If a traveller, new to the land of Aryavarta, happened along a road approaching a village during the last two days of the month of Ashvina or the first two days of Karttika, he might be amazed by the blazing sight that greeted his eye. For if his approach were at dusk, or an even later hour, he would see stretched before him a miniature city of lights winking and shining and beckoning to him. At its outskirts, the outlines of individual houses, great and small, would be revealed to him, their roofs, windows, doors and courtyards festooned with cheerfully glowing lamps that flickered in the occasional breeze, like jewels glinting small hints of a greater treasure. Passing a simple mud and wattle dwelling, the traveller might wonder where such a treasure could be. Perhaps it lies in the harvest which is just beginning to come in. Perhaps it lies in the little lights themselves which banish the ubiquitous solemnity of the nightfall and join the realm of the earth to that of the stars. But if he tarries and engages in talk the odd member or two of the community who happens to speak his language, he might learn that the little lamps celebrate Dipavali, the festival of lights, sacred to the goddess Lakshmi, who, it is hoped, will be guided by their brightness into each and every illuminated household.
In the north, many people say Lakshmi returns to the plains each fall after her stay during summer in the foothills. The day before she is expected, annual housecleaning commences, marked by renewal of the clay floors in simple houses, or replacement of carpets in the more opulent ones, and universal whitewashing everywhere. Utensils are scrubbed until gleaming and everything is done to attract the goddess who loves light and cleanliness and who, if pleased, will bring good fortune and wealth to all whom she visits. And as they seek to attract her by creating conditions sympathetic with her nature, so also they attempt to establish an affinity with her, through imitation of her potential generosity, by giving food and coins to the poor. Much of this the traveller might be told, and some of it he might conjecture on the basis of things heard or seen in the course of a previous journey made in another land, but some of it would become clear and logical to him only with a passage of time spent in just such a village as the one he found himself in. For he might question why this great Lakshmi puja unleashes such an indulgence in all sorts of joyful gambling, or why some mark it as the beginning of a new commercial year, while others anxiously watch to see if their little floating saucers of light will sink or flow with the passing current. He might wonder as well just how earth-bound or celestial this goddess might be when he is confronted with a painting showing her seated on an open lotus with a steady stream of coins flowing from her person into a money-box! It might not spring immediately to his mind to interpret this simply as a representation of Kamala bathed in a stream of ambrosia flowing from the golden vessels of four white elephants at the time of the great churning of the Sea of Milk.
It is said that Hindu kings, besides being married to their chief queen and their consorts, found their kingly fortune in their marriage to Lakshmi. If at some point she left them, they would lose their realm, carrying with her, as she would, all the wealth and abundance she had once so freely bestowed. Given the many beliefs like this which circulate throughout India, it is not surprising that Lakshmi is widely worshipped and looked to with great hope and fervour. For she is Kalpavriksha, the wish-fulfilling tree, and she is Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow, whose initial offspring was the Sage Vasishtha's sweet provider, Nandini, and ultimately the whole population of cattle on earth. Like Lakshmi, the cow is the provider of wealth, fortune and all that is essential and sacred to the goddess. Its milk and curds, butter and dung, provide the basis of ritual oblation, food, fuel, and the fertilizer capable of sustaining the ongoing cycles of new life. Just as Kalpavriksha and the sacred Tulsi plant are the incarnations of Lakshmi in the vegetable kingdom, she is the cow in the animal realm, and both are treated as her living representatives. Each year at Vaishnava temples, Shri Tulsi is ritually married to an idol of Lord Vishnu, while throughout the year her planter-pedestal is reverently circumambulated and her medicinal powers widely used. "Each morning", Brahmins say, "you should feed a cow before feeding yourself", and they pray, "Daughter of Surabhi, framed of five elements, auspicious, pure, holy-sprung from the sun, accept this food given by me. Salutations unto thee!" They hope – like all who garland cows in the city streets, or carefully drive around them at crowded intersections, or rub vibhuti gently between their horns and along their backs in passing, or permit them to help themselves to produce from their vendor carts – like all those they hope to receive the notice and blessing of fortune from the golden-hued goddess of all that is desirable, bright Shri of the frothy wave.
