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Why Lakshmi is More Than Just the Goddess of Prosperity

Explore Hindu mythology like never before with Namita Gokhale’s Treasures of Lakshmi. In this book, Gokhale unfolds the stories of ancient deities, exploring their evolution from the Rig Vedic era to the post-Buddha period. Against the historical backdrop of events like Alexander’s arrival in India, the book delves into the tales of gods and goddesses, with a special focus on Lakshmi’s story of prosperity from the Vishnu Purana.

 

The Treasures of Lakshmi
The Treasures of Lakshmi || Namita Gokhale

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THERE ARE MANY gods and goddesses in the Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism is a newer word, proposed as recently as the nineteenth century). Aldous Huxley translated it as ‘the perennial philosophy’. In the Rig Veda, the gods which feature in the hymns are Indra, Agni, Varuna and Surya, who become minor gods by the time of post-Buddha India. It is said that when Alexander arrived in the Indian subcontinent in the fourth century bce, there was worship of a god similar to Heracles, who has been later identified as Krishna.

 

The Vishnu Purana is dated by its most recent translator, Professor Bibek Debroy, as being from the period 450 bce to 300 bce, definitely a post-Buddha document. You see immediately that the Vishnu Purana is post-Vedic and even post-Vedantic. Vishnu replaces the abstract universal principle of Brahman: ‘He is the supreme Brahman.’ The irresistible conjecture is that faced with the concrete persona of Buddha and the rapid spread of Buddhism, the Sanatan Dharmists retaliated with a personal but immensely powerful god: Vishnu.

 

So, sometime in the second half of the last millennium bce, there is a shift to the modern Trimurti structure with Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The old Rig Vedic gods are demoted and a new set emerges which takes over. The Vishnu Purana has stories about all three deities but constantly reiterates the supreme position of Vishnu.

 

Then, Brahma somehow gets displaced. (We need not go into this episode.) There are few, if any, temples dedicated to him, relative to the other two male gods. Somewhere, then, the mother goddess, Durga/Kali/Amba, becomes as important in the Trinity as Vishnu and Shiva. There is some discussion of Durga being a pre-Aryan goddess, but this may be controverted. Saraswati is the only other goddess worshipped in her own right and not as the consort of a male god.

 

The point is that while the pantheon of deities is crowded, there are only three at the top—two male gods and one female goddess. (Of course, attributing gender to gods and goddesses is tricky. Shiva doubles up as Ardhanareeshwar.) Lakshmi, the subject of this essay, is not in the top Trinity. She appears as the consort of Vishnu and is worshipped especially on the thirteenth night of the waning moon cycle, two nights before Diwali. The occasion is called Dhanteras in Gujarati, being the one night dedicated to the goddess of prosperity. No other goddess has a Diwali slot.

 

But as Shri, Lakshmi is ubiquitous. We append the labels ‘Shri’, ‘Shriman’, ‘Shrimati’, indicating someone favoured or due to be favoured by the goddess Lakshmi. Widows (in Gujarati at least) are addressed as ‘Gangaswaroop’, definitely not Shrimati. Fortune for a woman resides in having a husband around.

 

It is in the Vishnu Purana—a massive document running to almost 600 pages in Bibek Debroy’s book—that we encounter Lakshmi’s story. Purana storytelling is, of course, not straightforward or linear. It wanders, often telling the same story more than once with different nuances. You are supposed to listen and retain the details.

 

Lakshmi is first mentioned along with the story of Sati (Parvati) in Chapter 1 (8) titled ‘Rudra’s Account’. In the Vishnu Purana, Parashara is talking to Maitreya and telling him the long story of Vishnu. Rudra occurs in the Rig Veda and is called Shiva later on. Rudra marries Sati. But then Daksha’s anger comes in the way and Sati gives up her body. However, she is born again as the daughter of Himavat and Mena as Uma. ‘In this form, the illustrious Hara married her again.’

 

The first casual mention of Lakshmi follows. ‘Bhrigu’s wife Khyati gave birth to the divinities, Dhatri and Vidhatri, and to Shri, the wife of Narayana, the god of the gods.’ Maitreya asks how that can be, since Lakshmi emerged from the churning of the ocean. So, in a way, Lakshmi’s story is presumed to be known, but of course given the style of a Purana it has to be told again. Parashara launches into a laudatory description of Shri, but more so of Vishnu, whose female companion Shri is. Vishnu is praised to the utmost, while Lakshmi has glory as Vishnu’s other.

