Lakshmi, Mahalakshmi, Padmavati, Shri, Bhoodevi …, one of the aspects of female cosmic energy, represents fertility, abundance, prosperity, riches, brilliance and beauty – the ‘rajas’ aspect of the phenomenal universe. Sage Markandeya perceives the divine form, manifesting this female cosmic energy, as one and also as three-aspected : 'Mahalakshmir Mahakali saiva prokta Saraswati, Ishvari punyapapana sarvalokamaheshvari' (Devi-Mahatmya, Part 3, Chapter Vaikrtika Rahasya, verse 25), that is, 'She herself is proclaimed as Mahalakshmi, Mahakali, and (Maha) Saraswati, the great ruler of all worlds, reigning over the virtuous and the wicked'. To sage Markandeya, unity and diversity are attributes of the same, whether the universe or the divine power governing it. In his equation, as the universe is one but is composed of and represents three basic elements – ‘tamas’, ‘rajas’ and ‘sattva’, that are inertia, dynamism and luminosity, the female cosmic energy pervading and operating over it is one and also triply manifesting. Thus, Mahalakshmi is also Mahakali and Mahasaraswati and vice-versa. In Markandeya Purana, Mahalakshmi is as much the goddess of battlefield as Mahakali or Mahasaraswati.
As per Markandeya Purana, it is in her manifestation as Mahalakshmi that Devi kills Mahishasura. Indeed, while the roles of Mahakali and Mahasaraswati confine to eliminating demons and evil, Mahalakshmi operates also beyond the battlefield representing auspiciousness and beauty.
ORIGIN OF LAKSHMI
It is only from 3rd century B. C. onwards that her iconic form, now almost unanimously identified as Lakshmi, begins appearing. This form of her, carrying lotuses in her hands, many more growing around, and elephants surrounding her – an image of beauty, appears first in the Sanchi and Bharhut reliefs of the 3rd-2nd century B. C., though despite that she figures, and quite significantly, in these Buddhist reliefs, early or even contemporary Buddhist texts do not speak of her at all. Thus, she was a part of Buddhist sculptures but not of those days’ Buddhist pantheon.
Maybe, like many other motifs the Sanchi and Bharhut sculptors borrowed her form, obviously in view of her aesthetic beauty, from some early tradition for embellishing gates’ facades and other prominent areas of the stupas. Those relying only on archaeological finds, which little support this theory, might not see in the lotus goddess at Sanchi and Bharhut any such continuity of an early tradition, but even to them, it is nothing less than a form evolved conjointly out of various sources – verbal connotation of the Vedic Mahimata, attributes of Sita, another Vedic visualisation of productive process, Indus fertility cult, iconographic vision of the Mother goddess...
LAKSHMI IN VEDAS
The monotheistic Vedas, despite their perception of cosmic unity, deciphered on the very outset the two aspected character of existence and creative process, one, the male, and other, the female. The Rig-Veda perceives the maleness and the femaleness as contained within a single frame but also as two attributes of the 'contained'. Apart such mystic duality, the Vedas directly allude to a number of operative attributes, male and female, having cosmic dimensions, deify them, and sometimes even personalise. Among those identified personally Vak, Ushas, Shri, Sita and Ratri are the main. Sita, the furrow-line, and Ratri, the night, are casually alluded to, and that too, in Upanishadas. However, independent ‘Suktas’ are devoted to Vak – speech, and Ushas – dawn. The Vedas have also alluded to human females, Aditi, the mother of gods, Diti, Ila and a few others. Though no hymns are attributed to, or rites ascribed, the Vedas allude to Mahimata, Mother earth, a deity identical to Harappan Mother Goddess. The Rig-Veda has some ‘Suktas’ devoted to Shri but it is completely indifferent to Lakshmi. This Rig-Vedic Shri is not a form of Lakshmi as she becomes later. The hymn : 'Ashvapurvau rathamadhyam hastinadaprabodhineem, Shriyam devimupahvaye shrirma devi jushatam'; that is, let me be possessed of Shri who equals an army well accomplished with horses, chariots, elephants etc. and let my home be her perpetual abode, is sometimes contended to relate to Lakshmi but while the hymn perceives Shri as one having immense power equal to an army, Lakshmi represented fertility and abundance.
