraswati is portrayed as a beautiful woman with fair complexion, two or four arms. She plays the veena symbolizing music and the fine arts. When four armed, her emblems are veena, book (as she is representative of learning), and an akshamala, the rosary or may be an arrow, mace, spear, discus, conch, bell, plough and a bow or water pot. Her usual mount is a goose (hamsa), a symbol of purity and knowledge. Also she may have a parrot or a peacock. Her mudra is vyakhyana, the teaching aspect.


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The Emergence of the image of Sarasvati

The picture of a goddess is symbolic and abides by formal cannons. A large number of bodily attitudes and expressive gestures of the limbs (bhangas and mudras) may be observed as three important groups of distinctive characteristics: first, the contemplative, quietly poised attitude (sattva), second, the representative disposition emphasizing power and strength (rajas); and third, the lively temperament exhibiting the might and force of the goddess by her gestures which indicate destructive and bellicose activities (tamas). The three postures, sitting, standing and moving, seem organically well adapted to these three “virtues and attitudes” the gunas.

In the popular art of India the imagery of goddesses are contemplated according to their emancipation of power and function. Mahishamardhini, Durga, Chamundi, Kali and gramadevatas occupy the first place.   The next place among the goddesses, second only to that of Durga is claimed by Lakshmi, the female counterpart of Vishnu, has certain individuality. She is called Sri, the goddess of fortune, generally she is friendly and of a pleasing appearance. The third among the great goddesses is Sarasvati, the wife of Brahma, whose appearance in art is clearer than that of her male counterpart Brahma. She might originally have been a local river-deity, but later became the goddess of speech and learning, and was particularly appreciated in literature. She alone seems to have nothing in common with the original mother-deity.

The imagery of Sarasvati is visualized by our ancient people as the goddess in the form of a woman clad in saree with four hands, playing on veena, the other two hands with akshamala and pustaka. But in the abstract sense of imagery, Sarasvati is the ‘Supreme Reality of one’s own consciousness’. Thus one can imagine her in a concrete feminine form and in the other sense Sarasvati is formless.

In Indian context the sculptures, paintings and icons are made not only with special significance but also they are created with a degree of cultural awareness. If they are to be placed in the Sanctum of a temple or a shrine, or as a matter of fact kept in the domestic shrines they have to be created by a sculptor who is well-versed in agamas and shilpa texts. Such images are not to be treated as memorials or statues to be placed in public place or to hung or keep in gallery or drawing rooms. In India the idea of divine image, conceived in terms of human form, elevates theoretically to supra-human level and adds to its possibilities in this direction. With the complete realization of these possibilities the visible image becomes the vehicle of the invisible divine concept and the plastic art reaches its destined spiritual goal’[i].

Sarasvati has been identified as the Goddess of all knowledge including practicing fine arts. Several Shilpa and agama texts have specified the iconic imagery of Sarasvati. There are not many variations among these texts on the form, attributes, postures, mounts and attire of Sarasvati when compared to the other Gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi and Durga. They appear in several incarnations and forms but for the depiction of Sarasvati in art this kind of complexity is rarely encountered and more so even the texts have minimum disagreement regarding iconographic features of Sarasvati.

Amshumadbhedagama recommends seating posture for the image of Sarasvati, with four hands, in one of the other right hand she holds the akshamala and the right hand in vyakhyana mudra, and in the left hands a lotus and palm-leaf text. Around her number of sages worship her in divine attitude. Here Veena has not been associated with Sarasvati. She wears yajnopavita indicating her position in the Vedic pantheon, with hair in the form of jatamakuta or decorated with jewels, especially with ear rings encrusted with rubies, while Purva Karanagama prescribes pearl ear rings. But Vishnudharmottara has another version where the goddess is in the standing posture on a white lotus and kamandalu, signifying the treasure trove of knowledge, the jnanabhanda substitutes the lotus in the left hand; in the right hands she carries a veena with a bamboo stem.

