Basant Panchami

Saraswati puja is done on Basant Panchami — which is the fifth day of the start of spring (Basant). Traditionally people fly kites and wear something yellow.

I did not know that today was Saraswati Puja until my sister called this morning to tell me to go and attend a puja today. As I am new to this area, I did not know where to go. If I didn’t find a puja, there’s always the old standby of bowing to a book.

Around noon, I heard the sound of a conch shell and some bells. Looking out the window from my 11th floor apartment, I could make out some sort of gathering in the public events building down in the courtyard. I immediately grasped (I am clever like that) that that is where a Saraswati puja was going on. In a moment, I was down there in the middle of the event.

Maa Saraswati, as we Bengalis affectionately call her, is the goddess of wisdom and learning. As wisdom and learning can be communicated by speech, she is also the goddess of speech, the Vak Devi. (Vak in Sanskrit is a cognate of the English word “voice.”) Learning involves the mind and the intellect. She is represented with four arms. She holds a lotus and a book in two of her hands. The lotus symbolizes the pure mind and intellect, and the book learning. With her other two hands she plays the veena, as she is also the goddess of music and the creative arts. As the wife of Brahma, the creator god, she holds all the creative energy of the cosmos and is the mother of the vedas (‘veda’ means wisdom and is a cognate of the word wisdom). She is dressed in white and sits on a white lotus symbolizing purity.

There were about 100 people in the puja down at the courtyard, not surprisingly all of them Bengalis. I met a few and introduced myself. Got to speak a bit of Bengali. Growing up in a Bengali family, the idea gets planted early on in life that one has to worship Saraswati — which basically means that you have to worship learning and knowledge. Reverence for books is a visible sign of that.

I spent about an hour at the puja. “Pushpanjali” was very good. One gets a warm and fuzzy feeling realizing that people do care about learning and knowledge. As long as we continue to worship knowledge and wisdom, all hope is not lost. India may yet have a future.

[Pictures of the event coming up soon on Picasa. Update: I am too lazy to do that now. So here’s a picture of a typical Saraswati puja from the web, below the fold.]

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

6 thoughts on “Basant Panchami”

  1. Atanu,

    Elsewhere in your blog (http://www.deeshaa.org/2007/08/10/exporting-islam/#more-895)
    you write “…I am fiercely atheistic and value free expression and the equality of all humans irrespective of sex, sexual orientation, caste, creed, national origin, etc…”
    Here, you write about goddess Saraswati and about you attending Basant Panchami puja.
    Obviously then, you have found some way to reconcile your fierce atheism with your belief (I admit I am not too sure if that is the correct word to use here) that Ma Saraswati, being the goddess of knowledge, must be revered. Again, I say this because you did write that you toyed with the idea of bowing to a book as a proxy for Saraswati in case you did not find a puja.
    I suppose I can understand your reverence to knowledge. But it would be interesting to know how you can revere Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and yet believe you are an atheist.

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  2. I think it would be best if I wrote a separate post on what I mean when I say that I am an atheist and why it is consistent with being born a Hindu. So just hang in there for a bit and all the questions will be answered.

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  3. What is the equivalent of atheist in Sanskrit?

    “Naastika” and “aneeshwar-vadin” are two terms that are interchangeably used in Indian context though they have different meanings. “Naastika” means one who disbelieves in Veda-s and “aneeshwar-vadin” means who disbelieves in God. So we have several combinations here:

    1) Nastika-Aneeshwar-vadin: Charvaka, Buddha
    2) Astika – Aneeshwar-vadin: Meemamsaka
    3) Naastika- Ishwar-vadin: Jain
    4) Aastika-Iswar-vadin: Vedantin

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  4. Atanu,

    Just as a clarification. It is clear (to me at least) that it is possible for one to be born a Hindu (and still be a Hindu) and yet be an atheist. That Hinduism does not compel a Hindu to believe in the existence of God and the fact that a Hindu can still be an atheist is clear to me. I do look forward to your post.

    Alpana,

    I always thought Naastika in samskrita meant “atheist”. But your comment makes me think otherwise. Thank you for that!

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