Lakshmi (note 1) is the Shakti aspect of Vishnu and resplendent goddess of wealth and happiness. When expressing the universal principle of beauty, Lakshmi is known as Sri (note 2). Lakshmi not only represents material wealth but also for abundance in courage, knowledge, strength, victory, children, education, etc. Wealth in all its forms is important for the preservation and happiness of life on earth and in her role as nourisher, preserver and provider, Lakshmi bestows her blessings according to the worshipper’s past karma and degree of devotion. Her worshippers are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct and maintain utmost purity to earn her grace. In Tantric worship, she is worshipped with Mantras and yantras (mystic diagrams).
As Vishnu’s Shakti aspect, Lakshmi provides the primal creative energy (Prakriti) to his consciousness (Purusha). He is the word, she is the meaning. He is the thought, while she is the action. Whenever Vishnu incarnates on earth in human form, Lakshmi incarnates along with him as they restore dharma to the world. She incarnated as Padma when Vishnu incarnated upon the earth as Vamana, as Dharani when he incarnated as Parasurama, as Sita when he incarnated as Rama and as Rukmini when he incarnated as Krishna.
Lakshmi is traditionally depicted sitting on an open eight petaled lotus, representing the enlightened and pure mind, as she holds lotus flowers in her two hands and holding the other two hands in Abhaya (assurance) and varada (bestowing) mudras (gestures) (note 3). Her complexion varies from pink to golden yellow or white. She is usually associated with water, illustrated by elephants standing on either side of her emptying pitchers through their raised trunks. Sometimes she is shown in the company of Vishnu and sometimes alone, showering gold coins upon her devotees. In the company of Vishnu, she is Samanya Lakshmi with lotuses in both hands with two hands and when alone, she is Varalakshmi with four arms and hands with four hands, holding a lotus, a conch, a pot of nectar and fruit respectively. As an aspect of Mari Amma (Durga), Lakshmi is also depicted with four additional hands, each carrying a bow, an arrow, a mace and a discus.
Note 1 – translates as “She of the Hundred Thousands”.
Note 2 – Lakshmi and Sri in Vedic times were separate goddesses but amalgamated with the passage of time.
Note 3 – the lotus is Lakshmi’s primary attribute and inextricably linked as both represent immaculate purity and enlightenment. The lotus grows out of mud (samsara) but rises to the surface and opens to the sun (enlightenment). A closed lotus bud represents potential while an open flower symbolizes actualization.
Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good FortuneTerry Curell2019-11-19T14:12:59-08:00
Shakti manifests Prakriti, Brahman’s dynamic feminine will and creative energy. Shakti is the Divine Feminine and Brahman’s Force of Life. Prakriti consists of three types of matter, or gunas, which are the essential elements of all nature. Prakriti and it’s counterpart, the male principle of Purusha, consciousness and spirit, are interdependent, equivalent and ineffective without the other.
In mythology, just as Purusha embodies in the form of the male gods, Shakti, as the active, creative power takes physical form as Devi. This form can be one of the three Maha Devis, The Great Goddesses; Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Music and Art, aligned with Brahma, the Creator; Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune aligned with Vishnu the Preserver; and Uma, The Mother Goddess of Love and Devotion aligned with Shiva, the Destroyer (note 1). As the creative, regenerative and maintaining forces of the universe each Maha Devi, as well as other goddesses such as Kali, Ganga and Mari Amma, has unique set of roles and characteristics.
“She is the creative joy of life; herself the beauty, the marvel, the enticement and seduction of the living world”
Heinrich Zimmer; Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
In pre-Vedic times, India’s indigenous peoples venerated powerful, independent goddesses, but as Hinduism spread the divine feminine principle was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon, and in doing so the goddesses lost much of their spiritual status. Hinduism’s spiritual source, The Vedas, reflected the values of a patriarchal nomadic culture that suppressed prehistoric feminine power, therefore, the goddesses were relegated to roles as wives and consorts. Devotional hunger for divine feminine energy was not to be denied, however, and powerful deities in their own right have re-emerged; Durga, the dispassionate demon killer; Kali, the fiery protector; and of course, Uma, the cool, sensual beauty and power behind Shiva’s cosmic role. Hindu belief continues to evolve into the modern era and as the need for Shakti’s energy grows, so does the influence of her Devis.
Note 1 – Uma is known by many names, Parvati chief among them, but our Reference Library is primarily focussed on the Chola Bronzes, therefore, we refer to the deities as they are known in south India.
Vishnu ranks among the Maha Devas, the Great Gods. Brahma creates the Universe and Shiva destroys it, enabling Brahma to create it anew. Between creation and destruction, Vishnu preserves the universe’s cosmic order, its Dharma, when it is disturbed. The gods ask Vishnu to intervene and he leaves his formless state on the heavenly plane, descending to earth in the form of an avatar. Vishnu has manifested as ten avatars or incarnations, and each serves a specific form and purpose.
