Vasant Panchami: festival of spring

By Shastri Kosalendradas

There are many festivals related to seasons in the Vedas and the Puranas. Among these festivals mentioned in the Shastras, the festival of Vasant Panchami marks the arrival of spring. It is also called Saraswati Pujanam in the honor of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and wisdom.

According to Yajnavalkya Smriti, Gayatri, Savitri, and Saraswati are the three goddesses. In the three Sandhya Vandanam (prayers offered three times in a day, during the morning, noon and evening), the evening worship is for Goddess Saraswati. (The morning prayers are for Goddess Gayatri, and the noon prayers are for Goddess Savitri.) The same energy is manifested in the form of these three goddesses, according to Devi Puranam. It is mentioned in the Puranas that the three goddesses appeared in Pushkar, the holy city in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

There are many mantras in Vedic literature, especially in Rigveda, which describe the greatness of Saraswati. The earliest known mention of Saraswati as a goddess is found in the Rigveda. She has remained significant as a goddess from the Vedic period through modern times of Hindu traditions. She is generally shown to be having four arms – one holding the Vedas, the second clutching a rosary, the third holding a pot of water, and there is a Veena, named Kachchhapee, in the fourth arm. According to Devi Puranam, each of these items has symbolic meaning in the Vedic dharma.

People celebrate the festival of Vasant Panchami (the fifth day of spring in the month of Magha in the Hindu calendar) in honor of Saraswati. On this auspicious occasion, children are initiated into the art of writing. When the young ones hold the pencil or pen for the first time, they are told to write Om, which is the name of Brahman. After this, they scribble alphabets on their notebooks. The goddess Saraswati is also revered by believers of the Jain religion as well as Buddhists. The Buddhists took some gods and goddesses from the Vedic and Pauranic literature, such as Ganesha and Saraswati.

Saraswati is a Sanskrit word in which the word ‘saras’ means a water body and ‘vati’ means the one who possesses it. Originally associated with the river known as Saraswati, this combination, therefore, means “she who has ponds, lakes, and other water bodies”. It is also a Sanskrit composite word of saras-vati which means one with plenty of water.

Saras is also sometimes translated as speech, and for this reason, Saraswati also means the goddess of speech. One name of Saraswati is vaag-devi, vaag meaning speech, and Devi, its goddess. The word Saraswati appears as a reference both to a river and as a significant deity in the Rigveda. In initial passages, the word refers to the Saraswati River and is mentioned as Drishadvati. The Rigveda 2.41.16 describes Saraswati as the best of mothers, of rivers, of goddesses Saraswati. The Rigveda says seven rivers – Sindhu, five rivers of Punjab, and Saraswati – fall into the ocean.

In Rigveda 10.17 a sage says this in the praise of Goddess Saraswati: “May the waters, the mothers, cleanse us/ may they who purify with butter, purify us with butter/ for these goddesses bear away defilement/ I come up out of them pure and cleansed.” [This is the translation done by John Muir, a Sanskrit scholar of British origin and Indologist. His work, “Original Sanskrit texts on the origin and history of the people of India, their religion and institutions (1852–1870)” in three volumes is a study of the most important texts of Indian cultural and religious history with English translation.]

There are many verses related to Saraswati as a river and a goddess of speech. Saraswati is called Vashtu by sage Vaisvamitra. Saraswati is also mentioned as a Yajna in Yajurveda.

It is believed that Goddess Saraswati appeared in Pushkar on the day of Vasant Panchami. To mark this occasion, Vasant Panchami is celebrated every year on the fifth day of the bright half in the month of Magha, which typically falls in late January or early February. Spring is known as the king of all seasons. In the Bhagwad Gita, Shri Krishna says that he is the incarnation of spring. Krishna is also called Vasantavtar due to this. Jaideva, a Sanskrit poet in Odisha during the 12th century, is most known for his epic poem Gita Govinda which concentrates on Krishna’s love with the gopi, Radha, in a rite of spring.

The festival Vasant Panchmi is particularly observed in India and Nepal. It has been a historical tradition of Sikhs as well. In southern states, the same day is called Sri Panchami.

There is a description of the worship of Durga on the occasion of Vasant Panchami. The theologian Shoolpani (1375-1460 AD) of Bengal writes in ‘Durgotsa-viveka’ that Durga is worshiped in the spring, due to which Durga is sometimes called Vasanti.

The festival of Holi has been celebrated for many centuries before Christ. In the Kamasutra and Bhavishyottara Purana, there is mention of playing colors to celebrate Holi during the spring. In modern times, in many areas in the country, spring marks the beginning of the new Samvatsar (year) according to the Hindu calendar. Interestingly, the fountainhead of Hindu beliefs, Shri Ram, also takes birth during the Vasant season.

Every year, Ram Navami is celebrated on the ninth day of Vasanti Navratra, which falls in the Gregorian months of March or April. Vasant is also a raga in the Indian music system. Kalidasa, considered the greatest Sanskrit poet, celebrates Vasant in all his works and even calls this season the best time for lovemaking. The season is heralded by the bird cuckoo, which is also called Vasant-doot in Sanskrit literature. Cuckoos’ coo means Vasant has arrived.

In the Indian language literature, Vasant is an important season, deeply ingrained in the culture and life of Indians.

(Shastri Kosalendradas is a Sanskrit Scholar. He teaches Indian Philosophy at Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University, Jaipur)

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