Category Archives: Sakta Deities (Hindu Goddesses)

The Goddess Kali

Kali is one of the more recognized deities in the Hindu pantheon. She is seen as both terrifying and beautiful by those who worship her. There are a number of different stories related to her origin and who she was, Siva’s wife or his daughter. Kali means many different things to the people who worship her. Kali is worshipped in a variety of different ways. All of this goes together in order to form a number of different, all important, versions of this important Hindu goddess.

Kali is typically depicted as terrifying and powerful. In one common representation she is seen standing upon Siva’s more impotent body. She is dominating him. Throughout depictions of Kali, Siva’s appearance changes from looking peacefully asleep, unconscious or sexually aroused. Kali is shown as dark, with long wild, matted hair. She wears a necklace of human heads and a belt of severed human hands. Her earrings, two dangling infant corpses, complete her attire. Her tongue is most often depicted as lolling from her mouth. Her hands wield an array of weaponry. In other depictions her face appears more friendly, her hand up and facing us, a symbol of peace. In one particular drawing of Kali the cosmos are in her hair. These are the images most commonly seen by her followers (McDermott and Kripal 27, 81, 175, 176).

Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner's home in Banaras
Image of the goddess Kali with upraised sword and extended tongue in a Tantric practitioner’s home in Banaras

The tales of Kali’s origins tend to differ from sect to sect. One story tells of a demon, Darika, who became powerful and conquered the three worlds (heaven, earth and the underworld). A Sage named Narada approached Siva in desperation about the events taking place. Siva, enraged, opened his third eye which was full of fire. Out of this fire Kali was born. After some difficulties she was able to overcome the demonic entity (Caldwell 19-20). Another story describes Kali as an alter ego of the goddess Parvati, representing Parvati’s extreme rage and violent nature. In that story Kali is Siva’s wife instead of Siva’s daughter (McDermott and Kripal 64). Following the theme of emergence from other goddesses, in the Devi-Mahatmya Kali was said to have emerged from Durga’s angry brow as she rode onto the battlefield taking the physical form of Durga’s anger (Caldwell 122). One more account tells of Durga turning into Kali in order to defeat the demon. After the demon was defeated Durga continued as the destructive Kali, to solve this problem the gods enlisted Siva to go and lie in Kali’s path. When Kali stepped upon him she experienced lajja (being a civilized, moral being) (McDermott and Kripal 87-89). Inherent in this is that Kali could be both an asura (demonic) and a deva (divine), or perhaps neither. Worshippers tell that only an asura could defeat a demon as powerful as Darika but others say that she has to be a deva because she was born from Siva. An answer by some to this paradox is that Kali is both deva and asura (Caldwell 21). All of the origin stories of Kali share a common thread, that of a violent being who exists to do battle with demons on the behalf of the gods.

Along with the various accounts of her history there also exist different beliefs of what Kali actually represents. Some of her worshippers view her as a motherly figure. Mothers are usually portrayed as persons with an unfailing devotion towards their children and in turn children give the same devotion back to their mothers. At first glance Kali does not appear to be a goddess one would want to love as though she was a mother, having such a terrible appearance and seemingly destructive nature. These destructive natures of Kali can be symbolic of a mother’s tough love. A mother has enough love to discipline a child when they begin to misbehave but will also never abandon them. It is said that to be Kali’s child is to suffer and to be disappointed in worldly desires and pleasures. She is the cosmic mother who keeps the world moving and helps her creatures, and is wearied and miserable from the suffering of her children (Caldwell 160-162). On the other hand Kali is seen as the epitome of a demon’s anger. Kali’s tongue represents her grotesque habit of ripping apart her victims and drinking their fresh blood. She is death and destruction (McDermott and Kerali 61). In addition to these contradicting views Kali is also seen to be putting dharma into perspective, by reminding her children that certain pieces of reality are unpredictable and unavoidable (McDermott and Kripal 34-35). The dichotomy of Kali is at times extreme.