If at all, Lakshmi made a debut during the later Vedic period, especially in the Atharva-Veda that alludes to an anonymous deity possessed of large breasts with milk oozing from them. Certainly not a form of Shri, the Atharva-Veda appears to be alluding to the Indus Mother Goddess or a goddess identical to her preceding the milk-filled large-breasted Lakshmi icons of Sanchi and Bharhut. In all likelihood this large-breasted goddess, representing fertility, generative energy and abundance, transformed into the lotus goddess in the 3rd-2nd century B. C. reliefs. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata allude to Lakshmi but many of these allusions are either only by interpretation or confine to particular editions. Chapter 45 of Bal-kanda in the Valmiki Ramayana narrates the legend of ocean churning out of which Lakshmi emerged. Many scholars have quoted this chapter as elaborating Lakshmi’s physical appearance and personality, though even the Gita Press, Gorakhpur, edition of the Ramayana does not have any mention of her. Whatever her form, visual or verbal, so far, Lakshmi was an independent divinity without a male partner, or male counterpart. Like the Mother Goddess, she was initially two-armed but subsequently her images began having four arms. This two and four armed iconography continued ever since – her votive images being four-armed, and aesthetic, two-armed. Later, the Puranic literature transformed her into Vishnu's spouse assisting him in accomplishing his sustenance-related acts, or serving him personally. Puranas wove around her numerous legends in regard to her origin, forms, acts and aesthetic beauty, as also hymns for her rituals.
LAKSHMI’S EMERGENCE FROM OCEAN
If not subsequently added, the Ramayana is the earliest text to have the legend of ocean churning for obtaining nectar, though Lakshmi is not among the jewels that ocean revealed (Valmiki Ramayana, Bal-kanda, chapter 45). In the Mahabharata (Adiparva, 4) the legend has been dealt with at greater length and Lakshmi is one of the jewels emerging out of the ocean-churning. Almost unchanged it was reproduced later in many Puranas. As different texts have it, once the sons of Aditi – the gods, and those of Diti – the demons, joined hands to obtain nectar which, they were told, they could obtain by churning ocean. Using Mount Meru as the rod and serpent Vasuki as the rope they began churning the ocean. The disgruntled Vasuki breathed so much of venom that it not only enshrouded the entire universe but also began suffocating gods and demons. On Vishnu’s prayer Shiva stored the arson into his throat and saved the cosmos from being destroyed. Relieved from arson’s influence gods and demons began their exercise afresh. Lakshmi, who emerged riding a lotus, was one among fourteen jewels which the ocean revealed. Brahma gifted her to Vishnu who accepted her as his consort. In visual arts the earliest appearance of the ocean-churning theme is reported from the early Gupta period cave temple (300 AD) at Udayagiri in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh. The lintel of the entrance to the temple has a relief of ocean-churning with a strong Lakshmi image emerging from it.
OTHER MYTHS OF HER ORIGIN
As has a myth in Vishnu Purana (1/8), Lakshmi was re-born on the earth as the daughter of sage Bhragu, the son of Brahman. Her mother was Khyati, the daughter of Daksha Prajapati. After a period of time she was married to Narayana, an incarnation of Vishnu. She had by Narayana two sons, named Bala and Unmada. Brahmavaivarta Purana attributes her origin to Vishnu. As acclaimed, Lakshmi was born out of Vishnu’s right half, while from his left half was born Radha, Lakshmi’s another incarnation. In Vishnu’s Ardhanarishvara images, which are very rare, Lakshmi is represented as comprising Vishnu’s left half – a visual manifestation of the Brahmavaivarta Purana myth.
