Think of Lakshmi – the Hindu goddess of prosperity – and you are most likely to remember her as a radiant woman sitting submissively near Vishnu’s feet, massaging them. The goddess of wealth is in eternal service of her god and master, Vishnu, who sustains the universe. She is his shakti of material might, which is needed to run the affairs of life. But Lakshmi’s character is not as subservient or complementary as it seems. At least not in the beginning of her story… We are first introduced to a goddess called Shri in the Vedas, where she is called the bestower of lustre, prosperity, power, fortune, kingdom and other such gifts.
When she is born from Prajapati’s ministrations, she is coveted by all the gods. From then on, Shri becomes the object of desire for all gods and the string of her divine liaisons starts. By the Puranic period, Shri, now identified as Shri-Lakshmi, has many stories, and as is wont to be, each story has many versions. As one of Daksha Prajapati’s numerous daughters, she is given to Dharma (i.e. Yama) as his wife. Another story states her association with Soma – the god of the moon, vegetal life and/or the divine drink. Next she is associated with Indra as his consort. With Lakshmi by his side, Indra rises to the height of glory among gods. But that is not to be, for when Indra is beaten by Bali – the valiant demon king, Lakshmi leaves his side. She lives alongside the asuras, including Prahlada and this grandson, Bali, making their kingdoms perfectly prosperous. In some tales, she is also associated with the king of yakshas – Kubera, who, like her, over all wealth.
Lakshmi does not discriminate and belongs to those who treat her with reverence and adoration. Thus, it appears that Lakshmi goes with the victor; indeed, prosperity follows success. So short-lived is Lakshmi’s company, that one of her given names is Chanchala – the restless one. This must obviously be seen as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of good fortune – something most of us are familiar with. But this goddess’ character also serves as a metaphor for a fine yet fickle woman who everyone wants but none can truly have.
There is a twist in the tale, of course, with Vishnu entering the picture. When amrita has to be obtained, the primeval waters of the ksheerasagara must be churned. Vishnu, who has by this time become a prominent god, takes on the managerial mantle for this grand cosmic event. He brings the two warring parties together – the devas and asuras – and coaxes them to collaborate. He enlists Shiva’s serpent Vasuki as the churning rope and Shiva himself to deal with the terrible halahala poison. He himself takes on two pivotal roles in the project, including providing a base in his kurma (tortoise) form, and later, (unfairly) distributing the amrita in his Mohini form. Vishnu is clearly the boss in this scheme of things. As the ocean starts yielding its many treasures, the devas and asuras claim them one by one. Vishnu stands aside – perfect in his non attachment and power – watching the goings on. When Lakshmi – the brightest of all oceanic treasures – emerges, Vishnu is still as unmoved. It piques Lakshmi’s interest to see this resplendent god, who is unlike anyone else from the present coterie. In the midst of the clamour to possess her, Vishnu’s composure is the perfect foil. Lakshmi recognises his leadership, regality, and most of all, his equanimity. Vishnu seems like the perfect partner, and Lakshmi lets her choice be known to all by placing a garland around his neck.
There is an unmissable lesson in the story, rather stories, of goddess Lakshmi. Admittedly, the character of the goddess undergoes a sea change from the Vedas to the Puranas, but there’s at least one conclusion to be drawn. One cannot or should not chase after wealth or love. Neither can one force them to stay. They can only be mastered by confident detachment or in other words, if you love something, set it free