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Decoding Lakshmi

Indian Mythology 38 Comments

Published in Diwali Issue of Deccan Herald, Bangalore

A bowl of rice will provide equal satisfaction to a rich man and a poor man, to a saint and a sinner. A bowl of rice does not judge the person who consumes it. The same applies to a piece of cloth. A piece of cloth will provide comfort to whosoever drapes it, man or woman, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. And a house will provide the same quality of shelter to all, without any discrimination. We may judge a bowl of rice, a piece of cloth or a house, but the rice, the cloth and the house will never judge us. For rice, cloth and house are forms of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

It annoys us to find Lakshmi with people we don’t like, people who we deem to be criminals and sinners. We believe that Lakshmi should abandon amoral and perverse people. But there she is, with them, and we find it exasperating, irritating and so unfair. In mythology, all villains seem to be rich. Ravan lived in the city of gold and Duryodhan lived like a king till the day he died. Contrast this with Ram who had to live, for no fault of his, in the forest for fourteen years and the Pandavas who were born in the forest and had to live in the forest, in abject poverty, for most of their lives. Why is it so? Does Lakshmi like bad people? Or is she just indifferent to the notions of ethics and morals and propriety and virtue that matter so much to us?

Ancient Indian seers spent a lot of time contemplating on the nature of wealth. And they compiled this knowledge through the stories, symbols and rituals of Lakshmi. Laskhmi embodies the principles of artha, economic and political activity. She is one of the four goals of life, said the seers, the other three goals being: dharma, social order; kama, pleasurable pursuits; and moksha, spiritual practice.

Some scriptures say that Lakshmi follows Vishnu who is the upholder of dharma and her son is Kamadeva, the god of pleasure. Is that wishful thinking? After all, Lakshmi is often seen in the company of Vishnu’s enemies – the demonic Asuras whose city located under the earth was called Hiranyapura, the city of gold, that precious metal so closely associated with Lakshmi. And everyone knows that Lakshmi’s arrival need not always be pleasurable. Her arrival is followed by quarrels and strife. So what is this mystery?

To understand Lakshmi, we have to understand where wealth comes from. Wealth in its most primal form comes from under the ground. Plants come from under the ground. Minerals come from under the ground. Water comes from under the ground. Even petrol comes from under the ground. Lakshmi is therefore called Patala-nivasini, she who resides in the subterranean realm. Patala is also the realm inhabited by the Asuras. The king of the Asuras is called Puloman, and his guru is Shukra of the Bhargava clan. And this brings us to two names of Lakshmi – Pulomi and Bhargavi, which means daughter of Puloman, and daughter of Bhrigu, daughter of the demons and/or their guru! It makes sense, since wealth comes from under the ground, she owes her origin to those who rule the realm under (tala) our feet (pa). In some scriptures, Lakshmi is called Varuna’s daughter, Varuna being the god of the sea. Varuna, incidentally, is also addressed as Asura in Vedic texts. Asura applied to all forces that locked wealth. The sea locks wealth, the subterranean realms lock wealth, trees lock wealth – until it is harnessed and released. Those who release this wealth were called Devas. And Devas lived above the ground as fire (Agni), wind (Vayu), sun (Surya), moon (Chandra) and rain (Indra).

Children’s books often translate the word Asura as demons. And the word demon has a moral judgment. But this moral judgment is missing in Indian literature. Asuras are the children of Brahma, just like Devas. The two sets of beings have different mothers. Diti is the mother of Asuras and Aditi is the mother of Devas. The former live under the ground and the latter live above the ground. The former create wealth while the latter yank her out. This makes Lakshmi, Asura-putri (daughter of Asuras) and Deva-patni (wife of the Devas). Indra’s consort, Sachi, is a form of Lakshmi.

Equating Asuras with demons is a legacy of early European scholars, blindly adopted by later Indian academicians. Since Asuras were enemies of Devas, and since Devas were worshipped and hence considered gods, Asuras became demons, a natural conclusion for people who were obsessed with force fitting everything into the binary framework of good and evil.

The reason why Devas were worshipped was not moral, it was material; they released wealth and made it available to all – they released rain from clouds, trees from seeds, water from earth, metals from rocks. Asuras were not worshiped because they hoarded wealth, locked it away from humans. They had to be killed if Lakshmi had to be released.  The sun-god’s sunlight, wind-god’s air and the rain-god’s water makes the plants come out. The fire-god’s heat released metal from rocks.  Without violence, wealth could not be secured: the field has to be ploughed, crops had to be cut, grains had to be threshed, rocks had to be broken and smelted….in other words, ‘war’ had to be declared on Asuras and their daughter had to be taken forcibly.

