Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
Hindus worship Lakshmi as the Goddess of wealth. In the pantheon of deities, she is Vishnu's eternal consort. Hindus worship her on different occasions in hopes of securing various blessings. A glance at a few of these contexts of worship reveals Lakshmi's many facets and the magnificent power she manifests in the lives of those who turn to her.
Lakshmi's beauty is one of her defining features in the Hindu imagination. Sculptures, paintings and prayers attempt to capture her beauty. Her depiction often carries characteristics of traditional South Asian royalty. For example, she is adorned with a golden crown and jewelry and two elephants frame the background of her portrait. She wears a bright red sari (traditional clothing commonly worn in the Indian subcontinent). She has four arms. Out of one of her hands flows gold coins. Another hand holds a symbol of wealth or gestures a blessing. Her other two hands hold lotus flowers. She either stands or is seated on a giant lotus flower, a sacred symbol of blossoming spirituality in Hinduism. Her face expresses a soft smile of love and serenity.
Hindus recognize Lakshmi by these defining physical characteristics. Her picture can be found in most Hindu households and businesses after worshippers have called upon the Goddess to bestow them with good fortune. Lakshmi is worshipped during Diwali, one of the most important holidays in the Hindu calendar. Also known as the "Festival of Lights", worshippers light small candles as an invitation to Lakshmi for her blessings for the coming year.
The Goddess is present in formal pujas (rituals) that take place in the home or in the temple. But she is also present in daily life. For example, money is handled as if the Goddess resides within. Therefore it is inauspicious to let one's feet make direct contact with money, a sign of disrespect. This was a value that was instilled at young age in my household so that bodily reverence of this kind became second nature.
A simple description of Lakshmi as the "Goddess of wealth" serves as an immediate means of identification. However, the word "wealth" is often exchanged for other words such as "prosperity" or qualified as different kinds of "wealth" (i.e. spiritual, intellectual, emotional) in order to expand our understanding of the Goddess' blessings. Different narratives tell of how Lakshmi's simple presence is responsible for overall well-being. This is true not only for human beings but also in the divine realm. One narrative describes how her temporary abandonment of the other deities in the heavens resulted in the reign of darkness and chaos. Growing up my parents often told me that food was "Lakshmi", which they hoped would deter me from wasting. Therefore, my understanding of Lakshmi's power included anything that contributed to health and well-being.
Just as her physical representation displays, Lakshmi is the embodiment of divine power that manifests the interrelated states of spiritual and material well-being. Depending on the hearts and contexts of those who turn to the Goddess for her blessings, one of these aspects of her power is sought after more than the other. And her calming smile reminds the worshipper that her divine love is the source of all well-being.