Sri or Lakshmi

Sri or Lakshmi- the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The most sought after devi especially for homemakers and those in trade and commercial activities. She is also among the earliest represented deities in Indian iconography in the form of Gaja Lakshmi.

Sri -Lakshmi in texts

Rig Veda uses the term Sri both as a noun and adjective to denote anything that appears as beautiful, which includes wealth and prosperity; while as a verb it is used in the connection of mixing milk with soma where the former adds to beauty or taste of the latter (enhancement). The Brahmanas first personifies Sri, where she takes the form of a beautiful woman and appears from the ascetic Prajapati. The term Lakshmi in Rigveda refers to auspicious qualities, and in later Vedic literature Sri and Lakshmi appear together denoting loveliness. In Srisukta (pre Buddhist period) Sri and Lakshmi are considered as one devi who is padmasthita or stands on the lotus. In Taittiriya Upanishad Sri gives cows, food, drinks, and clothes; hence Sri should be brought home. In the Sutras, Sri is given offerings as the head of the bed, denoting her associations with the fertility rituals and mother goddesses.

Padmastitha, Gaja-Lakshmi. Terracotta. Uttar Pradesh. 1st century BCE. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

While the association of Sri-Lakshmi with Vishnu starts with the Epics, interestingly a look at the Vedic verses dedicated to Aditi shows her as the Mother of the Universe and the wife of the Vedic Vishnu (Yajur Veda). She is sometimes identified as the Earth, who is worshipped for wealth and prosperity; and sometimes she is referred to as a milk giving cow whose milk is equal to the heavenly soma. Thus, it is clear that Aditi as the Universal Mother and the Lady of Abundance of the Vedas bears resemblances to the later period consorts of Vishnu: Bhu devi and Sri-Lakshmi. Thus, Sri is the Mother (from an inscription found at Bharhut, and some later sculptures showing her pressing milk from her breast), and at the same time as per later Vaishnava theology, she is also Prakriti, keeping in line with Narayana (Vishnu) as the Purusha or spirit.

One of the most beautiful representations of Sri-Lakshmi as the Mother (front side). Kushana period, 2nd c. CE, Mathura

Besides Aditi in Yajur Veda, the early Samhita texts have names of other devis of abstract characters, which remind one of Sri-Lakshmi of the later period. Purandhi (many regard her as the Vedic form of Avestan Parendi) is the goddess of plenty, while Raka is portrayed as a rich and beautiful devi. Sinivali is mentioned in Atharvaveda VIII as Vishnu’s wife, who is fair, prolific, and invoked for bearing children. In the later Vedic texts Raka and Sinivali become connected with the different phases of the moon, where Raka is the presiding deity of the purnima (full moon) night, and Sinivali is the deity of the new moon night (amavasya). The Brahmana text (Sathpatha Brahmana) gives an interesting story regarding the origin of Sri, where it states that when Prajapati became tired of creating beings, Sri came forth from him. The gods seeing her perfect and radiant beauty were envious and wanted to kill her; however Prajapati intervened and asked the gods to take away her attributes and spare her life. The gods thus took from her: food, kingdom, sovereignty, noble rank, power, holy shine, dominion, wealth, prosperity, and beauty. Later the devi offered 10 sacrificial dishes to the 10 gods who had taken away her attributes, and had everything offered back to her. The underlying point of this story is that Sri embodies all the major characteristics that are coveted by man. The Taittiriya Upanishad (I) and other texts also emphasize on these characteristics of the devi, while Sri-sukta ( a late supplement of the Rigveda) gives 15 verses defining the most distinctive features of the devi, and it is here that Sri is also named as Lakshmi, and is described as a golden colored antelope with gold and and silver garlands.