There are a number of different rituals used in the worship of Kali and also a festival (Navaratra) in which she and the other goddesses are celebrated. A major dramatic possession ritual, called Mutiyettu, occurs in Kerala. This is a ritual in which male actors dress up as Kali as well as other deities and demons to act out the creation story involving the demon, Darika. The actors don incredibly elaborate costumes especially the actor playing Kali. He paints his body in black carbon grease and then decorates the black with white designs. The actor will wear a muti (an elaborate head piece) made of fresh coconut frond ‘hair’ where two live snakes are located. Red cetti flowers are tied around the actor’s wrists. The dramatic ritual takes place upon a stage in the middle of the night with a small musical ensemble as accompaniment. When the ritual begins the actors act out the story of Kali’s origins and during this ritual the actors claim to become possessed by Kali herself (Caldwell 81-87). Another form of worship is Hindu brahmins also taking care of idols representing Kali as though they were Kali herself (putting her to bed, feeding her, etc) and also performing puja as a form of worship to Kali (McDermott and Kerali 127). This great effort put into celebrating and caring for the goddess shows how important she is to her followers.

All these aspects of who and what Kali is to different people are important in gaining a solid knowledge of the deity. Her warlike representation shows how important violence is to her character. The different tales of her creation all share a central theme of showcasing her as the violent defender of gods against demons. How her followers see her highlight this further. Lastly there is the dedication shown to her by her adherents in the festival and the treatment of her effigies, pointing out how important she is to these people. This all goes together to give a proper view of the important Hindu goddess, Kali.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Dowger (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2003) The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Onishi, Yoshinori (1992) Feminine Multiplicity: A Study of Multiple Goddesses in India. Delhi: Sri Satgaru Publications.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of its Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Siva

Durga

The Devi Mahatmya

Parvati

Mutiyettu

Noteworthy Websites

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/index.shtml

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/kali.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali

Article written by Chelsee Ivan (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Kali

The goddess Kali is often described as fierce, black or dark, she has a lolling tongue, fangs and her dancing can destroy the world. Her necklace, girdle and sacred thread are snakes, she is also known to lie on a bed of snakes (Kinsley 1975:81). She is often naked with long unkempt hair. She is adorned with corpses, as a girdle, necklace, or earrings. She has long sharp fangs and often has claw like hands with long nails and often has blood smeared on her face. On the battlefield she is known to get drunk on the blood of her combatants (Kinsley 1986:116). In many descriptions she has four arms, her two left holding a bloodied cleaver and a freshly severed head, her two right making the signs of ‘fear not’ and one who confers boons (Kinsley 1996: 77-8). Her descriptions are ferocious and somewhat terrifying yet throughout various aspects of the Hindu tradition she is looked upon with love and devotion. She represents for many the manner for witch to face their fears of death and the unknown. Her association with death and destruction is evident in her favorite abodes of the battlefield and the cremation grounds. Kali has long been a goddess on the periphery of society worshipped by the people who occupy the same status, the thieves and the lowest castes.

Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras
Worshippers carry an image of the goddess Kali to the river Ganga for immersion at the end of Kali Puja celebrations in Banaras

The story of Kali’s birth, as it is described in the Devi-mahatmya, begins on the battlefield, with the goddess Durga. In two episodes of this text Kali represents Durga’s anger personified. In this instance Kali springs forth form the blackened forehead of an extremely angry Durga and defeats the demon’s Canda and Munda and later the demon Raktabija. The Kali that is worshiped in India today is defiantly the same as she who is presented in the Devi-mahatmya (Kinsley 1986:90-2). In relation to other goddesses Kali seems to represent their wrath and anger, a dimension of the divine feminine that is frightening and dangerous (Kinsley 1986:120).

A possible prototype for Kali is the demoness Nirrti, who is frequently mentioned in the Vedic literature. Nirrti seems to be the personification of death, destruction and sorrow, her mantra is intended to ward her off, she wears dark clothes and receives dark husks as her sacrificial offering she is also said to have a dark complexion. Nirrti is said to live in the south, the abode of death (Kinsley 1986:87). However, Kali is active in warfare and receives blood sacrifice while Nirrti does neither. About the time that Kali begins to be known in the tradition Nirrti begins o disappear, she is rarely mentioned in the epic-Puranic texts. Generally Kali represents certain realities that were previously conveyed by Nirrti (Kinsley 1986:87-8).

