Lakshmi - The Glorious Goddess

Lakshmi- The Glorious Goddess

The goddess Sri, who is also commonly known by the name Lakshmi, has been known in the Hindu tradition since pre-Buddhist times. She is one of the most popular goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. She has a considerable body of mythology and is widely worshiped by Hindus of all castes throughout India to this day. Since the late epic period (ca. A.D. 400) she has been particularly associated with the god Vishnu as his wife or consort. In this role she plays the part of a model Hindu wife, obediently serving her husband as lord. Throughout her history Sri has been associated with prosperity, well-being, royal power, and illustriousness. In many respects she is the embodiment of these qualities, and it is commonly understood that when these qualities are evident, Sri herself is present or reveals herself.

The Early History Of Sri Lakshmi

The goddess Sri-Lakshmi 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-Lakshmi. As used in the Vedic hymns the term Sri 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. As such it seems to be a distinct, disembodied power that is acquired by kings in various ways. It seems to be a power associated more with the office of the king than with the king himself. At one point Sri is identified with the cushion upon which the king sits. The idea is that the cushion or seat, Sri, ruling power, is temporarily possessed by the current owner of the sea. Sri also refers to riches, prosperity, and abundance in general. In that sense it is something that may be acquired or possessed by anyone. In short, Sri refers to most auspicious qualities and suggests general well-being in terms of physical health, material prosperity, bodily beauty, and ruling majesty.

In what may be the earliest myth that speaks of Sri as a goddess, she is the personification or embodiment of auspicious, particularly royal, qualities' She is born as a result of the austerities of Prajapati. Seeing Sri, the other gods covet her qualities and proceed to steal them from her. Ten qualities, or objects, are listed: food, royal power, universal sovereignty, noble rank, power, holy luster, kingdom, fortune, bounteousness, and beauty." In Vedic literature, then, the goddess Sri's origin seems to be the result of the personification of auspicious qualities, particularly those associated with royal power and riches.

The most detailed picture of Sri-Lakshmi in Vedic literature is found in the Sri-sukta, a hymn in praise of Sri which is part of an appendix to the Rg-veda and which is probably pre-Buddhist in date. This is surely one of the earliest hymns to Sri and associates her with certain symbols and qualities that persist throughout her history in the Hindu tradition. Not surprisingly, and in conformity with the meanings of the term Sri in early Vedic literature, Sri is invoked to bring fame and prosperity. She is said to be bountiful and to give abundance. She is said to bestow on her worshiper gold, cattle, horses, and food She is asked to banish her sister ALakshmi, "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 richly ornamented. She is radiant as gold, illustrious like the moon, and wears a necklace of gold and silver. e is often said to shine like the sun and to be lustrous like fire.

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, rich soil. Her presence is affirmed to be discernible in the mysterious potency of the earth. Although Sri's association with agricultural fertility does not play a central role in her later literary history in Hinduism, this aspect of Sri remains important to this day at the village level. Villagers, particularly women, are reported to worship Sri in the form of cow dung on certain occasions, and this form of worship is actually enjoined in the Nllamata-purana.

The hymn to Sri also mentions two objects that come to be consistently associated with Sri throughout her history: the lotus and the elephant. She is seated on a lotus, is the color of a lotus, appears like a lotus, is covered with lotuses, and wears a garland of lotuses. Throughout her history, in fact, Sri-Lakshmi is often called Padma and Kamala, "lotus." The popularity of the lotus in Indian art and iconography, both Buddhist and Hindu, suggests a complex and multivalent meaning associated with the lotus.

As expressive of Sri-Lakshmi's nature two general meanings seem apparent. First, the lotus is a symbol of fertility and life which is rooted in and takes its strength from the primordial waters' The lotus symbolizes vegetative growth that has distilled the life-giving power of the waters into embodied life. The lotus, and the goddess Sri-Lakshmi by association, represents the fully developed blossoming of organic life. At the macrocosmic level the lotus might be taken as a symbol of the entire created world. The lotus growing from the navel of Vishnu marks the beginning of a new cosmic creation. The frequent use of the lotus in Tantric mandalas also points to the lotus as a symbol of the entire created universe. The lotus suggests a growing, expanding world imbued with vigorous fertile power. It is this power that is revealed in Sri-Lakshmi. She is the nectar (the rasa) of creation which lends to creation its distinctive flavor and beauty. Organic life, impelled as it is by this mysterious power, flowers richly and beautifully in the creative processes of the world.