Gaja Lakshmi, Gangaikondacholapuram, 11th century CE

It is in the Epics that Sri-Lakshmi takes a firm shape as the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and is associated with kings and gods. Here Sri clearly stands for prosperity, perseverance, and success: the characteristics of victorious kings. In the Mahabharata and VishnuPurana Sri-Lakshmi is said to have been born out of the churning waters of the Ocean during Samudramanthan (her association with the waters has always been implied by the presence of lotus in her hands or around her). She is the wife of Vishnu and also the wife of Dharma; and the mother of Kamadeva ( as the mother of Makaradhvaja or Kamdev she carries the sign of makara on her hand in Mahabharata xiii, 11, 3). She is also Rukmini, the chief consort of Krishna and the mother of his son Pradyumna. As wife of Dharma, Sri is shown separate from Lakshmi, and in Mahabharata she is associated with abstract forms such as Pusti, Hri, Uma, Sarasvati, Kirti, Dyuti, etc. ; however barring this exception, Sri and Lakshmi are seen as one entity. Radha in connection with Krishna is also seen as the manifestation of Sri-Lakshmi in human form, in whom we find prem ras or love idealised and perfected. Some verses in the Mahabharata have also closely associated Kubera with Sri-Lakshmi and this ideological union between the goddess of prosperity and the god of wealth is easily understandable.

Sri Lakshmi coming out of the ocean during Samudramanthan

In Buddhist texts Sri is given less importance, and is casually mentioned in many places as devakumarika; the devi who bestows fortune and beauty, and is associated with the northern and southern quarters. In Jataka 535 and in Kadambari, the devi is reproached for her fickleness, unstable nature, and the willingness to indiscriminately bestow fortune on the lazy, ugly, and the lowborn, along with the hardworking, wise, and the high born. In Japanese Buddhism Sri-Lakshmi is the daughter of Hariti, hence a yakshi.

Buddhist Sri Lakshmi

In Jaina literature, Sri-Lakshmi finds more importance, and in Paryusana Kalpa the abhiseya of Sri is one of the 14 auspicious dreams of Trisala (mother of Mahavira), which foretells the birth of this great Jina. The detailed description of it paints a fine imagery of the abhiseya, where Sri- Lakshmi of great physical beauty wearing a garland of gold coins (dinaras) rests on a lotus in a lotus pond amidst the surrounding peaks of the Himalaya, as the trunks of two elephants pour water on her. In the much later Jaina text Parisistaparvan, we find Sri devi described as holding a lotus and residing in Padmahrada in the Himalaya.

Lakshmi in modern Bengal art, Owl as her vahana was a much later addition.

Thus, Sri Lakshmi developed quite like how the devi form in the Sakta sect gradually evolved from the basic concept of mother goddesses, where abstract ideas acquired greater spiritual depth and were given concrete imagery shapes in the form of popular deities that related better with the masses. Thus, while Sri-Lakshmi in the later literature becomes the devi of fortune moving with kings and gods, she still manages to retain her old charm associated with love (Radha), beauty, and a general sense sense of well being; the Universal Mother bestowing plenty (crops and children) on her devotees.

Lakshmi as popularly seen in modern Bengal art
Sri-Lakshmi in Iconography

From the various available literature one characteristic that is seen constantly associated with Sri- Lakshmi is that of the presence of waters, symbolically represented by lotus. According to Coomaraswamy there are three varieties of Sri-Lakshmi:

  1. She is seen carrying a lotus in her right hand, while her left hand hangs freely or rests on her hips in katihasta mudra (Padmahasta)
  2. Shown as seated or standing on a lotus seat or pedestal (Padmasana or Padmapitha)
  3. Surrounded by lotus foliage, where the devi is sometimes seen holding one of the flowering stems in each hand (Padmavasini or Kamalalaya).

These may appear as separate or the three or two may be combined together in a murti. While the first two representations are also seen in yaksis, the third one is the most distinctive feature of the early representations of the devi.

Padmahasta, Padmasana. Padmavasini.
Bas relief of Gaja Lakshmi at the Sanchi Stupa, Stupa I, North gateway, Satavahana dynasty sculpture, 1st century CE. Lotus symbolizes water and Sri is always associated with lotus and waters.