 

Chapter 1 (9) is devoted to the story of the emergence of Lakshmi from the churning of the ocean, Samudramanthan.It is a fascinating account as to how Shri emerges from the ocean churning process. The story starts in somewhat dramatic fashion with the sage Durvasa ‘observing the vow of acting like a lunatic’. He has a divine garland made of santanaka flowers, which grow in Indra’s gardens. The sage throws the garland at Indra, who is riding the Airavata. Indra puts it on the Airavata, who throws it off. Durvasa is enraged by this disrespect and curses Indra and the gods that they will lose their prosperity. He says, ‘All mobile and immobile entities dread the arousal of Lakshmi’s wrath. But because you take yourself to be the king of the gods, in your pride, you have slighted her and me.’ In this way, the story of Lakshmi is laid out. (Though she is first mentioned in ‘Rudra’s Account’, that is a passing reference in which Lakshmi is included along with other characters.)

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Get your copy of Treasures of Lakshmi by Namita Gokhale wherever books are sold.

Freedom to live life on our own terms

How many times have you stopped at a traffic signal and turned your face away from the hijra who stood outside your car window asking for money? Wasn’t it pure loathing that you felt? Wasn’t it worse than what you normally feel when a beggar woman with a child does the same? Why? I’ll tell you why. You abhorred the eunuch because you couldn’t identify with her sex. You thought of her as a strange, detestable creature, perhaps a criminal and definitely sub-human.

I am one of them. All my life people have called me hijra, brihannala, napungshak, khoja, launda . . . and I have lived these years knowing that I am an outcast. Did it pain me? It maimed me. But time, to use a cliché, is the biggest healer. The adage worked a little differently in my case. The pain remains but the ache has dulled with time. It visits me in my loneliest hours, when I come face to face with the question of my existential reality. Who am I and why was I born a woman trapped in a man’s body? What is my destiny?

Beneath my colourful exterior lies a curled up, bruised individual that yearns for freedom—freedom to live life on her own terms and freedom to come across as the person she is. Acceptance is what I seek. My tough exterior and nonchalance is an armour that I have learnt to wear to protect my vulnerability. Today, through my good fate, I have achieved a rare success that is generally not destined to my lot. But what if my trajectory had been different? I keep telling myself that this is my time under the sun, my time to feel happy, but something deep inside warns me. My inner voice tells me that the fame and celebration that I see all around is maya (illusion) and I should accept all this adulation with the detachment of a sanyasi (hermit).

The first ever transgender to become a college principal is a rare feat, the media has proclaimed. My phones have not stopped ringing since, and invitations to felicitations have not ceased to pile up on my desk. I would love to believe that those who fete me also accept me as I am, but how can I ignore the sniggers, the sneers and the smirks that they try to hide but fail? For them I am just another excuse to watch a tamasha (spectacle), and who doesn’t want some free fun at someone else’s expense?
Hurt and anger are two emotions that I have learnt to suppress and let go. It is part of the immunity package that I am insured under. I have finally accepted the fact that my achievements have no bearing on the people around me. They still think I am sexless between my legs and that is my only identity. That I also have a right to have emotions is an idea that is still completely foreign to most. I don’t blame them. I blame myself for not being able to ignore such pain. I should have long stopped bothering about them.

It is not that I have not had my share of love in all my fifty-one years of life. They were good while they lasted. I have had major heartbreaks too, but each time I learnt a new lesson. I have loved well and deeply, and I hope my partners, wherever they are now, would silently remember that bit about me. It’s another matter that relationships don’t seem to work for me. Those who have loved me have always left me, and each time I have lost a piece of me to them.
Memories rush back as I sit down to write my story. I write with the belief that it would help society understand people like me better. We are slightly different outwardly, but we are humans just as you are and have the same needs—physical and emotional—just as you have.

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Strong women, behind the scenes

What do the strong women we know, go through to become who they are? What goes on behind the scenes – and what makes a woman strong?

Many of them have fought to bring the world where it is today. And we must continue to be inspired by them so we can continue their paths and legacy’s. Here is a list of books of strong women with strong voices, to inspire you, this Women’s Day

 

Lajja
Lajja by Taslima Nasrin

A savage indictment of religious extremism and man’s inhumanity to man, Lajja was banned in Bangladesh but became a bestseller in the rest of the world. This brand-new translation marks the twentieth anniversary of this controversial novel. The Dattas Sudhamoy and Kironmoyee and their children, Suronjon and Maya have lived in Bangladesh all their lives. Despite being members of a small Hindu community that is terrorized at every opportunity by Muslim fundamentalists, they refuse to leave their country, unlike most of their friends and relatives.

