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Buddhism and Culture

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by Sangharakshita

... as many different spheres of human activity as possible, such as the production and distribution of food, community living, education, the arts, printing and publication, transport. In this way we shall bring into existence a world within a world, a transformed world within the untransformed world. And the transformed world can then be gradually expanded. Now I've dealt with all this in rather more detail in the course of the third and fourth of the recent lectures which I gave in Brighton - that is to say, in `A Nucleus of a New Society' and `Blueprint for a New World' - and I don't want to repeat now what I said then, but I do just want to indicate the connections.

As I've already said, in this series we are concerned with the golden light, with the light that transforms.

And in the second and third lectures of this series, we were concerned mainly with the transformation of self. And in the fourth lecture, the one which we had last week, we were concerned mainly with transformation of world. But we were concerned with the general principle of world transformation. We saw that the world can be transformed only if it submits to the golden light, only if it becomes receptive to the golden light. So this is what happens. The four great kings come forward, and they promise to protect the Sutra. That is to say, they place the energies which they represent, which they symbolise, at the service of the golden light, at the service of the spiritual development of the individual.

Lecture 127: Buddhism and Culture - Page 3 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ From now onwards we shall be concerned with transformation of specific aspects of the world, of particular departments of human activity: transformation of culture, transformation of the environment, economics, even politics. And the first three departments are each represented by a goddess. The three goddesses are Sarasvati, Drdha, and Sri. And in subsequent chapters of the Sutra, subsequent chapters of the Sutra of Golden Light, we therefore find these three goddesses coming forward one by one and promising to protect the Sutra. That is to say, we find them placing the department of human activity which she represents, which each one represents, at the service of the golden light, at the service of the development of the individual. So at the beginning of Chapter 7, the great goddess Sarasvati comes forward. She salutes the Buddha. She makes a promise; in fact she makes a number of promises, promises relating to the monk who preaches the Dharma, the monk who preaches the Sutra of Golden Light. We'll see what these promises are in a few minutes. First we must find out who Sarasvati is.

Now if we were in India there would be no difficulty about this, no difficulty about finding out who Sarasvati is, especially if we were in India during the five or six weeks that follow the end of the rainy season. In many parts of India, this particular period, this particular season, the few weeks immediately succeeding the end of the rainy season, this period is known as the `Pujas' with a capital P. And it's so called because during this particular period, a whole series of great Hindu religious festivals and celebrations is held in honour of various Hindu gods and goddesses. And it's a very very festive season.

Everybody is happy, everybody is cheerful, everybody is more friendly than usual. And of course, over all there's the beautiful blue sky. It's the best season, the most enjoyable season, the most beautiful season of the whole year. It's not too hot, it's not too cold, and the sun shines all the time. There's often a very beautiful, soft, gentle breeze and a cloudless blue sky over everything. And people often take a holiday from work - they just don't feel like working. They buy new clothes, they go and see their friends, go and see their relations, even sometimes making quite long journeys, and they exchange presents.

And of course they go, usually in the evening, to worship the various gods and goddesses; and one of the most popular of these is Sarasvati. In some parts of India, for instance in Bengal, special images are made, just for the Puja season, just for that particular period, and they're installed in temporary shrines in places accessible to the public, because after all everybody goes. So, lots of images are needed, lots of shrines are needed. In India one may say, people go to the Puja rather as in England they go to football matches or to bingo. They go in their tens of thousands, they go in their hundreds of thousands. And on the occasions of very great, very special festivities, some of which come around only every ten or every twelve years, they go in their millions.

Now these images which are specially made for the occasion, specially made for the Pujas, these images of Sarasvati are made of clay. And they're beautifully painted, beautifully decorated, and they are made life-size, sometimes a little larger than life. So, how is Sarasvati depicted? How is she represented? She's depicted as a beautiful young woman with long flowing dresses and she wears a beautiful brocade saree, a Benares saree, generally red in colour, with a golden border. And she is seated on a white hamsa. Usually hamsa is translated as swan, but actually it's a goose. In the West goose has its own cultural associations, which are quite different from the cultural associations which it has in India. In India the goose is a beautiful, elegant bird which conjures up all sorts of religious associations. So Sarasvati is seated on a white hamsa, this white goose. And she holds a vina, an Indian musical instrument, sometimes translated as a lute in her lap.

Now, we often find that different deities - this is in India - different deities are particularly worshipped by different classes of people. We find in India that businessmen, merchants, traders, shopkeepers, worship Ganesh, the elephant-headed god Ganesh, who removes obstacles, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

In the same way the athletes, those who go in for physical training, the body builders, the weight lifters, the muscle men, they worship Hanuman, that is to say the monkey god, the great devotee of Rama who is renowned for his great physical strength and energy and enterprise. Women and girls, on the other hand, are particularly fond of Krishna, but not so much because he preached the Bhagavadgita, but because he dances, at night, in the forest with the gopis or cow-girls or, more poetically, the milk maids.

So, who in particular worships Sarasvati? Well, it's the students. On the eve of her festival, her altar is piled high with exercise books and textbooks, even with pens and pencils, even indiarubbers. I've seen this myself on a number of occasions. The students, by placing their books, by placing their pens and pencils and rubbers there, are invoking Sarasvati's blessing. In particular they're asking for her help in the passing of the forthcoming examinations, which in India follow rather quickly, rather too quickly for comfort, on the Pujas.

Lecture 127: Buddhism and Culture - Page 4 __________________________________________________________________________________________________ So, what does Sarasvati stand for ? It's pretty obvious. She stands for learning, she stands for education, she stands, in a word, for culture. Now, the name Sarasvati does not give us any clue to her actual function.

The name Sarasvati means `abounding in water', sometimes translated as `watery', but I personally prefer `abounding in water'. And it's the name, as one might have suspected, of a river, the name of a river, a river that still flows, that you could still find on a map, in Northwestern India. So, how did the river come to be transformed into a goddess, into a goddess of learning and culture? As is usually the case in India, this is a very long story. I can only hope to give you a very rough outline of the story, because the story goes back several thousand years; it goes back to the time when the Aryans invaded India. No one really knows where they originally came from. But they entered India from the northwest, they came with horses, they came with chariots, and they gradually subdued the original inhabitants of the land. And with them, with these invading Aryans, came not only their warriors, not only their fighters, not only their rulers.

There came their priests, and these were the famous Brahmins.

And the Brahmins by this time had developed an elaborate system of ritual, an elaborate system of sacrifices. There were sacrifices for every conceivable kind of purpose, every conceivable kind of occasion.

And these sacrifices were often performed on the banks of a river. After all, it was a convenient spot, the bank of the river was smooth, just sand, and it provided a flat surface for the construction of the altar.

Because in those ancient days there were no temples. Everything was done, everything was performed, out in the open air. And because a river was always flowing nearby, there was plenty of water available for the ritual ablutions to which the brahmins attached great importance. And moreover, on the banks of the river, far from human habitation perhaps, there was quiet, there was seclusion, there was peace.

Now, the banks of certain rivers were particularly favoured for the performance, for the celebration, of these Brahminical, these Vedic sacrifices - and among them was a river called the Sarasvati. There does seem to have grown up an association between this river, or the name of this river, and the whole sacrificial system. Now, a great deal of Brahminical culture was based on the sacrificial system, or had grown out of it. For example, in the course of the sacrifices various hymns, ...

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