Desirable provider, Lakshmi is both motherly protector and paragon of beauty. She personifies the love which expects nothing in return (avyaya, "unexpectant"). One of her many names is Avyayakarunapurapuritaya Namah, "she who is full of a gushing stream of affection and compassion which is spontaneous and expects no return". As the wish-fulfilling goddess, she is the mother of Kamadeva, and as the wish-fulfilling tree she provides every item deemed capable of bestowing feminine beauty: cloth, flowers, wine, and red lac for the feet. Even Shankara said that Lakshmi should be thought of immediately upon waking, for it was then, at the beginning of a new creation, that she was bathed by the elephants of the four cardinal points with the water of immortality. Thus, women desirous of beauty bathe in honour of Shri, hoping that the flush of her unageing loveliness may come alive in their own vestures. Lord Vishnu himself is said to be ever conscious of her beauty and charm and he guards her jealously, carrying her continually on his chest.
There is a metaphysical ontology suggested in the progression of names given to Lakshmi. Of her one hundred and eight appellations, the first is Ashtottara, meaning "the origin of creation", while the second is Vibriti, "the origin and originated". She has no temples but is universally worshipped under many of her names, such as Narayani (spouse of Narayana), Adamaya or Lokamatri (mother of the world), Rembha (sea-born goddess of beauty), Jaladhija (ocean-born), Chanchala or Lola (fickle goddess of fortune), Padma or Kamala (lotus), Shri, Devi or even Bhudevi (Prithivi or Earth). In the Rig Veda her name occurs in connection with the idea of good or bad fortune working through her role as wife of Varuna or Surya. But in a supplement to this hoary text, she is directly referred to as Lakshmi or Shri, associated with the lotus blossom and quite definitely good fortune. The idea becomes more concretely personified in the Atharva Veda, while the Shatapatha Brahmana dwells upon the more primitive notion of her emergence from Prajapati. The description of her springing (like Aphrodite) from the froth of the ocean with an unopened lotus in her hand originates in the compelling prose of the Ramayana, where her arrival is heralded as one of the salvaged treasures lost from a previous cycle of manifestation and stirred up into existence by the gods as they churned the great cosmic sea. A variation of this depicts her floating upon a lotus at the time of creation, floating fully formed and fully armed, as Kshirabdhitanaya, daughter of the Sea of Milk.
In the Puranas, Lakshmi is described as the daughter of Bhrigu, lion among Sages, who cursed Rudra and Brahmā because they would not show him respect. Elsewhere she is a personification of the earth, a celestial descendant of the abstract cosmic progenitrix, Aditi, or a consort to the more primordial and formative involvements of Vishnu in the world. She appears and reappears at many levels and in many guises. Emerging from more than one churning, existing before some and after others, she is a force permeating all angles and aspects of the opening lotus of life. Her name, Lakshmi, simply means "mark", a sign, good or bad. The stem laksh suggests the act of observing, to apprehend or perceive; lakshana means aim or indication; lakshaya, to mark or define. The manifestation of something out of the subjective ocean-of-becoming is implied here. As the formative energy or shakti of the masculine idea of the universe, Lakshmi is the point in the circle, the mark of emerging law, which will operate through cycles of unfoldment – being neither good nor bad but interpreted by human minds as fortune. Through the mark, the sign, the outline of karma first begins to take shape, and the beauty and splendour of its emerging form is destined to become an ideal to which all that becomes blemished and deformed in human relations is compared. If one examines the uses of this root-name, an interesting perspective on such characteristics (lakshana) can be garnered. Lakshmikanta and Lakshminatha are appellations of Vishnu which suggest that the great god is the beloved and desired focus of the mark or aim, its protector and refuge. As Lakshmipati, Krishna husbands this sign or outline of evolving fortune, while to be called Lakshmana is to possess its mark.