Quite strangely, while in Shiva’s Ardhanarishvara forms his consort’s image, who is otherwise more masculine and vigorous engaged in acts like slaying demons, is usually humbly conceived, Lakshmi’s image in Vishnu’s Ardhanarishvara forms is far more pronounced. The Bhagawata Purana identifies yet another form of Lakshmi in the Shrivatsa mark on Vishnu’s chest. As is Bhagawata Purana’s version of the sage Bhragu-related myth, in the course of the yajna which Manu held, sage Bhragu was nominated by all Brahmins and sages to decide who of the Great Trio was the supreme divinity. For acquainting himself with their views Bhragu decided to visit all three gods. He first went to Shiva, who busy with Parvati, had no time to pay him any attention. Brahma was rather rude. However, the sage lost his temper when he found Vishnu asleep. The enraged sage hit him with his leg, which not only awoke him but also left on his chest a mark – Shrivatsa. However, Vishnu’s reaction was only apologetic for being asleep. Pleased with Vishnu’s humility sage Bhragu blessed him that in the form of Shrivatsa he would always have Lakshmi in his bosom.
In the Bhragu-incidence Padma Purana has sought Lakshmi’s re-emergence in a different way. Lakshmi, who was in Vishnu’s bosom when sage Bhragu hit him on his chest, felt insulted, more so, on Vishnu’s apologetic reaction. Consequently, she abandoned him and his Baikuntha – Vishnu’s abode. Unable to bear separation Vishnu also left Baikuntha and looking for her descended on the earth where he re-emerged as Venkatesh.
Many yugas – cosmic ages passed in repentance and yearning. Now reconciled, Lakshmi decided to re-emerge in Vishnu’s heart as an intrinsic realisation. One day Vishnu realised Lakshmi unfolding within him like a lotus and he felt that he was re-united with her. The moment his realisation was absolute, the universe glowed with a divine lustre and all around was abundance, riches, prosperity, fertility and beauty. Thus, Lakshmi dually emerged in Vishnu’s life, one, by realisation, and other, by manifestation. She, who sprouted like a lotus – padma, was Lakshmi’s transform as Padmavati, and she, who was beauty incarnate and manifested in riches and abundance, was her transform as Shri.
LAKSHMI AS BHOODEVI
Myths, prevalent in southern part of India, claim Bhoodevi as Lakshmi’s yet another transform, in addition to Padmavati and Shridevi. She is sometimes claimed to be Lakshmi in her re-birth and sometimes as one of Vishnu’s two wives, the other being Shridevi.
In South Indian art, especially bronzes, Shridevi and Bhoodevi are often seen flanking Vishnu’s images. Lakshmi’s transform as Bhoodevi is also related to Bhragu myth. Over a period of time Bhragu felt penitent for his misconduct against Vishnu resulting in Vishnu’s separation from Lakshmi. He hence ardently sought their re-union. After deserting Vishnu Lakshmi had descended on the earth and had merged into cows grazing near the termite hill in the South. Bhragu, disguised as a cowherd, began thrashing the cows. Vishnu could not tolerate this cruelty of the cowherd and punished him with his mace. Bhragu appeared and worshipped the Lord for beating him. Lakshmi, who lived in cows, was appeased for Lord Vishnu had avenged Bhragu and appeared before him but not as Lakshmi but as Bhoodevi and united with him. This myth seems to be an offshoot of the Vishnu Purana myth which claims Lakshmi as Bhragu’s daughter who he had married to Narayana, Vishnu’s incarnation; or at least, the underlying pith of the two myths is quite identical. Bhoodevi-related other legend is as widely known. Vishnu is known to have rescued Bhoodevi from Hiranyaksha. It is said after she was rescued, Lord Vishnu took her as his other consort.
