Vasant Panchami: A Celebration of Learning

Sreevidhya Chandramouli, seated, playing the vina with one of her sons seated behind her playing the tambura.

Sreevidhya Chandramouli playing the vina in concert at the Library of Congress, August 20, 2009. One of her sons is playing the tambura behind her.  Photo by Stephen Winick.

January 24, 2015 is the date for the Hindu festival Vasant Panchami or Saraswati Puja, celebrating both the coming of spring and the birthday of  Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, learning, crafts, and fine arts.  The date for the celebration of Vasant Panchami varies from year to year, as it is calculated by a lunar calendar. It falls on the fifth day following the new moon in the lunar month of Magha (which falls during January and February). The holiday is especially important to students, scholars, and artists. Students may leave off other studies to celebrate Saraswati in various activities, and young children may be given their first lesson in reading and writing on this day. Devotions to Saraswati are thought to energize participants in their studies and work. The exact nature of the celebrations vary by region. Statues of Saraswati may be dressed in her symbolic color, white, or yellow, symbolic of the spring season, and celebrants may also dress in these colors. As a celebration of the coming of spring, kite flying is also a popular activity during this festival.

Saraswati is found in various forms with several names in many parts of the world, spread by both Hinduism and Buddhism. She has an association with flowing water and, because of this, it is thought that she may have once been a river goddess.  She is depicted as a beautiful young woman and most commonly has four arms. She may be seated on, or accompanied by, a swan or a peacock. She holds the Vedas, ancient sacred books of prose, poetry, and music in one hand. In another hand she holds prayer beads, symbolizing spirituality. She may also hold a jug of water or a lotus.  The largest object in her hands is a stringed musical instrument, the vina, and she may be shown playing the vina with two of her hands. This symbolizes the study of the arts, but also makes Saraswati especially important to those who study her particular instrument.

In 2009 Sreevidhya Chandramouli [1] gave a concert on the vina at the Library of Congress; accompanied by Poovalur Sriji on the mridangam, a double-headed drum; and by her sons Kapila and Sushruta, each playing the tambura, a stringed instrument that provides a drone as background for the melody. For her first piece, Chandramouli played and sang a traditional Sanskrit song for Saraswati.  The following video captures this performance, and the song begins after the introductions at about ten minutes into the video.  Chandramouli briefly talks about the song just after she sings it. The song describes the beauty of the face of Saraswati as she holds up the Vedas.

This performance not only honored the Saraswati, but also honored the Library of Congress, where it was performed, as an institution of learning. Since Saraswati is a patron of learning, the Library of Congress must surely be in her purview.

The Library has its own version of a patron goddess of learning with similarities to Saraswati. Depictions of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, and of her symbolic animal, the owl, are found as decorative architectural elements and artwork in Library buildings.[2]  Minerva bore similarities to the Greek goddess Athena, and the Etruscan goddess Menrva. So the idea of learning, literacy, science, and the pursuit of the arts as transcendent or sacred gifts is surely an ancient one among many cultures and faiths that continues to have power today.

Notes

1. Sreevidhya Chandramouli lives and teaches in Oregon. To learn more about her, read the essay she wrote with Mark Levy for this performance.

2. For an additional examples of Minerva and her owl in the Library of Congress, see these statues of the Minerva of Peace and the Minerva of War in the Thomas Jefferson Building, and this decorative owl sculpture on an outside stair of the John Adams Building.

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