Clearly, in its most abstract sense, this quality of being, this indication of law, must emerge at the dawn of manifested existence, and it continues to emerge in many cyclic stages, including that of the famous churning attributed to the time of the Kurma Avatar in the Puranas. In terms of cosmic evolution, this "churning" characterizes what The Secret Doctrine calls the war between the gods and the giants, the great battle engaging the spiritual powers of constellations, causing the movement and placement of stars and planets. Like a vast celestial pride of powerful creatures exuding each their fierce energy in a natural struggle to determine dominance and subsequent order, the gigantic entities roar and clash, to eventually settle into a temporary pattern of coexistence. It is out of this great clashing and churning that Shri (or Venus-Aphrodite) "rose out of the sea". With an eclipse of the sun at the ascending node of the moon, Shri appeared, first in all her radiant glory, fully armed, and finally as the ancestral earth, rising as the Mountain of the Moon (Sin), its vitalizing power streaming through its waxing and waning cycles. As Venus is the spiritual prototype of the earth, so the moon is its astral progenetrix, and both are vestured aspects of Lakshmi's divinely originated power. In this sense, she is an archetypal shakti energy expressed in hierarchical levels, identifiable in descending aspects under her own names as well as in the complementary characteristics of Sarasvati and Parvati, consorts of the other two deities who play such critical roles in the whole Hindu cycle of creation, preservation and destruction.
In Vaikuntha, Vishnu's heaven, the god and his consort rest among white lotuses, surrounded by pools lined with gold and precious jewels, reflective of their radiance. In the vast ocean of Narayana, Lakshmi sits at her Lord's feet, tending him even at the dawn of creation, and when he descends into the creative realm in different guises, she accompanies him likewise. For Lakshmi is the embodiment of that aspect of the forces of preservation operating in the world which men most readily identify with faithfulness. Just as wealth, beauty and good fortune can be seen as expressions of this preservative power, so the fidelity of Sita, the devotion of Radha or the providing nature of Prithivi are all related aspects of this same quality. Lakshmi's loyalty is expressed even in her faithful "visits" to her dark sister (the negative side of her own nature), Niriti (goddess of misery), who demonstrates her own preservative character by protecting all those who are born with handicaps or into families of evildoers, but who are virtuous and kind. When, in her incarnation as Sita, Lakshmi entered the fire to prove her innocence and purity. King Kubera, Yama, Indra, Varuna, Shiva, Brahmā and all the gods approached King Rama asking how he could disregard Sita "as she falls into the oblation-bearer". Brahmā then told Rama that he was Narayana, Varaha, Vishnu and Prajapati, who entered a mortal form in order to slay Ravana, and that he should now prepare to enter heaven. Hearing this, the fire rose up with Sita in his lap and placed her in the lap of Rama, where she shone like the sun, wearing gold purified by the flame and garlands which had not withered. The fire spoke of her purity and total lack of evil, and commanded Rama to embrace her once again and take her with him.
The faithfulness of Lakshmi is a reflected "picture" to the world of the changeless and unconditioned nature of the One Reality. Her devotion to Hari is a pure expression of the one radiant Source of Light which supports unconditionally all life. At the great churning described in the Puranas, all the gods sang and danced her praises when she appeared. They showered her with gifts, awed and inspired by her dazzling beauty. And when she went to Hari's chest and rested her splendour contentedly thereon, "Lakshmi made the gods know instant and supreme bliss just by looking at the two of them." Such bliss is but a transferred experience of union between the dual aspects of cosmic and human nature, and it is tasted by human beings in moments of transcendent meditation as well as in the bliss of wholly unconditional love. But this power of preserving faithfulness cannot be looked for in worldly fortunes, where the separative hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, of individuals fly in the face of its essential unifying nature. Thus, in the world of human action, the perceivable mark of fortune expressive of Lakshmi's energy is fraught with karmic effects that may not always appear to people as good fortune at all. Ironically, the very constancy of Lakshmi becomes a guarantee that correct karmic reward or retribution will, in fact, be experienced. This inspires many to think of Lakshmi as Lola, the fickle goddess, or what those elsewhere in the world call luck. They then may try to placate her, beg her like gamblers to be a lady, or shower her with gifts out of fear. But Lakshmi's power is not merely expressive of fortune but of cycles of effects born from her Lord's universal ideation and carried forth through the power of his maya, which she embodies. Thus, all that appears to be fortunate is not only bound to change places with its opposite condition, but it is misperceived and illusory to begin with Raso vai sah. Creation starts with water and Lakshmi arises out of its causal vastness, enwombing the potency of the unfolding universe, the maya of Lord Vishnu.