Yet we have another description in Suta-Samhita of the Skandapurana having a jata makuta with a crescent moon inserted, Her neck is of blue colour and she has three eyes[ii]. The shilpa text Roopamandana has included veena as one of the weapons, but she is in the satvik form. The epics refer to the veena of Sarasvati as kachchapi. The single gourd veena was popular even in Gupta period and we find their representation in Ajanta paintings. Yazdani observes that a very light gourd is attached to the veena and kept on the shoulder while playing.[iii] The Sarasvati sculptures of Hoysala period invariably hold this type of veena in hand and they came to be called as Sarasvativeena.[iv]

The mount of Sarasvati is usually a hamsa, the symbol of purity and knowledge: and occasionally a suka or a mayura. Her attitude is serene, sublime expression on the face and high composure in the posture. She is very fair complexioned and attired with white colour garments. She is the icon of purity and sublimity. Saraswati is hailed as the patron goddess for the knowledge of all kinds and all creative arts. The virile attitude of her is unimaginable as far as Sarasvati is concerned.

But Sarasvati is also depicted in the virile aspect as Maha Sarasvati. She is the presiding Goddess of the final episode of the Devi Mahatmaya where she is believed to be one of the forms of the trinity of Maha Kali, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Saraswati. The imagery of Maha Sarasvati is conceived in the dhyana shloka as a powerful warrior with eight-arms holding in her hands the weapons like trident, ploughshare, pestle, discus, conch, bow arrow and bell. She is originated from the body of Gowri and is the sustaining base of the three worlds with radiated luster. Three episodes are associated with the three powerful feminine forms of Devi namely, as Mahakali she kills the demons Chanda and Munda in a fierce battle, as Mahalakshmi she kills the demon Mahisha and as Mahasarasvati she pitches a terrible battle and vanquishes the demons, the symbol of high negative energy in the form of Nishumbha and Shumbha. The episode of Mahasarasvati is the longest in the Durga Saptashati. In all these forms the imagery of Devi is powerfully depicted with number of arms and weapons in action. In paintings they are differentiated with the colours of their skin and costumes, particularly Mahasarasvati [v]is attired in white clothing with serene expression on face.


Sarasvati Sculptures and Paintings

Since Sarasvati is mainly visualised as the Vedic deity, her imagery in folk forms are not popular. The Vedas are regarded as the manasaputras of Sarasvati, she presides over the knowledge and the learned class, which considers her as the mother of all kinds of knowledge. In this context Sarasvati’s images in sculpture and paintings have few and definite illustrated forms which are highly popular and any kind of deviation to this imagery is not acceptable. Sarasvati images are traceable to early part of the first millennium and continued even in the contemporary times[vi]. Of them the earliest image of Sarasvati holding the palm-leaf text is traceable to 2nd century AD owing to a place known as Kankalitila near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.

During the Gupta period though Sarasvati is profusely eulogized in the contemporary Sanskrit literature it is seldom to find the representation in sculpture and painting. The tradition of imagery and its application is significantly far reaching and prominently evident in the multiplied activity of temple building in Chalukya, Pallava, Rashtrakuta and Paramara period. The art and science of image making for worship and also for enhancing the beauty of the temples reached a great height from this phase of history. The images of Sarasvati do not figure out much in the temples built during these periods. But the Paramara period has produced few of them in times of Raja Bhoja. A sculpture of Sarasvati playing on veena seated in leelasana belonging to this provenance is in the collection of Huston Museum.

During Kalyana Chalukyan times Sarasvati images were placed in devakoshtaka, the niche either in the Navaranga, the central hall or on the exterior wall of the temple. Probably wherever the templeswere associated with the agraharas, the image of Sarasvati was placed in the temple and worshipped. This period has also seen an exclusive ornate temple which was built and dedicated to Sarasvati within the Trikuteshvara Temple complex, Gadag near Dharwar. The life size image of the goddess seated in padmasana is the masterpiece of Chalukyan art though in mutilated condition it radiates beauty and elegance. The sculptors those who belonged to this guild proudly claimed themselves as “Sarasvati ganadasi”. A sculptor by name Nagoja who carved one of the superb bracket figures placed in the interior part of the Chennakeshava Temple Belur has inscribed his name on the pedestal of the sculpture as ‘Gadugina Nagoja Sarasvati ganadasi’.

In Bagali, which was a famous agrahara, an image of Sarasvati seated in padamasana with four hands holding the palm-leaf text, an akshamala, is probably the icon worshipped by the inmates of the agrahara. During the Hoysala times most of the temples have Sarasvati images in seated or in dancing form. The attributes are similar to the earlier representations. But Sarasvati is depicted as the embodiment of dance and music, besides displaying knowledge she is playing on veena and also dancing in an urdhvajanu cari (a dancing posture derived from one of the akasha cari of Natyashastra tradition) at ease.

