Contrary to the popular perception, Laxmi is not the goddess of wealth. She is the
goddess of good fortune and the capable personality, the forceful ability and the
manifold skills that confer the right to rule. Sri also means in another sense glory,
brilliance, glow and beauty. Wealth is just the external manifestation of
these attributes. It is perhaps understandable that people should jump to the conclusion
that Laxmi is the goddess of wealth, seeing as how all the illustrations show rivers
of gold coins flowing out of her hand. Kubera, the Yaksha King is the God of Wealth,
and so surprisingly is Ganapati. To make matters even more interesting, Laxmi, Kubera
and Ganapati are all Yaksha deities absorbed into Hinduism about a thousand years
ago. That is another story, to be dealt with when I cover the Yakshas.
Laxmi is actually two goddesses in one. The Yaksha deity has merged with the Vedic
concept of SRI - the power of good fortune that enables a king to rule. When Sri
deserted a king, he lost his physical, intellectual and even moral powers to rule,
and went rapidly into decline. Sri has deserted even Indra, chief amongst the gods.
Sri is that unmistakable air of authority and competence that sits upon somebody
at the peak of their powers, when they are in midseason form and performing wonders.
Mozart for instance was blessed with Sri all his life, his genius and superiority
being unmistakable, but money was not part of the equation. Fame and acclaim, two
boons of Sri Laxmi, were to be his lot as well as an enduring name. Somehow it is
almost irrelevant today that he had no money. However, it is not commonly known
that Laxmi has a fearsome dark side to her, a veritable Shadow of Shadows called
A-Laxmi, the anti-Laxmi. This is not the mere absence or desertion by Sri, it is
a real presence that brings bad luck like a perpetual hex. Fortunately this Laxmi
is easily mollified - once the reasons for her appearance are understood and acknowledged.
It is a brilliant concept to illustrate poverty consciousness and the lack of integrity
that is punished by the universe.
Today Laxmi has become safely domesticated as the wife of Vishnu, perpetually watching
over her sleeping husband in mythological carvings. There are many complaints about
this situation in the regional literature of devotion. Poets afflicted with poverty,
as all poets always are, loudly complain about the eternal old man who is unable
to control the capricious whims of his young wife, who bestows fortune and money
on the undeserving while the worthy struggle. Hence one of the epithets is Chanchala,
'the unstable'. (Not 'fickle' as is often mistakenly translated.) At a time when
fortunes disappear overnight because men's expectations outrun their prudence, i.e.
at any time at all in history, such complaints become common. Laxmi, therefore,
has been very popular, but a little undercurrent of bitterness against her unstable
nature has ensured she is worshipped in almost every home, but there is not one
single major temple built in her name. The sole exception is Mahalaxmi temple in
Mumbai City, the only city in India that is unapologetic about making money and
more importantly believes it can be generated, not snatched from others. Mahalaxmi
temple is certainly an ancient Yaksha shrine and look where it has taken the city.
Mumbai city alone pays over 80% of the income tax generated in India. Not kidding!
In the earliest myths about Sri we learn that Prajapati, the Cosmic Father created
her - and instantly made the other gods jealous. They proceeded to steal her qualities
from her, a list of virtues that vary in different accounts, but usually agree on
these ten. Food, Kingly rule, Power that glows, Noble rank, World domination, Beauty,
Plentitude, Good fortune, Physical power and Purity. It is a pretty comprehensive
list and explains why there are always a group of devotees who claim supreme goddess
status for her. The Sri-sukta section of the Rig-Veda praises her in extravagant
terms and for the first time you have a goddess described in Kingly terms with Kingly
attributes like a throne, elephants and chariots to ride on. This is almost certainly
a borrowing from the extant Yaksha mythology of the time. What impresses you straight
away is the constant glow or luster that the poet is never tired of referring to.
She radiates power like the sun, and has the usual quota of over-ornamentation that
is so beloved of Sanskrit literature. The Sri sukta is important for being the first
to refer to her as a goddess who grants fertility, both animal and vegetable, again
a Yaksha attribute. From that association with the soil has grown the myth of Sita,
avatar of Laxmi and found in a furrow ploughed by the Sage-King Janaka. It is a
perfect amalgamation of all the mythological attributes, Janaka being pre-eminent
both in wisdom as well as wealth, Janaka, foremost in prestige and teacher of rishis,
and surely in abundant possession of Sri, so much so that she has to be referred
to as his daughter!