When Kali is coupled with a male god it is almost always Siva, she is his consort, his wife or his associate. However, she always is the one to incite his wild behaviour. The relationship that Kali has with Siva differs from that with Parvati in that Kali seems able to persuade Siva to partake in dangerous and destructive behaviour that ultimately threatens the stability of the cosmos (Kinsley 1986:116). In the relationship with Siva Kali’s inclination to wildness and disorder continue, and while she is sometimes calmed by him many times it is she who encourages him to partake in similar actions. In fact there is a South Indian tradition that tells of a dance contest between the two which end with Siva as the victor forcing Kali to control her disruptive behaviour. However, there are very few other depictions of Kali as tame and docile, most images depict either or both in destructive ways and others with Kali in her glory dominating a motionless or sometimes dead Siva (Kinsley 1986:119). In iconographic representations of the two Kali is predominantly the dominant one, she is generally standing or dancing upon Siva’s motionless body and when depicted having sexual intercourse she is always above him. This suggests that while Siva is said to have calmed Kali in the dance contest he has never successfully or continuously restrained her wild antics (Kinsley 1986:120) Kali’s association with Siva began as early as the eighth century CE, as is in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava. In the Vamana-purana the names of Kali and Parvati are used interchangeably in the depiction of Siva’s wedding to Parvati (Kinsley 1986:102). Generally in relation to the goddess Parvati Kali is often mentioned in various situations, especially in Parvati’s preparations for war, in these cases Kali appears as Parvati’s alter ego.

Kali’s status in the Hindu religion has always been as an outsider, she hangs out on the peripheries of society. This is shown in the location of her temples and her favorite known haunts the battlefield and the cremation grounds. In the cremation grounds she often sits upon a corpse and is surrounded by jackals, ghosts and snakes and unlike other deities she does not have an animal vehicle but rides a ghost (Kinsley 1996:77-8). In her early history Kali was a tribal goddess who was worshiped by thieves and hunters, and so Kali has a long standing association with criminals and has been linked to the murderous Thugs as their patron goddess (Kinsley 1996:78). In the Mana-sara-silpa-sastra it is said that Kali’s Temples should be built far from villages and towns, near the cremation grounds and near the homes of Canadalas. This represents her long standing association with the periphery’s of Hindu society (Kinsley 1986:117-8).

In Tamilnad, goddesses very much like Kali were worshipped from very early on. In the Tamil epic Silappadikaram Kali is called the goddess of death and aids the bandits living the area by rewarding their blood sacrifices with victory in their pursuits. She appears in later Tamil literature as well and is widely known as a village goddess (Kinsley 1975:96-7). Kali is very popular in Bengal however she did not appear in the Bengali literature until quite late. The major festival for her worship in Bengal is Dipavali, it is during this festival, and throughout the year, that Kali receives blood sacrifice. It is in Bengal that Kali is approached as a caring and protective mother (Kinsley 1986:116). Kali’s Sakta devotion in Bengal is featured in the works of Bengal’s famous religious figures, Ramprasad Sen and Ramakrishna. Ramprasad described Kali in a world relived of all its indifference and seemingly impulsive aspects (Kinsley 1975:116). For Ramprasad Kali is the embodiment of world order, especially the darker aspects of existence. In his poetry Kali is presented as the caring presence of Mother who looks over her stubborn wet helpless children (Kinsley 1975:117). Ramakrishna approached Kali in the same way as Ramprasad, as a child. He doted on her as her official temple servant, however he did not ignore her wild and fantastic nature. She was to Ramakrishna the Mistress of a dizzying and exhilarating creation. Kali continues to retain her fierce image, yet in many of her images Ramakrishna and his wife are sitting calmly with Kali behind them comforting her trusting children (Kinsley 1975:121-4). Other areas where Kali is widely know are Assam, Orissa and western India particularly Rajasthan (Kinsley 1975:100).