In the Chola country the well-known temples such has Brihadeshvara from Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram have beautiful Sarasvati sculptures housed in devakoshtaka on the exterior walls of the temple. These images are visual treat that provide aesthetic delight, seated on full bloomed lotus the goddess is stunningly charming, with prominent yajnopavita flowing down the navel, with four hands holding akshamala, the pitcher, a palm-leaf text and the chinmudra. The imagery is filled with poise, composure, serenity and sublime expression. They are the supreme master pieces of Chola style of sculpture.


Another most revered form of Sarasvati is Sharada worshipped in Kashmir, which is regarded as the land of Sarasvati, producing great scholars like Abhinavagupta, Anandavardhana and others. Sharada Temple at Shringeri in Karnataka has a beautiful image of goddess seated in padmasana, with four hands holding pustaka, akshamala, kalasha and chinmudra. She is resplendent with special jewels and an exclusive kirita, the crown with the crescent. The imagery of Sharadamba is formed in co-ordinance with the description in Skanda Purana.

Sri chakra is the abstract form of the trinity, Sarasvati, Parvati and Lakshmi consecrated with the three satvas into the dynamic form of a wheel and installed by Sri Shankaracharya at Shringeri. The image of Sharadadevi is placed very close to this Chakra. Thus the imagery of Sarasvati has the reference of more than 2000 years of history in Indian sculpture and painting. The most famous among the painted imagery is the oleograph print of Sarasvati seated in cross leg position, playing on veena, holding pustaka and akshamala, against natural backdrop painted by Raja Ravi Verma was most adored picture frame in a cultured south Indian family. Throughout India and even outside these prints were in great demand and even today these prints have their special place. In Bengal Sarasvati is worshipped on a special day observed on Basant Panchami. The goddess is clad in white saree and the images are made in clay like Durga images.


Sarasvati has Her counter parts in Buddhist and Jaina traditions also. The imagery of Tara corresponds to Hindu Devi images. The Shveta (white) Tara with her several eyes is regarded as the Goddess of learning in Tibetan Buddhism. The Shyama (blue) Tara corresponds to the shakti or Kali in Tibetan Buddhism. Similarly in Jaina tradition the sacred texts are revered in Bhandar, the Library. The images of Sarasvati with four hands holding akshamala, abhaya or chinmudra, pustaka and amruta kalasha, a pitcher of nectar in seated position is worshipped in a small shrine in major temples. Several sculptures are found with these iconographic features on the wall portions, pillars or free standing sculptures in Jaina temples at Rajasthan and Karnataka.

The tradition of making the image of Sarasvati continues even in the present century. The craftsmen continue to produce Sarasvati images in stone, metal, wood and fiber-glass, silver and even in gold. In painting too Mysore and Tanjore traditional Schools of paintings have retained the tradition of depicting Sarasvati with four hands playing on veena. Even today every student would like to have an image or a frame of the Goddess on their study table and worship Sarasvari in reverence. This is one of the striking features of Indian civilization which engage in transforming the outlook of the concerned in a refined manner.


Notes & References                          

[i] . S.K.Saraswati, Indian Sculpture

  1. T.A.Gopinath Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography
  2. Yazdani, The Early History of Deccan Part I
  3. Choodamani Nandagopal, Dance and Music in Temple Architecture
  4. S.K.Ramachandra Rao, Murtishilpa nelehinnele
  5. The painting of M.F.Hussain’s so called Sarasvati is more like a beggar woman or a wandering singer. Except veena and the depiction of a swan there is nothing to associate with the iconographic imagery of Sarasvati. The painting is artistically meritorious but by calling it Sarasvati, it has invited unnecessary controversy.


  • Rao, Gopinath, TA, 1997, Elements of Hindu Iconography, Vol II, part I, p-1, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Private Limited, Delhi
  • Rao, Ramachandra, SK, 1992, Murti Shilpa Nele hinnele Kalpataru Research Academy, Bangalore

  • S.K.Saraswati, Indian Sculpture
  • Choodamani Nandagopal, Dance and Music in Temple Architecture Agam Prakashan Delhi 1990