Lakshmi: The Lotus Goddess

Lakshmi, Mahalakshmi, Padmavati, Shri, Bhoodevi ., one of the
aspects of female cosmic energy, represents fertility, abundance,
prosperity, riches, brilliance and beauty – the ‘rajas’ aspect of
the phenomenal universe. Sage Markandeya perceives the divine
form, manifesting this female cosmic energy, as one and also as
three-aspected : ‘Mahalakshmir Mahakali saiva prokta Saraswati,
Ishvari punyapapana sarvalokamaheshvari’ (Devi-Mahatmya, Part 3,
Chapter Vaikrtika Rahasya, verse 25), that is, ‘She herself is
proclaimed as Mahalakshmi, Mahakali, and (Maha) Saraswati, the
great ruler of all worlds, reigning over the virtuous and the
wicked’. To sage Markandeya, unity and diversity are attributes
of the same, whether the universe or the divine power governing
it. In his equation, as the universe is one but is composed of
and represents three basic elements – ‘tamas’, ‘rajas’ and
‘sattva’, that are inertia, dynamism and luminosity, the female
cosmic energy pervading and operating over it is one and also
triply manifesting. Thus, Mahalakshmi is also Mahakali and
Mahasaraswati and vice-versa. In Markandeya Purana, Mahalakshmi
is as much the goddess of battlefield as Mahakali or Mahasaraswati.


As per Markandeya Purana, it is in her manifestation as
Mahalakshmi that Devi kills Mahishasura. Indeed, while the roles
of Mahakali and Mahasaraswati confine to eliminating demons and
evil, Mahalakshmi operates also beyond the battlefield
representing auspiciousness and beauty.

Origin Of Lakshmi

It is only from 3rd century B. C. onwards that her iconic form,
now almost unanimously identified as Lakshmi, begins appearing.
This form of her, carrying lotuses in her hands, many more
growing around, and elephants surrounding her – an image of
beauty, appears first in the Sanchi and Bharhut reliefs of the
3rd-2nd century B. C., though despite that she figures, and quite
significantly, in these Buddhist reliefs, early or even
contemporary Buddhist texts do not speak of her at all. Thus, she
was a part of Buddhist sculptures but not of those days’ Buddhist pantheon.


Maybe, like many other motifs the Sanchi and Bharhut sculptors
borrowed her form, obviously in view of her aesthetic beauty,
from some early tradition for embellishing gates’ facades and
other prominent areas of the stupas. Those relying only on
archaeological finds, which little support this theory, might not
see in the lotus goddess at Sanchi and Bharhut any such
continuity of an early tradition, but even to them, it is nothing
less than a form evolved conjointly out of various sources –
verbal connotation of the Vedic Mahimata, attributes of Sita,
another Vedic visualization of productive process, Indus
fertility cult, iconographic vision of the Mother goddess…

Lakshmi In Vedas

The monotheistic Vedas, despite their perception of cosmic unity,
deciphered on the very outset the two aspected character of
existence and creative process, one, the male, and other, the
female. The Rig-Veda perceives the maleness and the femaleness as
contained within a single frame but also as two attributes of the
‘contained’. Apart such mystic duality, the Vedas directly allude
to a number of operative attributes, male and female, having
cosmic dimensions, deify them, and sometimes even personalise.
Among those identified personally Vak, Ushas, Shri, Sita and
Ratri are the main. Sita, the furrow-line, and Ratri, the night,
are casually alluded to, and that too, in Upanishads. However,
independent ‘Suktas’ are devoted to Vak – speech, and Ushas –
dawn. The Vedas have also alluded to human females, Aditi, the
mother of gods, Diti, Ila and a few others. Though no hymns are
attributed to, or rites ascribed, the Vedas allude to Mahimata,
Mother earth, a deity identical to Harappan Mother Goddess. The
Rig-Veda has some ‘Suktas’ devoted to Shri but it is completely
indifferent to Lakshmi. This Rig-Vedic Shri is not a form of
Lakshmi as she becomes later. The hymn : ‘Ashvapurvau
rathamadhyam hastinadaprabodhineem, Shriyam devimupahvaye shrirma
devi jushatam’; that is, let me be possessed of Shri who equals
an army well accomplished with horses, chariots, elephants etc.
and let my home be her perpetual abode, is sometimes contended to
relate to Lakshmi but while the hymn perceives Shri as one having
immense power equal to an army, Lakshmi represented fertility and abundance.

If at all, Lakshmi made a debut during the later Vedic period,
especially in the Atharva-Veda that alludes to an anonymous deity
possessed of large breasts with milk oozing from them. Certainly
not a form of Shri, the Atharva-Veda appears to be alluding to
the Indus Mother Goddess or a goddess identical to her preceding
the milk-filled large-breasted Lakshmi icons of Sanchi and
Bharhut. In all likelihood this large-breasted goddess,
representing fertility, generative energy and abundance,
transformed into the lotus goddess in the 3rd-2nd century B. C.
reliefs. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata allude to Lakshmi but
many of these allusions are either only by interpretation or
confine to particular editions. Chapter 45 of Bal-kanda in the
Valmiki Ramayana narrates the legend of ocean churning out of
which Lakshmi emerged. Many scholars have quoted this chapter as
elaborating Lakshmi’s physical appearance and personality, though
even the Gita Press, Gorakhpur, edition of the Ramayana does not
have any mention of her. Whatever her form, visual or verbal, so
far, Lakshmi was an independent divinity without a male partner,
or male counterpart. Like the Mother Goddess, she was initially
two-armed but subsequently her images began having four arms.
This two and four armed iconography continued ever since – her
votive images being four-armed, and aesthetic, two-armed. Later,
the Puranic literature transformed her into Vishnu’s spouse
assisting him in accomplishing his sustenance-related acts, or
serving him personally. Puranas wove around her numerous legends
in regard to her origin, forms, acts and aesthetic beauty, as
also hymns for her rituals.


