She was originally a river-goddess (see Vedic Saraswati River). As a river-deity, she came to be the goddess of everything that flows: words (and knowledge, by extension), speech, eloquence, and music. In the Shakta Brahmanism (worshippers of Shakti or Devi, the female aspect of the divinity), Saraswathi represents intelligence, consciousness and cosmic knowledge.
In art she is depicted in human form, as a woman with four arms, often playing a string instrument called sitar. She rides a peacock.
Besides her role in Hinduism, she became part of the Buddhist pantheon and came to China via the Chinese translations of the Sutra of Golden Light, which has a section devoted to her. Now largely forgotten in China, she is still worshipped in Japan under the name Benzaiten. Other names for her include Sarada, Sharada, Vani.