Lakshmi - The Hindu Goddess of Wealth
Draped in a red saree, bedecked with gold ornaments, seated on a lotus, pot in hand, flanked by white elephants, the image of Lakshmi adorns most Hindu homes and business establishments.
Lakshmi, also called Laxmi, is the goddess of wealth, fortune, power, luxury, beauty, fertility, and auspiciousness. She holds the promise of material fulfillment and contentment. She is described as restless, whimsical yet maternal, with her arms raised to bless and to grant her blessings.
Shri is the sacred name of Lakshmi. Shri is written atop most documents and spoken before addressing a god, teacher holy man or any revered individual. The word evokes grace, affluence abundance, auspiciousness and authority. When the word is spoken or written an aura of holiness is established. Whatever follows is imbued with divine blessing. Just as the word "Om" is associated with the mystical side of life, Shri is associated with the material side of existence.
Lakshmi represents the beautiful and bountiful aspect of nature. As Bhoodevi, the earth-goddess, she nurtures life; as Shreedevi, the goddess of fortune, she bestows power, pleasure and prosperity on those who deserve her grace. To realize her, one must respect the laws of life and appreciate the wonders of existence.
Lakshmi's Sacred Narrative; Prajapati Raises the Earth
In the beginning, there was water everywhere. There was nothing to eat and nowhere to live. Prajapati, the divine patriarch, father of the gods and demons saw the plight of his children and invoked Devi.
The goddess whispered into his ear, "The earth lies trapped under the water. Raise it up."
Prajapati took the form of a mighty boar called Emusha, plunged into the sea and found the earth-goddess Bhoodevi on the ocean floor. Placing her on his snout, he gently raised her to the surface.
Prajapati then turned into Akupara, a giant turtle and offered Bhoodevi a seat on his back.
Shreedevi Favors Bali
Seated on the celestial turtle, the earth-goddess nurtured life in her bountiful arms. She offered food and shelter to all.
The devas, gods, admired her beauty; the asuras, demons, craved her wealth. They fought many a battle over her. Finally, under the leadership of Bali, the asuras emerged triumphant.
Impressed by Bali's strength, the goddess came to him as Shreedevi and crowned him king of the earth. She offered him a throne, a footstool and held a parasol over his head.
Shreedevi's sacred white elephants turned into clouds and sprinkled life-bestowing rain upon the earth, watering fields and pastures so that crops grew abundantly and cows gave plenty of milk. Everyone was happy with Bali as their king.
Vishnu's Three Steps
Power made Bali arrogant. He declared, "The earth belongs to me; I can give anyone anything he desires."
These words greatly disturbed the earth-goddess. She belonged to no one and certainly not a commodity to be given to away as a gift.
Indra, leader of the devas, meanwhile, bereft of Shreedevi's grace had been reduced to poverty. He approached Bali and begged for some land. To mock him, Bali pointed to Vamana the dwarf and said, "I shall give you as much land as this little one can cover in three strides." Vamana was no ordinary dwarf but rather an incarnation of Vishnu the Preserver. As soon as Bali said this, Vishnu began to grow in size, he turned into a giant who strode across and claimed all of Bali's Kingdom in two steps. With his third step Vishnu shoved Bali into the nether region. Vishnu thus wrested control of the earth for the gods.
Vishnu The Fickle One
"The gods may lack strength, but they are intelligent. I shall go to them." So saying, Shreedevi turned away from Bali and went to the gods. She blessed the gods with ruling majesty, material prosperity, physical health, bodily beauty and divine fortune.
Angry and bitter in defeat, the demons rasped, "Shreedevi is Chanchala, the fickle one. Once she favored Bali, now she favors Indra. She is faithful to none."
"That is not true," said the goddess, "I am eternally faithful to he who does not abuse my gifts."
Vishnu, who had conquered the earth for the gods, let Indra become king. "Don't you want to be lord of the universe and enjoy the splendors of the cosmos?" asked Shreedevi.
"I desire nothing. By defeating the demon Bali, I have done my duty. I seek no reward for it."
These words of Vishnu pleased Shreedevi.
Indra Angers Bhoodevi and Shreedevi
The goddess said, "He who takes good care of the earth-goddess Bhoodevi, wins the affection of Shreedevi, goddess of fortune and becomes king of the cosmos."
But Indra did not heed her words. Soon after being crowned king, the leader of the devas, he retired to the pleasure gardens. There, he drank wine, enjoyed song and dance and neglected his royal duties.
The earth, left ungoverned, was plundered.
