Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity, fortune, wealth and beauty. We shouldn’t get bogged down in semantics. Devi has many manifestations—as in Maha Lakshmi, Maha Sarasvati and Maha Kali, identified respectively with Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Lakshmi is the same as Shri. A suktam is a hymn of praise and one of the earliest, dedicated to Shri, is from the khila portions (appendices) to the Rig Veda. This Shri suktam is often sung. Let me translate a few verses. “Her complexion is golden. Her image is golden. She wears gold and silver garlands. She is like a golden moon. O fire! Invoke that Lakshmi for me. Invoke for me that Lakshmi whose arrival is not futile. Through her, I will obtain gold, cattle, horses and men. She is seated on a lotus. Her complexion is like that of a lotus. I invoke that Shri. Through her favours, let the Alakshmi in me be destroyed.” Lakshmi is prosperity and good fortune. Alakshmi, described as Lakshmi’s older sister, is adversity and misfortune. Rama, the one who delights, is another name for Lakshmi or Shri. Lakshmi’s iconography is familiar to most of us. As the quote from Shri suktam suggests, she will be golden in complexion. She will be seated (or standing) on a lotus. When seated, she will be in the lotus posture (padmasana).
Lakshmi has been worshipped for thousands of years. There are sculptures, paintings and textual references. There are many temples, specifically for Lakshmi. As is but natural, the iconography is not standardised. Sometimes, she will have 18 arms. More common is four arms. We often miss the symbolism associated with iconography. Four arms stand for dharma, artha, kama and moksha, the four objectives of human existence (purusharthas). Moksha means mukti or liberation, freedom from the worldly cycle of human existence, or samsara. Rare is the person who will aspire for moksha and get it. It is important to stress this, since an unnecessary notion floats around that Hinduism abhors worldly and material wealth and is only about the other world. That moksha dharma or the pursuit of adhyatma is for the rare person. The others are stuck in this samsara, pursuing dharma, artha and kama, referred to as trivarga, or three objectives. The dharma template has many dimensions, with nitya (daily), naimittika (special occasions) and kamya (for a desired objective) rites and varnashrama dharma. Kama is about sensual pleasures, not sex alone. It is ridiculous that we have reduced our understanding of Vatsayayana’s Kamasutra to physical positions. Artha is also broader than material wealth alone. The texts say there has to be equilibrium between the pursuits of dharma, artha and kama. No single one should be pursued to excess.
Devi, or Lakshmi, is not born. But she manifests herself in different forms in different eras. One such manifestation was at the time of the churning of the ocean (samudra manthana). Using Mount Mandara as a churning-rod and Vasuki as the churning-rope, devas and asuras churned the milky ocean for amrita. Other than Dhanvantari, who arose with the pot of amrita, there were many treasures that arose as a result of the churning. The lists vary a bit. But in all those lists, there will be a mention of Lakshmi. There is a place on Vishnu’s chest known as Shrivatsa, the place where Shri resides. Lakshmi arose and occupied that spot.
Lakshmi is prosperity and good fortune. Lakshmi’s iconography is familiar to most of us. She will be golden in complexion. She will be seated (or standing) on a lotus. When seated, she will be in the lotus posture (padmasana)
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Just as Devi has many manifestations, of which one is Lakshmi, Lakshmi also has many manifestations. One such is Ashta Lakshmi, the eight forms that Lakshmi takes. The list is again not standardised. But, in all probability, will include Aishvarya Lakshmi (prosperity in general), Soubhagya Lakshmi (good fortune), Gaja Lakshmi (elephants, indicative of wealth in the form of animals), Dhairya Lakshmi (fortitude), Dhana Lakshmi (wealth), Dhanya Lakshmi (grain), Vijaya Lakshmi (for victory) and Rajya Lakshmi (prosperity in the form a kingdom). This makes it obvious that artha can take many forms. The iconography for all these different forms of Lakshmi varies. But for all, one hand will be in varada mudra (the posture for granting of boons), while another will be in abhaya mudra (the posture for granting freedom from fear). In the Gaja Lakshmi form, two elephants will sprinkle her with water.
All devas and devis have many names. Other than Shri, the most common names for Lakshmi are Padma and Kamala, both references to her being seated on a lotus. (Lakshmi is seated on a red lotus, while Sarasvati is seated on a white lotus. Incidentally, there are also different manifestations as Shridevi and Bhudevi.) She is also described as Chanchala, which means that she is fickle. If you do not please her, she will move away and Alakshmi will step in instead. In different parts of India, Lakshmi is worshipped at different times. In many parts, Lakshmi is worshipped on the night of Deepavali, that is, amavasya. But in the eastern parts, Lakshmi is worshipped on purnima, five days after Vijaya Dashami. This is known as Kojagari Lakshmi Puja. Lakshmi will come and knock at the door, asking “Who is awake?” (That’s the meaning of Kojagari.) If householders are asleep, she will ignore the house and go away, her Chanchala attribute. Traditionally, harvests were a time for wealth and prosperity. That’s the reason there are many such festivals at the time of spring and autumn harvests, and the autumn harvest is a time for Lakshmi Puja. Most of us are familiar with the idea of Shakti Peethas, the places where parts of Sati’s body fell after Daksha’s sacrifice. The list of Shakti Peethas varies from four to 108. Some of these, like Karavira, Siddhavana, Kolhapura or Varanasi, are the ones where Devi assumes the name of Lakshmi, though descriptions vary from one text to another. I said that the devas and devis have many names. Accordingly, texts have sahasranamas (hymns with one thousand names of the deva or devi). Most of us have heard of Vishnu sahasranama, Shiva sahasranama or Lalita sahasranama. There is a Lakshmi sahasranama too. It can be found in Skanda Purana, the longest of the Puranas.
The most common names for Lakshmi are Padma and Kamala, both references to her being seated on a lotus. She is also described as Chanchala, which means that she is fickle. If you do not please her, she will move away and Alakshmi will step in instead
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What of Lakshmi’s mount? All devas and devis have specific mounts. We will immediately say owl, signifying patience and wisdom. But like much else, mounts and iconography have evolved. Earlier, there were many depictions of Lakshmi with a lion as a mount. Her being clad in red is also indicative of prosperity. Lakshmi is also one of the nine forms of Durga (Navadurga), as she is of one of the 10 Mahavidyas, in her form as Kamala.
There are different ways to think of Lakshmi and her worship. Every morning, many still recite, “Karagre vasate Lakshmi, karamadhye Sarasvati,” or some variant of this. “Lakshmi resides in the tips of the hand, Sarasvati in the centre of the hand.” One can think of her worship as the worship of Devi in one of her manifestations, as part of the trinity of Lakshmi, Sarasvati or Kali. One can think of her worship as the pursuit of adhyatma, with a Shri yantra or Lakshmi yantra being used to facilitate the process. For those who do not know, there is a Gayatri mantra specific to Lakshmi. Or one can worship Lakshmi in the limited sense of the pursuit of artha at that particular time in autumn. The last is also acceptable, even the making of a ritual and fetish out of it. But it is also worth remembering what Lakshmi Puja actually stands for.
Let me end with quoting from Shri suktam again. “Horses precede her, and she is seated in a chariot in the middle. She is woken up by the trumpeting of elephants. I invoke Devi Shri. May Devi Shri be pleased with me. Who is she, the smiling one? There is a tender golden glow around her. She blazes. She is satisfied, and she is the one who satisfies. In thoughts, wishes, intentions and words, I truly try to reach. Shri will abide with me in the form of animals, beauty, food and prosperity.” There is nothing more that needs to be said.