The second meaning of the lotus in relation to Srl-Lakshmi refers to purity and spiritual power. Rooted in the mud but blossoming above the water, completely uncontaminated by the mud, the lotus represents spiritual perfection and authority. A common motif in Hindu and Buddhist iconography is the lotus seat. The gods and goddesses, the Buddha's and bodhisattvas, typically sit or stand upon a lotus, which suggests their spiritual authority. To be seated upon or to be otherwise associated with the lotus suggests that the being in question-god, Buddha, or human being-has transcended the limitations of the finite world (the mud of existence, as it was) and floats freely in a sphere of purity and spirituality. Sri-Lakshmi thus suggests more than the fertilizing powers of moist soil and the mysterious powers of growth. She suggests a perfection or state of refinement that transcends the material world. She is associated not only with royal authority but with spiritual authority as well and she combines royal and priestly powers in her presence.

One of the most popular and enduring representations of SriLakshmi shows her flanked by two elephants in the so-called Gaja-Lakshmi images. The elephants shower her with water from their trunks or empty pots of water over her. The elephants seem to have two related meanings. First, they most likely represent fertilizing rains. An ancient Hindu tradition says that the first elephants had wings and flew about the sky. In fact, they were clouds and showered the earth with rain wherever they went. These sky elephants, however, were cursed by a sage when they landed on a tree under which he was meditating and broke his concentration. Stripped of their wings, they henceforth had to remain earthbound. But these earth elephants are still regarded as cousins of clouds, and their presence is supposed to attract their "white cousins," who bring fertilizing rains with them." The flanking, showering elephants in images of Sri-Lakshmi reinforce one of the principal themes that we have already noted in her nature, her association with the fertility of crops and the sap of existence. Where Lakshmi is, there elephants are, and where elephants are, there is produced the fertilizing potency of rain.

Second, elephants suggest royal authority. Kings in ancient India kept stables of elephants, which formed their heavy artillery in military campaigns. Kings often traveled on elephants in ceremonial processions, and in general elephants were considered an important indication of royal authority. Kings in ancient India were also believed to be responsible for rain and the fertility of the crops.'2 To ensure the kings' beneficial influence, it was probably important for them to keep several elephants for their power to bring fertilizing rains. In the king and the elephant, then, are brought together two central themes in the imagery of Sri-Lakshmi, royal authority and fertility.

Images of Sri with elephants are probably meant to portray the act of royal consecration. The central ritual action of the Vedic royal-consecration ceremony, the Rajasuya, was the abhisekha ritual, in which the king was consecrated by having auspicious waters poured over him to bestow authority and vigor on him.'33 Insofar as the elephants in these images of Lakshmi may be understood to be portraying the abhisekha, they bestow the qualities of fertility and royal authority on Lakshmi, herself the source of these very qualities.'4 The elephants, furthermore, are often shown standing on lotuses,15 the preeminent symbol of Lakshmi. The elephants thus imbue Lakshmi with those very qualities that she possesses to the highest degree, and she in turn infuses the elephants with the same qualities. A more highly charged image denoting the increase of royal authority, fertility, and vigor would be difficult to imagine.

Sri-Lakshmi in later Hinduism

In the course of her history Sri-Lakshmi has been associated with male deities, each of whom is significant in suggesting characteristics of the goddess. Some texts associate her with the god Soma. Sri-Lakshmi, along with several other deities, attends Soma after he performs a great royal sacrifice.'7 The association of Lakshmi with Soma is noteworthy for two reasons. First, in attending him after he has assumed the position of royal authority, she demonstrates one of her main characteristics, that of bestowing royal authority or being present where royal authority exists. Second, Soma is well known as the lord of plants and is often identified with the fertile sap that underlies vegetative growth. It is fitting that Sri-Lakshmi, who is similarly identified, should be associated with Soma in these texts. They complement and reinforce each other as symbols of the sap of existence.