In the Tantric tradition, as early as the sixteenth century, Kali figures quite prominently especially in left-handed Tantrism and Bengali Sakta devotionalism (Kinsley 1986:122). In many of the Tantric texts Kali’s position is that of the supreme deity equivalent to Brahman. In fact in the Nirvana-tantra it is proclaimed that “the god’s Brahma, Visnu and Siva are like the amount of water in a cow’s hoofprint compared to the waters of the sea,” in comparison to Kali (Kinsley 1975:110). Kali conveys the image of death, fear, destruction, terror and the all consuming aspects of reality. For the Tantric disciple these aspects of life are not to be feared or avoided, they are to be confronted boldly and thereby overcome and they also become a vehicle for salvation. It is also in this tradition that Kali is clearly the wife of Siva and they together in union create and destroy the universe (Kinsley 1975:112-3). She is no longer emancipated and ugly, in the Karpuradi-stotra she is described as young and beautiful and she is gently smiling. She is no longer a shrew or the refinement of Durga’s wrath, she has become the one who grants the benefit of salvation, she has become the symbol of the triumph over death (Kinsley 1975:114).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Beane, W.C. (1977) Myth, Cult and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study if the Indian Mother Goddess. Leiden; Brill.

Harding, Elizabeth (1993) Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. York Beach, ME: Nicholas-Hays.

Kinsley, David (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna: Dark visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

____________ (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Devine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

____________ (1996) “Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Berkley: University of California Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D. (1975) Hindu myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Puranas

Ramparasad

Kalighat temple

Kolkata

Malatimadhava

Siva

Raktabija.

Great Goddess (Devi)

Devi-Mahatmya

Markandeya-Purana

the matrikas

Karttikeya.

Kaurva

Pandava

The Mahabharata

The Nigamakalpataru

The Picchila-tantra

The Yogini-tantra

The Kamakhya-tantra

The Niruttara-tantra

Ramparasad

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.dlshq.org/religions/kaali.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali

http://www.pantheon.org/articles/k/kali.html

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/kali.htm

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/kali.htm

http://www.artoflegendindia.com/details/PBABC001

http://www.goddess.ws/kali.html

http://www.mandarava.com/metainfo/goddess/kali.htm

Article written by Danielle Feader (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Goddess Laksmi

In Hindu mythology, the goddess Laksmi (sometimes called Sri), is widely recognized as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity (Fowler 36). She is regarded secondly, as the Goddess of wealth, beauty and fertility. Her origins can be traced back to pre-Vedic times but her development as a goddess has not been met without disagreement by scholars. Iconographically, Laksmi is sometimes depicted individually, however due to her dependent relationship upon her male consort Visnu, one of the three major gods of modern Hinduism, she is most often depicted alongside him. Consequently, depending on this division, Laksmi has been represented in various ways (Fowler 37). Laksmi is widely worshipped by many Hindus for various reasons; however her most significant worship is the Hindu festival of Diwali, in which she is called upon by many shop and business owners to bring good fortune and prosperity in the coming business year (Husain 146).

Laksmi has been an important element of Hindu religious life for over three millennia and the history of her development as a deity has not been presented without controversy and disagreement. The origin of Laksmi has evolved since pre-Vedic times when Laksmi may have first existed as an earth goddess (Turner and Coulter 285). The Sanskrit term “Laksmi” has also been explained as an abstract concept originally meaning a sign or an omen of good or bad luck and, accordingly, Laksmi later developed into the deity of good fortune and prosperity (Olsen 126), while Alaksmi conversely developed into the bringer of bad luck (Dhal 134).

Due to the patriarchal structure of the Indo-Aryan society, female divinities were rarely mentioned in Vedic literature as a consequence of their secondary place in Vedic religion. Laksmi as a goddess was not mentioned in the RgVeda, however, in the fifteen versus appended to the fifth book of the RgVeda, Laksmi does appear as two separate, although, relatively minor deities: Laksmi and Sri. Yet, even before this distinction, the abstract concept of Sri is mentioned several times throughout the RgVeda where it refers to benefit, advantage, riches, prosperity and well-being (Dhal 1-2). Early in the Upanishads, Sri and Laksmi are fused together to form one deity and by the time of the Puranas Laksmi is firmly established as the goddess of good fortune, prosperity, wealth and beauty (Olsen 126).

In the Ramayana, Laksmi is said to have risen, as Padma, from the ocean when its waters were churned to milk and later became the wife (sakti) or consort of Visnu. According to different descriptions, Laksmi arose from the sea of milk in some cases holding a lotus flower and in others standing on the expanded petals of the lotus (Stutley 160). In either case, the lotus flower becomes the most significant symbol associated with Laksmi. Visnu, one of the three major gods of modern Hinduism, is associated with ten divine incarnations (avatara), and Laksmi, as Visnus consort, is reborn each time along with him (Williams 70). In the Ramayana she is reborn as the wife of Rama, Sita. Laksmi is also reborn as Radha, the favorite gopi (cow-herding maidens) of Krsna (Fowler 36).