Indra and the Devas live a life of luxury surrounded by wine and women and music and dance. Indra is very blessed. Unlike humans who have to work for a living he can get anything he desires by simply wishing for it for in his realm, Amravati, exists the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpataru,  wish-fulfilling cow, Kamadhenu,  and wish-fulfilling gem, Chintamani, and even the elixir of immortality, Amrita. That is why Indra’s abode is called Swarga or paradise. Still Indra is extremely insecure. He fears he will lose his wealth. For unlike Asuras, he does not know how to create wealth; he can only procure and distribute wealth. A sage’s curse can cause Lakshmi to leave his side in an instant. And this invariably happens, no thanks to the megalomania stirred by wealth.

Once again Indra leads the Devas to fight and kill the Asuras and get Lakshmi back. The Asuras can keep creating Lakshmi because they are blessed with something the gods do not possess – Sanjivani Vidya, the secret of regeneration. This can bring the dead back to life, in other words make the barren land fertile. This is a gift obtained for the Asuras by their guru, Shukra, a devotee of Shiva. So the Asuras keep generating wealth and the Devas keep snatching wealth away from them. Which is why every where during harvest times we narrate stories of demons being killed – in Dassera Mahish-Asura is killed by Durga; in Diwali, Narak-Asura is killed by Krishna and in Onam, Bali-Asura is killed by Vaman.

The battle of Devas and Asuras is the battle between spenders and hoarders, distributors and creators. It begins with defeat of Devas and the loss of Lakshmi and ends with victory of Devas and return of Lakshmi. That it is never-ending indicates it is not a battle of good over evil. It is a fertility cycle.

The funny thing is, neither the Devas nor the Asuras are happy. They try hard to hold on Lakshmi but she slips away. In folk tradition Lakshmi is described as being squint – one never knows where she is actually going. She is also called Chanchala, the whimsical one, eternally restless. They say one should never keep the image of Lakshmi standing in the house; she will get tired and run away. One is advised to keep images of Lakshmi comfortably seated, preferably next to Saraswati, goddess of knowledge.

While Lakshmi brings prosperity into a household, Saraswati brings peace. The two goddesses are described as quarrelling sisters. Lakshmi loves to go places where Saraswati resides. But her arrival marks the end of wisdom and peace. With wealth comes quarrels, bickering over money-matters, annoying Saraswati who runs away, which is why they say prosperity and peace rarely coexist. The only god who can bring them together is Ganesha. In some scriptures, he is described as their brother. In others, Lakshmi and Saraswati are forms of Riddhi and Siddhi, wives of Ganesha.

Typically everyone chases Lakshmi. As for Lakshmi, she is drawn to only one god, Vishnu, who is not a Deva, but greater than all Devas, who is actually God (spelt with an upper case) or Bhagavan. Vishnu is the only one who got the Devas and Asuras to cooperate and serve as the force and counterforce of a churn that got Lakshmi and other magical treasures to rise from the ocean of milk.

Vishnu is typically shown siding with the Devas. He offers Amrita, nectar of immortality only to the Devas and he fights alongside them in the battles against Asuras. This seems unfair until one steps back and observes Vishnu’s role as preserver.

Brahma, as creator of both Devas and Asuras sides with both of them equally. Shiva as destroyer is indifferent to both Devas and Asuras and will give both of them equal power. This equality does not result in movement or dynamism; it produces a stagnant destructive statement. Vishnu creates an imbalance that causes the forces of the cosmos to flow, for day to follow night, summer to follow winter. He balances the Sanjivani Vidya given to Asuras by Shiva with Amrita which is reserved only for the Devas. So while one group can regenerate themselves after being killed, the other group is immortal. One groups keeps dying and being reborn while the other group stays alive forever. When the Asuras are killed, the Devas win and Lakshmi is with them. When the Asuras are brought back to life by Shukra, the Devas lose and Lakshmi is back with her fathers.

While Indra seeks Lakshmi for himself, Vishnu does not. Vishnu seeks to create order  in the cosmos by the rhythm of nature and order in society by rules and regulations. The story goes that when the earth complained that the kings of the earth were plundering her wealth in greed, Vishnu promised her to take care of her by instituting the code of civilized conduct known as dharma. The earth turned into a cow and Vishnu became her cowherd and caretaker, Gopala. He protected her with dharma and she, in exchange, gave artha and kama.

Dharma is all about balance – taking only as much as one needs, and sharing the excess. Parashurama kills Kartaviryarjuna who steals the cows which are given as gifts to sages. Ram kills Ravan who disregards the laws of marriage. Krishna kills the Kauravas who are unable to share wealth with their own family. This makes Vishnu a deity intent on making the world a better place. Perhaps that is why Lakshmi sits coyly at his feet. He is Shrinivas, the eternal abode of Lakshmi.

