Think Lakshmi Signifies Only Riches? Welcome To The Hindu Concept Of Abundance
by Aravindan Neelakandan
Viewing Lakshmi only as a significator of wealth is akin to a parochial economic view of life.
The macro- or cosmic view of Lakshmi goes far beyond that.
Futurists Alvin Toffler (1928-2016) and his wife Adelaide ‘Heidi’ Toffler, in their book Revolutionary Wealth (2006) point out an important shift in the way wealth is getting redefined in the ongoing, what they call, ‘Third Wave’ civilisational shift from the industrial ‘Second Wave’ one. They write:
The Second Wave led to econocentrism: The idea that culture, religion and the arts, were all of secondary importance and — according to Marx — were determined by economics. But Third Wave revolutionary wealth is increasingly based on knowledge — and puts economics back in its place as part of a larger system, bringing, for better and worse, issues like cultural identity, religion and morality back toward centrestage.
The book has an entire section devoted to India — ‘India Awakened’ which looks at India through, thankfully, the Kalam lens. The futurists speak of a technology-driven knowledge-based economy generating wealth that takes people out of poverty on a fast track. But the book does not present a rosy picture. The challenges are well presented:
It is in Asia — in rural China and rural India — that the true core of world poverty is found, and it is in these regions that the knowledge-based wealth system can have its greatest success.
The book also discusses how religions drive global economy in their own way. But here understandably, the Tofflers restrict their discussion only to the proselytizing and politicizing activities of Islam and Christianity.
Not that Tofflers are totally unaware of Eastern religious symbolism and their significance, as in his PowerShift (1990), Toffler had pointed out the Japanese legend of ‘the three sacred objects given to the great sun goddess, Amaterasu-omi-kami’ which are the sword, the jewel, and the mirror.
The sword which represents strength, the jewel wealth and the mirror which represents self-knowledge is, also according to Toffler’s interpretation, ‘a symbol of imagination, consciousness, and knowledge’.
At this point, the readers should have been reminded of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati who are related to wisdom, wealth and strength. One cannot but wonder how he or any scholar with his insight into future techno-social evolution would have looked at the dynamics of Indian society with the understanding of Hindu culture — the Puranas and symbols.
And for this, one need not go either the Wendy or Freudian or Marxist way. The Hindu traditional system itself offers methods which are far more profound and equally pragmatic, if only one is ready to sit and learn.
For Hindus, Deepavali is the day Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, emerges from the ocean of milk during the churn. Wealth in Hindu tradition is also called ‘Sri’ and in Tamil it is called ‘Thiru’.
It is also the name of the Goddess Herself. It is also the honorific one adds before one’s name in all Indian languages.
While in English, the equivalent ‘Mister’ actually comes from ‘Master’, which in turn means essentially a slave owner — a term of prestige today universalised, in India, the term ‘Thiru’ or ‘Sri’ means a person of auspicious wealth.
Perhaps, these show the basic fundamental difference in approach to life of both the cultures. In Tamil tradition, Vishnu Himself gets defined by Her being in Him.
Right from Sangam literature, Thiru (Sri) residing in the chest of Vishnu was sang by Tamil poets. So, He is Thirumaal.
As Thiru, She abides in rulers and she can also leave them. Nammazhwar, in a famous verse, speaks of seeing Vishnu Himself in rulers who have Thiru with them.
English-educated interpreters have jumped upon the line to declare that it suggests the concept of the divine right of the king in India.
On the contrary here, the Azhwar actually states that it is only in a ruler with Thiru that he sees the emanation of Vishnu, which means the king has to earn it through his deeds.
If his deeds are such that he makes the Thiru leave him, then he would not be considered as having divine emanation.
When Hindu seers saw Lakshmi in wealth, it was not just economic prosperity they saw. Maha Lakshmi is actually a combination of eight Lakshmis, popularly known as ‘Ashta Lakshmis’. ‘Adi Lakshmi’ is the primordial Lakshmi — and hence the very basic form of wealth.
‘Dhanya Lakshmi’ is the wealth of food. ‘Dhairya Lakshmi’ is the wealth of courage. ‘Santhana Lakshmi’ is the wealth of children in the family. ‘Gaja Lakshmi’ is the wealth represented by the elephants.
‘Vidya Lakshmi’ is the wealth represented by knowledge. ‘Vijaya Lakshmi’ is the wealth of successes in life. ‘Dhana Lakshmi’ is the wealth of economic prosperity. When one worships Maha Lakshmi, they seek all these eight Lakshmis.
That the Hindu seers went beyond the limited idea of wealth as meaning merely material wealth and even possession but worked out a detailed holistic picture of the wealth is indeed amazing.
If one looks at each of the eight Lakshmis who form the part of Maha Lakshmi, then one can discern and build a completely holistic concept of wealth, which in turn can be used in economics.
As of today, economics sees only material wealth as wealth. But the Hindu view of wealth is completely different.
The primordial wealth which is Adi Lakshmi represents the very basic fact of our very existence — which in itself is a wealth and blessing bestowed upon us as we live.