A few texts say that Lakshmi is the wife of Dharma. She and several other goddesses, all of whom are personifications of certain auspicious qualities, were given to Dharma in marriage by her father, Daksa. This association seems primarily to represent a thinly disguised "wedding" of Dharma (virtuous conduct) with Sri-Lakshmi (prosperity and well-being). The point of the association seems to be to teach that by performing dharma one obtains prosperity.

A more interesting and fully developed association's between Sri and the god Indra. Several myths relate the theme of Indra's losing, acquiring, or being restored to the boon of Sri-Lakshmi's presence. In these myths it is clear that what is lost, acquired, or restored in the person of Sri is royal authority and power. Indra is traditionally known as the king of the gods, the foremost of the gods, and he is typically described as a heavenly king. It is therefore appropriate for Sri to be associated with him as his wife or consort. In these myths Sri-Lakshmi appears as the embodiment of royal authority, as a being whose presence is essential for the effective wielding of royal power and the creation of royal prosperity.

Several myths of this genre describe Sri-Lakshmi as being persuaded to leave one ruler for another. She is said, for example, to dwell with the demons Bali and Prahlada. While she dwells with these demons they are demons in name only. Under her gracious presence they rule their kingdoms righteously, society operates smoothly, the lands are fertile, and the demon kings themselves shimmer with sublime inner and outer qualities. When she leaves Prahlada, at Indra's request, the demon loses his luster and fears for his well-being. Along with Sri, the following qualities depart from Prahlada: good conduct, virtuous behavior, truth, activity, and strength. With Sri's departure, Prahlada is left emptied of his royal might and his predilections toward virtuous conduct.

The myths concerning the demon Bali make clear the same association between Lakshmi and victorious kings. In these myths Bali defeats Indra. Lakshmi is attracted to Bali's winning ways and bravery and joins him, along with her attendant auspicious virtues. In association with the auspicious goddess, Bali rules the three worlds with virtue, and under his rule the three worlds prosper" Only when Vishnu, at the request of the dethroned gods, tricks Bali into surrendering the three worlds does Sri-Lakshmi depart from Bali, leaving him lusterless and powerless.

SrI-Lakshmi's presence ensures a king more than ruling power. One of the myths associating her with Indra tells us that when she sat down next to Indra he began to pour down rain and the crops grew abundantly. Cows gave plenty of milk, all beings enjoyed prosperity, and the earth flourished." Indra is associated with fertility in Vedic texts, and well into the medieval period festivals celebrated in his honor associated him with the fertility of the crops. From the earliest Vedic texts he is described as wielding the vajra (the thunderbolt) as his favorite weapon, and to the present day he is associated with bringing rain. As a couple, Sri-Lakshmi and Indra are a clear example of a common type of divine pair in the world's religions: a female earth goddess and a male sky/rain god. Together they combine to generate the fertility that is necessary to all life. In the Vedas the deities Dyaus and Prthivl are agood example of this type of divine pair and the reciprocal roles they play in generating and sustaining life. Sri-Lakshmi in association with Indra seems to represent a later version of the Dyaus-Prthivl couple. In this symbiotic relationship the male deity, associated with the sky, is said to fertilize the female deity with his rain. Indra also seems to have had phallic associations in his identification with the plow, and it seems appropriate that he would become associated with a goddess representing the fertile earth."

Some traditions also associate Sri-Lakshmi with the god Kubera. Kubera is lord of the Yaksas, a race of supernatural beings who in general frequent forests and uncivilized areas, and he is in particular the possessor and distributor of wealth. He is the possessor and guardian of the earth's treasures in the form of gems. Sri's relationship to Kubera is appropriate insofar as each of them is preeminently associated with prosperity and wealth." Where wealth and abundance are, one or the other deity, and probably both, is certain to be found. So the two deities become associated as a couple" Sri's identification through Kubera with the Yaksas, in addition, emphasizes her identity with the mysterious powers of growth and fertility. Yaksas often play the part of fertility symbols in Indian art and generally are associated iconographically with trees, vines, and vegetative growth. They are often shown embracing trees, leaning against trees' or pouring forth vegetation from their mouths or navels 28 The identification of Srl-Lakshmi, the goddess who embodies the potent power of growth, with the Yaksas is natural. She, like them, involves herself and reveals herself in the irrepressible fecundity of plant life.