  • Shrikant

    Awesome.. what an IDEA sirji! you make me seek the A-sura path :-)

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt G.,
    I have a question
    What performance needed to seek Asura path which has regeneration– Sanjivani Vidya

    It is said that to become Indra one has to perform 1000 Ashwametha Yagnas. – seeking Devas path(immortality)

    The former create wealth while the latter yank her out

    It is not a battle of good over evil. It is a fertility cycle.
    Does it not seems to the cycle between the Working class and Managing class

    • There are many ways in which the cycle can be seen…..once one appreciates the concept of Deva and Asura….

  • subburaj s

    I have read this before in your blog.

  • Vijay

    Dr Pattanaik,
    Amazing ..its simply too good …

    Bleated Diwali wishes :)…

    I have a request..
    I want know your insights on Lord Karthikeya (Muruga)and his form of worship .why is he been so prominently worshiped in southern India not so much in northern India ..any reasons for his various forms of worship like a snake god(subramanya,karnataka)then human form in Tamil nadu..Many say he was the answer from shivaites to “Vishnu” of vishanvites..i am just curios to know your perspective on this ..
    many thanks,
    regards
    vijay

    • Article on this will be on site shortly

      • vijay

        i read your article which appeared in the Times of india Speaking tree spl edition (9-10-2011). it was amazing
        thanks a ton

        regards
        vijay

  • shwetha

    Awesome.Superb article.More intresting articles on Goddess Lakshmi please…….

  • Roshni Devi

    A long time ago, i remember reading that the english equivalent of asura was ‘Titan’, though i can’t recollect the context or the explanation…but it did say something about asuras not being evil and that they could be swayed to the good/bad side…

    • Titan…..that is how old English scholars tried to explain Hinduism….they used the Greek context….that was an error….rectified in the 21st century hopefully

  • Dear Mr. Pattanaik,
    What an amazing insight into Goddess Lakshmi ‘s fugacious character.You must have sat with great contemplation to seek out the comparisions between asuras and devas as related to the goddess.kudos to you!!
    Can we have something about Lord Ayyapan of the south.We northerners need to know more about him .
    thanks
    kumkum

  • As far as sanjeevani is concerned, Avadoot baba sivananda teaches this vidaya for healing purposes. Pls. visit website http://www.shivyog.com for further information about sanjeevani.

  • Dear Devaduttji

    There are couple of mistakes in your article titled “decoding lakshmi”

    1. The former live under the ground and the later live under the ground.

    2. He balances the Sanjivani Vidya given to Asuras by Shiva with Amrita which is reserves only for the Asuras.

  • Dear Dr. Pattanaik,
    This is wonderful stuff. I have been wondering where all those though provoking versions of our mythological stories went. I was an avid reader of Krishnavatara by Dr.K.M.Munshi which really made me see Krishna as ‘Purushottama’ and not clearly the Lord himself.

    I am now reading the story of ‘Ganesha’s measuring scale’ with the same interest. You are recreating that magic… you could work with some literary collaborators to come out with intellectual “mythology” series for people of all ages.

    I was drawn to your site by googling you after reading the article above in Sunday Herald.

    There is a version of Varaahavatara being related as a need to defeat Hiranyaksha who had built a fort of mala-mutragrihaas(toilets) believing that Vishnu and other ‘clean’ devas would never dare to fight him there. I tend to learn from this version that one might have to suitably adapt oneself to fight adharma, even if it means stooping to venture into discomforting environs. Your comments on this please.

    Thank you once again for your efforts.

    Sincerely,
    Anand Rajamani

  • Girish

    terrific, i want more.

  • just thinking, can you include astrology in your research?
    There are three GANA: dev, manushya, rakshas. in which all humans are classified. I think along with mythology, some more insights can be derived from Indian astrology.

