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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.

The Birth of Parvati, An Excerpt from The Man from The Egg

Sudha Murthy in ‘The Man from the Egg’ weaves enchanting tales about the holy trinity in Hindu mythology. Consisting of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the trinity is responsible for the survival of the human race and the world.
Here’s an excerpt chronicling the birth of goddess Parvati:
Taraka was a powerful and ambitious asura, and a devotee of Lord Brahma. One day he began a severe penance for Brahma, living on a mountain for a long period of time. pleased with Taraka’s devotion, the creator appeared before him.
‘O my lord!’ Taraka cried. ‘my life’s purpose has been fulfilled now that I have felt your presence.’
Brahma smiled. ‘tell me what your heart desires.’
‘I want to live forever,’ replied Taraka.
‘My dearest devotee, you know that such a boon is not possible. why don’t you ask me for something else?’
Taraka thought for some time. ‘I don’t want to die at the hands of just any man or god. if i must perish, I would rather it happened at the hands of the son of Shiva,’ he said, knowing full well that Shiva, grief-stricken by the loss of Dakshayani, was far from even the thought of marrying
again. So, the boon would actually make Taraka invincible and keep him safe from Yama, the god of death.
Brahma understood Taraka’s intention. nevertheless, he said, ‘So may it be.’
His penance now complete, Taraka descended from the mountain and returned to his abode. Over time, he created a powerful army headed by ten cruel generals. and then he went on a rampage, conquering kingdoms, abusing living beings on earth as well as the gods above. he terrorized them all so much that everyone began praying to Lord Vishnu.
Vishnu heard their pleas. ‘Shiva and parvati’s son will be the cause of taraka’s doom,’ he declared.
Himavat or Parvatraj, the king of the Himalayas, had a wife named Menaka. the queen really wanted a daughter who would grow up to become Shiva’s consort. when Menaka heard about Dakshayani, she instinctively knew that Shiva’s wife would be reborn as her daughter. She thus decided to go into deep meditation, convinced that destiny would soon take its course.
Menaka gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, whom she named Uma. as Uma was the daughter of Parvatraj, she was also known as Parvati, or Himani (from her father’s other name, Himavat), or Girija (meaning the daughter of the king of mountains), or Shailaja (meaning the daughter of the mountains).
Parvati was a charming child and unusually devoted to Shiva right from her birth. Even as an adult, she was always found either praying to Shiva or just talking about him. News of her beauty and intelligence spread far and wide. Though suitors came in hordes with the hope of winning her heart, Parvati could only think of Shiva and refused to entertain the
idea of marrying anyone else.
The devas were watching all this with great interest. they eagerly awaited the arrival of Parvati and Shiva’s son—the harbinger of Taraka’s death.
Shiva, on the other hand, deep in meditation atop the cold mount Kailash, remained unaware of what was going on. much to the concern of her parents, a determined Parvati made the arduous journey to Kailash and began serving Shiva. She took care of his surroundings, brought him fruits and made garlands for him every day. She wanted to be there the moment he opened his eyes so they could marry as soon as possible.
The gods sighed with relief and hoped that Shiva would soon awaken from his penance.
Days, months and years passed but Shiva showed no signs of emerging from his meditation. if he did not open his eyes, he would never see Parvati, which meant that he wouldn’t marry her or have a son. and if the current state of affairs continued, Taraka’s cruel reign would be the end of everybody.
Frustrated, the gods decided to take matters into their own hands. all the realms were in grave danger. they had to intervene and force Shiva to awaken, but who would take the risk? no one dared offer to be the one to disturb Shiva’s penance and become the target of his infamous temper.
Everyone knew that when he was extremely angry, his third eye would open and immediately spew a great fire that destroyed everything in its path. And yet the task needed to be done.
the gods decided to approach the diplomatic Lord Vishnu and beseech him to find a way to guarantee Shiva and Parvati’s marriage.
‘All right, let’s see how things turn out,’ Vishnu said with a mysterious smile.

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