The benevolent and beautiful goddess Sri, commonly known as Lakshmi has for three millenniums been among the most popular of Indian divinities. The spouse or the Sakti of the great god Vishnu, she has not generally received the same devotion as that accorded to her Saivite counterparts-Parvati or Durga, Yet she remains an important element in the religious life of Hinduism and her images and pictures are to be found in many Hindu homes; for she is the bringer of good fortune in all practical enterprises and the bestower of health and security on her worshipers.
As a distinct goddesses, Sri and Lakshmi regarded as two originally distinct deities, occur, at the earliest in the Vajasneyi Samhita of Yajurveda, where they are called the consort of the Purusha. In the Upanishads that Sri and Lakshmi, the two discrete deities, tended to merge with each other. They gradually became synonymous and their worship fully syncretised as is clear from the Sri-sukta. The most detailed and one of the earliest pictures of Sri-Lakshmi in Vedic literature is found in the Sri-sukta, a hymn in praises of Sri which is part of an appendix to the Rig-veda, Sri in invoked to bring fame and prosperity said to be bountiful and to give abundance. In the Sri-Sukta she is described as moist, perceptible through odor abundant in harvest, and dwelling in cow dung. Her son is said to be Kardama, which means mud, mire or slime. Clearly, Sri is associated with growth and the fecundity of moist. Her presence is affirmed to be discernible, in the mysterious potency of the earth.
The goddess Sri has been known in the Hindu tradition since pre-Buddh ist times. She is one of the most popular goddesses of the Hindu pantheon and is widely worshiped by Hindus throughout India to this day. Since the late epic period (ca A.D 400) she has been particularly consociated with the god Vishnu as his consort. Throughout her historicity Sri has been associated with prosperity, well-being, royalty and illustriousness. Sri suggests a refined state of perfection that goes par the material world. Right from the earliest times, she is associated with not only with royal authority but with spiritual ascendance as well and she coalesces royal and sacerdotal exponents in her presence.
In one of Her earliest representations Goddess Lakshmi is frequently found on tribal coins as Gaja-Laksmi, where she is seen standing (barely seated) being bathed by two elephants. It appears on uninscribed coins from Kausambi (3rd Century BCE), Ujjayini (2nd-3rd century BCE) and also on Ayodhya Coins ( 1st century BCE). Such was the popularity of this deity that many foreigner rulers of Northern India like Azilises, Rajuvula and Sodasa adopted it on their coins.
Sanchi Stupa no 2, Raisen District, Madhya Pradesh
At Sanchi relief carving Goddess Sri-Lakshmi is shown either seated on full-blown lotuses or standing on a lotus with a lotus flower in her hand. Goddess Lakshmi , without the attendant elephants, either seated on a full blossomed lotus or standing with a lotus flower in her hands, very often can be seen on the coins of Ujjayini, on those of the Hindu kings like Brahmanmitra, Dhritamitra, Suryamitra, Parasudatta and Uttamdatta. Goddess can be seen on the coins of the Satrapas of Mathura like Sivadattt , Hagamasa, Rajuvula and Sodasa and also on the coins of Rajnya Janpada and on the coins of Bhadragosha of Panchala.
In one of her earliest representations Goddess Lakshmi is frequently found on tribal coins as Gaja-Laksmi, where she is seen standing (barely seated) being bathed by two elephants. It appears on uninscribed coins from Kausambi (3rd Century BCE), Ujjayini (2nd-3rd century BCE) and also on Ayodhya Coins (1st century BCE). Such was the popularity of this deity that many foreigner rulers of Northern India like Azilises, Rajuvula and Sodasa adopted it on their coins.
Sri-Laksmi very befittingly occurs on numerous sealing excavated from Vaisali and Bhita, although with striking variants. Here, Sri-lakshmi decked up as Gaja-Lakshmi is standing in a 'Padmavana'- the forest of lotuses, without any attendants. Gaja-Lakshmi in her left hand holding the stalk of a sex petaaled flower two elephants pouring water over her.
Sri-Laskhmi with a great deal of exoneration, can be identified with yakshni Ashvamukhi-the city deity of Pushkalavati, with a very long equine head. The reason of this comparative assertion is not just the befitting phyisical description provided in iconographic text but the underlying fact that both have been associated with wealth and prosperity.