As Maha Vishnu, Hari reigns unlimited, beyond form or time. As preserver, he is the guardian of universal order, the supreme upholder of Dharma represented in the archetypal macrocosmic man. Acting through these limits created by his own maya, Vishnu increasingly came to be seen by Vaishnava philosophers as acting in conjunction with two basic assumptions: that microcosmic man progresses from life to life according to his observation of Dharma, and that good and evil forces struggle constantly in the world, with evil sometimes getting the upper hand, necessitating Vishnu's intervention as an Avatar. The idea of bhakti also grew and, though Lakshmi had already embodied it earlier, a broad movement occurred with its focus upon the Krishna Avatar, with all its rich and beautiful lore. In earlier times the shakti element had never been strong in Vaishnavism, which did not embrace many of the ancient mother goddess cults but became, instead, more firmly identified with kings and stratified social orders. Only the feminine and providing aspect of Lakshmi's character had been stressed, leaving out the angry or destructive side found in other goddesses. Prior to the bhakti movement, however, the shakti concept became more important, and after the eighth century the philosophers agreed that a shakti must be associated with the ultimate Reality in order for manifestation to take place. They then began to stress the maya element of shakti and established Lakshmi's rank as more equal to Vishnu's by emphasizing the mystical tenet of unity in duality – the two in one.
This accounts for a renovated conception of Lakshmi, but the gradual increase of her influence upon people seems to have been the result of the spread of the dualistic concepts. The bhakti movement then became closely associated for many with the personal god idea, and the devotion of Lakshmi in her many guises became a model for an increasingly externalized mode of worship. Thus, the example of King Rama refusing to accept Sita at his side because of the doubts of others concerning her purity and faithfulness became a model for many who, during the horrors of Partition in 1949, refused to take back wives who had been abducted during the chaos. But the intense devotion demonstrated by someone like Mirabai flies in the face of the dualistic influence and exemplifies a power of pure devotion which, in the end, utterly transcends any separation between the devotee and her lord. Such devotion rings with the quality of Lakshmi's unconditional love. It rises far beyond the fields of good and bad fortune and makes of all wealth or poverty, joy or suffering, a hymn of longing for and surrender to Krishna. Thus Lakshmi, so closely identified with Vishnu's maya, becomes the means of transcending the maya of separation.
Lotus-born, Lakshmi is Padmasambhava. So closely is she associated with the lotus that its symbolism becomes highly relevant to understanding her. She was the first deity to be described as Padmamesthita (standing on a lotus), to be Padmavarna (lotus-coloured), Padmauru (lotus-thighed), Padmakshi (lotus-eyed), Padmini Pushkarini (abounding in lotuses), Padmapriya (the goddess to whom the lotus is dear) or just plain Padma. Some say that she is the greatest deific power in Asia, tracing her influence in lotus thrones and crowns everywhere. Her lotus pedestal has become attached to other deities both Hindu and Buddhist, and her characteristic attitude, known as padma hasta, or padmapani (lotus in hand), was taken over in the iconography of Mahayana Buddhism and can be seen in images of Padmapani, who was the prototype for Kwan-Yin in the Chinese tradition and Kwannon in the Japanese. In the Vishnudharmottara the flower actually replaces her human face and becomes instead her saubhagya (beauty, luck and feminine grace). At Darasuram she is worshipped in a Pallava carving as Chakrayi. While holding her lotus face with her two hands, she displays the lotuses on the soles of her feet, her mark of oneness with the good Law. In many places in India this sort of image can be found. They are centuries old and associate Lakshmi closely with both the abstract and concrete worlds, the productive powers of spiritual and physical Nature operating through the agency of fire and water.
