One of the many names of the Goddess Saraswati and so her association with the veena is fairly well known. But what has the lumpy, unprepossessing jackfruit have to do with the veena?
Well, let me start with the veena first….
The veena, one of the oldest instruments in the world, symbolizes both the divine and the primordial. Its physical form is said to represent the human spinal cord and the sound that it creates is said to be closest to the human voice. Said to have been invented by Narada, the celestial musician and son of Brahma, many deities in the Hindu divine pantheon played this instrument including Lakshmi, Parvati, Hanuman and Shiva.
But apparently the maestro of the veena was Ravana who played this instrument with such expertise that he could please any divine power with his music!
There are several references to the veena in the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. As the story goes, Valmiki, after completing the Ramayana, said that when it is recited/sung, the instrument most suitable to accompany it was the veena.
But it is the association of the veena with the Goddess Saraswati that remains the most enduring and profound. Presiding deity as she is not just of knowledge and wisdom and the arts, but of all sound, musical and spoken (one of her many names is “Vach”) it is but natural that the veena should be such an integral part of her divinity.
In her hands, it symbolizes more than just music. It symbolizes harmony, not just musical harmony, but harmonious existence of all living things, it symbolizes the music of the universe, the eternal sea of sound in which rest all of creation, all of knowledge and all of healing.
19 Veenas, one music
Across the splendid expanse of its ancient history and in consonance with its image as the musical instrument of the gods, the veena has had as many avatars as the divinities that played it. Among the 25 or more known avatars of the veena, here are some of the more interesting ones
Veena Parivadini - Said to possess strings made out of gold and was performed by the Pallava king, Mahendravarman
Mahati – 20 stringed veena said to have been played by sage Narada
Pinaki – played with a bow. Lord Shiva is also called “Pinakapani” or He who holds of the Bow.
Rudra – Shiva’s instrument, named after him and is the veena currently played in North India.
Brahma veena - has only one string
Satatantri – the 100-stringed veena which existed over 2000 years ago and said to be the ancestor of the santoor.
Kinnari – mostly widely seen and mentioned in Sanskrit literature, paintings and sculptures.
Vipanchi – the 9 stringed veena which is mentioned in Adi Sankaracharya’s 'Soundarya Lahari'
Ravanahatta – the veena supposed to have been invented by Ravana and named after him. It is still popular in Rajasthan
Audumbari – the veena played during Vedic times by the wives of the sages when they recited the Vedas during sacrifices. “Audumbari” means “papal” in Sanskrit and it is possible that this veena was made out of the wood of the pipal tree.
Finally of course is the exquisite Saraswati veena that is to this day is played and is the most popular in Carnatic music
Which leaves us with the bit about the jackfruit…
Which is what the modern day veena is made from - the wood of the jackfruit tree! Chosen because of its particularly resonant quality. But I like the explanation given by Mangalam Muthuswamy, a well-known vainika. According to her, the tradition started in olden days, when the wood was taken from jackfruit trees growing in temple courtyards because it was believed that they had absorbed the resonance of the temple bells!
And the fruit that looks like a cross between a lumpy green hippo and a porcupine has other magical things about it….
The jackfruit grows all over Asia and in many Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Cambodia; one of the foods believed to increase breast milk production in nursing mothers is tender jackfruit!
And why not? Look at the nutrition that it packs in! Starting with beta-carotene, cued by the beautiful yellow-gold colour of its insides. Beta carotene, apart from being one of the most powerful disease-fighting antioxidants, is also the raw material, which the body converts into Vitamin A, the deficiency of which causes millions of children in developing countries like India to go blind. The jackfruit’s cache of Vitamin A is high enough for it to be recommended in the Bangladesh government’s campaign to combat vitamin A deficiency.
Then, like so many other tropical fruits, jackfruit also is an excellent source of minerals like calcium, potassium, iron etc. In fact, it is said to contain more calcium and magnesium than the banana!
The jackfruit is also an excellent source of complex carbohydrate and dietary fibre, making it a great energy food. In fact, the jackfruit’s nutritional profile makes it the perfect staple food – which it is, especially among poor Asians. T
he seeds are even more impressive - dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and certain B vitamins, calcium, zinc, sulfur and phosphorous, apart from a whole range of antioxidants! In Kerala, many even say that kanji eaten with “spoons” made of the leaves of the jackfruit tree is good for respiratory problems!
Today and for the next 3 days, we worship the Goddess Saraswati, one of the Devi’s five avatars. Wellspring of all wisdom, all art. Awed by this, the Lalitha Sahasranama reels of a hosanna of names.
Veda-Janani - Mother of the Vedas, who feeds not only our bodies but also our souls as Gyanada - the giver of Supreme Knowledge.
Gayatri or the Gayatri mantra itself.
Without her we would’ve been mute, because She is Gomata - the source of speech.
Bhasharupa, the embodiment of language.
Kalanatha, Kalanidhih and Kalavati - the fountainhead, the presiding deity, the very embodiment of all art.
Kavyakala - the art of poetry.
From her springs rhythm and music because She is Layakari.
She is not just Yogini but also Yogada and Yogananda who blesses us with the wisdom and bliss realized through yoga.
And finally, She is Vedyavarjita - She who being all knowing, has nothing more to know.