Saraswati reminds me that the divisions between fields are our construction; that academics can be creative, art can be holy, and preaching can engage the mind.
I was precariously perched atop a file cabinet tacking a giant cloth to the wall when another staff member entered my office. “What’s that?” she asked, puzzled, and pointing to the massive cloth now covering my wall. “Saraswati,” I responded, hopping off the file cabinet, “the Hindu goddess of arts, creativity, and learning.” She raised her eyebrows. “Our previous Baptist preacher didn’t have any Hindu goddesses hanging on the wall,” she said with a wry smile. “I guess I’m not your average Baptist preacher,” I chuckled.
For years I have been searching for Saraswati, claiming her as my patron saint, the one who guides my path as I navigate three seemingly disparate callings: artist, scholar, and preacher. In Saraswati, these three callings merge. Naturally, I hang a giant image of her on my office wall and wear a pendant bearing her likeness around my neck. She reminds me that the divisions between fields are our construction; that academics can be creative, art can be holy, and preaching can engage the mind. These three seemingly disparate callings do not have to be mutually exclusive. Saraswati certainly wouldn’t see them this way.
Saraswati (Sarasvatī) is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, and science. Along with Lakschmi and Parvati, she is part of the trinity of consorts og Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Often depicted on a river or body of water, her name literally means “she who has flow.” Hindus pray to Saraswati for creative inspiration and academic knowledge, but most importantly for divine knowledge essential for reaching moksha, or liberation. Her iconography is riddled with symbolic meaning. Iconographically, her four arms represent the four aspects of human personality: learning, mind, intellect, and alertness. Her white pearls represent the power of meditation and spirituality; her pot of water represents the creative mind and powers of purification; her veena/vina (type of guitar) represents the perfection of all arts; and her book is the sacred Vedas.
Because her iconography is well-established, years passed before I decided to paint my own icon depicting her image. While she embodies so many aspects of life that are vitally important to my calling, I felt as though it wouldn’t be right for me to paint her in my own style. The list of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist grew as more and more women that I admire filled empty canvases with color, beating hearts, and inspiration: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, and some twenty others. I continued to feel as though someone was missing: Saraswati.
As I prepared for my most recent solo art show at a gallery “by women and for women,” I knew that Saraswati needed to join my other Holy Women.
Seated on both the swan and lotus that often accompany her, and surrounded by the deep blues of flowing water, Saraswati spread her four arms wide, embracing all. Her heart cries out to us:
As waters of a river,
So flow knowledge and creativity
From her heart,
Pouring into humanity
Inspiration and wisdom…
The ways in which Saraswati embodies the arts, knowledge, and spirituality in her unified and flowing being continues to inspire and challenge me to live fully into these seemingly disparate elements of my own life and calling. Because, once upon a time, before academics created fields and relegated certain questions as only answerable by particular experts, and before we divided science from religion and lost our innate sense of wonder, and before creativity and the arts were dubbed “soft” and “un-academic,” Saraswati reminded us that the arts, knowledge, and religion are inextricably linked.
So, this goddess, who hangs on the office wall of a Baptist preacher, reminds all of us to make connections otherwise unseen. Her creative heart inspires us to search for and create beauty. Her wisdom emboldens us to ask difficult questions that may not have easy answers. And the ways in which this goddess connects knowledge and the arts with religion is very holy indeed. May we do likewise.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. In 2013, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com