While the great goddess as a cosmic force may be a deity of compelling dynamism and fearsome power, it is in the guise of the gentle and beneficent giver of the devotees’ desires, that the female divinities of India first appeared. This role of the goddess as one who fulfills wishes has remained one of enduring strength and consequence. In the ancient collection of sacred hymns known as the Veda, this aspect of the goddess already becomes manifest. The two most shining examples in this context are The Great Goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Goddess Lakshmi, also known as Shri, is personified not only as the goddess of fortune and wealth but also as an embodiment of loveliness, grace and charm. She is worshipped as a goddess who grants both worldly prosperity as well as liberation from the cycle of life and death.
Lore has it that Lakshmi arose out of the sea of milk, the primordial cosmic ocean, bearing a red lotus in her hand. Each member of the divine triad- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (creator, preserver and destroyer respectively)- wanted to have her for himself. Shiva’s claim was refused for he had already claimed the Moon, Brahma had Saraswati, so Vishnu claimed her and she was born and reborn as his consort during all of his ten incarnations.
A few texts say that Lakshmi is the wife of Dharma. She and several other goddesses, all of whom are personifications of certain auspicious qualities, are said to have been given to Dharma in marriage. This association seems primarily to represent a thinly disguised “wedding” of Dharma (virtuous conduct) with Lakshmi (prosperity and well-being). The point of the association seems to be to teach that by performing Dharma one obtains prosperity.
Tradition also associates Lakshmi with Kubera, the ugly lord of the Yakshas. The Yakshas were a race of supernatural creatures who lived outside the pale of civilization. Their connection with Lakshmi perhaps springs from the fact that they were notable for a propensity for collecting, guarding and distributing wealth. Association with Kubera deepens the aura of mystery and underworld connections that attaches itself to Lakshmi. Yakshas are also symbolic of fertility. The Yakshinis (female Yakshas) depicted often in temple sculpture are full-breasted and big-hipped women with wide generous mouths, leaning seductively against trees. The identification of Shri, the goddess who embodies the potent power of growth, with the Yakshas is natural. She, like them, involves, and reveals herself in the irrepressible fecundity of plant life, as exemplified in the legend of Shiva and the Bael fruit narrated above, and also in her association with the lotus, to be described later.
An interesting and fully developed association is between Lakshmi and the god Indra. Indra is traditionally known as the king of the gods, the foremost of the gods, and he is typically described as a heavenly king. It is therefore appropriate for Shri-Lakshmi to be associated with him as his wife or consort. In these myths she appears as the embodiment of royal authority, as a being whose presence is essential for the effective wielding of royal power and the creation of royal prosperity.
Several myths of this genre describe Shri-Lakshmi as leaving one ruler for another. She is said, for example, to dwell even with a demon named Bali. The concerned legend makes clear the union between Lakshmi and victorious kings. According to this legend Bali defeats Indra. Lakshmi is attracted to Bali’s winning ways and bravery and joins him along with her attendant auspicious virtues. In association with the propitious goddess, Bali rules the three worlds (earth, heavens and the nether-worlds) with virtue, and under his rule there is prosperity all around. Only when the dethroned gods managed to trick Bali into surrendering does Shri-Lakshmi depart from Bali, leaving him lusterless and powerless. Along with Lakshmi, the following qualities depart from Bali: good conduct, virtuous behavior, truth, activity and strength.
Lakshmi’s association with so many different male deities and with the notorious fleetingness of good fortune earned her a reputation for fickleness and inconstancy. In one text she is said to be so unsteady that even in a picture she moves and that if she sticks with Vishnu it is only because she is attracted to his many different forms (avataras)! She is thus also known as ‘Chanchala’, or the restless one.
Her notorious fickleness has convinced her devotees that she may desert them at the slightest pretext. They have thus devised numerous ingenious strategies to retain Lakshmi, and thus prosperity in their establishments. One such sect is known to offer only the worst netlike fabric as vastra (clothing) to Lakshmi; for they say, ‘It is much easier for Goddess Lakshmi to abandon our houses clad in ample folds of cloth rather than scantily dressed in the minimum fabric we offer to her as garment’!
In a mythological sense her fickleness and adventurous nature slowly begin to change once she is identified totally with Vishnu, and finally becomes still. She then becomes the steadfast, obedient and loyal wife who vows to reunite with her husband in all his next lives. As the cook at the Jagannatha temple in Puri, she prepares food for her lord and his devotees. In the famous paintings on the walls of the Badami caves in central India, she sits on the ground near where her lord reclines upon a throne, leaning on him; a model of social decorum and correctitude.
Physically Goddess Lakshmi is described as a fair lady, with four arms, seated on a lotus, dressed in fine garments and precious jewels. She has a benign countenance, is in her full youth and yet has a motherly appearance.
The most striking feature of the iconography of Lakshmi is her persistent association with the lotus. The meaning of the lotus in relation to Shri-Lakshmi refers to purity and spiritual power. Rooted in the mud but blossoming above the water, completely uncontaminated by the mud, the lotus represents spiritual perfection and authority. Furthermore, the lotus seat is a common motif in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. The gods and goddesses, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, typically sit or stand upon a lotus, which suggests their spiritual authority. To be seated upon or to be otherwise associated with the lotus suggests that the being in question: God, Buddha, or human being-has transcended the limitations of the finite world (the mud of existence, as it were) and floats freely in a sphere of purity and spirituality. Shri-Lakshmi thus suggests more than the fertilizing powers of moist soil and the mysterious powers of growth. She suggests a perfection or state of refinement that transcends the material world. She is associated not only with the royal authority but with also spiritual authority, and she combines royal and priestly powers in her presence. The lotus, and the goddess Lakshmi by association, represents the fully developed blossoming of organic life.
No description of Goddess Lakshmi can be complete without a mention of her traditionally accepted vehicle, the owl. Now, the owl (Ulooka in Sanskrit), is a bird that sleeps through the day and prowls through the night. In a humorous vein it is said that owing to its lethargic and dull nature the Goddess takes it for a ride! She is the handmaiden of those who know how to control it; how to make best use of her resources, like the Lord Vishnu. But those who blindly worship her are verily the owls or ‘Ulookas’. The choice is ours: whether we wish to be Lord Vishnu or the ‘Ulooka’ in our association with Lakshmi.