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Split
Split by Taslima Nasrin 

 

Taslima Nasrin is known for her powerful writing on women’s rights and uncompromising criticism of religious fundamentalism. This defiance on her part had led to the ban on the Bengali original of this book by the Left Front in West Bengal as well as the Government of Bangladesh in 2003. While the West Bengal government lifted the injunction after the ban was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2005, Nasrin was eventually driven out of Kolkata and forced to expunge passages from the book, besides facing a four-million-dollar defamation lawsuit. Bold and evocative, Split: A Life opens a window to the experiences and works of one of the bravest writers of our times.

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Dark Holds No Terrors
The Dark Holds No Terrors by Shashi Deshpande 

‘Why are you still alive-why didn’t you die?’
Years on, Sarita still remembers her mother’s bitter words uttered when as a little girl she was unable to save her younger brother from drowning. Now, her mother is dead and Sarita returns to the family home, ostensibly to take care of her father, but in reality to escape the nightmarish brutality her husband inflicts on her every night. In the quiet of her old father’s company Sarita reflects on the events of her life: her stultifying small town childhood, her domineering mother, her marriage to the charismatic young poet Mahohar.

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Lifting The Veil
Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chughtai

At a time when writing by and about women was rare and tentative, Chughtai explored female sexuality with unparalleled frankness and examined the political and social mores of her time. She wrote about the world that she knew, bringing the idiom of the middle class to Urdu prose, and totally transformed the complexion of Urdu fiction. Lifting the Veil brings together Ismat Chughtai’s fiction and non-fiction writing. The twenty-one pieces in this selection are Chughtai at her best, marked by her brilliant turn of phrase, scintillating dialogue and wry humor, her characteristic irreverence, wit and eye for detail.

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A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi by Manobi Bandopadhyay

The extraordinary and courageous journey of a transgender to define her identity and set new standards of achievement.

With unflinching honesty and deep understanding, Manobi tells the moving story of her transformation from a man to a woman; about how she continued to pursue her academics despite the severe upheavals and went on to become the first transgender principal of a girls’ college. And in doing so, she did not just define her own identity, but also inspired her entire community.

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Empress
Empress by Ruby Lal

Acclaimed historian Ruby Lal uncovers the rich life and world of Nur Jahan, rescuing this dazzling figure from patriarchal and orientalist cliches of romance and intrigue, while giving a new insight into the lives of the women and the girls during the Mughal Empire, even where scholars claim there are no sources. Nur’s confident assertion of authority and talent is revelatory. In Empress, she finally receives her due in a deeply researched and evocative biography that awakens us to a fascinating history.

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The Inheritance of Loss
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas lives an embittered judge who wants only to retire in peace, when his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. The judge’s cook watches over her distractedly, for his thoughts are often on his son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one gritty New York restaurant to another. Kiran Desai’s brilliant novel, published to huge acclaim, is a story of joy and despair. Her characters face numerous choices that majestically illuminate the consequences of colonialism as it collides with the modern world.

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Calling Sehmat
Calling Sehmat by Harinder Sikka

When a young college-going Kashmiri girl, Sehmat, gets to know her dying father’s last wish, she can do little but surrender to his passion and patriotism and follow the path he has so painstakingly laid out. It is the beginning of her transformation from an ordinary girl into a deadly spy.
She’s then married off to the son of a well-connected Pakistani general, and her mission is to regularly pass information to the Indian intelligence. Something she does with extreme courage and bravado, till she stumbles on information that could destroy the naval might of her beloved country.

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Born Again on the Mountain
Born Again on the mountain

National-level volleyball player Arunima Sinha had a promising future ahead of her. Then one day she was shoved from a moving train by thieves as she attempted to fight them off. The horrific accident cost the twenty-four-year-old her left leg, but it never deterred her. A year later, she had retrained as a mountaineer and become the first female amputee to reach Mount Everest. This is her unforgettable story of hope, courage and resilience.

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Millionaire Housewives
Millionaire Housewives by Rinku Paul | Puja Singhal 

Millionaire Housewives tells the stories of twelve enterprising homemakers who, in spite of having no prior experience in business, managed to build successful empires through the single-minded pursuit of their goal, defying all stereotypes. Amidst their varied motivations and struggles, Millionaire Housewives offers valuable lessons for homemakers who want to venture into entrepreneurship.

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