Both goddess and lotus signify the emanation of the objective from the subjective realm. Initially, Padma is still curled up in her seed, but with the electrifying breath of her Lord she begins to manifest the astral waters of becoming and grows towards the sun, connecting the earth to the fire of spirit through her own watery womb of life. As a seed, Padma can float upon the cosmic waters for millennia, and like the physical lotus seed, yet germinate with new life. In this sense Lakshmi is not "born" with the churning but merely stirred forth into sprouting, as it were. The great life-preserving power which she possesses is exemplified well by the lotus's long-lived seed, its umbilical stem stretching up to emerge on the water's surface and its gradually opening solar-sensitive bloom. This whole complex of symbols is dramatically brought together in the Raja Yantra or Lotus Yantra, at whose centre Lakshmi is represented as a glyph with a fiery triangle around it, drawing the kundalini into its ascending movement. Like her lordly consort, Lakshmi is part of the descending and ascending cycle of existence. While opening up her petals in animation of the illusory world, she remains focussed one-pointedly at the feet of her Lord. Her mayavic beauty dazzles, but her real beauty lies in the absolute unerring quality of her aim (lakshana), which is faithfully to translate and energize the will of her Lord.
If one considers all goddesses in one essential being, it can be said that she appears at the very emergence of the three gunas, or qualities of manifest existence, which can be designated as Reality, Consciousness and Experience: Sat-chit-ananda. According to the Shiva Purana, Lakshmi best typifies the sattva guna. Hers is the power of Reality expressed in multiplicity. As such, she brings the visible and centripetal energy of the sun (received from her celestial Lord) into action and coordination, from the sublime levels of abstract thought down to the interdependent orders flourishing in Nature. In this way, preeminently, she is at once the handmaiden of Maha Vishnu, the companion of his avataric incarnations, and Bhudevi, the earth itself. Her seed utterance (Lakshmi bija) is "Shrim". It is the sound with which she can be worshipped in order to evoke the limitlessness of multiplicity characterized as fortune. This seed of existence or fortune multiplies through maya, but its origin lies beyond the veil separating the noumenal from the phenomenal, and Lakshmi bears it forth into a coordinated environment of becoming. One can see how individuals whose consciousness is rooted to the earth would tend to translate these associations into terms of very concrete concerns – for a plentiful harvest, worldly wealth, fertility, physical beauty or simply a freedom from the chaos of disruptive events. The gold coins so often depicted flowing from her lap into a money-box could very easily become the literally interpreted object of fervently pursued forms of worship.
An instructive legend tells that at one time the gods sought refuge from an army of marauding Daityas in the abode of Vishnu, who was manifested as Dattatreya. The evil Daityas followed them there and, entering, were confronted with the overwhelming beauty of Lakshmi seated demurely at her husband's side. The Daityas seethed with desire for her and, forgetting their pursuit of the gods, abducted her on a palanquin, which they carried away on their heads. The gods were aghast at this calamity and wondered why Dattatreya remained calmly seated while the evil deed had been accomplished. To their agitated questions he replied that Lakshmi was the goddess of wealth and her place was at the feet of men (which is why she had sat at Narayana's feet), not on their heads. Therefore, whoever put her on their heads would surely be ruined. And indeed, the legend goes on to tell, the Daityas were ruined and Lakshmi returned to her rightful place. The moral clearly implied is that not only should wealth not be allowed to "go to one's head", but that if desire for wealth is allowed to become the uppermost motive for one's actions, the guiding inspiration of one's life, one is courting inevitable disaster. The streams of ambrosia washing over and pouring from Lakshmi cannot be appropriated for the sake of their lower forms, nor can they be gathered up by separative individuals or hoarded away. All attempts to shore up a barrier between oneself and the ebb and flow of the karmic ocean's tide are futile. Behind all such activity lie fear and greed, both of which destroy the very fabric of an individual's garment of immortality. He who is afraid to lose all will lose all, and he who lusts after more will be cursed with the lowest forms of its acquisition, which themselves will become a burdensome source of anxiety and fear of loss.
The only man who is free is one who is not afraid to die. The only man who can drink at the fountain of the source of limitless multiplicity is he who has relinquished all, let go and accepted the possible loss of everything. People usually count wealth in terms of material goods but, like Job, they may experience the loss of health, beauty, friends, wife, children, money, land or even faith. To be stripped of everything one hopes for or holds dear may be the only way that some will come to confront the source of fortune and wealth within themselves. Others will have to work it out in their minds all the way to its core. There is no other way to freedom, no shortcut to the light-winged delight inherent in the acceptance of the great work of karma as it endlessly adjusts the inharmonies of the world.