Lakshmi’s Emergence from Ocean

If not subsequently added, the Ramayana is the earliest text to
have the legend of ocean churning for obtaining nectar, though
Lakshmi is not among the jewels that ocean revealed (Valmiki
Ramayana, Bal-kanda, chapter 45). In the Mahabharata (Adiparva,
4) the legend has been dealt with at greater length and Lakshmi
is one of the jewels emerging out of the ocean-churning. Almost
unchanged it was reproduced later in many Puranas. As different
texts have it, once the sons of Aditi – the gods, and those of
Diti – the demons, joined hands to obtain nectar which, they were
told, they could obtain by churning ocean. Using Mount Meru as
the rod and serpent Vasuki as the rope they began churning the
ocean. The disgruntled Vasuki breathed so much of venom that it
not only enshrouded the entire universe but also began
suffocating gods and demons. On Vishnu’s prayer Shiva stored the
arson into his throat and saved the cosmos from being destroyed.
Relieved from arson’s influence gods and demons began their
exercise afresh. Lakshmi, who emerged riding a lotus, was one
among fourteen jewels which the ocean revealed. Brahma gifted her
to Vishnu who accepted her as his consort. In visual arts the
earliest appearance of the ocean-churning theme is reported from
the early Gupta period cave temple (300 AD) at Udayagiri in
Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh. The lintel of the entrance to the temple
has a relief of ocean-churning with a strong Lakshmi image
emerging from it.


Other Myths Of Her Origin

As has a myth in Vishnu Purana (1/8), Lakshmi was re-born on the
earth as the daughter of sage Bhragu, the son of Brahman. Her
mother was Khyati, the daughter of Daksha Prajapati. After a
period of time she was married to Narayana, an incarnation of
Vishnu. She had by Narayana two sons, named Bala and Unmada.
Brahmavaivarta Purana attributes her origin to Vishnu. As
acclaimed, Lakshmi was born out of Vishnu’s right half, while
from his left half was born Radha, Lakshmi’s another incarnation.
In Vishnu’s Ardhanarishvara images, which are very rare, Lakshmi
is represented as comprising Vishnu’s left half – a visual
manifestation of the Brahmavaivarta Purana myth.


Quite strangely, while in Shiva’s Ardhanarishvara forms his
consort’s image, who is otherwise more masculine and vigorous
engaged in acts like slaying demons, is usually humbly conceived,
Lakshmi’s image in Vishnu’s Ardhanarishvara forms is far more
pronounced. The Bhagawata Purana identifies yet another form of
Lakshmi in the Shrivatsa mark on Vishnu’s chest. As is Bhagawata
Purana’s version of the sage Bhragu-related myth, in the course
of the yajna which Manu held, sage Bhragu was nominated by all
Brahmins and sages to decide who of the Great Trio was the
supreme divinity. For acquainting himself with their views Bhragu
decided to visit all three gods. He first went to Shiva, who busy
with Parvati, had no time to pay him any attention. Brahma was
rather rude. However, the sage lost his temper when he found
Vishnu asleep. The enraged sage hit him with his leg, which not
only awoke him but also left on his chest a mark – Shrivatsa.
However, Vishnu’s reaction was only apologetic for being asleep.
Pleased with Vishnu’s humility sage Bhragu blessed him that in
the form of Shrivatsa he would always have Lakshmi in his bosom.

In the Bhragu-incidence Padma Purana has sought Lakshmi’s
re-emergence in a different way. Lakshmi, who was in Vishnu’s
bosom when sage Bhragu hit him on his chest, felt insulted, more
so, on Vishnu’s apologetic reaction. Consequently, she abandoned
him and his Baikuntha – Vishnu’s abode. Unable to bear separation
Vishnu also left Baikuntha and looking for her descended on the
earth where he re-emerged as Venkatesh.


Many yugas – cosmic ages passed in repentance and yearning. Now
reconciled, Lakshmi decided to re-emerge in Vishnu’s heart as an
intrinsic realization. One day Vishnu realized Lakshmi unfolding
within him like a lotus and he felt that he was re-united with
her. The moment his realization was absolute, the universe glowed
with a divine luster and all around was abundance, riches,
prosperity, fertility and beauty. Thus, Lakshmi dually emerged in
Vishnu’s life, one, by realisation, and other, by manifestation.
She, who sprouted like a lotus – padma, was Lakshmi’s transform
as Padmavati, and she, who was beauty incarnate and manifested in
riches and abundance, was her transform as Shri.

Lakshmi As Bhoodevi

Myths, prevalent in southern part of India, claim Bhoodevi as
Lakshmi’s yet another transform, in addition to Padmavati and
Shridevi. She is sometimes claimed to be Lakshmi in her re-birth
and sometimes as one of Vishnu’s two wives, the other being Shridevi.


