White Sarasvati, mural at the Namdroling Monastery in South India. Image courtesy of the author
Sarasvati (Tib. yang chenma) is the goddess of knowledge, education, music, poetry, and culture. Her name can be found in the Vedic hymns. In these ancient Indian texts, she is worshiped as the divine power of ritual chants and sacrificial fire, which facilitates communication with the gods. In the Brahmanas she is identified with the flow of speech and later becomes a goddess of speech (Skt. vāc). In the Puranas she appears as the wife of the god Vishnu, the supreme protector of the Universe.
Thanks to her connection with the intellectual abilities that are highly valued in Buddhism, she occupies an important place in the Buddhist pantheon. In this role she is associated with the goddess of wisdom Prajnaparamita, as well as with the female bodhisattva Tara. As one of the twenty-one Taras, she is called “Sarasvati, a treasure of intelligence” (Tib. lo ter yang chenma).
Certain differences can be found in the iconography of her Hindu and Buddhist images. In Hindu art, she is depicted white in color, with four hands. With two of her hands she is playing the veena and holding a rosary and a book in the other two. She is depicted in a standing posture or sitting on a lotus or white swan. In Buddhist iconography, she is also white in color and in rare cases, mostly in Tibetan art, red in color. Her divine attributes also differ from those of the Hindu goddess.
White Sarasvati has one face with a peaceful expression and two hands playing the veena. She sits in a posture with crossed ankles and raised knees (Skt. utkutakāsana). Sometimes she is also depicted in a standing position. She wears lavish clothes, ornaments, and precious stones. In the pantheon of the Sakya School there is an image of white Sarasvati with four hands. She is playing veena with two of her hands and with other two she is holding a lotus and a sword.
Red Sarasvati is depicted either with a peaceful or wrathful expression. Usually she has one face and two hands. Her right hand holds a precious stone (Tib. mani) that fulfills devotees’ wishes, and the left holds a mirror (Tib. melong) of wisdom. She sits in the royal pose (Skt. lalitasana) and in some cases she is standing. Her body is adorned with silk and jewel ornaments, and rays of light can be seen around it.
A rare form of red Sarasvati is Vajra Sarasvati (Tib. dorje yang chenma marmo), which is mentioned in Krishna Yamari Tantra. The goddess is depicted with three wrathful faces (red, white, and blue) and six hands. The three right hands hold a red lotus with books on it, sword and curved knife. The three left – a wheel, a veena, and the head of Brahma. In some images, instead of the veena, she holds a precious stone. Her body is standing with jewel ornaments and garments of silk.
In some group compositions, Sarasvati can be seen depicted above the female wrathful deity Palden Lhamo, who is considered to be her incarnation and one of Tibet’s main protectors.
As a consort of Manjushri, Bodhisattva of wisdom, Sarasvati complements his function of giving wisdom. In Tibetan thangkas and murals both deities are depicted in a union sitting on a lotus or a lion. In some of these images Manjushri (yellow in color) holds his usual attributes – a sword in the right hand and a lotus in the left, on which there are the sutras “The Perfection of Wisdom.” Sarasvati is blue in color and holds a book in her left hand and veena in the right. In other images, Manjushri is again yellow in color, but with four hands – in the right holds a sword and two arrows, and in the left – a lotus with a book and an arrow. Sarasvati is white in color and holds a veena with her both hands, embracing her partner.