LAKSHMI’S PURANIC TRANSFORM
Broadly, the Lakshmi of later scriptures, in her own form or in transform or re-birth, is widely different from Mahalakshmi of Devi-Mahatmya or from the lotus goddess of Sanchi and Bharhut reliefs. Not merely that the adjectival suffix 'Maha' is dropped, or her independent status, lost, the Mahisha-slayer Mahalakshmi is widely different from Lakshmi, metaphysically or otherwise. While Lakshmi is merely the manifestation of primordial female energy, Mahalakshmi is the primordial female energy in her own form. Even the Brahmavaivarta Purana acclaims her as Lakshmi’s prime form out of her ten forms. It is Mahalakshmi alone who resides in Baikuntha in the bosom of Mahavishnu. Instead of, Lakshmi is now largely a boon-giving timid damsel serving her spouse personally or by assisting him sustain the universe – his primary cosmic act. She bestows bliss, prosperity, wealth and material happiness, yields good crop and abundant grain, and represents magnificence and beauty in life but all in a subordinate position. As the textual tradition has it, Mahalakshmi preceded Vishnu and pervaded not only the cosmos but also Vishnu himself. She is Vishnu's operative energy.
It is only a text or two that perceive her as Vishnu’s operative energy or his feminine aspect, and thus Vishnu’s equal, though as compared to her prior status when as Mahadevi, Vishnu’s predecessor, she reigned over Vishnu and revealed to him as to who he was, as also what was his errand, such metaphysical wrangles are little gratifying. The process of depriving her of her supreme divinity had begun with the Mahabharata itself where in most contexts she was referred to as a mere linguistic expression denotative of worldly riches and means. But, while in the Mahabharata-like early texts she acclaimed to stay with the virtuous, good and honest, in later Puranas she was slighted as Chanchala – flirting and instable, as Rajalakshmi – kings’ property, broadly as one synonymous of riches and worldliness.
LAKSHMI’S NAMES AND FORMS
Besides Mahalakshmi, Padmavati, Shri, Bhoodevi, Chanchala and Rajalakshmi, Lakshmi is also known as Kamala, Dharini, Vaishnavi, Narayani, Vishnu-priya … Kamala is denotative of her form as Lotus goddess; Dharini, suggestive of her immense power to bear, is denotative of the earth and thus of her Bhoodevi form; and, Vaishnavi, Narayani and Vishnu-priya relate her to Vishnu as his consort.
Main among Lakshmi’s forms, other than her transforms, or her forms by re-birth or re-emergence, are her forms as Gaja-Lakshmi,
The Gaja-Lakshmi form is sometimes known also as Mahalakshmi form. Apart, a folk Mahalakshmi form is also popular in some parts of the country. This folk Mahalakshmi manifests mainly as a highly ornate unbaked clay image of an elephant, sometimes two smaller ones flanking on sides, usually with minuscule riders – Lakshmi and her attendants, on their backs. This icon of Mahalakshmi, especially the elephant image, is in live worship, though only once a year on ‘Pitra-paksha Ashthami’ – the eighth day of the dark-half of the month of Bhadaun. Notably, the tradition does not subordinate elephant to Lakshmi as her mount, as are subordinated lion, bull, Garuda, peacock, mouse… to other gods and goddesses. Obviously, this sense of reverence perceives elephant as an essential component of the Lakshmi cult, and the two, as equally venerated. This cult seems to have some very early roots, now forgotten. In Shrilankan Buddhism, Tara is venerated as the commander of fierce elephants. Lakshmi preceded Tara by centuries. Maybe, Lakshmi was the goddess who befriended or commanded wild elephants, saved inhabitants from their rage and to appease them prescribed their worship along her own. It is quite likely that Tara inherited her form as the commander of wild elephants from the Lakshmi-cult.
Gaja-Lakshmi is Lakshmi’s most represented form in art. It is as massively worshipped. Lakshmi with ‘gajas’ – elephants, flanking on either side is her form as Gaja-Lakshmi. It is, indeed, a form of her in art. The Rig-Vedic Shri-Sutra alludes to elephants in context to Shri but it is only to assert Shri’s immense power. When describing how the image of Lakshmi with elephants performing sacred ablution magnifies the beauty of lintel on the gate of Ravana’s mansion (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundar-kanda, 7, 14), the Ramayana alludes to Lakshmi’s Gaja-Lakshmi form, and is perhaps the earliest to do so. However, the text only describes linguistically a visual image sculpted on it. Lakshmi’s earliest reported forms in visual arts manifest in the 3rd century B. C. Sanchi reliefs. Not merely that these forms of Lakshmi have elephants associated with them, these elephants have been carved with the same amount of reverence as Lakshmi, an essential feature of Gaja-Lakshmi principle. As alluded to in the Ramayana, elephants in the Sanchi and Bharhut reliefs are performing sacred ablution of the goddess, perhaps with milk brought from the mythical Kshirasagara – the ocean of milk, in the pots of gold held in their trunks. Elephants’ association with Lakshmi-images has been a regular feature of Lakshmi’s iconography ever since. The upper north-east chamber of Kuwwat-ul-Islam Mosque at Qut'b complex, New Delhi, has in late Gupta art style a sculpture representing elephants flanking the image of Lakshmi. The sculpted stone-block was once the part of some early temple the material of which was re-used in constructing the mosque.