In South Indian art, especially bronzes, Shridevi and Bhoodevi
are often seen flanking Vishnu’s images. Lakshmi’s transform as
Bhoodevi is also related to Bhragu myth. Over a period of time
Bhragu felt penitent for his misconduct against Vishnu resulting
in Vishnu’s separation from Lakshmi. He hence ardently sought
their re-union. After deserting Vishnu Lakshmi had descended on
the earth and had merged into cows grazing near the termite hill
in the South. Bhragu, disguised as a cowherd, began thrashing the
cows. Vishnu could not tolerate this cruelty of the cowherd and
punished him with his mace. Bhragu appeared and worshipped the
Lord for beating him. Lakshmi, who lived in cows, was appeased
for Lord Vishnu had avenged Bhragu and appeared before him but
not as Lakshmi but as Bhoodevi and united with him. This myth
seems to be an offshoot of the Vishnu Purana myth which claims
Lakshmi as Bhragu’s daughter who he had married to Narayana,
Vishnu’s incarnation; or at least, the underlying pith of the two
myths is quite identical. Bhoodevi-related other legend is as
widely known. Vishnu is known to have rescued Bhoodevi from
Hiranyaksha. It is said after she was rescued, Lord Vishnu took
her as his other consort.

Lakshmi’s Puranic Transform

Broadly, the Lakshmi of later scriptures, in her own form or in
transform or re-birth, is widely different from Mahalakshmi of
Devi-Mahatmya or from the lotus goddess of Sanchi and Bharhut
reliefs. Not merely that the adjectival suffix ‘Maha’ is dropped,
or her independent status, lost, the Mahisha-slayer Mahalakshmi
is widely different from Lakshmi, metaphysically or otherwise.
While Lakshmi is merely the manifestation of primordial female
energy, Mahalakshmi is the primordial female energy in her own
form. Even the Brahmavaivarta Purana acclaims her as Lakshmi’s
prime form out of her ten forms. It is Mahalakshmi alone who
resides in Baikuntha in the bosom of Mahavishnu. Instead of,
Lakshmi is now largely a boon-giving timid damsel serving her
spouse personally or by assisting him sustain the universe – his
primary cosmic act. She bestows bliss, prosperity, wealth and
material happiness, yields good crop and abundant grain, and
represents magnificence and beauty in life but all in a
subordinate position. As the textual tradition has it,
Mahalakshmi preceded Vishnu and pervaded not only the cosmos but
also Vishnu himself. She is Vishnu’s operative energy.

It is only a text or two that perceive her as Vishnu’s operative
energy or his feminine aspect, and thus Vishnu’s equal, though as
compared to her prior status when as Mahadevi, Vishnu’s
predecessor, she reigned over Vishnu and revealed to him as to
who he was, as also what was his errand, such metaphysical
wrangles are little gratifying. The process of depriving her of
her supreme divinity had begun with the Mahabharata itself where
in most contexts she was referred to as a mere linguistic
expression denotative of worldly riches and means. But, while in
the Mahabharata-like early texts she acclaimed to stay with the
virtuous, good and honest, in later Puranas she was slighted as
Chanchala – flirting and instable, as Rajalakshmi – kings’
property, broadly as one synonymous of riches and worldliness.

Lakshmi’s Names And Forms

Besides Mahalakshmi, Padmavati, Shri, Bhoodevi, Chanchala and
Rajalakshmi, Lakshmi is also known as Kamala, Dharini, Vaishnavi,
Narayani, Vishnu-priya . Kamala is denotative of her form as
Lotus goddess; Dharini, suggestive of her immense power to bear,
is denotative of the earth and thus of her Bhoodevi form; and,
Vaishnavi, Narayani and Vishnu-priya relate her to Vishnu as his

Main among Lakshmi’s forms, other than her transforms, or her
forms by re-birth or re-emergence, are her forms as Gaja-Lakshmi,




and Deep-Lakshmi.

The Gaja-Lakshmi form is sometimes known also as Mahalakshmi
form. Apart, a folk Mahalakshmi form is also popular in some
parts of the country. This folk Mahalakshmi manifests mainly as a
highly ornate unbaked clay image of an elephant, sometimes two
smaller ones flanking on sides, usually with minuscule riders –
Lakshmi and her attendants, on their backs. This icon of
Mahalakshmi, especially the elephant image, is in live worship,
though only once a year on ‘Pitra-paksha Ashthami’ – the eighth
day of the dark-half of the month of Bhadaun. Notably, the
tradition does not subordinate elephant to Lakshmi as her mount,
as are subordinated lion, bull, Garuda, peacock, mouse. to other
gods and goddesses. Obviously, this sense of reverence perceives
elephant as an essential component of the Lakshmi cult, and the
two, as equally venerated. This cult seems to have some very
early roots, now forgotten. In Shrilankan Buddhism, Tara is
venerated as the commander of fierce elephants. Lakshmi preceded
Tara by centuries. Maybe, Lakshmi was the goddess who befriended
or commanded wild elephants, saved inhabitants from their rage
and to appease them prescribed their worship along her own. It is
quite likely that Tara inherited her form as the commander of
wild elephants from the Lakshmi-cult.


