Symbols of Lakshmi, The Goddess of Wealth
Review of Lakshmi. R. Mahalakhsmi. Penguin. Delhi. 2009.
Lakshmi has never intrigued me so much before I read Mahalaxmi’s work on the deity published presently by Penguin with the simple title Lakshmi. I always thought of the Goddess as a docile, goody goody and benign, worshipped by silly married fasting women. But now that I read the small paperback I look upon her as perhaps the most intriguing among our Hindu pantheon. She seems to be the only one who straddles so many worlds, the tribal and the Brahminic, the Aryan and the pre-Aryan and if we take the symbols associated with her then she has even crossed the divisions between the Hindu and the Buddhist religion. In fact, even within Hinduism, she is found in all the traditions of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktaism and the marginalized Tantric school. The association of the Ocean seems to have originated from myths of the people across the seas and if this is true then Lakshmi seems also to have existed not only in mainland India but also in her imperial territories in the Indian Ocean.
Lakshmi is a strange Goddess who remains an independent person in her own right despite symbolizing the heavily married woman. She sits on the right of Vishnu and not the usual left side reserved for the wife, but can become close to any deserving man. Despite her docility, she is fickle and even though she is Vishnu’s devoted spouse who gets reincarnated as many times as her husband does, she does not mind visiting and honouring homes that belong to other men. In the east she more often than not takes on the form of her alter ego, Alakshmi as she is seen wearing a red sari and when she rides the donkey with a crowbar in hand, she becomes the Sithala, the Goddess of small pox. Manasa, a deity who commands snakes in eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh, resembles Lakshmi in those myths in which she leaves a basket of snakes in a household that has been arrogant. The character, Zyeth-Haer in Kashmir, etymologically resembling Jyestha, or Alakshmi, distinctly sounds like Aster, or the war goddess worshipped in Assyria. Lakshmi as Mahalakshmi takes on attributes of Durga and even moves close to Kali in some cases. What is even more intriguing is that Ganesh on certain occasions seems to be the male God who was invented in an anxiety to appropriate some qualities of Lakshmi. Interestingly, Lakshmi though overwhelmingly a peasant Goddess seems to be the only one to have also become a distinctly bania Goddess especially after the conquest of Mohammad Ghori who struck imperial coins with the figure of a seated Lakshmi on one side and on the other the Emperor’s own signature as Shri Mohammad. Her closeness to Shri means that she is the exhaustive icon of anything feminine, not the self-contained one as in Durga or Kali but as one who “completes” a man.
Indeed, Lakshmi seems to be the Goddess who has survived every social upheaval; from Aryan invasion of pre-Aryans, to peasant communities displacing tribals, empires taking over smaller kingdoms and Brahminic overrun of various regional icons and faiths. The constant association of the Lotus with her makes her an imperial deity, one who then gets associated with any kind of a pan Indian idea, if there was any such thing before now. Her association with the elephant specifically makes her pan Indian. She hardly has a parallel as an all India presence and one feels proud that such an iconic status belongs to a Goddess rather than a God. The importance of Lakshmi reveals the intrinsic importance of the Devi in India who survives despite the Vaishnavite movements that brought in a strong Krishna worship and hence the masculinization of religion. I did not get a feeling that Lakshmi was feministic but she is definitely feminine, not by asserting her brute power but by silently suggesting that it is she who completes every man, be it the householder, or the King or even the Gods.
I sincerely wish that the book does very well. I have ordered a few more copies to distribute as presents to friends which include my chhotomaashi, my mother, and a few others who wish to be symbologists. I wonder who else could have done such a wonderful job if not an author also called Mahalakshmi?