Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
Bestower of fortune
"Sarvejanaha Kanchanam Ashreyanthi". Everyone in the world desires wealth. And who will respond to one's pleas more than Sri Lakshmi?
Courtesy: Sanskriti Museum of Everyday Art, New Delhi.
Resplendent as the sun, beautiful beyond compare and bedecked with gold and silver ornaments, Sri Lakshmi is the goddess associated with wealth. Material prosperity, health, good fortune and power are the gifts she bestows on those who seek Her grace. She is Subhaga, the bountiful one.
According to scholars the term "Sri" is first used in the Rig Veda to mean that which is beautiful with associations sometimes of wealth and bounty. The word "Lakshmi" also appears first in the Rig Veda to denote auspicious and pleasant qualities. In later Vedic literature, the terms were fused and came to refer to the same goddess.
In the pre-Buddhist hymn, Sri Sukta, Sri invoked to bring fame and prosperity. Regal in appearance, she is said to grant her worshipper gold, cattle, horses and food. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, Sri is the bringer of garments, cows, food and drink.
The earliest association of Sri was with fertility, She was worshipped as the goddess of agricultural prosperity, who made the soil burst forth with corn. Later during the Vedic Age, the goddess of beauty and fertility became one.
The concept of Sri or Lakshmi is thought of to be older therefore than her association with lord Vishnu.
In the earlier periods, she was linked with Indra, the king of the gods and the symbol of fertility and the harbinger of rain. She was also linked with Dharma, the personification of righteousness and truth, Soma, the lord of vegetation and the sap of existence and Kubera, the keeper and distributor of the world's wealth.
By the late epic period, (AD 400) Lakshmi became inseparably associated with Vishnu, the Preserver. Though in her original birth, she was considered the daughter of Brighu (Brahma's grandson) and his wife Khayati, she was subsequently born of the milky ocean when the devas and asuras churned it for the nectar of immortality. The lustrous goddess chose Vishnu as her consort. She becomes the "model Hindu wife, loyal and submissive". The powerful goddess who can create the universe with just one-billionth fraction of her Self according to the Pancaratra school, is yet the Sridevi who massages Vishnu's feet as he rests on his serpentine bed on the waters of life. It is to her that the Sri Vaishnavite devotee supplicates to intercede on his behalf for the Lord's grace and mercy. But she never loses her distinct identity as the goddess of fortune and abundance.
Sri Lakshmi is generally described as golden hued in keeping with her role as the giver of wealth. Or as white as the most pure form of nature.
D.V. Jainer/Telepress Features
The goddess is depicted either seated or standing on a lotus, the symbol of purity and creation, and holding a lotus in each hand while the other two hands are in Abhaya and Varada hastas.
Ravi Varma's painting of the serene-faced goddess in lovely pastel pinks is the image in the popular imagination of the 20th century of the goddess of wealth; Gajalakshmi is one of the earliest depictions of the goddess. The elephants symbolise Airavata, the heavenly elephant of Indra. These elephants which are synonymous with rain-bearing clouds, empty pots of water over the goddess with their trunks reinforcing the theme of fertility and abundance.
Gajalakshmi images carved over the lintels of doorways bring prosperity into the dwelling. In Indian sculpture the image is often repeated. Among the Gajalakshmi representations are the splendid ones in the Badami Caves and the Adi Varaha cave at Mamallapuram where the Goddess is the very embodiment of beauty. To bring out the immediacy of the wealth motif, in some ancient seals, the goddess is attended by a yaksha standing beside jars of money or pouring out a stream of wealth.
The modern calendar version of Sri Lakshmi with a shower of gold coins issuing from her palms is an image that is quick and sharp though not subtle in its association with abundance.
The concept of Sri is common to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. In Buddhist lore, the Goddess of Fortune is considered fickle as she indiscriminately showers her blessings whether the recipient is deserving or not. In the Sirikalakanni Jataka, Srimata says "I preside over the course of conduct that gives lordship to mankind. I am beauty (Siri), fortune (lakkhi), and prudence (Bhuripanna)."
Sri Lakshmi is the personification of regal qualities. Kings were symbolically wed to Rajyalakshmi. As long as a king was righteous and trod the path of virtue and dharma, she rewarded him with her presence. The legends of Sri Lakshmi residing in the kingdoms of the demon rulers Prahlada and his grandson Bali illustrate that wherever virtue reigned, Lakshmi could be found.