Gaja-Lakshmi is Lakshmi’s most represented form in art. It is as
massively worshipped. Lakshmi with ‘gajas’ – elephants, flanking
on either side is her form as Gaja-Lakshmi. It is, indeed, a form
of her in art. The Rig-Vedic Shri-Sutra alludes to elephants in
context to Shri but it is only to assert Shri’s immense power.
When describing how the image of Lakshmi with elephants
performing sacred ablution magnifies the beauty of lintel on the
gate of Ravana’s mansion (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundar-kanda, 7, 14),
the Ramayana alludes to Lakshmi’s Gaja-Lakshmi form, and is
perhaps the earliest to do so. However, the text only describes
linguistically a visual image sculpted on it. Lakshmi’s earliest
reported forms in visual arts manifest in the 3rd century B. C.
Sanchi reliefs. Not merely that these forms of Lakshmi have
elephants associated with them, these elephants have been carved
with the same amount of reverence as Lakshmi, an essential
feature of Gaja-Lakshmi principle. As alluded to in the Ramayana,
elephants in the Sanchi and Bharhut reliefs are performing sacred
ablution of the goddess, perhaps with milk brought from the
mythical Kshirasagara – the ocean of milk, in the pots of gold
held in their trunks. Elephants’ association with Lakshmi-images
has been a regular feature of Lakshmi’s iconography ever since.
The upper north-east chamber of Kuwwat-ul-Islam Mosque at Qut’b
complex, New Delhi, has in late Gupta art style a sculpture
representing elephants flanking the image of Lakshmi. The
sculpted stone-block was once the part of some early temple the
material of which was re-used in constructing the mosque.

gaja laxmi

Lakshmi-Ganapati is broadly an art form in which the two
independently represented images of Lakshmi and Ganesh constitute
one votive unit, commonly used during Diwali-puja. Sometimes
Lakshmi’s elephants flank both images conjointly, though instead
of bathing the deities, as they do in Gaja-Lakshmi form, they
make only offerings. This form better assures success,
prosperity, good crop … for, while Lakshmi bestows her
blessings, Ganapati keeps all detriments away. Lakshmi is the
consort of Lord Vishnu, but for obtaining Lakshmi – riches and
prosperity, she is not worshipped with him. It is by worshipping
her with Ganesha that she comes one’s way. ‘Shree Ganapate
namah’, ‘salutations to Thee, O Ganapati, whom Lakshmi precedes’,
is the most popular as well as effective ‘mantra’ – hymn, for the
invocation of Ganesha. Lakshmi precedes the worship of Ganapati,
that is, so effective is Lakshmi-Ganapati worship that even
before Ganesha is worshipped the devotee obtains Lakshmi – the
riches and prosperity.


Deep-Lakshmi is not a form or manifestation of the Goddess
Lakshmi. It is a simple votive icon combining lamp-forms with a
woman’s figure. To add to it auspiciousness it borrows Lakshmi’s
name, the auspicious-most goddess. Votive only in a restricted
sense, the Deep-Lakshmi icons are worshipped during Diwali-puja
along with Diwali’s presiding deity Lakshmi and Ganesh. However,
Deep-Lakshmi icons represent India’s ages’ long cult of
worshipping woman and celebrating the birth of light. These icons
not only synthesize India’s reverence for woman with exuberance
of light but also link it with Diwali, the festival of light and
the epitome of Lakshmi cult.


Imagery Of Lakshmi

The image of the gold-complexioned Lakshmi, as it emerges in
common man’s mind, is two-fold, one, the most lustrous divine
damsel endowed with unparalleled beauty, unearthly charm and
timeless youth, richly bejeweled and costumed – usually in red,
and possessed of the oceans of wealth. She sits on a full-blown
red lotus, is flanked by a pair of elephants performing sacred
ablution, is four-armed carrying in two of them a lotus, rosary,
pot, or one of Vishnu’s other attributes, and holds other two in
‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’, the postures that grant fearlessness,
bliss and redemption. Her other image is that of the most devoted
coy consort of Mahavishnu residing with him in Kshirasagara and
engaged incessantly in massaging his feet. Though possessed of
the same lustrous beauty and timeless youth as in her other form,
in this form, Lakshmi, with normal two arms engaged in serving
her lord, is more like an humble coy consort, not the mighty
slayer of a demon like Mahisha.


Like her concept, Lakshmi’s imagery also evolved over a period of
time. Initially as Mahalakshmi she has been conceived with eight,
ten, sixteen or even eighteen arms carrying in them variedly
prayer-beads, ax, mace, arrow, thunderbolt, staff, lance, sword,
shield, conch, bell, wine-cup, trident, noose and Sudarshana –
disc, and sometimes held two in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’.


Later, in her form as Lakshmi, in votive images, she is conceived
as four- armed, and in aesthetic, that is, when represented as
the consort of Lord Vishnu, with normal two arms. Lakshmi’s
primordial form was also four-armed, though while in this
primordial form she carried instruments of war, in her later
four-armed iconography, she usually carries in two of them lotus,
pot, rosary, fruit, or some other Vaishnava attribute, and holds
other two in ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’. As Mahalakshmi she had
coral-like radiant complexion, which in Lakshmi’s iconography
changes into golden hue. In her form as Lakshmi, she wears rich
costume, majestic crown, precious stones and garland of Parijata flowers.