Iconographic studies by TAG Rao shows that Sri Lakshmi can be two-four or even many armed; however the most common variety is the two armed form. In her arms are seen the various attributes, such as lotus (the constant attribute), sriphala or wood apple (bael), sankha, amritaghata, matulunga (citron), khetaka (shield), kaumodiki (club), etc. As per the Viswakarmasastra , Mahalakshmi in Kolhapur carries a pot, a club, a shield and wood apple. Candikalpa, which is a supplementary to Devi Mahatmya, describes the devi with 18 arms carrying japmala, hatchet, club, arrow, vajra, padma, bow, kundika (small pitcher), staff, spear, sword, shield, bell, and winecup.

Gaja Lakshmi, holding lotus and cornucopia, flanked by two elephants and two lions. From Kashmir, 6th century CE. now at Metropolitan Museum of art

The imagery depiction of Sri Lakshmi in earliest form of Indian iconographic art has followed various modes. In Bharhut there is a magnificent pillar relief depicting a standing female figure in samapadasthanaka posture with her right hand holding a flower, (as per Coomaraswamy it is a lotus), while her left hand hangs by her side. This figure is inscribed as Sirima devta, the goddess Mother Sri (as per Sirikalakanni Jataka).

Sirima devta

The variants of Sirima devta is seen across Sanchi, Bodh Gaya, etc. where sometimes the background changes showing a padmavana (a lotus forest). Sometimes a makara is also seen associated with the devi, as seen in a fragmentary coping stone from Amaravati of 2nd c. CE (makara being a mythical water creature and symbolising fertility; and as also the mother of Makaradhvaja or Kamdev). The much mutilated female figure which was found by Cunningham along with the Besnagar kalpataru capital is also that of Sri Lakshmi as identified by Banerjea. A rather unique form of the devi is seen from the Mauryan-Sunga period, as in terracotta figurines (one such is seen in Spooner’s list, number 550) where she is represented with unusual wings, heavy earrings, heavy bracelets, torque, and archaic styled costume.

The famous Pompeii Lakshmi (ivory murti) was found amidst the ruins of Pompeii and is said to have come from Bhokardan in Maharashtra during the Satavahana period (first half of the 1st c. CE). It stands as a testimony of the thriving Indo-Roman trade relations in the beginning of the Common Era. photo source Wikipedia

Sri-Lakshmi on coins

Sri-Lakshmi is one of the earliest deities in Indian iconography to be found frequently on tribal coins as Gaja Lakshmi, where she is shown standing (rarely seated) being bathed by two elephants. This devi was so popular that she is seen on the coins of both Indian and non-native rulers of northern India in ancient era. Gaja Lakshmi appears on an inscribed coin from 3rd c. BCE coin found in Kausambi, coins of Ujjayini (2nd-3rd c. BCE), coins of Visakhadeva, Sivadatta, and Vayudeva of Ayodhya (1st c. BCE). Many rulers of foreign origin like Azilises, Rajuvala, and Sodasa also used this devi as a motif on their coins. In central Indian many early monuments show the devi in this form in their relief carvings, thus showing a close connection between the sculptural and numismatic representations of the devi. This motif (gaja-Lakshmi) symbolises the Indian idea of prosperity and wealth, and is still held in great reverence among the Indics.

Azilises Gaja Lakshmi standing on a lotus, 1st c. BCE. From Wikipedia
Gajalaxmi – Medallion – 2nd Century BCE – Red Sand Stone – Bharhut Stupa Railing Pillar – Madhya Pradesh – Indian Museum – Kolkata. From Wikipedia.

Sri Lakshmi without the elephants, either seated or standing on a fully blossomed lotus holding lotus in her hand is seen frequently on the coins of Ujjayini of various Hindu kings, such as Brahmamitra, Suryamitra, Vishnumitra, etc. Her hand is frequently seen in the coins of the Mathura satraps such as Sivadatta, Rajuvala etc. , on coins of Rajanya janapada, and coins of Bhadraghosa (Pancala). Sri Lakshmi also appears on the coins of the Gupta kings in various forms (one of which is an exact Indian counterpart of the foreign origin goddess Ardochso ), and is a constant on the coins from later periods.