The most prominent feature of the iconography of Laksmi is her continuous association with the lotus flower on which she is most often shown standing or sitting atop. For Laksmi the lotus flower is a symbol of beauty, purity, happiness and eternal renewal. The lotus is portrayed as the throne of the gods and is generally shown along with Surya (the Vedic solar deity), Visnu and Laksmi (Jansen 47). Because Laksmi is understood as having a very dependent relationship with Visnu, they are usually depicted together; on occasion their two forms are combined into one, Visnu on the right, Laksmi on the left; the left being a position of inferiority. However, when Laksmi is depicted alone, usually in calendars or in a shrine dedicated to her in a temple, like Visnu, she usually has four arms. In two of her arms she is frequently holding a lotus blossom and from her other two arms, coins and gifts of prosperity fall from her hands, showing that she imparts blessings for those who worship her. Conversely, when Laksmi is depicted together with Visnu she is shown as having only two arms suggesting her subservient position in relation to Visnu (Olsen 137-138).

Laksmi is often depicted as a fair goddess, with a golden complexion (a demonstration of her association with wealth and corn), decorated in fine garments and precious jewels (Olsen 141). She is sometimes depicted with two attendant elephants, symbols of royalty and fertility, one on either side, spraying or watering the lotus (Jansen 92). She is also commonly depicted atop Visnus chest, or massaging his feet or being touched by his foot, another suggestion that Visnu is dominant in his relationship with Laksmi (OFlaherty 117). Laksmi has also come to be associated with the harvest, and in some cases is represented by the image of unhusked rice in a corn-basket (Stutley 160). An association with cow dung is also present, representing vegetation and fertility, due to the fertile and fruitful nature of the substance (Dhal 62).

Gaja Laksmi (Laksmi flanked by Elephants) (Srirangam Temple)

Goddesses within Hindu mythology are frequently represented by, and categorized into contrasting groups. According to some scholars, the Goddess Durga is an example of one such representation, in which Hindu goddesses are viewed as independent and fierce. Therefore, independent goddesses usually are not connected to any male consort. Scholars sometimes characterize these unconstrained goddesses as unpredictable and aggressive, and maintain that they are frequently worshipped during times of emergency (Olson 124). However, although scholars such as Hawley consider a goddesses such as Durga to be an independent and fierce goddess, he contends that these goddesses are characterized by their supremacy over all other forms of life, whether animal, human, or divine” (Hawley 9). A second representation of the goddess is epitomized by the relationship of Laksmi to Visnu, in which a goddess is shaped by her relationship to her male consort (Hawley 9). In this case the goddess is seen as dependent, subservient, and nurturing to her male partner. This dependency can be perceived in the various depictions of Visnu and Laksmi where they appear together. In there, Laksmi is most often shown at the feet of Visnu, or seated upon his chest (Hawley 88). Laksmi serves as the ideal devoted wife, and is often used as an example as such in Hindu culture. However, while some goddesses embody both traits (independent/fierce and nurturing/consorts), other goddesses appear to personify one or the other.

Laksmi is a widely worshiped deity within Hindu society especially amongst the Vaisnavites (worshippers of Visnu and/or his incarnations). Although very few temples have been erected in Laksmis honor, her picture is regularly found to grace many homes, shops and businesses across India. Because Laksmi is worshipped as the Goddess of Good fortune and Prosperity, she receives her greatest homage from those owning businesses in India during the winter festival, Diwali (feast of lamps). During this festival, terracotta lamps burning off of edible oil or ghee, are lit by families and often surround their homes and businesses, in an attempt to attract her presence (Husain 146). Laksmi is also worshipped during a festival in July and August known as Laksmi-Vrata. She is sometimes called upon by those wishing to bear children, and in some cases, Laksmi is also worshipped as the Empress of the Sea, by those who fish for a living. These fisherman offer sacrifices to Laksmi as a wish to secure a good catch and a safe journey home (Turner and Coulter 285). Laksmi is worshipped by various groups for various reasons, establishing her as an important goddess, even in present-day Hindu society.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dhal, Upendra Nath (1995) Goddess Laksmi: Origin and Development, 2nd ed. Delhi: Delhi Eastern Book Linker.