However little, each of Lakshmi’s different forms has its
iconographic distinction. Padmavati wears a lotus garland, not
one made from Parijata flowers. Lotus is an essential ingredient
in Lakshmi’s iconography but in Padmavati’s, it is more
thrusting. Lotus invariably comprises her seat. She often has a
lotus under her feet, carries lotuses at least in two of her
hands, and has sometimes lotus motifs on palms.  Lotuses often
define the ambience around and as often the architecture of the
sanctum she enshrines. She is usually installed under a
lotus-canopy. Symbolizing in one ocean, earth and sky, the lotus
is a characteristic feature of the entire iconography of Lakshmi,
who pervades them all, but in the iconography of Padmavati the
significance of lotus is also for other reason. It was in the
form of the lotus that Padmavati evolved in Vishnu’s heart.
Indeed, Padmavati’s evolution and lotus are mutually linked. As
Shridevi, Lakshmi is the image of the supreme beauty conceived as
heavily bejeweled. She is unique in luster and majesty.


No less is her splendor as Gaja-Lakshmi, though it is the
phenomenal presence of elephants, represented dramatically
bathing her, that imparts to her image its exotic distinction.
Bhoodevi, representing earthly character, the fertility, is
humbly attired. The Garuda-riding Vaishnavi, the goddess of
battlefield, carries instruments of war. Alike different are her
forms and overall personalities in her births as Radha and Sita.

Lakshmi’s Worship

Ironically, almost every Indian, rich or poor, king or subject,
prays Lakshmi to make his home her permanent abode, and hardly a
house, even an illiterate’s, would be without her name, graphic
symbol ‘swastika’, or her ‘mantra’ – ‘Shri Lakshmi sada sahay
karen’, that is, ‘may Lakshmi who is also Shri always be my help’,
inscribed on one of its walls or cash-boxes, or without her
visual representation – a metal or clay statue, or a painting –
printed or painted, even banks and Government bodies would not
hesitate in inscribing at least ‘shubha’ – auspicious, and ‘labha’
– profiting, Lakshmi’s attributes, on their chests, but despite
all that, she hasn’t many shrines, not even domestic, entirely
devoted to her in north and Central India at least. However, She
enshrines most sanctums with Vishnu, her spouse, such images
being known as Lakshmi-Narayana, Lakshmi preceding Narayana.

sri vishnu laxmi

However in South, Lakshmi, as Padmavati and Shridevi, and
sometimes as Bhoodevi, is worshipped widely and independent of
Vishnu. Shridevi form of Lakshmi is so popular in South that even
the name of Vishnu, her lord, has changed to Shrinivasa – abode
of Shri, after her. However, different from Shri, Padmavati has
for South Indian masses some kind of mythical significance and
local connotation. As the mythological tradition has it,
Lakshmi’s form as Padmavati emerged when she re-united with
Vishnu after the latter left Baikuntha searching her and settled
on Tirumala hill of the Eastern Ghats in South. The part of the
Eastern Ghats, where lay Vishnu, curved like the great serpent
Shesh, Vishnu’s seat, and came to be known as Sheshachala.
According to the legend, the king, under whose reign fell the
Sheshachala hill, found that when back, a particular cow did not
have any milk in its udders. Cowherd had no satisfactory
explanation. One day, the king secretly followed the cow for
knowing what actually happened. He was amazed to see that milk
flew from the cow’s udders of its own as soon as she reached a
particular spot. He got the spot dug and to his utter surprise
from underneath revealed Lord Vishnu reclining there though in
the form of an image. He had Lakshmi in his bosom but not
manifest and the king did not see her. A temple was built and the
image, named Venkateshvara, was installed. After some days,
priests and devotees realized that a luster having a female form
sprouted like a lotus from within him. This divine realization
was given a form. It was Padmavati, Venkateshvara’s consort by
spiritual realization. Though Venkateshvara temple enshrined only
him, many temples were built independently for Padmavati all over
the South and she is now one of the utmost worshipped divinities
of South.


This article by Prof. P. C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet

The Mahabharata

Valmiki Ramayana

Vishnu Purana

Devi-Mahatmya part of Markandeya Puran

Brahmavaivarta Purana

Padma Purana

Puranic Encyclopaedia

Prachina Charitra-kosha

Dr. Daljeet and P. C. Jain : Indian Miniature Painting

Shanti Lal Nagar : Indian Gods and Goddesses

Maringer Johannes : The Gods of Prehistoric Times

W. J. Wilkins : Hindu Mythology

Devi : Goddesses of India : ed. John Stratton Hawley & Donna Marie Wulff

Lawrence Babb : The Divine Hierarchy : Popular Hinduism in Central India

P. C. Jain : Folk Arts of India (in press)

Sivaramamurti, C. Ethical Fragrance of Indian Art.


The Devotee and the Angry Saint – Study in the Inner Workings of God

This is the story of a highly fortunate king named Ambarisha. He had inherited from his father the rule of the whole world including all the seven continents and an inexhaustible amount of wealth and power. Undoubtedly these are all precious things difficult for an ordinary human being to obtain. For Ambarisha however, all of it was unreal like a dream. He understood the perishability of wealth and knew that it ultimately leads man to darkness. He could realize all this because he was a devotee of Lord Krishna and His bhaktas. For one who has attained to such devotion, the whole world and its wealth is nothing but equivalent to a piece of stone.

All activities of Ambarisha were devoted to Krishna. His mind was devoted to the lotus-feet of the Lord. His voice was always engaged in singing the glories of Krishna, his hands in cleaning and maintaining the temples of the Lord and his ears in listening to the excellent stories of Krishna.

He engaged his eyes in the darshan of the images and temples of Krishna, his sense of touch in touching the devotees of the Lord, his nose in smelling the tulsi leaves offered to Him and his tongue in tasting the the food offered to Krishna (prasad).