Sri Lakshmi on seals

The Gupta period has yielded many finely executed seals that bear Gaja Lakshmi as the motif (in her various forms). The copper plate seal of the Kumaramatyadhikarana (early Gupta period) shows Gaja Lakshmi standing among trees with elephants pouring water over her and two dwarfs attendants (yakshas) holding money bags. This form has many variations on seals, where sometimes the yaksha attendants are missing, and in some they are shown pouring out the objects in the bag, and in one there is a kneeling attendant. These money bags are the same as the one we see at the base of the Kalpataru found at Besnagar. In another seal found at Basarh by Spooner (seal no. 93) has the devi shown with a halo behind her, facing front, her left hand on her hip and right hand raised, standing on a pedestal placed on the centre of what looks like a barge, justifying the devi’s close association with trade and commerce (vanjiye vasate Laksmih). Among the seals found from Bhita (another Gupta period site) of Sri Lakshmi, the most frequently found is that of her in the Gaja Lakshmi form, shown sometimes with a chakra like motif and named Vishnurakshita, sometimes with the yakshas, with a sankha, or a bird like creature likely to be Garuda.

Winged Mother goddess/Lakshmi in terracotta , Sunga dynasty, Chandraketugarh, West Bengal, 2nd-1st century B.C, , Ethnological Museum, Berlin. photo from the internet.
A plaque depicting a winged female figure- Lakshmi , standing on a lotus, 1st century BCE to 1st century CE – Chandraketugarh (courtesy: Sengupta, Roy Chowdhury, Chakraborty 2007)
Seal Impression with Sri Lakshmi with Elephants (Gaja-Lakshmi) India, Bihar, Basarh 5th c. CE, Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Gajalakshmi, Kausambi, 3rd c. CE, Early Gupta, Allahabad university. photo from the internet
Lakshmi enthroned facing, holding cornucopia and diadem, Gupta gold coin, c. 335-375 CE (photo source)
Lakshmi seated left on a stool, holding a cornucopia and diadem, Gupta, gold dinar, c. 335-375 CE (Photo Source)
The coin featured in the image belongs to Sasanka (600-635 CE). He was the king of Gauda and his capital was at Karnasuvarna, near Murshidabad. The obverse of the coin depicts Shiva, nimbate, reclining on a couchant bull with his left hand upraised and Brahmi legend in the right field (off flan). The reverse has Goddess Lakshmi, seated on lotus and elephants pouring water over her head and Brahmi legend ‘Sri Sasanka’. It is a Base gold Dinar weighing 8.81 grams. This Abhishekha type coin was sold for INR 40,000 at Todywalla Auction. source
This copper coin was issued by ‘Satakarni’ from the Satavahana dynast. The obverse of the coin depicts Goddess Laxmi seated on a lotus in padmasana yogic posture with legend ‘Sri Satakarni’above, and two elephants showering water on her from either side’. The reverse of the coin depicts ‘Ujjain Symbol’. source
Sandstone Lakshmi statue (10th century), Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City.
Gajalakshmi, Cave No. 16 (Kailasa Temple), Ellora Caves
Gaja Lakshmi, Tanjore Big Temple.

Cover photo is a gold pendant of the Kushana era (2nd c. CE) showing GajaLakshmi holding lotus in both her hands, while in her left over the lotus appears a bowl of fruit (this has been wrongly identified as Hariti by the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is currently kept)

References

Kiran Kumar Thaplyal. OBSERVATIONS ON SOME DOUBLE AND MULTIPLE SEALS AND SEAL-IMPRESSIONS. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 33 (1971), pp. 35-38 (4 pages). Published by: Indian History Congress.

TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu iconography

Sivaramamurti, Goddess Lakshmi and her symbols

Banerjea, Padmini Vidya, 1941

Coomaraswamy, Early Indian Iconography.

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