The representation of Sri-Lakshmi in Indian art from the earliest known times onwards has followed several modes.The Sanchi artist depict her almost in identical pose seating in a peculiar pose on the raised pericarp of a lotus flower carved on a section of fragmentary coping stone, lotus designs all around her. Alhough she is shown sometimes standing in a lotus wood (Padma-vana)
Iconographic texts bearing the statement of the goddess Sri-Lakshmi, cites to her two, four and many-armed varieties but the two armed type specimens are more common and the attributes placed in her hands are usually two are four following (at least in later periods): a lotus flower, a wood-apple ( Sriphala), the fruit of the vilva tree, a shield, and a club peculiar to Vishnu. Well-neigh all the texts expatiating on the iconography of Sri-Lakshmi describe her as well-dressed decked up with various ornaments, having such physical traits as fully developed breasts, a narrow waist and heavy bosom-all indicative of radiant and healthy motherhood wherin lies the real beauty of a female, as described in text named 'Nyagrodha-parimandala'.
Sri-Lakshmi is also associated with the yaksha god Kubera-the possessor and conferrer of wealth. Sri’s relationship with Kubera is significant in so far each of them is preeminently associated with prosperity and wealth. Wherever wealth and abundance are, one or the deity, and in most cases both, is certain to be found. Further, Sri’s association with Kubera also accentuates her identity with the mystical powers of growth and fertility as yakshas often play the part of fertility symbols in Indian art and generally are associated iconographically with vegetation and growth. Hence the association of Sri-Laxmi, the goddess who embodies the potent power of growth, yakshas is natural; for she involves and reveals herself in the irrepressible fecundity of plant-life.
Some very fascinating sculptural specimens from Sanchi, depict Sr-Lakshmi standing in the midst of of a group of vegetation, here attendants and the elephants are absent. The attire and the attitude of the goddess reminds us of yaksha and yakshini from central India who are dressed similarly . Goddess seen wearing an ornate kundala in earlobes and an elaborate mekhala (waistband).
Sri has been associated with many male gods, Vishnu being the most prominent one. By the late epic period ( ca. A.D. 400) Sri-Lakshmi becomes consistently and almost exclusively associated with Vishnu, as his wife. Mythologically Sri-Lakshmi’s association with Vishnu comes about in the context of the churning milk ocean by the gods and demons who seek the elixir of immortality. The relationship of Sri with Vishnu seems appropriate in the context and at a general symbolic level in several ways. Vishnu, maintains order on earth, through certain human agents and Sri bestows on these human beings her royal power, prosperity and fertility, enabling them be effective maintainers of divine cosmic scheme. As the great cosmic queen, she refulgences a teeming vitality animating her presence with Vishnu that gave birth inexhaustibly to life. Without loosing the grandeur of a model Hindu wife, she is more involved in the order of dharma that Vishnu-her husband creates and oversees, thus she emerges as the world-maintainer as well.
One of the most popular representations of Sri-Lakshmi depict her flanked by two elephants in what is commonly known as Gaja-Lakshmi images. Devi is seen either seated on a lotus seat or standing holding the lotus stem. Two elephants shower her with water from their trunks or empty pots of water her.
Sri-Lakshmi and her associated with elephants finds attestation in an ancient Hindu tradition that elaborates that the elephants first were clouds with wings and showered the earth with rain wherever they went. However, cursed by a sage upon interrupting his meditation, elephants lost their wings and had to remain earthbound. But they are still regarded as the carrier of the rain and fertilization. The flanking, showering elephants in Sri-Lakshmi iconography reinforce goddess’s association with fertility of crops and the sap of existence. Henceforth, where Lakshmi is, there elephants are and where elephants are, there is abundant fertilizing potency of rain. Secondly, elephants also suggest royal authority, strong army artillery and ceremonial processions. It is interesting to see how two different aspects- the kingship and the elephants are amalgamated together in the imagery of Sri-Lakshmi; royal authority and fertility.
