The identity of the Goddess Sarasvatī changed over time. Initially, she was the personification of the sacred river. Later she was transformed into the Goddess of Knowledge. How did that happen?
Goddess Sarasvatī is one of the few Vedic Goddesses who is still worshipped widely. She is the Goddess of knowledge, art and culture.
We first find her name in the Ṛg Vedas (Samhitā). She was the personification of the river Sarasvatī. River Sarasvatī was the most sacred river in the entire Āryāvarta. It used to flow from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea. Vedic sacrifices used to take place on the bank of this river. The heart of Āryāvarta was known as Brahmāvarta (modern-day Kurukshetra). It was the land between the river Sarasvatī and one of its tributary known as Dṛṣadvatī.
There are three Suktas in Ṛg Veda dedicated to Sarasvatī (VI.61, VII.95, VII.96). Besides that, numerous individual Ślokas mention her (For example, I.3.10-12, II.41.16). From those descriptions, we understand that it was indeed a mighty river.
iyaṁ śuṣmebhir bisakhā ivārujat sānu girīṇāṁ taviṣebhir ūrmibhiḥ
"With enraged snortings, like one who digs up lotus roots, this one broke the back of mountains with her strong waves." - VI.61.2
However, something interesting happened in the age of Brāhmaṇas. The river Goddess transformed into the Goddess of speech. There she was identified as Vāgdevī. Phrases such as "Vāg Vai Sarasvatī" or "Vāg Eva Sarasvatī" were frequently used. These phrases emphasize the oneness of the meaning of the two words. For example, in Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, there is the following passage -
"Sarasvatyā upamajjane dīkṣā; dakṣine tīre dīkṣānte/... Sarasvatyā yanti, Vāg vai Sarasvatī."
(Their initiation is done after the completion of bath in the Sarasvatī, which is taken on the right bank after the initiation ceremony. They approach Sarasvatī. Sarasvatī is indeed speech.)
The story of this transformation is fascinating. There was a separate deity known as Vāc in Ṛg Veda. She was mentioned in only one Sukta - the Devīsukta (X.125). It is a very famous Sukta because it contains the seed of Sākta tradition that flourished later. Anyway, Vāc was the presiding deity of speech.
Now the question that intrigues us, why these two deities got merged. There are many theories. But the two most fundamental reasons are as follows:
- Though Vāc was the separate deity for speech, Sarasvatī was associated with dhī or intellect in Ṛg Veda itself (VI.61.4 "Dhīnāmavitryavatu"). She was described as the helper of visionary thoughts. Intellect is the prerequisite of speech. That's how later, Sarasvatī got identified with speech.
- There is a geographic factor as well. I mentioned before that Vedic sacrifices used to take place on the bank of Sarasvatī. As the utterance of sacred Mantras used to take place on this riverbank, it definitely helped. That's how the features of Vāc got superimposed on Sarasvatī.
In the age of the Mahābhārata, Sarasvatī directly became the Goddess of knowledge. This is not because she is identified with Vāc; she no longer needs the mediation of Vāc. Now she presides over knowledge directly. In Mahābhārata (12.326.5), Nārāyaṇa says to sage Nārada:
"Behold Goddess Sarasvatī, the mother of the Vedas, established in me
(vedānāṃ mātaraṃ paśya matsthāṃ devīm sarasvatīm)."
Thus gradually, Vāc lost in oblivion; and Sarasvati became the prominent deity. This is the final step in the identification process.
In Mahābhārata (12.330.10), Sarasvatī is described as the daughter of Brahmā. In the Purana, she also becomes his consort.
One of the epithets of Sarasvatī is Bhāratī. Puṣpānjali mantra of Devī Sarasvatī mentions her as Bhārati ("bhagavatī bhāratī devī namaste"). Again Bhāratī was a separate deity in the Ṛg Veda. The triad of three deities Bhāratī, Iḷā/Iḍā and Sarasvatī, usually was invoked together in sacrifices. Later Bhāratī got merged with Sarasvatī. Probably this merger happened because Bhāratī was also identified with Vāc in Bṛhaddevatā (5.101, 3.12).
Let me end this article with an ancient prayer to the Goddess from the Vedas -
अम्बितमे नदीतमे देवितमे सरस्वति। अप्रशस्ता इव स्मसि प्रशस्तिमम्ब नस्कृधि॥
(Ambitame nadītame devitame sarasvati/ apraśastā iva smasi praśastimamba naskṛdhi)
(O best mother, best river, best Goddess Sarasvatī- we are like ones unlauded: make a laud for us mother) Ṛg Veda II.41.16
- Sarasvatī - riverine Goddess of knowledge by Catherine Ludvik
- Concept of Sarasvatī in Vedic Literature by Raghunath Airi
- Pūṣan and Sarasvatī by J. Gonda
I have heard this explanation/statement:
Mother Saraswati simultaneously exists in 3 forms, As the Goddess of Knowledge and the spouse of Brahma As the speech in an individual’s tongue As the river(Saraswati)
I don’t know if this answers your question.
Edit:Here is one link