Lakshmi-Ganapati is broadly an art form in which the two independently represented images of Lakshmi and Ganesh constitute one votive unit, commonly used during Diwali-puja. Sometimes Lakshmi’s elephants flank both images conjointly, though instead of bathing the deities, as they do in Gaja-Lakshmi form, they make only offerings. This form better assures success, prosperity, good crop ... for, while Lakshmi bestows her blessings, Ganapati keeps all detriments away. Lakshmi is the consort of Lord Vishnu, but for obtaining Lakshmi – riches and prosperity, she is not worshipped with him. It is by worshipping her with Ganesha that she comes one's way. 'Shree Ganapate namah', 'salutations to Thee, O Ganapati, whom Lakshmi precedes', is the most popular as well as effective 'mantra' – hymn, for the invocation of Ganesha. Lakshmi precedes the worship of Ganapati, that is, so effective is Lakshmi-Ganapati worship that even before Ganesha is worshipped the devotee obtains Lakshmi – the riches and prosperity.
Deep-Lakshmi is not a form or manifestation of the Goddess Lakshmi. It is a simple votive icon combining lamp-forms with a woman’s figure. To add to it auspiciousness it borrows Lakshmi’s name, the auspicious-most goddess. Votive only in a restricted sense, the Deep-Lakshmi icons are worshipped during Diwali-puja along with Diwali's presiding deity Lakshmi and Ganesh. However, Deep-Lakshmi icons represent India’s ages’ long cult of worshipping woman and celebrating the birth of light. These icons not only synthesise India’s reverence for woman with exuberance of light but also link it with Diwali, the festival of light and the epitome of Lakshmi cult.
IMAGERY OF LAKSHMI
The image of the gold-complexioned Lakshmi, as it emerges in common man’s mind, is two-fold, one, the most lustrous divine damsel endowed with unparalleled beauty, unearthly charm and timeless youth, richly bejeweled and costumed – usually in red, and possessed of the oceans of wealth. She sits on a full-blown red lotus, is flanked by a pair of elephants performing sacred ablution, is four-armed carrying in two of them a lotus, rosary, pot, or one of Vishnu’s other attributes, and holds other two in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’, the postures that grant fearlessness, bliss and redemption. Her other image is that of the most devoted coy consort of Mahavishnu residing with him in Kshirasagara and engaged incessantly in massaging his feet. Though possessed of the same lustrous beauty and timeless youth as in her other form, in this form, Lakshmi, with normal two arms engaged in serving her lord, is more like an humble coy consort, not the mighty slayer of a demon like Mahisha.
Like her concept, Lakshmi’s imagery also evolved over a period of time. Initially as Mahalakshmi she has been conceived with eight, ten, sixteen or even eighteen arms carrying in them variedly prayer-beads, ax, mace, arrow, thunderbolt, staff, lance, sword, shield, conch, bell, wine-cup, trident, noose and Sudarshana – disc, and sometimes held two in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’.
Later, in her form as Lakshmi, in votive images, she is conceived as four- armed, and in aesthetic, that is, when represented as the consort of Lord Vishnu, with normal two arms. Lakshmi’s primordial form was also four-armed, though while in this primordial form she carried instruments of war, in her later four-armed iconography, she usually carries in two of them lotus, pot, rosary, fruit, or some other Vaishnava attribute, and holds other two in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’. As Mahalakshmi she had coral-like radiant complexion, which in Lakshmi’s iconography changes into golden hue. In her form as Lakshmi, she wears rich costume, majestic crown, precious stones and garland of Parijata flowers.