One of the most striking features of the iconography of Sri is her persistent association with the lotus. She dwells on the lotus, indeed, in a ‘forest of lotuses’ and lotuses are all about her. She shares their hue, in particular, their fragrance, for the scent of the lotus is inseparable from its source as is Sri’s grace from Sri herself. Although Sri is all pervasive, latent in everything, she manifests herself only in auspicious places, of which the lotus itself is the great exemplar. At Sanchi relief carvings Goddess Sri-Lakshmi is shown either seated on full-blown lotuses or standing on a lotus with a lotus flower in her hand. Alternatively she mat sit or stand on a pot filled with live-giving water, sometimes treated as a vase for lotuses and sometimes the pot itself. Generally her postures are in sampada: she stands symmetrically with both legs straight and with her right arm arranged in a complementary manner.
Sri-Lakshmi is seated on a lotus, appear like a lotus, is covered with lotuses, and wears a garland of lotuses. Due to this is often called Padma and Kamala. The meaning of the lotus in relation to goddess Sri-Laksmi pertains to purity and spiritual supremacy. Having roots in the mud, but blooming above the miry water, the lotus represents spiritual perfection and dominance. Hence, a popular motif in Hindu and Buddhist iconography is the lotus-seat.
Reflecting her voluminous prominence in religious and social orders, several texts locate Sri-Laksmi's mien in righteous behavior, epitome of orderly conduct and perfect social observance. In Mahabharata she declares: " I dwell in truth, gift, vow, austerity, strength, and virtue."
In wedlock with Vishnu, Sr-Lakshmi personages a alluring picture of martial contentment, domestic order and satisfying cooperation yet portrays a bounteous self-sufficient independence. Most iconographic representations depict the couple as a smiling, happy pair, often shown embracing each other. Sometimes the two are seen holding hands and frequently shown gazing into each others eyes, specially in the images of Lakshmi-Narayana type-Lakshmi is regularly depicted seated on Vishnu's left thigh as Vamangini, her left hand around his neck while his left arm enriches her waist. The intimacy of the two , their underlying unity is vividly presented in sculptural narratives of Indian art. Vishnu is said to be speech ( Vak) and Sri-Lakshmi his meaning, he is understanding, she is intellect; he is the creator, she is the creation; she is the earth, he is the support of the earth, she is a creeping vine, he is the tree to which she clings; he is one with all males, and she is one with all females, He is love and she is joy!
Sri-sukta describes Her as:
“Hirnyyavarna Harini suvarnaarajatashram Chandra hirannyamayi Lakshmi jatvedo mam vah ( O Jatavedo, Invoke for me that Lakshmi- Who is of Golden Colour, Beautiful and Adorned with Gold and Silver Garlands, Who is like the Moon with a Golden Aura, Who is Lakshmi, the Embodiment of Sri; O Jatavedo, please Invoke for Me that Lakshmi)"
An important feature of Sri in this hymn is her association with fertility, a feature that was not significantly emphasized in earlier usages of the term Sri in Vedic literature. In the Sri-Sukta she is described as moist, perceptible through odor abundant in harvest, and dwelling in cow dung. Her son is said to be Kardama, which means mud, mire or slime. Clearly, Sri is associated with growth and the fecundity of moist. Her presence is affirmed to be discernible, in the mysterious potency of the earth. Although Sri association with agricultural fertility doesn’t find a central role in Eastern religion, this aspect of Sri remains in vogue to this day. Village women in North India are observed to worship Sri in form of cow dung on the occasion of Govardhan-Puja that is observed two days after Dipavali-festival and this form of worship also well attested in Nilamata-purana.
The earliest myth that speaks of Sri as a goddess, personifies her as the embodiment of auspicious and royal qualities. She is believed to be born as a result of the austerities of Prajapati. In later-Vedic literature Sri is used to refer the high rank, luster, glory, dominion and majesty of kings. As distinct goddesses, Sri and Lakshmi regarded as two originally distinct deities, occur, at the earliest in the Vajasneyi Samhita of Yajurveda, where they are called the consort of the Purusha. In the Upanishads that Sri and Lakshmi, the two discrete deities, tended to merge with each other. They gradually became synonymous and their worship fully syncretised as is clear from the Sri-sukta. The most detailed and one of the earliest pictures of Sri-Lakshmi in Vedic literature is found in the Sri-sukta, a hymn in praises of Sri which is part of an appendix to the Rig-veda, Sri in invoked to bring fame and prosperity said to be bountiful and to give abundance.