Fowler, Jeaneane (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex: Sussex Academic Press.

Hawley, John S. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Husain, Shahrukh (1997) The Goddess: Creation, Fertility, and Abundance, the Sovereign of Women Myths and Archetypes. London: Duncan Baird Publishers.

Jansen, Eva Rudy (2004) The Book of Hindu Imagery: The Gods and their Symbols Holland: Binkey Kok Publications BV.

OFlaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Olsen, Carl (1983) The Book of the Goddess Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion. In Carl Olsen (Ed), Sri Lakshmi and Radha: The Obsequious Wife and the Lustful Lover (pp. 124-144). New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Stutley, Margaret and James (1977) Harpers Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, Philosophy, Literature and History. New York: Harper and Row.

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell Coulter (2000) Dictionary of: Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Related Readings

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kumar, P. P. (1997) The Goddess Laksmi: The Divine Consort in South Indian Vaisnava Tradition. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press

Monaghan, P. (1997) The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications

Related Research Topics

Alaksmi, Durga, earth goddess, Krsna, Padma, Radha, Sita, Sri, Surya, Visnu, RgVeda, Puranas, Ramayana, Upanishads, Diwali, Laksmi-Vrata, avataras, lotus flower, sakti.

Related Websites

http://www.courses.rochester.edu/muller-ortega/rel249/lakshmi/

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/lakshmi.htm

http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/aa100900a.htm

http://www.courses.rochester.edu/muller-ortega/rel249/lakshmi/Laksmi_Vishnu.html

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/lakshmi.htm

http://www.goddess.ws/lakshmi.html

http://www.sjc-serbia.com/download/maha-laksmi.jpg

http://home.comcast.net/~surfings/laksmi.jpg

http://www.hinduism.it/visnu-laksmi.jpg

Written by Carlye Smith (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Iconography of Sri Laksmi

Sri Laksmi is a multi-faceted goddess with many different depictions. Her iconography is complex, as she is associated with many different symbols. Her illustrations come in many forms, from the glorious and transcendent goddess of prosperity and fertility, to the more traditional image of a good and loyal wife. She is a goddess associated with many concepts; beauty, wealth, good luck, fertility, agriculture. This accounts for the complexities and range of her portrayal in sculpture, carving and illustration. All the concepts that she represents are illustrated in symbols presented in her iconography.

The iconography of the Hindu goddess Sri Laksmi is rich and intricate. A deity Identified most frequently as a goddess of fortune, wealth and fertility, the symbols of these concepts in Hinduism often appear in depictions of her (Pauwels 955). Although there are many different depictions of Sri Laksmi, the most common illustration of this deity has her clothed in a pink or red robe (sari), wearing many fine jewels and seated atop a blooming lotus flower. In this depiction known as the Gaja Laksmi, or Wealth of Animals, Laksmi is showered with water from the trunks of two elephants (Pauwels 957). This image is overflowing with symbols that describe the ideas she is associated with.

The symbol most commonly associated with Laksmi, and most other Hindu and Buddhist deities, is the lotus flower. This flower is a very important symbol to the iconography of both religions, and many deities and Buddhists who have reached nirvana (bodhisattvas) are depicted sitting or standing on top of a lotus flower (Malieckal 262). In nature, this beautiful and intricate flower grows out of the mud and mire of swamps and ditches (in Hindu depictions, it symbolizes transcendence from the spiritually ordinary). The marsh that it appears to be blooming out of represents the material plain, an imperfect place which one must rise above in order to gain spiritual enlightenment (Malieckal 263). In most portrayals of Sri Laksmi, she is often sitting or standing atop the lotus flower. To be seated serenely on the lotus flower implies her spiritual authority and her existence above the material plain (Malieckal 263).

Sri Laksmi is a young woman in most depictions, wearing large amounts of extravagant jewelry and ornaments. Illustrations of the goddess also sometimes include arches of fresh flowers other than the lotus, such as the rose. This portrayal of her as a beautiful young woman illustrates her association with beauty and fortune (Pauwels 556). Indeed she is known as a goddess of beauty. She is also associated with royalty, and her ornate appearance, her jewels and hair pieces, symbolizes this association.

Laksmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune, being showered by elephants in a temple relief at Gangaikondacholapuram Temple
Laksmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune, being showered by elephants in a temple relief at Gangaikondacholapuram Temple

She commonly is shown with milky white skin and a look of contented stillness. Typically, Sri Laksmi is shown as having four arms, but there are depictions of her with two or six arms. In the Gaja Laksmi illustrations, she has two pairs of arms (Pauwels 558). Two hands are shown holding the lotus flower, again alluding to the spiritually transcendent nature of the goddess. The other two hands pour coins forth before her (Dhal 112). These coins of course represent wealth, as do her large amounts of jewelry and ornaments. The water showered on her by the elephants depicts her association with similar rituals in which holy water is poured over the heads of royalty (Pauwels 957). Other portrayals of Sri Laksmi also show her holding a gold jar or pot. This jar is brimming with water, and contains leaves and a coconut. This image depicts the goddess’s association with fertility and abundance (Pauwels 957). The contents of the jar overflow, symbolizing abundance and, once again, wealth.

These symbols of wealth and abundance, along with the lotus flower rising from the earth, illustrate the association of Sri Laksmi with agriculture and more specifically, agricultural prosperity. Her connection to the material world, the symbolic prosperity flowing from her hand and her position atop the lotus blossom rising from the marsh illustrates her existence as a goddess of the earth (Pauwels 957). In Gaja Laksmi illustrations, prosperity flows from her hands onto the earth below, creating rich and fertile land for agricultural uses.

Sri Laksmi is the consort of Visnu, and is usually depicted sitting or standing alongside him, dressed as royalty (Dhal 78). The position of the two deities in this depiction illustrates the balance of power, the importance of both the masculine and feminine energies, and the importance of the Sakti power as she stands in equal extravagance to her male partner. There are other depictions however which show a different relationship between the two deities. In one, she is shown attending Visnu, and massaging his feet along with his other consort, Bhu Devi (Dhal 79). This depiction emphasizes the traditional relationship between a woman and her lord husband (patideva), or lord husband. This is the ideal relationship between husband and wife in Orthodox Hinduism, wherein a wife serves her husband and treats him as superior to herself (Dhal 79). This portrayal does not depict Laksmi in all her glory as a goddess atop the lotus, but as a proper wife to her husband. This illustrates her association as a passive Sakti. Her philosophical associations with Sakti power, however, are not always the same as depicted in iconography, and varies in interpretation (Dhal 146).

Sri Laksmi is closely associated with the festival of Divali, or Row of Lights. This is considered a New Year for some Hindus, and a time of warding off bad luck and misfortune, while attracting good luck and prosperity (Shomer 11). Laksmi being the goddess of luck and wealth, she is more heavily worshipped around this time of year, in hopes that she will grant prosperity in the year to come. Some Hindu families keep small clay statues of Sri Laksmi in their houses. These are kept for one year, and then replaced with new ones during the festival of Divali (Shomer 16). Since she is associated with wealth, these statues are meant to bring prosperity and fortune into the house.

References and Further Reading

Dhal, Upendra Nath (1995) Goddess Laksmi: origin and development 2nd ed. Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers.

Hawley, John S, (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsely, David (1998) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: California Press Ltd.

Malieckal, Louis Symbolism in Hindu worship, Journal of Dharma, 9 July-Sept 1984, p 261-273.

Pauwels, Heidi The goddess Laksmi: the divine consort in South Indian Vaisnava tradition. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 66 Winter 1998, p 955-958.

Schomer, K. (1999). Divali: study of a Hindu festival. Journal of Vaisnava Studies, 7(2), 5-36.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Divali

Visnu

Bhu Devi

The Lotus Flower

Bodhisattva

Eight Types of Wealth

Brahma-vidya

Sakti

Patideva

Sari

Gaja Laksmi

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laksmi#Iconography

http://www.courses.rochester.edu/muller-ortega/rel249/lakshmi/Laksmi_Vishnu.html

http://www.vishvarupa.com/shakti-lakshmi.html

http://www.msu.edu/user/murphy16/

Written by Kristi Coleman (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.