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Goddess Sarasvati: A Symbol of egalitarian education?

Sarasvati by Raja Ravi Varma

Sarasvati Puja, in honour of the goddess of learning and wisdom, was celebrated on Saturday, 5 February. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took this opportunity to invoke the goddess in a tweet in the context of the hijab controversy that is raging in Karnataka right now. 

The hijab issue began when a college in Udupi banned the students wearing hijab from attending classes and denied entry to them. The controversy gained media attention when the girl students refused to give up their right to wear the headscarf and protested against the college’s decision. However, the issue later gained political colour as students in other schools and colleges wore saffron shawls to the campus and took out rallies chanting Jai Shri Ram as a form of counter-protest. 

In this context, Rahul Gandhi decided to firmly stand with the Muslim girls’ right to wear hijab by tweeting:

“By letting students’ hijab come in the way of their education, we are robbing the future of the daughters of India. Ma Saraswati gives knowledge to all. She doesn’t differentiate. #SaraswatiPuja”

Though Gandhi’s stance on the hijab issue might be correct, the symbol that he chose to invoke to make his point is slightly odd. Goddess Sarasvati is a Vedic deity who is first mentioned in the Rigveda. In the Vedic corpus, Sarasvati appears as a mythical river that is personified as a deity. It is only in the later Sanskrit texts, especially Puranas, that Sarasvati is fully fleshed out as a goddess of learning, wisdom, music, and aesthetics.

Sarasvati is also considered as an inventor of Sanskrit — the so-called language of gods. This last characteristic is especially illustrative of why Sarasvati cannot be a symbol of an educational system that is democratic and egalitarian. Sanskrit, as we all know, was a prerogative of the earthly gods — the Brahmins. Shudras and other ‘lower’ human beings were explicitly banned from learning Sanskrit and in turn, reading any of the Brahmanic texts that were invariably written in Sanskrit — the Vedas, Upanishads, Dharmashastras, epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana), Puranas and so on. 

Sheldon Pollock, in his now canonical book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, cites a passage from a 16th-century Sanskrit manual called Shudrachintamani by Shesha Krishna. Pollock writes, “No one outside of the three higher orders [Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas], the text declares, can have anything to do with Vedas, Sanskrit grammar, smriti texts, even puranas; more than this, ‘a Shudra is never to utter a Sanskrit word’.”

The Brahmanic Sanskrit corpus is quite consistent on this point. Gautama Dharmasutra, which was written before the common era, says, “If he [Shudra] listens in on a vedic recitation, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac; if he repeats it, his tongue shall be cut off; if he commits it to memory, his body shall be split asunder.”

As already mentioned, Sarasvati as a revered deity appears in the Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas, epics and Puranas, which were inaccessible to a vast mass of non-Brahmin individuals. Therefore, one is compelled to conclude that Sarasvati is more accurately a Brahmanic deity, not a deity of the masses, and the learning that she signifies is the study of Vedas and other Brahmanic scriptures. 

In place of Sarasvati, Rahul Gandhi could have instead invoked a symbol that is more apt we well as non-mythical, that is, Savitribai Phule, who is considered to be the first native woman teacher. Savitribai, with her husband Jotirao Phule, began their educational activism by opening schools for women and Dalits — the two sections that were completely excluded from education up until that point and educating them was considered no less than a sin. In 1848, when the Phules opened their first school, Jotirao was 21 and Savitribai just 17. The couple played the role of educators in the lives of thousands of Bahujan children throughout their adult career.

Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule
Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule

One can also note that the Phules were founding members of Satyashodhak Samaj, an organisation that was fiercely opposed to Brahminism and Puranic mythology. The Hindu right that Rahul Gandhi claims to fight against, takes immense pride in India’s ‘ancient culture,’ of which the Brahmanic Sanskrit texts form a major part. Gandhi probably wants to appropriate this Sanskritic cosmos from the right wing for more egalitarian purposes. However, if the source material itself is anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian, there isn’t much scope to appropriate it for higher purposes. Sarasvati is a deity from the Puranas — the texts that sanction fourfold varna system and the caste system; and she is the inventor of Sanskrit — the language that was kept away from the Shudras. Therefore, in disagreement with Rahul Gandhi, we have to admit that Saraswati did differentiate.

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