When Lord Shiva desired to know the vision of Rama, the latter told him, "O Giver of Peace (Sambhu), you should ever worship my transcendent power of delight. As the charming Rama, I am deeply dependent upon her. Without her I could not for an instant remain in existence; she is my innermost life." Lakshmi is thus not the object of desire but desire itself, arising in the great lord of creation, arising, ultimately, in It. Who else could be the mother of Kamadeva, and who else could show the way beyond desire but the mother of desire herself? People desire good fortune, but it belongs to a desire so cosmic, a fortune so utterly universal in its scope, that even the dullest minds sense the ephemeral nature of both their personal longings and what they long for. True, those who possess wealth can become so entwined in the seeming reality of that wealth that they actually believe in its permanence and reality. But it is merely the tiniest speck (lakshmaka) of Lakshmi's power that they imagine they are manipulating, a speck expressive of only her grossest and most limiting potential. The fortune they desire is mayavic, the desire they feel for it is mayavic and their imagined possession of their object is mayavic. Just as desire is transcended by desire, so the wisdom that leads to transcendent delight residing beyond the spell of maya is manifested by Maya in her essence. The world or maya must exist in order for wisdom to become apprehendable. Without "her", Rama, as he said, could not remain in existence. But caught in her lower garments, men grovel for windfalls and pray for luck.
To receive the shower of ambrosia from Lakshmi's lap, one must place her mayavic manifestation at the feet and her essential reality at the head, so that the heart is filled with the divine water of unexpecting universal love and the single-pointed desire to become a pure vehicle for God's will – the divine cosmic will of the Ishvara within. Turning away from desire for external good fortune or wealth is essential as a first step. One must take a vow of poverty in the sense that one abandons expectations regarding success or acquisition in the world, knowing that these are likely to be obstructions to the recognition of one's inner consciousness of the creative One Life. Letting go without fear when the shuffle of events causes things to change and move on in life enables one to experience the unlimited courage that exists within and flows from the all-embracing desire for universal good that abides like a Lakshmi bija in the heart.
Having transcended the desire for the external aspects of Lakshmi's bounty, one may see these manifestations for what they are. Desiring only to reflect in one's entire being the infinite compassion and will of the One who is her Lord, one may come to know the nature of his mystery. To do this requires a faithfulness of mind and heart beyond any ordinary understanding of that term. A constancy and a daily reaffirmation of one's full and unconditional vow to become a pure vehicle of the Divine Will needs to be accompanied by a fearless willingness to slough off plans and patterns which can be seen through as springing from the desires of the lower nature. The power of preservation expressed in Lakshmi's multiplying generation of life and its coordination and ordering must not be allowed to become manifest in us as a tenacious "holding on for dear life" to some pattern or relationship which we deem (out of fear) vital to our happiness or well-being. The universe is too big for us to imagine, in such small terms, that we know what is best. The happiness or bounty we seek is a pathetic crumb of the great potential fortune that awaits a world yet in slumber.
The traveller comes upon a village and learns about the little lamps decorating the porches and windows of each house. Then he comes to find that the village he sees is within himself and that he has a house which he must clean and make ready. It may be a large and rich house with which he must spend a great deal of time and effort to prepare, or it may be a tiny mud hut whose earthen floor and walls require but a coating of fresh cow dung and whitewash. But the house must be prepared and made clean, and the lights of pure spiritual desire must rise up from little saucers filled with the oil of selfless, unexpecting acceptance and love from every entrance and angle of its structure. The objects are all part of Lakshmi's maya, as is the seeming separation of one's house from another house, one's village from the next. But the aspiration to bond oneself to the source of the great flow of life's fortune – connecting entity with non-entity, manas with atma-buddhi – that is not mayavic, for it reflects the changeless, eternal Desire that conceived of and engendered the whole world, and it leaves the lesser hopes and fears of men far below in the dust. When the house is ready and the lights carefully made and tended, then Lakshmi will appear. One may wait through the long nights, eyes closed to the shadows, ears straining only for her step, and suddenly hear the rustle of her gown or feel the warmth of her golden presence. Or one may, perchance, open one's eyes and see before one a beauteous lotus, opening its alabaster petals slowly to reveal at its heart a wondrous eternal jewel.