When Indra insulted sage Durvasa by placing the wonderful flower the sage had given him on the head of his elephant, Airavata, Lakshmi fled. Indira lost his power and lustre and could win it back only after severe penance.
Lakshmi's role in domestic prosperity is stressed often. So much so, the name Grihalakshmi has come to mean any housewife who fulfils her duties conscientiously. In battle she is Jayalakshmi who brings victory with her while she brings fame as Yasholakshmi.
A goddess who brings success and well-being is naturally worshipped across the length and breadth of the land in festivals that are dazzling in their grandeur or moving in their simplicity.
Chief among them is Deepavali where the Goddess of Light who illumines our homes is welcomed through the lighting of lamps. The lamp itself is called Deepalakshmi when it is shaped in the form of a beautiful young women. Gajalakshmi is a recurring motif on lamps.
For the business community in the North, Deepavali is the time to open fresh account books and begin the New Year. Guidelines have been laid down in ancient texts on how Deepavali should be celebrated by kings. A detailed account is provided in the Akasabhairavakalpa about the manner in which Lakshmi should be worshipped by royalty on Deepavali day to bring them victory, happiness and prosperity.
During Navarathri, all three forms of the mother goddess are adored. The first three days are devoted to goddess Shakti, the next there to goddess Lakshmi and the last three to goddess Saraswati.
Varamahalakshmi vrata is an important festival in States such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Prayers are offered to the goddess by women for material prosperity and marital harmony. Women in coastal Orissa paint their homes with designs of lotuses and small footprints during Deepavali to welcome Lakshmi.
There is usually no temple without Sri Lakshmi but few temples are exclusively devoted to her.
At the Ashtalakshmi temple at Chennai, all eight forms of Lakshmi are seen under a single gopuram. The goddess overlooks the vast ocean waters from which she chose to bring immortality to the gods. The temple initiated due to the efforts of the Paramacharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati in 1978 has separate shrines at varying levels for the eight manifestations of the Goddess: Adi Lakshmi, who appeared with the amirtha kalasam, Dhanya Lakshmi who provides food and banishes famine, Dhairya Lakshmi who dispels fear and instils courage and Gajalakshmi who brings fortune and fertility. While Santhana Lakshmi ensures domestic well being and offspring, Vijayalakshmi brings success and victory. Vidyalakshmi is the goddess of learning and rational thinking while Dhanalakshmi with her Theertha Kamandalam and Thambulam offers wealth.
The wheel of fortune is ever changing, bringing joy one moment and misery the next. (Hence is Lakshmi known as Sanchala, the fickle) The elder sister of Lakshmi is therefore Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune. The concept of Alakshmi goes back to Vedic times. Pictured as a hag riding an ass, she brings poverty and misery in her wake. But curiously enough, if worshipped, she is believed to smile kindly on her devotees and reward them with plenty. However, during Diwali, in places such as the villages of Orissa, she is frightened away by the beating of pots and pans. Often an ugly image of her is burned before a beautiful image of goddess Lakshmi is installed.
In Sangam literature there are references to sculptures of Lakshmi installed at the entrance to residences and palaces, says archaeologist Dr. R. Nagaswamy. In the layout of the business colony of a village the image of Lakshmi embossed on a plate was buried at the site before the construction work was begun to usher in prosperity. In fact the total village is conceived of as a goddess which is why many villages are named Sripuram or Lakshmipuram in Tamil Nadu. Many are the hymns that invoke the goddess, prime among which is the Kanakadara Stotram. Even the bag containing wealth is referred to as Lakshmi.
Still, there are some who do not covet wealth. To them, the words of the Bhagavad Gita have a special ring, "Samaloshta Asma Kanchana". To those who have attained a higher spiritual plane, pottery shards and gold are the same.
Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminism in the Hindu Religious Tradition by David Kingsley published by Motilal Banarasidas.
Legends of Devi by Sukumari Bhattacharya published by Orient Longman Limited.
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Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Swami Harshananda published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.
Festivals in India published by the Vivekananda Kendra Patrika, Feb 1977.
Hinduism: A Short History by Klaus K. Klostermaier published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford.
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