Sri-Lakshmi's association with so many different male deities and with the notorious fleetingness of good fortune earned her a reputation for fickleness and inconstancy Z In one text she is said to be so unsteady that even in a picture she moves and that if she associates with Vishnu it is only because she is attracted to his many different forms )300 By the late epic period (ca. A.D. 400), however, Sri-Laksimi becomes consistently and almost exclusively associated with Vishnu; as his wife she becomes characterized by steadfastness."' It is as if in Vishnu she has finally found the god she was looking for and, having found him, has remained loyal to him ever since.

Mythologically Sri-Lakshmi's association with Vishnu comes about in the context of the churning of the milk ocean by the gods and demons, who seek the elixir of immortality (amrta). Lakshmi does not figure at all in some versions of this story, but in others she is the central focus of the myth." What seems clear is that a myth concerning the churning of the ocean to obtain various valuable things existed from ancient times in India and that at some point Lakshmi's origin was felt to be related to this mythological event. The interesting question is why Lakshmi's origin makes sense in the context of this myth and how her association with Vishnu comes about in later versions of the myth.

An ancient Indian tradition asserts that creation proceeds from an infinite body of primordial water,that the world or the multitude of universes of later Hinduism ultimately arises from and rests upon this limitless expanse of waters. In its unrefined state this watery world is chaotic, or at least formless and overwhelming. Creation, or ordered existence, only takes place when this watery mass is somehow agitated, processed, or refined in such a way that form and growth take place. Within the watery formlessness resides the potency or essence of life, rasa, amrta, or soma. When this potency is released by the primordial waters, creation can proceed The churning of the ocean by the gods and demons is intended to obtain the nectar of immortality, the essence of creative power that will make the churners immortal and grant them their status as ordainers and overseers of creation. The act of churning dramatically illustrates the process of distilling essence of the primordial waters.

By churning milk one thickens and refines it until it yields a richer substance-butter. Similarly, the milk ocean when churned yields valuable essences, among them, in most later versions of the myth, the goddess Sri-Lakshmi. The role or place of Sri-Lakshmi in this myth of creation seems fairly clear. Although the nectar of immortality is described as a separate entity / that arises from the churning of the ocean, Sri-Lakshmi has many and obvious associations with the sap of existence that underlies or pervades all plant and animal life. She herself represents the miraculous transformation of the formless waters into organic life,35 The extent to which Sri-Lakshmi is necessary to the ongoing created order, and hence may be identified or associated with the essence of the creation, is indicated in some later variants of the myth. These versions tell us that Sri-Lakshmi disappears from the three worlds when Indra insults her. As a result, all sacrifices cease to be performed, all austerities are discontinued by the sages, all generosity ends, the sun and moon lose their brilliance, the gods lose their strength, and fire loses its heat.36 In the absence of the goddess the worlds become dull and lusterless and begin to wither away. When she returns, the worlds again regain their vitality, and the society of humans and the order of the gods regain their sense of purpose and duty.

Most variants of the myth say that Sri-Lakshmi's association with Vishnu took place at the churning of the ocean. The relationship of Sri and Vishnu seems appropriate in the context of the myth and at a general symbolic level in several ways. During her early history Sri's attraction to powerful rulers among the gods (and demons) was firmly established. In the churning-of-the-ocean myth Vishnu is clearly the dominant god. He oversees the entire operation and actually makes the churning possible by providing two indispensable participants: Vasuki, the cosmic serpent who is used as the churning rope, and the cosmic tortoise, upon which the churning stick rests. Furthermore, both Vasuki and the tortoise are actually forms of Vishnu himself. When Sri comes forth from the ocean, she is naturally attracted to Vishnu. the god who is obviously superior to the others. Conversely, Vishnu, as the divine overseer of the event, is the natural recipient of the treasures that result from the churning. As the master of ceremonies, Vishnu is entitled to the lovely goddess who emerges as a result of the efforts of the gods and demons.