Goddess Sri-Lakshmi, in ancient texts, also said to banish her sister Alakshmi, or the “misfortune” who appears in such inauspicious forms as need, poverty, hunger, and thirst. Royal qualities are suggested when she is described as seated in the middle of a chariot, possessed of the best horses, and delighted by the sounds of elephants. In outward appearance she is glorious and wears a necklace of gold and silver. She is often said to shine like the sun and be lustrous like fire.
On occasion, her right arm may be bent at the elbow and her upraised hand may hold a lotus flower in a gesture of respect. Her left arm either hangs simply at her side or may be slightly akimbo at her hip. There is always a sense of stasis associated with Sri-Laksmi's iconography which reinforces the message of prosperity and benediction through all time and space. Because the figure of Sri-Lakshmi is associated with the waters with their fructifying agency, represented by the lotus, a purna-ghata, illustrating elephants, tortoise ete., attempts has been made to identify and associated Sri in the anionic representation of the Buddha’s nativity, however that is subject to the further analysis in order to identify the explicit similarities and the complexities between the two.
In functionality, Sri-Lakshmi takes over the cosmic functions of the three cheif gods of the Hindu pantheon: Brahma, Vishu and Siva. In religious and spiritual visions, by creating, sustaining, and periodically spifflicating the universe, she totally dominates the the divine and the mythological sphere. She also emerges as the central figure as the object of adroration, the granter of grace, and the ultimate bestower of liberation ( moksha).
At one point in Laxmi-Tantra, she herself exclaims: " Like the fat that keeps a lamp burning, I, lubricate the sense of living beings with my own sap of consciousness".
Elsewhere she is said to be 'Prakriti', the principal of nature in Eastern philosophy that spontaneously creates all material realities.
Sri-Lakshmi is as one of the most popular and widely venerated deities of the Hindu religion. Her auspiciousness, nature for being granting, prolificacy,, fortune, well-being has placed her to far and wide. She is omnipresent on the temple walls, pillars, lintels, niches, sanctuaries and the devotional psych of the believers.
Although Sri-Lakshmi is worshiped throughout the year in a variety of festivals, and she is constant object of vratas ( religious vows), the most popular festival in honour of Lakshmi is-Dipavali, which is held in late autumn. During this four-day long festival of joy and lights it is customary for people, specially entrepreneurs to worship their account books. Sri-Lakshmi is also associated with crops and food in Orissa and Eastern Uttar Pradesh on the occasion of the Kaumudi-purnima festival. In Maharashtra Sri-Lakshmi is venerated as ' Lakshmiaai' and given special offering on Kartik-purnima or the 'Kojhagiri-festival'. Village women in eastern Uttar Pradesh worship Lakshmi in the form of heaps of cow-dung that is associated with moisture and the fertility of the crop, on this day.
In conclusion, it can be said, as the ‘Lakshmi-Saharsranama’ puts it, “Sri is the one of participates in the creation of Prakriti, a granter of knowledge; she is not only the fulfillment of all desires but the one who fulfills them. She is noble (Arya), she is gives prosperity, she is filled with good thoughts, she is gives righteousness, pleasure, wealth, and liberation (Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha) that is the ultimate aim or the end of a ideal human life.” The devotees of Goddess Sri-Lakshmi clearly feel that she deserves this attention-because, she has it all. And not only does she have it, but she gives it away to all who worship her: good fortune in this life, and liberation in the next.
Credits: American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon
Curated by: Tishyarakshita A. Nagarkar
Author is thankful to Dr. Nandini Mehta Sappel for her valuable inputs on the topic and constructive crticism, special thanks to Dr. Vandana Sinha, Director Academics, AIIS-Gurgaon for her encouragement and belief in me, and heartfelt thanks to Sushil Ji for his immense help on providing the images.
Street View imagery: Courtesy Archaeological Survey of India