owl

Lakshmi’s Owl

Indian Mythology 17 Comments

First Published in May, Sunday Midday, Mumbai,

In Orissa and Bengal, Lakshmi images include a white owl. In local belief, white owls have come to be associated with auspiciousness and good luck because of their association with the goddess. Who is this owl? Scriptures do not clarify.

Some say, Lakshmi rides the owl; others believe the owl simply accompanies her, while she rides on a elephant, the latter being a more appropriate vehicle for the goddess who is associated with wealth, power, and royal splendor.

Owls are solitary creatures, who sleep all day and prowl at night. Because of their nocturnal activity and screeching call, they have been associated with bad luck and death, leading to the conclusion that she is Alakshmi, Lakshmi’s elder twin, the goddess of strife and misfortune. But because of its round eyes that never move and stare straight ahead, the owl has been associated with wisdom in many parts of the world, especially ancient Greece, where it was closely associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom. The term “lord with circular eyes” (Choka-dola) is used in the East to refer to Jagannath, the form of Krishna-Vishnu worshipped in Puri, Orissa, leading to speculation that the owl actually represents Lakshmi’s consort, Vishnu. Favoring this line of thought, is the fact that in Hindu mythology, the vahana or vehicle of a deity is always male, not female. But the idea that Lakshmi would ride her own husband, thought acceptable to feminists, is abhorrent to traditionalists. They insist that the owl accompanies the goddess; she does not ride it. If she does not ride the owl, then it could be  either Vishnu, or Alakshmi.

But Vishnu never follows Lakshmi; she follows him, drawn by his ability to uphold order or dharma wherever he goes. And Alakshmi, always accompanies, Lakshmi, for she is the elder sister. In images, Lakshmi is associated with both Vishnu and the owl. Art historians are of the opinion that since it is inauspicious to portray Alakshmi, artists have chosen to represent her as an owl. But why represent her at all?

The idea of Lakshmi having a twin sister is an ancient one. Some say while Lakshmi was born of Brahma’s face, Alakshmi was born from his back. Some say Lakshmi emerged along with Amrita, the nectar of immortality, when the gods were churning the ocean of milk; Alakshmi emerged with Halahal, the dreaded poison with the power to destroy the world. Alakshmi is called many things including Daridra, poverty personified; Kalaha, strife personified; Kalikanni, quarrel personified; Nritti, goddess of decay. In the mythology of Shiva, Alakshmi is Kali, the fearsome aspect of Shakti, while Lakshmi is Gauri, the lovable aspect of Shakti. In Vishnu mythology, Lakshmi adores dharma (acts born of empathy) while Alakshmi adores adharma (acts born of exploitation). Thus Lakshmi and Alakshmi are two halves of a complete whole; Lakshmi is the fruit that is savored while Alakshmi is the waste that is discarded. The two exist as a whole; without either there is neither.

In mythology, Lakshmi does not make any value judgment. A bowl of rice feeds a saint and a sinner; a rupee coin has the same value in the hands of a judge and the same value in the hands of a murderer. But Lakshmi always comes with her sister in tow. Failure to acknowledge Alakshmi is dangerous for she represents all the negative energies that accompany any wealth. Everyone knows that money breeds strife and jealousy. Alakshmi embodies that dark aspect of wealth. She is the one who makes rich brothers quarrel. She is the one who divides the household. She is the one who does not allow peace to enter the house of gold.

The only way to make Alakshmi weak is to constantly be aware of her; acknowledge her as much as her sister. Typically in rituals, sweets, kept inside the house, are offered to Lakshmi while lemons and chillies, kept outside the house, are meant for Alakshmi. Lakshmi, say the scriptures, never goes anywhere without her sister. In other words, wealth never goes anywhere without the seed of strife.

The story goes that Lakshmi and Alakshmi once paid a visit to a trader and asked her who of the two is more beautiful. The trader was frightened of making either one unhappy so he came up with a clever answer that would please both. “Lakshmi is beautiful when she walks towards me. Alakshmi is beautiful when she walks away from me.” Pleased with this response, fortune moved towards the trader while strife moved away.

Today, we seem to be inviting strife into our house. News reports celebrate strife. Television shows are based on strife. Everyone is fighting. Young people are fighting on reality shows and the audience loves it. Judges are fighting, singers are fighting and we are beaming these thoughts into our living rooms during family time, while eating dinner. War is presented as entertainment. Stories of rape and abuse and murder are generating vicarious thrills.  And all this is happening at a time when India is reaping the benefits of liberalization. Guess, in our pursuit of Lakshmi, we have forgotten to tell Alakshmi, with utmost love and respect, “Stay out!”

  • Very well written article. Says a lot.