Vishnu's royal nature is also significant in Sri's association with him. By the medieval period (fifth through thirteenth century A.D.) Vishnu is considered the divine king par excellence. He is described as dwelling in a heavenly court, Vaikuntha,, and he is depicted iconographically as a mighty king. His primary role as king is to institute and maintain dharmic order. This he does by means of his various avatars, which intervene in the world from time to time to combat the forces of disorder. Vishnu, however, is also present wherever righteous kings rule and maintain order. He maintains order on the earth, that is, through certain human agents, namely, righteous kings 37 We noted earlier that kings cannot rule without the authority that is bestowed by Sri. Where she is present, royal authority waxes strong. Where she is absent, would-be rulers become weak and ineffectual. The association of Sri with Lord Vishnu, the supreme divine king, as her husband is therefore fitting. She follows him when he becomes part of his human agents-the righteous kings- and she bestows on these kings her royal power, prosperity, and fertility. In effect Lord Vishnu designates his human agents, and Sri then empowers them, enabling them to be effective maintainers of Lord Vishnu's cosmic scheme.

As Vishnu's wife, Lakshmi loses her fickle nature. As the great cosmic king's queen she is depicted as a model Hindu wife, loyal and submissive to her husband. One of her most popular iconographic depictions shows her kneeling before Lord Vishnu to massage his feet J8 In her early history Sri-Lakshmi was strongly associated with growth and fecundity as manifested in vegetation. A teeming vitality animated her presence, a power that gave birth inexhaustibly to life. In her association with Lord Vishnu her character seems more restrained. Although she does not lose her association with fertility and growth, she seems more clearly involved in or revealed in the order of dharma that her husband creates and oversees. When Lord Vishnu assumes his various avataras in order to uphold dharma, she incarnates herself as his helpmate, assuming an appropriate form as his spouse or consort. She thus assists and accompanies him in his world maintaining role. The Vishnu-purana says:

". . . as Hari descends in the world in various shapes-so does his consort Sri. Thus when Hari was born as a dwarf, as a son of Aditi, Lakshmi appeared from a lotus; . . . when he was Raghava, she was Sita, and when he was Krishna, she became Rukmini. In the other descents of Lord Vishnu, she is his associate. If he takes a celestial form, she appears as divine; if a mortal, she becomes a mortal too, transforming her own person agreeably to whatever character it pleases Lord Vishnu to put on. (1.9.142-146)"

Her role as a model wife typifies her more subdued nature. She is occupied in this role with household order. Indeed, she is said to cook food at the Jagannatha temple for those who come for prasiid.40 In her role as an ideal wife she exemplifies the orderliness of human society and f human relations. Iconographic representations of Vishnu and Sri together typically show her as subservient to Lord Vishnu, which is in harmony with sexual roles as described in the Dharma-sastras. She is usually shown as considerably smaller than Lord Vishnu and as having only two arms instead of the four arms that she usually has when shown alone. Her submissive position is nicely conveyed in an image of the divine pair from Badami in which Vishnu sits on a high stool while Lakshmi sits on the ground and leans on him, her right hand placed on his knee.

Reflecting her increasing association with social order, several texts locate Lakshmi's presence in righteous behavior, orderly conduct, and correct social observance. She is said, for example, to live with those who tell the truth and are generous. She dwells with those who have clean bodies and are well dressed,"" who eat with moderation, who have intercourse with their wives on a regular basis (something prescribed in the Hindu law books), and who cover themselves when asleep In the Mahabharata she says: "I dwell in truth, gift, vow, austerity, strength and virtue" (12.218.12). Orderly social relations and traditional social virtues attract Sri-Lakshmi, herself a model of social decorum as Lord Vishnu's wife."

