Curse of Saraswati

Devdutt PattanaikaCurse of Saraswati is a concept that I heard of long ago from a music teacher. She said that, in the beginning, a student works hard to develop his music skills and proceeds to understand the nuances of music. This is ‘taleem’. He works hard at it, especially hard when success eludes him. Then one day, he is a success. The audience claps. He hears the ‘tali’. And then the tali seduces him. So much so that he now starts singing for more and more tali, and forgets about acquiring more taleem.

The same concept is told differently, where success is equated with Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. With success comes Lakshmi: fame and fortune. Then the artiste turns into a performer, performing for more fame and fortune and so forgets Saraswati, goddess of knowledge. Thus Lakshmi overshadows Saraswati. Saraswati is reduced to Vidya-lakshmi, who turns knowledge into vocation, a tool for fame and fortune.

Saraswati DeviIllustration / Devdutt Pattanaik

We see this everywhere: gurus who are enchanted by their followers and turn into cult leaders, trapped in their own image, poets and actors enchanted by their fans who do not let them explore new themes in song and story, musicians and artists who play to the gallery, repeat themselves again and again as there is demand, convinced that tali is the only reality, the destination of taleem.

What is the purpose of taleem? Is it to enable us to earn a living only? Or is it to enable us to understand the world, place wealth in context and outgrow dependence on tali? Our education system has reduced knowledge to the former. The whole point of education has become the pursuit of Lakshmi: hence the stories of school dropouts who went on to become millionaires who stridently strive to ‘give back to the world’! Not millionaires who outgrew their need for success in business or charity.

Saraswati wears white, or rather undyed fabric. She wears no jewellery. Like a widow? But we don’t like the word widow. We would rather use the word saint. In her image we bedeck her though she seeks no ornament. She is the very opposite of Lakshmi who is bedecked as a bride and a queen. No red for Saraswati. She steps away from all things associated
with fertility.

Yet the arts have always been associated with seduction and sensuality. It is gandharva-vidya meant to arouse the passions and senses. From here comes the 64 arts that ancient courtesans, the ganikas, and later the medieval tawaifs and devadasis, were supposed to be proficient in. The flowing curvy river has always been associated with nymphs. Saraswati, the river, is also a nymph.

But she is a different type of nymph, one who will not be tied down, one who will never let tali turn into a fetter. For her, taleem grants freedom, freedom from the quest for self-validation. She does not need the claps and adulation, the fame and fortune, to reaffirm her understanding of herself. She is happy singing her songs with her ik-tara in hand, like a jogan, walking from village to village, enchanting everyone, who wants to pursue her. Pursue her, they can. Possess her, they can’t. For possessions entrap us. To be so frightened that we cannot let go of the whimsical Lakshmi is the curse of Saraswati.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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