He engaged his legs in visiting the holy places of Krishna and his head in bowing down before the images of the Lord. In this manner had he converted his karma into a yajna, offering all his actions unto the Lord. He ruled the world according to the advice of brahmins who were also devotees of Lord Krishna.

Ambarisha, the great bhakta, under the guidance of great sages like Vasistha and Gautama, performed the ultimate worship of Lord Krishna by successfully completing the horse sacrifice known as Ashwamedha Yajna. This is a complicated sacrifice with many parts. However, Ambarisha, with the blessings of the brahmins, was able to perform it successfully. His yajna became noted for the sumptuous amount of dakshina offered to the priests. In fact, the brahmins in his yajna were so richly attired that they looked like gods themselves.

In this way the king, through his bhakti combined with austerities, propitiated Lord Krishna by following his dharma and thus was gradually able to disassociate himself from all attachments. He gained the firm conviction that one’s house, wife, children, relatives, friends, chariots, armies, wealth – all are fleeting and transient. This exceptional devotion prompted God to assign His weapon, the powerful Sudarshan Chakra, in the protection of His bhakta Ambarisha.

King Ambarisha’s wife too was similarly pious. Once, with a desire to worship Lord Krishna, the king, along with his wife, undertook to observe the fast of Ekadashi for one year, meaning that he would not eat anything on the eleventh day of each (lunar) month and break his fast only on the next (twelfth day).

When the year ended the couple fasted for three nights in the month of Kartik and after bathing in the Yamuna river performed puja of Lord Krishna at Madhuvana (modern Mathura). At the end of the puja they distributed lavish gifts on brahmins, including milk-bearing cows decorated with gold. Then, after the brahmins had partaken of a fabulous feast, the king himself decided to end his fast and took permission for the same from the brahmins. No sooner had he decided on having his food than there appeared on the scene the great saint Durvasa.

King Ambarisha rose to greet the sage and offered him a respectful seat. He then washed the saint’s feet and humbly requested him to have food. The sage gladly accepted and went to have a bath in the Yamuna first. There the saint entered samadhi while meditating on the Supreme Lord and lost track of time. Meanwhile, the auspicious hour for breaking Ambarisha’s fast was passing away. The king, conversant with the nuances of dharma, knew that eating before a guest was a fault and so was also not breaking one’s fast at the auspicious hour. He then consulted the wise brahmins who reminded him that it is mentioned in the Vedas that drinking water is equivalent to eating and also non-eating. Thus deciding, king Ambarisha, remembering Lord Krishna, had a little water and waited for the return of the sage.

After some time Durvasa came back and was respectfully greeted by Ambarisha. However, no sooner had the sage laid an eye on the king he understood that he had broken his fast before Durvasa himself had had his food. Now in Indian history Durvasa is known as ‘the angry saint’, and at that moment his anger revealed itself manifold because he was extremely hungry too. With a trembling body and frowning brows he furiously admonished the king, who stood all the time with folded hands: “Look at this cruel man! He is maddened by the pride of his wealth. Not only does he lack devotion towards the Lord but considers himself as God. Today he has crossed all limits by transgressing dharma. He had extended an invitation to a guest but instead of feeding him, has himself eaten first. Now I will punish him for his offence.”

Flared up with rage, the great sage pulled out a lock of his hair and created from it a demoness to kill Ambarisha. This fearsome ogress resembled the blazing fires which consume the world at the time of pralaya (dissolution of the world). Spitting fire she rushed towards the king with a sword in hand, the earth trembling under her feet. However, the king remained unperturbed. He did not even stir and remained where he was. The Shrimad Bhagavatm says: ‘Narayana-parah sarve na kutashchana bibhyati – Those who have surrendered to God do not have anything to fear’ (6.17.28).

The Sudarshana Chakra, already deputed in the protection of Ambarisha, immediately came to his rescue and burnt down the demoness, much like a forest fire destroys a serpent. The Chakra then started towards Durvasa himself. The latter, on seeing the failure of his efforts and the advancing Sudarshan Chakra, started fearing for his life and ran in all directions to save himself. The Chakra closely pursued him, like a forest fire following a serpent. Observing it so close behind him, he took to his heels, fleeing to different quarters, including the sky, earth, underworlds, seas and even the heavens. However, wherever he went he saw the Sudarshan Chakra close behind him.


When he could not find escape anywhere, the terrified Durvasa decided to take refuge with Brahma Ji and applied to him saying: “O Creator of the Universe!, protect me from the Chakra of Lord Vishnu”.

Brahma Ji replied: “My own life is dependent on the great Lord. The whole world, including myself, will vanish at the mere contraction of Lord Vishnu’s brow. Me and all the other gods are subject to the commands of Lord Vishnu and live within his divine law. (Hence how can we help you?)”.

When he was thus refused protection by Brahma Ji, Durvasa, tormented as he was by the scorching heat of the Sudarshan Chakra, sought asylum with Lord Shiva at the latter’s abode on mount Kailasha. To his request the Great Shiva replied: “Durvasa Ji, we cannot prevail against the Supreme Lord who is the source of infinite jivas like Brahma and from whom are born thousands of universes like this one. The Chakra is the weapon of the Supreme Ruler of the universe. It is unbearable and irresistible even for us. You should take refuge in Lord Vishnu Himself. He will save you from your misery.”