In association with Lord Vishnu, Lakshmi provides a picture of marital contentment, domestic order, and satisfying cooperation and beneficial interdependence between male and female. Most iconographic representations picture the pair as a smiling, happy couple; they are often shown touching each other intimately. In images of the Lakshmi-Narayana type, Lakshmi is usually depicted seated on Vishnu left thigh. Her right hand is around his neck while his left arm encircles her waist. Sometimes the two are shown holding hands and it is not unusual for them to be shown gazing into each other's eyes.

The intimacy of the two, indeed, their underlying unity, is dramatically shown in images in which they are merged into one bisexual figure, Lord Vishnu constituting the right half of the figure and Lakshmi the left. The interdependence of the two is the subject of a long passage in the Lord Vishnu-purana. There Vishnu is said to be speech and Lakshmi meaning; he is understanding, she is intellect; he is the creator, she is the creation; she is the earth, he 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 pleasure.

Sri Lakshmi In The Pancaratna & Sri Vaisnava Schools

Sri-Lakshmi's association with Lord Vishnu eventually leads to her playing important roles in the mythological and philosophic visions of the Pancaratra and Sri Vaisnava schools of thought and devotion. In the Pancaratra school Lakshmi comes to play the central role in the creation and evolution of the universe as the sakti of Vishnu. In the Pancaratra creation scenario Vishnu remains almost entirely inactive, relegating the creative process to Lakshmi. After awakening Lakshmi at the end of the night of dissolution, Vishnu role in the creation of the universe is restricted to that of an inactive architect whose plan is put into effect by a builder. Lakshmi alone acts, and the impression throughout the cosmogony is that she acts independently of Vishnu, although it is stated that she acts according to his wishes.

The practical effect of Vishnu's inactive role in creation is that he becomes so aloof that Lakshmi dominates the entire Pancaratra vision of the divine. In effect she acquires the position of the supreme divine principle, the underlying reality upon which all rests, that which pervades all creation with vitality, will, and consciousness. The Lakshmi-tantra, a popular Pancaratra text, says that Lakshmi undertakes the entire stupendous creation of the universe with only a one-billionth fraction of herself (14.3). So transcendent is she, so beyond the ability of the mind to circumscribe her, that only a miniscule fraction of her is manifest in the creation of the universe. Elsewhere in the same text she describes herself as follows:

Inherent in the (principle of) existence, whether manifested or unmanifested, I am at all times the inciter (potential element of all things). I manifest myself (as the creation), I ultimately dissolve myself (at the time of destruction) and I occupy myself with activity (when creation starts functioning).

I alone send (the creation) forth and (again) destroy it. I absolve the sins of the good. As the (mother) earth towards all beings, I pardon them (all their sins). I mete everything out. I am the thinking process and I am contained in everything.

Functionally Lakshmi has taken over the cosmic functions of the three great male gods of the Hindu pantheon: Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. In the Pancaratra vision, by creating, sustaining, and periodically destroying the universe, she completely dominates the divine, mythological landscape. She also occupies the central position as the object of devotion, the dispenser of grace, and the final bestower of liberation. Throughout the Lakshmi-tantra it is she, not Vishnu who is described as the object of devotion, the one who grants all deSries and whose special mantra embodies Slavic power. It is she, not Vishnu, whose form is described in detail and presented as the supreme object of meditation."

Although Lakshmi has been elevated functionally to a position of supreme divinity in the Pancaratra school and has been identified with various philosophic absolutes, she retains her nature as the goddess who both imbues creatures with illustriousness and well-being and pervades the creation as the sap of existence. At one point in the Lakshmi-tantra, for example, she says of herself: "Like the fat that keeps a lamp burning I lubricate the senses of living beings with my own sap of consciousness". Elsewhere she is said to be prakrti, the principle of nature in Hinduism which spontaneously creates all material reality. Prakrti is the creation's dynamic aspect, which tends toward multiplication, diversification, and specificity." It is an active, fertile principle that is similar to the sap of existence with which Lakshmi is identified during her early history. Lakshmi's identification throughout the Pancaratra system with Vishnu's sakti is also a way of declaring her association with fertile power. Although the idea of sakti is somewhat more refined and inorganic than rasa, soma, amirta, or the powers of fertility, sakti does suggest unambiguously the idea of vigorous, dynamic power associated with life and growth. Despite her promotion, therefore, it is clear that Lakshmi retains her essential character as a dynamic, positive force that underlies growth, fertility, and prosperity.