Vishnu’s avatars are;
Matsya, the Fish, who rescued the first man and the creatures of the earth from a great flood – a myth common to many cultures,
Kurma, the Tortoise, supported the stick on his back used to churn an ocean of milk to recover treasures,
Varaha, the Boar, after a thousand-year battle, raised the Earth out of from the sea with his tusks after the demon, Hiranyaksha, dragged it to the bottom of the ocean,
Narasimha, the Lion-Man, slew Hiranyakashipiu after Brahma had conferred a boon that the demon couldn’t be harmed or killed indoors or out, by day or night, nor by any weapon. The demon was causing trouble both in heaven and on earth, and when Hiranyakashipiu threatened his son Prahlada, a Vishnu devotee, Narasimha leapt from a pillar on a porch (neither indoors nor out) at dusk (neither day nor night) and tore out his heart with his claws,
Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared when Bali, a demon king, ruled the universe when the gods lost their power. Vamana visited Bali and begged for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Laughing, Bali granted the wish. As Vamana, Vishnu assumed the form of a giant whose first step bestrode the whole earth, the middle world with the second and with the third step, sent Bali down to rule the underworld,
Parasurama appeared as an angry, axe-wielding priest who came into the world to restore dharma to a social order corrupted by an arrogant Kshatriya (warrior) caste,
Rama, another popular Hindu deity, is the central figure in the Ramayana, an epic where Rama slays the multi-headed demon, Ravanna, who had kidnapped Rama’s devoted wife, Sita,
Krishna is a hugely popular deity in Hinduism. He was born mortal and is the playful butter loving toddler; the eternally beautiful, blue-skinned, flute-playing, gopi-seducing, cow-herding youth; and the worldly charioteer speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic, Bhagavad Gita, the definitive treatise on the practice of Hinduism.
Balarama is Krishna’s rarely worshipped, physically powerful, older brother who shares some of Krishna’s adventures. Later legends have Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth replacing Balarama as the ninth avatar (note 1),
Kalki, the mighty warrior, is Vishnu’s last incarnation and is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, our present time. Kalki will come to rid the world of evil riding a white horse and carrying a flaming sword.
Vishnu in his traditional form is portrayed in one of two ways; standing (samabhanga) on a lotus with four arms and hands holding attributes and weapons (note 2).
Or he is portrayed resting on the coiled snake floating on the cosmic ocean (note 3). As Vishnu awakens, the universe is created. A lotus emerges from his navel and out of the unfolding lotus emerges Brahma, the Creator, who then manifests the universe which Vishnu maintains and preserves. After Shiva destroys the universe, Brahma is enfolded in the lotus, withdraws into his navel, and Vishnu falls asleep once again. As he sleeps, he dreams the universe as it will be created when the next cycle begins, a cycle without beginning or end, the Hindu concept of time (note 3).
A foundational Hindu belief is the importance of the interdependent balance of male and female energies in major deities. The male cognitive force (Purusha) is ineffective without the creative female energy of Shakti (Prakriti), personified in Vishnu’s case by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune. If Purusha is the word, Prakriti is the meaning. A romantic aspect of the myths whenever Vishnu descends to earth as an avatar he is accompanied by Lakshmi in her reincarnated form. For example, when Vishnu incarnates as Rama, Lakshmi is born as Sita.
Vishnu’s vehicle (vahana) is Garuda, a giant eagle able to spread knowledge of The Vedas. Garuda has great courage and sometimes portrayed in winged human form with an eagle’s beak.
Beginning in the 6th century in south India, Vaishnavite (note 4) poet-saints (alvars) roamed south India singing Vishnu’s praises in a deeply personal manner (note 5). This intimate relationship with God in turn inspired a new devotional style of worship known as Bhakti. Out of which arose practices formerly associated with Tantric rituals, such as puja and material images representing the gods (murti) which were believed to be able to temporarily host the deity, given the appropriate rituals and intensity and purity of heart of the devotee.
Note 1 – Hinduism is all-inclusive. When a new focus of worship, such as Buddhism or Christianity emerges, from a Hindu perspective they manifest a fresh aspect of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul, and are enfolded into Hindu belief.
Note 2 – In the first hand a conch, Sankha, represents the spread of the sacred sound ‘Om’; in the second the disc, Vajira, representing the chakra, the wheel of time; the third holds his club, Gada, representing the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers are derived; and in the fourth he holds the lotus, Padma, symbol of purity and unfolding creation.
Note 3 – Variously known as either Sesha (remainder) or Ananta (endless) who represent the sleeping universe.
Note 4 – Vaishnava is the sectarian belief that Vishnu or one of his avatars, Krishna in particular, is Supreme Lord. Vaishnavism has many sub-sects.
Note 5 – The equivalent for devotees of Shiva is Saivism and for the many aspects of Devi, Shaktism, all with many sub-sects.
It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.
He is the one, the one alone, in Him all deities become One alone.”
Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.
These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.
The Gods and Goddesses of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00