Being thus disappointed, Durvasa then went to Vaikuntha where Lord Vishnu lives with His wife Goddess Lakshmi.


All the while Durvasa was being scorched by the Chakra’s heat. Trembling with fear, he fell at the Lord’s feet and said: “O Lord! You are the one desired by all saintly people. O Almighty God! You are the protector of the universe. Protect me too, who am an offender. I was ignorant of your supreme power and committed an offence against your beloved devotee Ambarisha. Save me from that sin, as even a being in hell is released when he utters your divine name.”

The Lord replied: “O Brahmana! I am not at all independent, being completely under the control of my devotees. My heart has been won over by My selfless devotees and hence My heart is in their possession. I love them and they Me. I am the sole refuge of My devotees. Therefore, other than My devotees, I do not desire anybody, not even Myself or My wife Lakshmi. How can I even think of giving up those who have renounced their wives, homes, sons, relatives, wealth and have taken refuge in Me? Like a chaste wife brings her virtuous husband under control by her service, so have my devotees captured my heart with their devotion. For true devotees My bhakti is an end in itself (and not a means of gaining anything material or even transcendental). Durvasa Ji! What more can I say? My loving devotees are My heart and their heart is none other than Me. They do not know anything except Me and I too don’t know anything other than them.

“Listen O Great Sage! I will tell you a remedy for your torment. It is by offending Ambarisha that you have reached this state of distress. You should therefore go to him only. Remember, a power, when used against a devotee of God, causes harm only to the wielder of the the power while the devotee remains unscathed. There is no doubt that asceticism and learning are spiritually beneficial; but, when the same powers are mishandled through indiscipline, they produce contrary results. Hence O Brahmana! I wish you all good fortune. Go and seek forgiveness of king Ambarisha. Then alone will you gain peace.”

Thus commanded by the glorious Lord Vishnu, Durvasa Ji returned to Ambarisha’s palace and hurled himself at his feet. Ambarisha felt ashamed at Durvasa’s action and with his heart overflowing with compassion prayed aloud: “O Sudarshan Chakra! You are the glorious Agni. You are the all powerful Surya. You with a thousand spokes are extremely dear to your Lord. I pay my respects to you. You are the protector of the whole world; I request you to protect this brahmana too.

“O Divine Wheel, you have an auspicious hub. You are the splendour of the Supreme Lord and the protector of dharma. Your speed is as quick as that of one’s mind. By your splendour of dharma you destroy the darkness of adharma and protect even beings like the Sun. For the sake of our entire clan I request you to bless Durvasa Ji. This will be your grace on us. If I have ever done a charitable deed, or performed a yajna, or followed my dharma or if our family regards brahmins as gods, then may Durvasa Ji be freed of the inflammation tormenting him. If I have visualised God as the soul of all beings then may the Lord be pleased with me and Durvasa be relieved from his distress.”

No sooner had Ambarisha uttered the prayer than the Chakra subsided. Thus freed, Durvasa Ji felt relieved and praised the king bestowing on him the highest blessings: “My dear king! Today I have witnessed the glory of a true devotee of the Lord. Even though I offended you, you wished only for my welfare. For those who have tightly gripped the lotus feet of the Lord, there can never be a deficiency in their karma. Beloved Ambarisha! Your heart is full of compassion. You have done a great favor to me. Oh! You forgave my offence and saved my life.”

A long time had elapsed since all this had happened and yet King Ambarisha had not taken his food. He was waiting for Durvasa Ji to return. Now he caught hold of the saint’s feet, pleased him and fed him sumptuously. Durvasa was extremely satisfied after taking this meal and said respectfully: “O King! Now you too have your food. I am very pleased with you. I feel gratified on seeing you and talking with you. Songs celebrating your spotless character will be sung by the women of heaven. This earth too will always chant your glory.”

After Durvasa Ji had gone, king Ambarisha took the food left, made auspicious by the fact that the great sage Durvasa had partaken it. Pondering on Durvasa’s calamity and finally his release, the humble devotee Ambarisha did not give any credit to himself but felt that everything had been done by God. The great king continued in his path of devotion by dedicating all his actions, performed according to his caste (varna) and stage of life (ashrama), to the Lord. By the strength of this devotion he became detached from all material life and starting considering even heavenly delights as manifestations of hell.

In course of time, Ambarisha entrusted his kingdom to his sons who were of the same disposition as him and entered the forests. There he concentrated his mind wholly on the lotus feet of the Lord and became finally free from all material fetters.

Conclusion: Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: “My bhakta is never destroyed” (9.31), implying that protection is given by God to the one who surrenders before Him Also, people often accuse Durvasa Ji of being tempered and unfair. But that is a mistake. Durvasa is an enlightened devotee and an incarnation of Lord Shiva. He sacrifices his own reputation in order to show the greatness of the Lord’s devotees and how they are protected by Him. People would never have come to know of Amabrisha’s patience and forbearance had Durvasa not shown anger. Nor would they have known how the Lord’s protection is always with the devotees. Sage Durvasa hence becomes a catalyst for revealing the greatness of the Lord and His devotees. A similar innocent occurs in the Mahabharata when Durvasa calls upon the Pandavas who are living in a forest. Actually, we tend to see only the outward behaviour of Durvasa. If we look a bit deeper, we will see that his heart is filled with love.

This article by Nitin Kumar.