Bhoodevi's lamentation fell on deaf ears. This made Shreedevi very angry. She turned away from Indra.
"Wealth and power corrupted the demon-king. Now, pleasure and comfort has weakened the god-king. Neither holds on to dharma for long. Neither deserves my grace." So saying, the goddess dissolved herself in the ocean of milk.
Instantly a gloom descended upon the world: it no longer reverberated with song and dance. Weapons lost their power, gems their luster, men their vigor. Cows did not give milk, fields became barren, and trees bore neither flower nor fruit. The cosmos became a desolate place bereft of joy and laughter.
Churning the Ocean of Milk
The goddess's disappearance caused panic in the three worlds.
"We must bring her back," said the gods.
"But how?" wondered the demons.
"By churning the ocean of milk," said Vishnu. With Mandara, king of mountains, as the spindle and Akupara, king of turtles as the base, the devas and the asuras created the cosmic churn. Using Vasuki, the king of the serpents as the churning rope, they began churning the ocean of milk.
The churn twisted and turned, the ocean frothed and fumed, waves roared and spewed foam in every direction. Eons passed. Nothing emerged. But the gods and demons were determined to bring the goddess back and continued to churn the great ocean.
Pleased by their efforts, the goddess finally emerged as a Lakshmi, the desirable one, in all her splendor.
Seated on a dew drenched Lotus, dressed in red silk, bedecked in gold, Lakshmi was the very embodiment of affluence, abundance, and auspiciousness.
As she rose, rasa, life giving sap, began flowing in every direction. The earth palpated with life. Joy filled the air.
The gods saluted her; the demons sang songs to her glory.
Sacred elephants who hold up the sky came from the eight quarters of the universe raised their trunks and consecrated her with life sustaining water.
Birth of Lakshmi
Along with Lakshmi rose her older sister Alakshmi, the goddess of barrenness and misfortune from the churning of the ocean milk. She was ugly with matted hair, sunken cheeks, shriveled breasts and coarse limbs.
Said the goddess, "Lakshmi will dwell where there is nobility and righteousness, cleanliness and beauty, virtue and compassion. Alakshmi will dwell elsewhere, attracted by sloth, envy greed, lust and pride."
And so it is that people who wish to keep Alakshmi away keep their houses clean, their bodies beautiful and their minds pure.
Gifts of Prosperity
With Lakshmi came a cow called Kamadhenu with enough milk to feed the world for all eternity, a wish fulfilling gem called Chantamani and a tree called Kalpataru that bore every flower and fruit desirable. In her hand she held the basket of bounty: the Akshaya Patra overflowing with grain and gold.
Gifts of Pleasure
With Lakshmi appearance from the ocean of milk came Kama the delightful god of pleasure. Riding his parrot surrounded by bees and butterflies, this handsome god raised his sugarcane bow and shot arrows dripping with desire into the heart of every being. He roused the senses, excited the mind and inspired the heart.
With Kama came Priti and Rati, goddess of love and longing and Vasanta, the lord of the spring. Wherever they went flowers bloomed and bees buzzed to welcome them with offerings of nectar and pollen.
Behind Lakshmi stood Rambha, the beautiful nymph who knew 64 ways to pleasure the senses and Sura, the goddess of intoxicants who could soothe tired nerves and enchant the mind with dreams.
Along with Lakshmi came the six tusked, white skinned elephant, Airavata and the seven-headed flying horse, Ucchaishrava. The gods claimed the elephant, the demons claimed the horse.
The goddess also brought forth a throne, a crown, a footstool, a parasol, a fly-whisk, a cushion, a fan, a bow and a conch. "These symbols of kingship," she said, "will go to a worthy being, one who will use power to preserve and protect life."
"Give them to me," said Indra the king of gods. "No you are too obsessed with pleasure," said Lakshmi." Give them to me," said Bali King of demons. "No wealth corrupts you and makes you arrogant."
Lakshmi sought someone who would not succumb to the allure of power, pleasure, and prosperity; someone strong, wise and virtuous, capable of using force, charm and guile with discretion to uphold the laws of life. She chose Vishnu.
Lakshmi Marries Vishnu
Lakshmi placed Vaijayanati, the fragrant garland of victory round Vishnu's neck and made him her consort. He became known as Shreenatha, beloved of fortune.
Vishnu placed Shreevasta, the symbol of Lakshmi on his chest.
Their abode, Vaikuntha, became the pivot of the universe.
Vishnu battled the forces of chaos and corruption and diligently performed his duties as guardian of the world, pleasing Lakshmi who rewarded him with her love and affection, tending to his every need as his devoted wife.