I’ve been thinking about Lakshmi lately. I’m away from my desk, as they say in out of office messages, and have been for the past month, and since being away from my desk involves Spending Money with those capital letters, I guess the goddess of wealth is the one that I invoke when I shove my debit card into an ATM and hope that the balance works in my favour. Also, because I was recently in Pompeii, where, among the ashes of the victims’ precious possessions, they found a little carved ivory statuette of Lakshmi herself, proving the goddess had travelled here thousands of years before I did.
Lakshmi was the first Indian woman to be exploited by men — in one of her creation stories, she emerges from the creator god, Prajapati (an earlier version of Brahma, down to the coveting his daughter to bear children story) only to dazzle all the other gods by her beauty and power. They immediately want to murder her and appropriate all her gifts, but are stopped by Prajapati, who tells them to take what they want, but without violence. Like some sort of horrific party game.
In the origin story that you are probably more familiar with, Lakshmi emerges when the ocean is being churned by the gods and the demons, and because she’s so beautiful and “pure” (that loaded word) Vishnu claims her as his wife. But before she was worshipped as solely Mrs Vishnu, she had a whole myth going on of her own as a powerful mother-goddess type figure, especially in Tantric sects. Apparently, even the lotus she holds is supposed to be a symbol of the vulva, which makes sense if you have looked at enough Georgia O’Keefe. She has four arms — symbolising life’s goals — pleasure, responsibility, work and freedom from all of it. Pleasure. She’s meant to be a sensuous, earthy goddess, attached to us humans, in the same way we are attached to her.
I found this passage (along with the thing about the lotus symbolising a vulva) in a book called Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power by Laura Amazzone: “Around 200 CE the laws of Manu came into effect and have endured. Manusmriti is a manual that stripped women of all rights and enforced a code of obedience and male-based morality that affected the social, religious and cultural mores of the Hindu world. Fierce goddesses […] were relegated to the margins of orthodox society. […] There was a denial and fear of female sexual power.” The book goes on to say what I suspected: by moving Lakshmi from being this fierce, excellent Beyonce-esque creature to a good wife, a good mother (despite not having any children in the myths surrounding her), a nag at times, but essentially the sort of woman men no longer want to murder so they can absorb all her power. There’s the old saying, still said, I think in some Hindu homes: “a girl is like the house’s Lakshmi”. It’s meant to be a sop, a sort of “hey, it’s okay you didn’t have a boy, a girl could be — if not just as good — then good in her own way.” But what they mean is this married, weakened Lakshmi, a good wife, a docile woman.
But, my favourite myth about Lakshmi is one where she gives some pushback. It involves the Oriya version of Vishnu, Jagannath, who is her husband. She went out into Puri on her special day of the week to see who was worshipping her, and no one was, except for one poor woman. Lakshmi eats at her devotee’s house, and showers her with blessings before going back to her “home”, ie the temple where she lives with her husband and his brother.
Balaram, the brother-in-law, tells Jagannath that Lakshmi should be thrown out of her house because a) she hung out with someone lower caste (since when do gods have castes?) and b) because she dared to talk back to them by defending her devotee’s good habits and pleasant ways.
In retaliation, Lakshmi walks off with her food and wealth and sets up another temple for herself, in the very same “lower caste” area that the brothers had disapproved of. Jagannath and Balaram try cooking for themselves and fail, they beg for food, and fail, and finally arrive at Lakshmi’s new doorstep where they are told they can only have something to eat if they promise they won’t practise untouchability. (This is carried on in the main temples today, where people of all castes must sit together and share a meal if they want it.) But more interestingly, since this is a story about what happens when you insult women — and rice — it has particular resonance in rice cultivating states, where women are in charge, more often than not, of the sowing and tending of crops. “Be like Lakshmi,” spoken in a rice-producing community may not just be about being a docile woman, it could also be about being a good worker in the fields. According to an essay in Mainstream Weekly by Bidyut Mohanty, “It is further observed that the girl child has a better chance to survive in the rice-cultivating areas compared to the wheat-cultivating areas. Evidence also suggests that the infant mortality ratio, as well as sex ratio (males per hundred females) between the two sexes, is lower or less adverse to women, in the rice-cultivating areas in comparison with the wheat-cultivating areas.” Huh.
Lakshmi’s parting blow? “In this story not only does Lakshmi assert her autonomy, but she also values women’s work and at the same time challenges caste discrimination. The significant contributions to household work by women and recognition of its value are crucial to determining women’s status everywhere.” So much better than being a good wife.
Read more from the ‘Mythology for the Millennial’ series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan