ON THE THIRD floor of the Philadelphia Museum, there is a 1,200-year-old wooden sculpture of a female who, with closed robe and bunned hair, looks traditionally Japanese. The indication that she is a deity comes from the hands, one crooks downwards with palm facing front and the other makes a right angle at the elbow, palm facing up. She is Kisshōten, a goddess, among other things, of fortune and fertility. The description of the sculpture by the museum gives her Chinese antecedents: “She appeared in both painted and carved form as a Chinese beauty in the Tang dynasty style. The V-neck robe with its long, wide sleeves is tied at the waist with a ribbon, part of an apron-like front that forms a short panel at the back, and has three flowing scarf ends protruding at either side…The hairstyle is also in the Chinese style, with a flattened chignon at the top.” This was because a century or so before the sculpture was made Chinese monks began to come to Japan bringing Buddhist ideas, artefacts and craftsmen. Kisshōten was part of that cultural transport. Then, of course, history marched on until centuries of colonialism later she found herself in the US. Kisshōten, as it turns out, has her original home in yet another land, India. She is a Japanese version of Sri Lakshmi, the same goddess that on Diwali Hindus will make it a point to propitiate because their material wellbeing is tied to it.
The journey of Lakshmi, who now straddles continents in many forms, in fact, begins as a word. The oldest book that Hinduism knows of, the Rig Veda, has as many deities as the forces of nature, but Lakshmi is not there. “Sri” is an earlier appellation of the goddess but in the Rig, even though Sri is present, it is not as a deity but a quality. In his book Hindu Goddesses, David Kinsley writes: “The goddess Sri-Laksmi does not appear in the earliest Vedic literature. The term sri, however, does occur quite often, and it is clear that the meanings of the term are related to the nature of the later goddess Sri-Laksmi. As used in the Vedic hymns the term suggests capability, power, and advantageous skills. As an external quality sri suggests beauty, luster, glory, and high rank. The term is especially used in later Vedic literature to refer to the ruling power, dominion, and majesty of kings.”
The ensuing elevation to divinity is evident in a hymn called ‘Sri Sukta’ in one of the Rig Veda appendices, added later in a period when other scripture like the Brahmanas were being composed. It is the first or the earliest hymn traceable to her. A translation of a verse in the book Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition by Thomas Coburn goes thus: “That Laksmi who has the color of gold, yellowish, with a gold and silver garland,/Glittering, (and) consisting of gold, may you lead unto me, O Jatavedas (Agni)./May you lead unto me, O Jatavedas, that unceasing Laksmi/In whom I may find gold, cattle, horses, (and) men./She who is accompanied by horses, in the center of a chariot, delighting in the elephant’s roar,/The goddess Sri do I invoke; may the goddess Sri be pleased with me.” Sri was thus both becoming goddess and also synonymous with Laksmi. We now associate her with wealth in the sense of the modern world—profits, assets etc—but when society was largely agricultural, prosperity meant good crops and that is why Lakshmi was the goddess of fertility too. That is why the same hymn also has this portion which suggests a prayer a farmer would make: “She who is perceptible through her odor, hard to overcome, the eternal fertilizer…”
Note also that in the hymn the god being asked to bring the goddess is Jatavedas or Agni. Lakshmi, as we know her today, is the consort of Vishnu. How is it then that another god is being asked to do the bidding? Because Lakshmi wasn’t always exclusively Vishnu’s wife. This, scholars attribute to happening somewhere around the fourth century. Until then, a number of male deities are partnered with her. There is Indra, Soma, Dharma, Kubera and even the demon king Bali. A logic follows in these associations. Indra, for instance, is the lord of the rains and she is the goddess of fertility, both of which go together for abundance in crops. Kubera is a deity of wealth and she too is. And that she should drift from god to god is also in keeping with the essential characteristic of fortune—it comes and goes. Her nature however changes after the identification with Vishnu. Kinsley writes: “Sri-Laksmi’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 associates with Visnu it is only because she is attracted to his many different forms (avataras). By the late epic period (ca. A.D. 400), however, Sri-Laksmi becomes consistently and almost exclusively associated with Visnu; as his wife she becomes characterized by steadfastness. It is as if in Visnu she has finally found the god she was looking for and, having found him, has remained loyal to him ever since.”
WHEN THE Bhakti movement happens in Hinduism and Vishnu becomes ever more popular, she too is seamlessly co-opted into his aura, emerging both in her own right as a deity that is very beneficial to propitiate and even as a medium between the devotee and him. Her natural constituency were traders and, later businessmen, who pursue wealth and associate it with her munificence but is there anyone who doesn’t desire prosperity? She is now perpetual in temples, either of her own or as a gatekeeper of others. This is an attribute she shares with another popular deity, Ganesha, and both are still often venerated simultaneously. Lakshmi’s proximity to elephants is even otherwise as old as her own ancient past. Coins dating back 2,000 years have her flanked by two elephants, a form of hers known as Gaja Lakshmi. Even earlier than that, in reliefs of that ancient Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, she appears seated on a lotus, again with two elephants on her sides. This is interesting because the Buddhist faith was predicated on not being attached to possessions. In theory, they shouldn’t take to her but probably because her popularity was so high that they had no choice. As OP Singh writes in The Iconography of Gaja-Lakshmi: “The Buddhist literature shows scant respect to her because Buddhism laid a greater stress on the idea of liberality than possession. The propagator of this religious movement tried to detach the general public from Lakshmi. But her worship continued. Her cult finds place in the Minlindapanho. The Brahmajala Sutta prohibits the worship of the goddess. However, the early Buddhist art could not be influenced by such taboos, and the motif of Sri-Lakshmi or Gajalakshmi was freely employed in the Bharhut and Sanchi art.”
When Diwali happens this year, Lakshmi will be one of the key goddesses worshipped and even the tools of that process can keep evolving. Earlier, for instance, businessmen used to do a puja of their accounting books but then software made those redundant. Many however still have token books that they keep only for this worship. And then there are others who just use their laptops to do it. Another rite is to draw footprints at the entrance of the house as if to welcome her in. Now those who don’t want to make the effort just purchase stickers available online, yet another instance of how technology marches in step with prayer. There is a purpose to such symbolism. The performing of Lakshmi Puja is an invitation to the goddess to come and conditions that please her must therefore be met. The household must be cleaned, the bodies bathed, the clothing wholesome, the house fragrant with flowers. In her book Invoking Lakshmi, on the forms of this ritual, Constantina Rhodes writes: “Laksmi puja features gold coins, ripe, sweet fruits, fresh flowers, sanctified water, fragrant substances, and delectable confections of honey, sugar, and milk-based ingredients—milk, of course, being the product of the sacred cow, long recognized as an embodiment of Laksmi. The atmosphere generated is sumptuous and sparkling, bright with the colors of red vermilion powder, golden turmeric, and fresh green leaves. These symbolize Laksmi’s life-sustaining power as the flow of blood in the human body, the flow of monetary currency in society, and the flow of sap in all types of plants as they sustain the natural world with nourishment, medicine, shelter, refreshment, and beauty.”
And the flow never ebbs because the goddess herself is always in step with the people that worship her.