An ancient goddess
Shri-Lakshmi has a long history testified by the fact that her first hymn, the Shri Shukta, was added to the Rig Veda, the oldest and most revered of Hindu scriptures, somewhere between 1000 and 500 BC. The Greeks had Core, the corn-goddess, who was known to Romans as Demeter. The Egyptians had Isis, Sumerians had Innana, Babylonians had Ishtar, Persians had Anahita and Vikings had Freia.
Beyond the horizon
By Pradeep Kumar
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, fortune, power, luxury, beauty, fertility, and auspiciousness. Lakshmi is the divine power that transforms dreams into reality. She is prakriti, the perfect creation: self-sustaining, self-contained nature. She is maya, the delightful delusion, the dream-like expression of divinity that makes life comprehensible, hence worth living. She is shakti, energy, boundless and bountiful. To realise her is to rejoice in the wonders of life. Thus, the Hindus for centuries have invoked her with hymn:
“Trilokya Poojithe Dhevee Kamala Vishnu vallabhe
Yaya Thawam Achalaa Krishne Thathaa-bhava Mayee Sthiraa
Kamala Chanchala Lakshmi Chalaa Bhoothir Hari Priya
Padma Padmalayaa Samyak Uchai Shri Padma-dharini
Dwada-saithani Naamani Lakshmi Sampoojya Ya Padeth
Sthiraa Lakshmir Bhaved Thasya Puthra-dhara Abhi-saha
Ithi Shri Dakshina Lakshmi Stotram Sampoornam“
(Means: Oh Goddess you are the one who is worshiped in all the three worlds,
Oh Kamala, Oh Consort of Lord Vishnu,
Oh Consort of Krishna, If only you are stable,
And abide by me forever.
Oh Kamala, Oh unstable one, Oh Lakshmi,
Oh Goddess who moves everything, Oh Goddess of prosperity,
Oh Darling of Hari, Oh Padma, Oh goddess who lives in lotus,
Oh Goddess who is pleasant, Oh Goddess who is exalted,
Oh Goddess of wealth, Oh Goddess who holds a lotus.)
Shri is the sacred sound of cosmic auspiciousness and abundance since Vedic times. The popularity of Lakshmi can be gauged by the fact that her sacred name—Shri, written atop most documents and spoken before addressing a god. The word evokes grace, affluence, abundance, auspiciousness & authority.
Just as the word ‘aum’ is associated with the mystical side of life, the word ‘shri’ is associated with material side of existence. Shri-Lakshmi is the Hindu form of the timeless mother-goddess who nurtures and nourishes all life. In India, not only Hindus but also Buddhists and Jains adore Lakshmi. Buddhism and Jainism are primarily monastic orders that turned away from Vedic rituals and Brahmanical dogmas about 2,500 years ago.
In the Buddhist Jatakas, there are tales of men and women who request the goddess Lakshmi to drive away the goddess of misfortune, Kalakanni. Images of Kubera, the pot-bellied yaksha-king and treasurer of the gods, who is closely associated with Lakshmi, adorn most Buddhist shrines.
In holy Jain texts, it is said when an exalted soul like a Tirthankara is about to be born his mother dreams of many auspicious things, including the goddess Shri. Symbols of wealth and royal power commonly associated with Lakshmi are auspicious to both Buddhists and Jains. Considering her popularity amongst Buddhists and Jains, it has been proposed that her worship may predate the Vedic culture and may have developed independently before she was brought into the Vedic, Buddhist and Jain folds.
Scholars are of the view that initially the words Shri and Lakshmi referred to anything that was auspicious or brought good luck or bestowed riches and power. Later the two words were personified into two goddesses who eventually merged. Thus, Shri-Lakshmi came into being.
Fragmentary verses in Shatapatha Brahmana, written not long after the Vedas, talks of the birth of Lakshmi from the mouth of Prajapati to provide the inhabitants of the cosmos food, clothing, shelter and all things that make life more comfortable. She also offered wisdom, strength, beauty, luck, sovereignty and splendour—the good things in life.
Stories of Lakshmi first appeared in epics Ramayana and Mahabharta that were composed between 300 BC and 300 AD, a period that witnessed the waning popularity of Vedic gods and the rise of gods who offered moksha such as Shiva and Vishnu. Gods and demons fought over her and both strove to churn her out of the ocean of milk. As folk heroes such as Rama and Krishna were viewed as incarnations of Vishnu, their consorts Sita, Radha and Rukmini became increasingly identified with Lakshmi. In the Harivamsa, appendix to the Mahabharata, Manmatha, the god of love, lust and fertility, was described as her son.
The mythology of Lakshmi acquired full form in the Puranas, chronicles of gods, kings and sages that were compiled between 500 and 1500 AD. In them, the goddess came to be projected as one of the three primary forms of the supreme mother-goddess, the other two being Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, and Kali or Durga, the goddess of power. Lakshmi was visualised both as an independent goddess and as Vishnu’s consort, seated on his lap or at his feet. Prithvi, the Vedic earth-goddess, became Bhoodevi in the Puranas and a manifestation of Lakshmi. In south India, the two goddesses were visualised as two different entities, standing on either side of Vishnu, Bhoodevi representing tangible wealth while Lakshmi or Shridevi representing intangible wealth. In north India, the two goddesses became one.
Images of Lakshmi started appearing around the third century BC in sculptures found in Kausambi, in north India, and on coins issued during the reign of the Gupta dynasty around the fourth century AD. She became a favourite of kings as more and more people believed she was the bestower of power, wealth and sovereignty. Separate shrines to Lakshmi within the precincts of Vishnu temples may have been built as early as 7th century; such shrines were definitely in existence by 10th century AD.
Regrettably, though the world may have changed, but the thirst for material comfort continues to form the core of most human aspirations.