When I was growing up, we celebrated Saraswati Puja in the middle of Feb. We had never heard of Valentine’s day. Saraswati the goddess of learning was much revered and we were told that education was the path to salvation. Any inclination towards sensuality was reprimanded. Love was a forbidden word. My parents like many other parents in small town middle class India were paranoid that matters of heart could distract us from studies and lead us to the wrong path. Watching movies or listening to film music was forbidden lest it should give rise to desire.
Saraswati Devi, goddess of learning demanded perseverance and hard work throughout the year but was much relaxed on the special day of her Puja. I loved the rule that on Saraswati Puja day, it was inauspicious to study. We enjoyed dressing up in saree which was a change from the clothes we wore on regular days. We prayed to the goddess for good marks in exams, ate khichuri bhog and had a good time with friends. My brothers and other boys would use their free time to make and fly kites.
Two articles that I read recently, one by Devdutt Pattnaik and another by Mrinal Pande drew my attention to facets that I had been unaware of. All these years I had thought of Saraswati as one of the many goddesses in the divine Hindu pantheon. Her role and department being education, in my school days, I would seek her blessings when I was not too well prepared for exams. I had never associated her with mutiny or asceticism. Now, I learn that her white or undyed saree is associated with austerity and that she steps away from all things associated with fertility. I learn that she is a haughty and disputatious loner, a free soul, quick of tongue and has repeatedly challenged the authority and might of the post-Vedic male trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
I am intrigued as to why Bengalis and some other Hindu communities worship such an austere Goddess on the day that marks the beginning of Spring. It is the time for flowers and songs, love and joy, fun and frolic, seduction and sensuality. It seems more apt a time for Valentine’s day than Saraswati Puja. Though Internet research I learn that this day was indeed a day to celebrate love in ancient India. It was the day of Kama deva and his consort Rati, the divine couple that are gods of love, attraction, sexuality and desires. People worshipped them by expressing their sensuality and emotions through music and dance.
As civilization progressed, music and dance which were expressions of emotions became cultured arts. Those that were good at these won the adulation and admiration of others. People started to pursue these arts with rigor and perseverance. They had to detach themselves from other desires to excel in arts. Arts became competitive and the artist strived to be the best. Sadhana(practice and rigor) became more important than bhavna(emotion) and stage was all set for the austere goddess that shuns desire to become the patron of arts and claim Basanta Panchami.
Some people have been perturbed at the growing popularity of Valentine’s day amongst Indian youth. They see it as an erosion of Indian values and imitation of western culture. All I can say is that culture and values are ever changing and evolving. Saraswati Devi will surely accommodate St Valentine and give the young people in her patronage that are pursuing knowledge / arts concessions in the matter of heart.
Have a great Basant Panchami, Saraswati Puja and Valentine’s day!
Nandita ji is an avid reader and her program Kitabon Mein Likha Hain airs on Radio Azad at 5 pm CST on Sundays. Do tune in!