A central presupposition in Sri Vaisnavism is that Vishnu, the supreme deity for this school, is always accompanied by, attended by, or otherwise associated with his consort Sri. But Sri does not play the central cosmological role as she does in the Pancaratra school. In Sri Vaisnavism Vishnu is clearly the central actor on the mythological stage and is equated with the highest philosophic principles. Sri-Lakshmi has nevertheless acquired an important role among certain Sri Vaisnava theologicians as the mediator between Vishnu and his devotees." The central aim of the Sri Vaisnava devotee is to cultivate and perfect his inherent duty, which is to love his Lord, and in so loving his Lord to identify himself with God as closely as possible. The writings of some philosophers of the school say that in approaching the Lord and requesting purity and grace Lakshmi acts as a mediating presence between the devotee and Vishnu. For Vedanta Desika (A.D. 1268-1368) Lakshmi seems indispensable in approaching Vishnu. She is described in his writings as a gracious mother who willingly intervenes with her often-stern husband on the devotee's behalf. "0 Mother who resides on the lotus, hearken to my plea! I babble like a child; with your grace {prasada) make the Lord who is your beloved listen to my [petition]. Elsewhere he writes: 'The mother . .., whose nature is such that her grace is unmixed with any anger and is showered on all, does not spare any effort to make the punishing Lord be pleased with those who have committed several faults. She cools the heat of His anger, which arises because He is the father.

Other Sri Vaisnava theologians share this view of Sri as an- intermediary between the sinful devotee and Vishnu. Periyavaccan Pillai (b. 1228) describes a conversation between Sri and Vishnu in which Sri acts as a devotee's advocate. Vishnu speaks first: 'Since beginningless time this human has been disobeying my laws and has been the object of my anger. If I condone his faults and accept them patiently, instead of punishing him, I will be disregarding the injunctions of Sastra.' Sri replies: 'But if you punish the human, instead of saving him, your quality of grace will not survive rrr56 In this passage Sri takes the side of the devotee by arguing that if Vishnu does not save the sinner his reputation as merciful will be threatened. Her argument plays on Vishnu's own conception of himself. Elsewhere Sri is said to resort to distracting Vishnu from his intention to punish a devotee by enticing him with her beauty. Manavala Mamunikal (1370-1443) says of Sri: "She uses her beauty to entice and enslave I the Lord. She makes eyes at Him, she lets her dress slip down a little."

In Sri Vaishavism Sri embodies divine compassion. While Vishnu, as the mighty king of heavenly Vaikuntha, may seem so awesome and transcendent as to be all but unapproachable to the lowly devotee, Sri provides an aspect of the divine that is eminently approachable. In this role as mediator she considerably softens the Sri VaiShaiva vision of the divine and allows feelings of intimacy and warmth to pervade the devotee's devotional moods toward the divine.

It should be noted that in Sri Vaisnavism the goddess is still renowned for bestowing all good things. Indeed, she is sovereignty 58 It is fitting that as the mediator between Vishnu and the devotee she bestows on the devotee the most cherished of all boons, her husband's grace.

The Worship Of Sri Lakshmi

Sri-Lakshmi is today one of the most popular and widely venerated deities of the Hindu pantheon. Her auspicious nature and her reputation for granting fertility, luck, wealth, and well-being seem to attract devotees in every Indian village. "All of India's back country is the dominion of Lakshmi, the goddess of the lotus. . . . She accompanies every mile traveled through central India, every visit to a temple. . . . Her likenesses are omnipresent on the walls and pillars, lintels and niches of sanctuaries, regardless of the deity of their specific dedication."