However little, each of Lakshmi’s different forms has its iconographic distinction. Padmavati wears a lotus garland, not one made from Parijata flowers. Lotus is an essential ingredient in Lakshmi’s iconography but in Padmavati’s, it is more thrusting. Lotus invariably comprises her seat. She often has a lotus under her feet, carries lotuses at least in two of her hands, and has sometimes lotus motifs on palms. Lotuses often define the ambience around and as often the architecture of the sanctum she enshrines. She is usually installed under a lotus-canopy. Symbolising in one ocean, earth and sky, the lotus is a characteristic feature of the entire iconography of Lakshmi, who pervades them all, but in the iconography of Padmavati the significance of lotus is also for other reason. It was in the form of the lotus that Padmavati evolved in Vishnu’s heart. Indeed, Padmavati’s evolution and lotus are mutually linked. As Shridevi, Lakshmi is the image of the supreme beauty conceived as heavily bejeweled. She is unique in lustre and majesty.
No less is her splendour as Gaja-Lakshmi, though it is the phenomenal presence of elephants, represented dramatically bathing her, that imparts to her image its exotic distinction. Bhoodevi, representing earthly character, the fertility, is humbly attired. The Garuda-riding Vaishnavi, the goddess of battlefield, carries instruments of war. Alike different are her forms and overall personalities in her births as Radha and Sita.
Ironically, almost every Indian, rich or poor, king or subject, prays Lakshmi to make his home her permanent abode, and hardly a house, even an illiterate’s, would be without her name, graphic symbol ‘swastika’, or her ‘mantra’ – ‘Shri Lakshmi sada sahay karen’, that is, ‘may Lakshmi who is also Shri always be my help’, inscribed on one of its walls or cash-boxes, or without her visual representation – a metal or clay statue, or a painting – printed or painted, even banks and Government bodies would not hesitate in inscribing at least ‘shubha’ – auspicious, and ‘labha’ – profiting, Lakshmi’s attributes, on their chests, but despite all that, she hasn’t many shrines, not even domestic, entirely devoted to her in north and Central India at least. However, She enshrines most sanctums with Vishnu, her spouse, such images being known as Lakshmi-Narayana, Lakshmi preceding Narayana.
However in South, Lakshmi, as Padmavati and Shridevi, and sometimes as Bhoodevi, is worshipped widely and independent of Vishnu. Shridevi form of Lakshmi is so popular in South that even the name of Vishnu, her lord, has changed to Shrinivasa – abode of Shri, after her. However, different from Shri, Padmavati has for South Indian masses some kind of mythical significance and local connotation. As the mythological tradition has it, Lakshmi's form as Padmavati emerged when she re-united with Vishnu after the latter left Baikuntha searching her and settled on Tirumala hill of the Eastern Ghats in South. The part of the Eastern Ghats, where lay Vishnu, curved like the great serpent Shesh, Vishnu’s seat, and came to be known as Sheshachala. According to the legend, the king, under whose reign fell the Sheshachala hill, found that when back, a particular cow did not have any milk in its udders. Cowherd had no satisfactory explanation. One day, the king secretly followed the cow for knowing what actually happened. He was amazed to see that milk flew from the cow’s udders of its own as soon as she reached a particular spot. He got the spot dug and to his utter surprise from underneath revealed Lord Vishnu reclining there though in the form of an image. He had Lakshmi in his bosom but not manifest and the king did not see her. A temple was built and the image, named Venkateshvara, was installed. After some days, priests and devotees realised that a lustre having a female form sprouted like a lotus from within him. This divine realisation was given a form. It was Padmavati, Venkateshvara’s consort by spiritual realisation. Though Venkateshvara temple enshrined only him, many temples were built independently for Padmavati all over the South and she is now one of the utmost worshipped divinities of South.