  • Raja

    Great piece…my wife’s name is Lakshmi and I sent it to her…

  • Amazing as always :)

  • Dear Devdutt
    It is surely amazing , in how many ways one can interpret these stories ,pictures ,idols and shlokas. A pamara, panditha ,and a gyani have their own explanations for any given subject. To site an example take the shloka on Ganesha. The famous Vakra thunda Mahakaya….
    .. Vakra= a wave or a curve Thunda= particals or pieces …Maha= magnanimous Kaya= Job… or work (as in kaayaka or kaam, in this contex) Surya =Sun Koti= Million stars, Sama= Equal , Praba= radiance, Nir-vignam= uninterruptedly, Kurume Devo= performer, or executer Sarvakaryeshu= all work, or every thing, Sarvada= Always.
    Each and every word of this is Kannada , thelagu 80%Thamil except for Thunda
    And Kurume (can be interpreted in the suit the situation) is Hindi too.(i am sure it means the same in many other Indian languages )
    While Thunda ..means pices or particals in kannada thelagu and Thamil ( i wonder wt it literally means in Sanskrith)
    The SUN who is a star among millions of stars, radiates equal, Light, in the form of waves and particles,
    Performs the magnanimous Job { light being the sustainer of all living organisms}
    Some ancient Rushi ,s description of LIGHT… as.. light is a wave and a particle.
    The 108 names of Ganesha is the 108 functions of LIGHT, not forgetting the animated version of the Elephant headed one.

    may your tribe increse :)

    smt.dharma somashekar

  • There is a lot more to the Puranas than what is understood as mythical stories. AND as all of them r coded, an understanding of several aspects of the Vedic culture is necessary to decode them.
    The pictorial depiction of a god or goddess (with several limbs and heads) should be taken as a symbol for a suggestion, when expanded, opens up larger information. Like the icons on the comp, when one taps.. the menu drops down.

    dharma somashekar

  • Ranga

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

    Devuduttji… How do you react to this version calling them as “tribes of ancient India?”

    • Interesting…..:-)…this belongs to the historical school of mythology that looks at epics from a “realistic” point of view….I find the scope of the school rather restricting…it involves too many assumptions

  • Manish Mishra

    Awesome. I just discovered you on web …beyond ET CD on Fridays.

  • Maneendra

    Dr Devdutt,

    Thanks a lot for the decode.

    It seems every one is doing their dharma,
    Asuras by creating lakshmi or by generating wealth.
    Devas who procure and distribute wealth
    Vishnu as a preserver
    Brahma as a creator
    Shiva as a destroyer.

    I would like to know as an individual/manushya what is my dharma?
    or elaboration on “Dharma is all about balance – taking only as much as one needs, and sharing the excess” might as well help.

    Thanks

  • Rohan

    An amazing piece of writing from you, as always.
    Makes me analogise the eternal Asura, Deva tussle with what is happening in India right now – the war between the State (Government) and the Maoists (Tribals). Seems like the Govt is acting like the Devas who wants to spend and unearth all the treasure (in this case mineral wealth in Central India) and the Maosits/ Tribals who want to preserve it.
    I know the analogy seems a little far fetched but that was the first thing that struck me. I think its an eternal struggle which has been happening for ages and will continue till the end of time.

    Thank you for sharing the perspective with us. Please keep up the good work.

  • Raghav

    With all this knowledge Devji,
    I’m really curious to know if you bow before an image of God or if you believe in Nirguna avatar..?
    Has this knowledge made you an atheist or a theist?..considering the cause-effect cycle so prominent
    I can understand if this is too personal to share..

  • UR OR NOT DEVDUTT ……. U R DEV DOOTH BHAGWAN KE DOOTH HEI AAP,,,,,,,

  • sabarikumar.b.s.

    Dear Devdutt,

    In fact, criminals and selfish,narrow minded people are having lakshmi with them really and straight forward,open minded and selfless people are not having lakshmi in their side really. So, Now i am confused that who is right? Nowadays, without money we can’t have good life in the world and even can’t fulfill our basic needs.

    Can you suggest me How should people be? If you reply i will be happy.

  • Sunil

    Dear Sir,

    Thanks for the enlightenment, this article is a real gem.

    Thanks,
    Sunil

  • Sunil

    Dear Sir,
    I have atleast read this article 100 times.
    Thanks for the enlightenment!

    Sunil

  • Dear DDP,
    I have suggestion as story & context are long it would be great if more pictures are added.
    These are great stories, It is more easy to remember if there are more pictures added to long stories.

    Thanks,
    Arun

  • chanakyasenthil

    I love your insight…

    But devdutt ji,

    Whats the difference between BEING RICH AND BEING WEALTHY.?

    Can you kindly explain..

    cheers

    • Devdutt

      I see no difference….but we can split hairs

  • Wonderful. Amazing.

    People like you can help save the treasure of knowledge which our sages created for humanity.
    Until now I was thinking demon and asura are same :(

    Regards Hari

  • Deepa Shahi

    Loved dis article :)

  • I’ve not read a more meaningful explanation of the Sura-Asura duality and how wealth moves back and forth in the cycle of fertility. Im deeply indebted for this explanation for it resolves my long standing discomfort with calling Asuras ‘Demons’.