Title: Iconography of Vaishnava Deities: Goddess Lakshmi

Article of the Month - February 2017
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Lakshmi

In early Puranic texts like the Devi-Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana she is seen as the most valorous warrior of battlefield and eliminator of the demon Mahisha.

 
Goddess Mahalakshmi

Lakshmi is also a Vedic divinity with her origin in the Rig-Veda that identifies her as Sri and devotes to her three independent Suktas. The great text identifies her as the goddess of fertility who blessed with progeny, rich crops and abundant food-grain.

 
Sri Suktam

It seems that Lakshmi had her proto form in the Indus Mother Goddess who represented fertility, blessed with progeny and was also a protective deity. The Atharva-Veda is the earliest known textual source and Sanchi reliefs her earliest manifest image that give some idea of Lakshmi's beauty and her power to procreate and feed. The Atharva-Veda alludes to her form containing an abundance of milk the same as have Mother goddess statues and Lakshmi's Sanchi reliefs. Besides, the reported range of Mother goddess statues exhibit a wide range of costume fashions suggesting that she also represented absolute womanhood. Interestingly, Lakshmi imagery - the medieval and the modern, also displays elaborate costume and jewelry fashions and was seen as representing the highest form of womanhood.

 
Goddess Lakshmi as Visualized in the Atharva Veda

Her early model: four-armed Mahalakshmi form

It was perhaps such long tradition of Lakshmi's divinity that there developed around her a cult wider than that of Vishnu or rather any Vaishnava deity so much so that from a rich man's coffer to an alcove of a tribal's hut - depository of his day's earning, Lakshmi's presence is everywhere seen. Apart her manifestations in the Buddhist and the Jain pantheons and other early sources the Devi-Mahatmya also represents one of her early forms. Her epithet in the Devi-Mahatmya is Mahalakshmi. She is the wrathful four-armed goddess of battlefield represented holding in them various weapons. She is seen plundering death on demons, the demon Mahisha being the foremost. Except her four arms the classical tradition dispensed with her warrior form and Mahalakshmi name; however, in the folk tradition and in rural India the goddess's 'Mahalakshmi' epithet still continues though her nature has undergone complete transformation. Instead of being the ferocious goddess of battlefield she is now a torch-bearer lighting his dark hutment and path. This tribe's or the village man's Mahalakshmi is modeled as carrying lamps on her palms, head and sometimes even on her shoulders. Such Mahalakshmi icons are cast in clay especially on Diwali, the festival of light. Earlier such Mahalakshmi icons were immersed in a river or pond after seven days of Diwali worship but exceptionally artistic now these icons are often preserved.

 
Pair of Deeplakshmi

Gaja-Lakshmi form

A form of Lakshmi seated over a lotus laid over a golden seat and a pair of white elephants - sometimes multi-trunked, pouring on her milk believed to have been brought in their trunks, or gold-pots carried in their trunks, from the Kshirasagara - ocean of milk, the abode of Vishnu, is a favoured image of Lakshmi commonly known in art tradition as Gaja-Lakshmi.

 
Gajalakshmi Panel

This form of the goddess, when cast riding an elephant, is also called Mahalakshmi. Otherwise also Mahalakshmi images are cast riding an elephant usually having a multi-trunk form. Dually auspicious for assimilating, besides the goddess herself, many auspicious entities - white elephants symbolic of Indra's mount Airavata, lotus, milk and hence more prompt in bestowing riches and accomplishing all desired this Mahalakshmi form is more favoured for worship during Diwali rituals. In rituals Lakshmi is invariably invoked as Mahalakshmi.

Lakshmi as Vishnu's consort : now a unanimous position

Now Lakshmi's status as Vishnu's consort is unanimously accepted. Initially the goddess seems to have been two-armed

 
Goddess Lakshmi

but subsequently she began having four arms - ordinarily, votive images being four-armed, and aesthetic, two-armed. Except in some classical forms in Lakshmi-Narayana imagery Lakshmi is ordinarily two-armed. When Lakshmi enshrines a sanctum independently she has a four-armed form.

 
Large Size Goddess Lakshmi

Whatever Vishnu's authority he is Narayana only when Lakshmi is along him. Except Badrinatha like few pithas - shrines, that Vishnu enshrines independently, as also in other forms such as Shesh-sayana or Shesh-sayi, in Commander's disposition or in Yogasana, most of his sanctum images are along Lakshmi, obviously as Lakshmi-Narayana. In Shesh-sayana imagery she is often represented as massaging his feet. In such icons she is invariably two-armed.

 
Sheshasayi Vishnu with Lakshmi Ji

Incarnation theory is the crux of Vaishnavism. Vishnu incarnates alone but Lakshmi also incarnates in simultaneity. When he incarnates as Rama, Lakshmi incarnates as Sita,

 
Lord Rama with Sita

and when as Krishna Lakshmi incarnates as Radha.

 
Large Size Dancing Radha-Krishna

As Rama, Vishnu was required to eliminate Ravana and the ranks of his demons, Sita leads to accomplish that end; as Krishna, Vishnu was required to lead to the path of devotion through love. Krishna could not accomplish it without Radha. Krishna also eliminates numerous demons but not being his primary objective Radha is not his partner in his act of demon-eliminating.

Model of beauty

The model of supreme beauty, images of Lakshmi are always lavishly bejeweled, richly costumed and elegantly crowned.

 
Goddess Lakshmi Standing on Lotus Pedestal with Elephant Diyas

She is endowed with unearthly beauty and timeless youth which also reflect in her imagery. Her presence is always graceful and benign. The supreme good incarnate, she invariably carries a full blown lotus, sometimes more than one.

 
Standing Goddess Lakshmi

Lotus is in Indian tradition the symbol of good and auspice. She is often seen as sitting on a lotus seat and sometimes also bears a garland of fresh lotus flowers. Lakshmi has her own system of symbols. In her iconography pot symbolizes the earth and the riches that the earth contains, and the lotus, besides good and auspicious, also growth, grace and beauty. 'Abhaya' is the usual gesture of the goddess; on the other hand, 'varada' is far rarer perhaps because she assures abundance and a happy life, not so much the release from it. 'Abhaya' imparts fearlessness but in her imagery it stands for assurance of a happy prosperous life.

Lakshmi in Vishnu's Ardhanarishvara imagery

Though very rare some enthused artists have conceived on Ardhanarishvara line also Vishnu's Ardhanarishvara images. In such images Vishnu's left half consists of Lakshmi's left half. In such images Lakshmi has a normal two-armed form with one arm visible. Such form is relatively plain though with appropriate jewelry and costume well distinguished from the other half. This left half does not have such towering crown as has the other half. Vishnu's Ardhanarishvara images are reported mostly in paintings; such form is not reported so far in sculptures or statues in any medium. She is also represented through a few of Tantric diagrams. Sri, Padmavati, Kamala, Dharini, Vaishnavi, Narayani are some other names of Lakshmi. She has been named Padmavati and Kamala after lotus, Dharini, after the mother earth, and Vaishnavi and Narayani, after her consort Vishnu who is also Narayana.

 
Lakshmi in Ardhapurusha Rupa (The Vaishnava Ardhanarishvara Form)

Lakshmi as Padmavati

Padmavati is Lakshmi's transform popularly worshipped in South. The four-armed tall goddess is the enshrining principal deity of many temples in Southern part of the country. She is as popular as Vishnu himself. Unlike Lakshmi-Narayana imagery Padmavati enshrines the sanctum independently without Vishnu. Vishnu-like standing image of Padmavati bears a Vishnu-like towering crown and Vaijayanti and carries lotuses in her hands. The Padma Purana carries a legend as to how deserting Baikuntha Lakshmi reached South and settled there forever.

 
Devi Lakshmi as Padmavati

According to Padma Purana gods wished to settle the dispute as to who among Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma had a superior position and prayed sage Bhragu to decide. Before giving a judgment sage Bhragu decided to personally visit the Great Trio. He first went to Shiva, but busy in cajoling Parvati he did not pay attention to him. Brahma was rather rude, but Bhragu lost his temper when he found Vishnu asleep. The angry sage hit him on his chest with his leg. Vishnu, instead of punishing the sage, only apologized for being asleep. He decided to hold forever the mark of his leg on his chest as Shrivatsa which later became the symbolic identity of Vishnu's images. Lakshmi who was in the bed along him felt insulted and abandoned Vishnu and his Baikuntha. Unable to bear separation Vishnu also left Baikuntha and descended on the earth. After yugas - cosmic ages, of repentance and yearning, one day Vishnu realized that like a lotus Lakshmi was sprouting within him and thus the two were re-united. This spiritual realization of Vishnu was consecrated as Padmavati. Padmavati was, thus, Vishnu's spiritual realization, not a physically manifesting form.

 
Devi Padmavati

Sriniwas, literally meaning one in whose heart Sri dwells, is one of Vishnu's names in South. It suggests that Lakshmi as Padmavati is a spiritual entity, not a physically manifesting form, that dwells in Vishnu's heart. The symbolism goes further. Lakshmi who had a physically manifesting form had already deserted him after the Bhragu incident and never returned. It was Padmavati who lotus-like sprouted within and was Vishnu's spouse by realization. She was thus part of Vishnu but was also a divine entity by herself and is, hence worshipped with him but also independently. It is different with Lakshmi. The legendary king who had found Vishnu from under the earth and built for him the world-wide known Venkateshvara temple could see Vishnu alone, not Lakshmi dwelling within his heart as she was Vishnu's spiritual realization. Shrines devoted to her independently in the north are very few. In most other Vaishnava shrines, she shares sanctums with Vishnu. In South she is the deity in her own right and is independently worshipped.


For Further Reference:

  1. Rigveda : (ed.) Vishvabandhu : Vishveshvananda Vedic Research Institute, Hoshiyarpur
  2. Atharva-Veda Vishvabandhu : Vishveshvananda Vedic Research Institute, Hoshiyarpur
  3. Padma Purana : Venkateshvara Press, Bombay
  4. Neeta Yadav : Ardhanarishvara in Art and Literature : New Delhi
  5. O. P. Mishra : The Mother Goddess in Central India : New Delhi
  6. Shrimad Devi Bhagavata, Chaukhambha Sanskrit Pratishthan, Delhi
  7. Devimahatmyam, tr. By Devadatta Kali, Delhi
  8. Menzies, Jackie : Goddess, Divine Energy, Art Gallery, NSW
  9. Kinsley, David : Hindu Goddesses, Delhi
  10. Rosen, Steven J. (ed) : Vaishnavi, Delhi
  11. Vishnupurana : Bombay, 1889; Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1980.
  12. P. C. Jain & Usha Bhatia : The Magic of Indian Miniatures
  13. Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain : Krishna : Raga se Viraga Tak
  14. Suvira Jaiswal : Origins and Development of Vaishnavism
  15. D. O. Flaherty : Hindu Myths
  16. Devdatta Pattanaik : Vishnu