Dr. C. Sivaramamurti (1909-1983), an authority on Hindu Divine forms, in his monumental work Sri Lakshmi in Indian Art and Thought (1982), points out that the famous Lajja Gowri may actually be Sri Lakshmi. He writes:
The lotus lady is our Lady of abundance and beauty and prosperity. In the Vishnudharmottara, it has been very significantly given that Lakshmi should be shown with the lotus as her face, the flower replacing her human face. … At Alampur, there is again this early Western Chalukyan carving of the nude goddess Lakshmi with the lotus as her face.
He also speaks of the sculpture at Badami museum of the same Goddess and the same form worshipped in Darasuram near Kumbakonam.
Clearly a primordial Goddess, she has a counterpart in ancient pagan culture with the same posture but with a human face – the Goddess Sheila-na-gig.
Then, as humanity progresses into civilization, food security is the most important, and agriculture, through abundance of harvest, provides food.
One should remember that the Hindu wisdom also posits that Lakshmi does not like stagnation. One needs to share whatever he gets if he wishes that wealth is to be sustainable.
Where there is stagnation, there, Lakshmi does not reside. So, when abundance of grains is the manifestation of Dhanya Lakshmi, then it automatically makes it mandatory on the one who has that abundance to share. Heirs are also wealth — not to be possessed but to have a fulfilled life.
The use of the word ‘Santaan’ is important here. This is a term that denotes not just biological heirs. Vishwamitra made Sunakshepa his own Gotra though biologically he belonged to another.
In Anand Math, novel Santhaans were the ascetics who had come from different biological families but had become one family to serve the Mother.
So, while for a household, ‘Santaan’ may be children born to the parents, for the nation or society, Santaans are the ones who carry forward the flame of civilisational values.
And they indeed are a wealth — a blessing from Lakshmi for both the household, the society and planet at large.
Dharma makes it imperative that the heirs of a household should be ready to sacrifice themselves for the protection of Dharma — as in Mahabharata where Kunti offered her own son Bhima to protect the people of Ekachakranagara.
‘Gaja Lakshmi’ is represented as two elephants carrying the water and pouring it on the Lakshmi seated on the lotus. She is present in almost every entrance top in South India. Today, we can understand Her as the harmonious relation we need to establish with all the nature.
Dr. C. Sivaramamurti points out that the very earliest image of Gaja Lakshmi we have comes from second century CE.
Vidya Lakshmi is the wealth of knowledge. Knowledge is indeed a wealth one needs to seek, accumulate and then share with others — just like in the case of all other forms of wealth, knowledge is also wealth and education is the means to obtain it.
Every day, one has to go through various fights — both internal and external, in various domains — from family quarrels to office politics, business competition to battlefields. In all these one seeks success. ‘Vijaya Lakshmi’ is the one who guides us to success through proper means.
One aspect of all these Lakshmis is that they direct all human needs of fulfilment in a Dharmic way.
It is at last that one comes to ‘Dana Lakshmi’. Last but not the least, She is the most obvious form of wealth. Hindu wisdom clearly placed Her the most obvious and the most sought out aspect of wealth in the last — not because She is less important.
It is because She has to be seen in conjunction with and in the context of all other Lakshmis as we humans shall always fall for the fallacy of concentrating only on this manifestation of Lakshmi alone ignoring others.
Now let us come to Dhairya Lakshmi who comes in the middle order in the arrangement of the eight names but has a very important significance.
The ruler of the nation — Raja — should have all the eight Lakshmis to be a good ruler.
In a popular tale told by Hindu grannies, a ruler one day dreamt that every Lakshmi was informing him that She was leaving his kingdom. He was given a choice to have one Lakshmi back.
The king asked for Dhairya Lakshmi to remain. It so happened that as a rule all other Lakshmis have to reside where Dhairya Lakshmi resides and hence, all other Lakshmis returned. The story told to children contains an important truth.
In Prasnottra Ratna Malika (Garland of precious gem like questions and answers) attributed to Adi Sankara, to the question ‘what is strength’ the answer given is ‘Dhairyam’.
Now, usually, strength is associated with the physical body but ‘Dhairyam’ comes from the inner mind. The great Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi points out how the term ‘Dhairyam’ has a deeper meaning:
In Sanskrit, there is a term called Dhairyam. Dhairyam is the nature of the ‘Dheera’. If one looks at the root of the word, it also means one who has wisdom. So, the same term is used for one who has wisdom and one who has courage… In no other language in the world, these two characteristics are referred to by the same term… Fear then is ignorance. Fearlessness is wisdom… Even if a person is illiterate in the conventional sense, if a person is without fear and removes hurdles, then that person is one of wisdom.
No wonder then the grandmother’s tale has Dhairya Lakshmi get back all other Lakshmis — She becomes the anchor point. Let us now consider each of the Lakshmis then as component of what actually constitutes wealth.
Then, what we have is a radically new measure of wealth with deeply religious significance but of tremendous utility to what is considered the secular domain.
The passage defining wealth radically surpassing mere economic wealth made in the beginning of this article then does not look very radical at all.
Through the eight Lakshmis, we can redefine in a better way the concept of wealth through the traditional Hindu way. But again, we are left with a question.
Why has such a definition of wealth not been attempted by Indian economists and planners and at least why not now — not to glorify our past but to generate sustainable wealth for our future generations?
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