Lakshmi is worshiped throughout the year in a variety of festivalsP0 and she is the constant object of vratas, "religious vows," by means of which devotees ask her for a blessing in return for undertaking some act of devotion or piety on her behalf. The blessings requested vary according to the devotee and according to whether the vrata is undertaken during a festival in which certain kinds of blessings are traditional. The most common boons, however, have to do with marital fidelity or the longevity of one's spouse, the fertility of the crops, and the bestowal of material well-being.

The most important festival in which Lakshmi is worshiped today (except in Bengal) is Dipavali (Divali), which is held in the late autumn. Three important and interrelated themes are seen in this festival: Lakshmi's association with wealth and prosperity, her association with fertility and abundant crops, and her association with good fortune in the coming year. Perhaps the most obvious indication that Lakshmi is identified with prosperity is her popularity among merchants. During this festival it is customary for people, especially businessmen, to worship their account books. It seems to be clearly understood by merchants that wealth will not arise without Lakshmi's blessing or presence.

Agricultural motifs are also fairly clear in this festival as it is celebrated in some places. Cultivators are enjoined to worship their crops (which at this time of year have been harvested) and offer sacrifices of goats and sheep. "Moreover they visit the dunghill which is collected for manuring the field for future crops and fall prostrate and beg to fertilize their lands and to procure abundant crops. In the Decan and in Orissa the heap of cowdung is also worshiped by every householder on this day. Laksml is also associated with crops and food in Orissa on the occasion of the Kaumudi-purnima festival. On these days women invoke Lakshmi on a mound of new grain and recall a story in which Lakshmi's disappearance results in the disappearance of crops and food and her return prompts the return of abundance "The worship of Lakshmi during Durga Puja is also significant in terms of her association with agriculture. Although Durga Puja as it is celebrated today in India is not primarily a harvest festival, there are many indications that the renewed vigor of the crops is still an aspect of the festival.

The association of Lakshmi with good fortune in the coming year is also a significant aspect of the Dipavall festival. During this festival end of-the-year motifs are clear. At this time ghosts of the dead are said to return,65 Bali, a demon, is said to emerge from the underworld to rule for three days, goblins and malicious spirits are about,66 and gambling, profligate spending, and boisterous activity are commanded. Throughout the festival Lakshmi is invoked to ward off the dangerous effects of the returned dead and the emergent demon king and his hosts and to bless the gambler with success that will betoken his good luck during the entire coming year. The banishment of ALakshmi, the female spirit associated with bad luck and misfortune, is also associated with this festival. It is believed in many places that ALakshmi is driven away for the coming year by lighting lamps, which is one of the most beautiful and characteristic features of this festival, and by making noise with pots and pans or instruments.

On another occasion in Bengal an image of ALakshmi is made and ceremoniously disfigured by cutting off its nose and ears, after which an image of Lakshmi is installed to signify the presence of good luck in the future. During Dipavali people also replace the small clay images of Lakshmi and Ganesa which are revered in many homes and shops in North India. Lakshmi's association with Ganesa, the elephant-headed son of Siva and Parvati, is prominent in North India. Indeed, it is more common to see Lakshmi beside Ganesa than beside Vishnu in most parts of North India today. This association represents the continuity of some important themes in Lakshmi's character. Lakshmi is often associated with elephants, the Gaja-Lakshmi motif being ancient and consistent throughout her history. Her current association with Ganesa probably suggests meanings similar to those inherent in the Gaja-Lakshmi scenes. In addition, Ganesa is a Yaksa-type figure, associated with riches and good luck. It is appropriate that, like Kubera, he should be revered along with Lakshmi, herself the embodiment of wealth and luck.

Another aspect of Lakshmi is the focus of a summer festival in honor of her and Vishnu. This festival signals the point at which Vishnu is believed to fall asleep for several months. It is common to pray to Vishnu at this time to prevent the loss of one's wife or husband. In this festival Lakshmi and Vishnu are the embodiment of marital harmony and bliss. Lakshmi is understood to be the faithful, loving, and obedient wife. At another festival in honor of her and Vishnu, Lakshmi plays the role of a jealous wife and protector of the home. Vishnu is said to go off with another consort during this festival, and Lakshmi, in anger over his unfaithfulness, breaks his vehicle and temporarily locks him out of their home (the temple).

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