  • Amit

    This reminds me of the ritual we have in our home (a UP ritual) just a night before Diwali. The night before Diwali, we beat a bamboo sieve (which is used to separate rice from its husk and sand) in each room of the house to chase the “Daridra” or now I understand, Alakshmi in this context, outside the house. The sieve serves as such an apt symbolic thing to use:something that helps separate the rice (wealth) from the husk/sand.

  • rajat

    Yep Amit ji is right !

  • bipasha

    Very interesting Devdutt!

  • shwetha

    Is Bhudevi another form of Lakshmi?In south indian temples,both Sridevi and Bhudevi are present.

  • shwetha & deepika

    Who is Neela devi?

  • Apoorv

    “leading to speculation that the owl actually represents Lakshmi’s consort, Vishnu”… Sir, are u speculating this or is this the speculation born of a folklore? Round eyes are too remote connection to connect owl and vishnu of jagganathpuri, the probable reason for the round eyes can be that lord vishwakarma left his carving incomplete when the king opened the door.

  • Pranjal Patil

    Who is GODDESS SARANYA?
    Was GODDESS DURGA, sister of LORD SHANI?

  • ss

    In UP there is also a tradition in nite of Deepavali or Laxmi Pujan day of keeping a broom along side of Laxmi Puja.As my mother said it is to drive away all the wrong and over-proud and ills that come along with Laxmi or wealth.And interesting the drawing we make of laxmiji doesnot have an owl.
    Also there are thieves that are represented as the legs of Laxmiji , we depicts that wealth/laxmi has a part that is like thieve gets away with everything if not used judiciously , Interestingly we also do Krishna Puja the day after to be judicious and remember that with laxmi you cannot forget Vishnu and his virtues.
    Some also say thieves are meant stop laxmiji from going away.

    I would love to send you the scan of the typical geometric drawing of laxmiji we make.if you wish. it is very much famous in UP, some places.

    It is a good interpretation , logically you have decoded and reached to what is practiced in UP households.Interestingly we are direct descendant of Akrur who was Krishna’s (uncle as what we have been told ,disclaimer:no focus on this) and I see that many stories have been flown to us in the same manner that you have been decoding.

  • Aman Vivek Mehra

    Sir, i was just reading about festival of Diwali.. I have a question on Dhanteras (Dhantrayodashi). It is mentioned on websites, that Lakshmi comes on owl on Dhanteras. Does that mean Dhanteras is not a auspicious day? Is it the day of Alakshmi or misfortune/ strife. Whats the value of the day?

  • Ravi Prakash

    Wow that’s a lovely information..

    But here I would like to add some more information giving a little importance to “Alakshmi”
    Like all the five fingers, everyone is not same in the family, society and the world.
    we come to know the true colour of the people only when we are in trouble, in pain, in sorrow etc etc.
    we come to know about other of their real support when there is “Alakshmi” in our house or in our life.
    In simple words, when we are in need of help of others during our bad times then only we recognise the importance of people associated in our life, in good times everybody seems close & dear ones to us.

    Its only in bad time we see the true colour of people standing with us. so i feel we should give some importance to Alakshmi too. she Being the elder to Lakshmi I feel she comes in our house only so that we have the importance of her younger sister “Lakhmi”. Alakshmi only fulfils her responsibility sacrificing her importance for her younger sister.

    I hope you all find this my view and thought appropriate and right & feel the importance of “Alakshmi” too in our daily life sometime…

    Thank you…

  • Meera Murali

    Namaskara Sir, 8 months back, I bought 2 lovely small owl dolls – a couple & have kept them in my living room show case. Sir, kindly let me know if keeping them inside the house is harmful? Should I remove it or should I place it outside on the fence facing my house for good omen (I’ve seen in some houses people have kept it facing the house in the garden on their fence – is this okay/good?) Or should I completely get rid of them? Actually In front of my main door on the roof of a my neighbour’s house a spotted owlet has a nest since 8 years. 3 months ago, the healthy looking owner of the house died suddenly! Kindly reply quickly sir as I am worried of my action of keeping them inside. Thank you & waiting to hear from you at the earliest.

  • Meera

    Namaskara Sir, 8 months back, I bought 2 lovely small owl dolls – a couple & have kept them in my living room show case. Sir, kindly let me know if keeping them inside the house is harmful? Should I remove it or should I place it outside on the fence facing my house for good omen (I’ve seen in some houses people have kept it facing the house in the garden on their fence – is this okay/good?) Or should I completely get rid of them? Actually In front of my main door on the roof of a my neighbour’s house a spotted owlet has a nest since 8 years. 3 months ago, the healthy looking owner of the house died suddenly! Kindly reply quickly sir as I am worried of my action of keeping them inside. Thank you & waiting to hear from you at the earliest.

  • Aaditya Govil

    While celebrating Dhanteras, are we celebrating the Laxmi coming or we are indirectly celebrating The God’s Doctor Dhanvantri arrival from churning of the white milk ocean or According to a legend, praying the yama for giving us life over death?