References & Further Reading:

Moksha of Gajendra: Liberation by The Formless God

There once lived a king named Indradyumana, who was a great bhakta of Bhagawan Vishnu. As is the nature of devotees, he considered his puja as the most significant part of his daily routine. Once as he was engaged in puja, a saint came to visit him. However, because of his preoccupation, Indradyumana was unable to attend properly to the saint. The latter was enraged at the king’s behaviour and cursed him saying: “Since you behave like an imperious elephant, become one.”

When he was reborn as an elephant, even then Indradyumana was the king of his herd. Because of his worship of Bhagwan Vishnu, he lacked no creature comforts even in this lowly birth. He had numerous female elephants with him, and also several children.

One hot summer day, he was leading his herd, the thump of their feet seemed to loosen up even the mountains. Soon they all felt extremely thirsty and hurried to a nearby lake, entering its waters. First Indradyumana, who was now known as Gajendra (literally ‘king of elephants’), quenched his thirst along with his obedient companions and then they all bathed in the waters. Like a true householder attached to his family, Gajendra sported in the water with his wives, children and friends, sprinkling each other with showers and playfully pouring water into their mouths. Under the spell of Bhagawan’s maya, the poor elephant did not realise that there was danger looming over him.

Suddenly a crocodile emerged from the waters, caught hold of Gajendra’s leg and started dragging him into the lake. Finding himself in this calamity by the will of God, the mighty elephant tried to extricate himself. However, since the crocodile is a marine creature, its strength is maximum in water. An elephant on the other hand, being a land animal, has a greatly reduced strength in water. Therefore, inspite of his immense efforts, Gajendra was unable to rescue himself.

His companions, seeing the plight of their beloved master, started shrieking. Some of the elephants tried to help by attempting to pull him from the back; but to no avail. In this way, the struggle continued for a long time. His helpless companions, now extremely tired, realised that they were fighting a losing battle. Understanding that his end was imminent, they all slowly withdrew, till Gajendra was left alone. He was the titan of a big clan; but all deserted him at the end. He pondered over this for a long time, and through the grace of God came to the following conclusion: “Even my most powerful male friends could not rescue me from this plight; what then to speak of my poor female elephants! Indeed, this is nothing but the noose of providence tightening around me. Nobody in this world is truly mine. Kala is all powerful. It slithers across like a serpent, consuming all that comes in its way. Only the creature who, though fearful of Kala, takes refuge with Bhagwan Vishnu, is definitely saved by the great Lord. Even death fears Bhagwan Vishnu. He is the refuge of all. It is to Him that I now surrender myself.”

If we reflect on it calmly, we will realise that there is no house in the world where the story of Gajendra does not play out. It happens in every house. Gajendra is the individual soul who is enjoying a material life in the lake of life. In the same house where we enjoy ourselves, Kala lies in wait. We are careless, but Kala is ever vigilant. Kala grabs a man by his legs and they start weakening. Indeed when our legs start weakening, we should realise that the end is near.

The one who is careful towards the end is able to reform his death. The one who is careless, spoils it. When Kala grabs a man by the legs, his family tries to protect him, but they are not successful. Only when Bhagwan, who is the ‘Kala’ of Kala comes carrying His Sudarshan-chakra, are we freed from the pangs of suffering. The word sudarshan means the ‘true way’ (su) of ‘seeing’ (darshan). The ‘true way of seeing’ is seeing God in everything. This is the liberating vision given by God to His devotees. When Kala grips us by the legs, our family will try their utmost to save us. However, when many days will pass and no progress will be observed, exhausted by serving the patient lying on the bed, they too will get on with their lives, leaving us to the will of God. If even at that moment, we do not make efforts to remember Bhagawan Vishnu, then God help us!

The bhakti Gajendra had performed in his previous birth came to his rescue and He was granted the memory of Bhagawan Vishnu at the end. Gajendra sung out: “I take refuge in You O Lord, Who remove all fetters of those surrendering unto You. I bow to You Who exist in the hearts of all creatures. God! Take me to the abode where Kala can never grab me again.”

How can there be peace where the entry of Kala is imminent? Where there is Kama there is Kala. Where Kala has entry, there is also fear. The only One who can save us is the One who is Himself beyond Kala. It is significant to observe here that all of Gajendra’s prayers at the end were directed to the Supreme God Who is beyond the restrictions of space and time. Indeed, Gajendra’s hymn of praise is one of the greatest philosophical poems in the annals of world literature.

Gajendra began by stating his present position and then describing what he thought God was like: “(Due to my leg being caught by the alligator) I can but offer my salutations only mentally to the glorious God Who is denoted by the symbol OM. God!, though devoid of any form, You are not only in all forms, but are also the forms themselves. Though we cannot see You with our eyes, the fact that this temporal world exists, points to Your eternal presence, because You are the cause of everything, but Yourself are without a cause.”

Then Gajendra specified what he wanted from God: “Lord! You are difficult to be attained by people who are attached to material wealth like wife, children, money etc. May You, the Lord of infinite mercy, rescue me from the clutches of samsara (the alligator). However, my wish is not to extricate myself from this alligator and continue to survive here in this body. What interest have I in this elephant body which is forever enveloped in the darkness of ignorance? What I crave for is eternal emancipation from that veil of ignorance which shrouds the spiritual light of the soul; a veil, which can be destroyed only by the knowledge that You, the Supreme Soul, is the soul of all.

“I bow to You, Who protects those who resort to You for shelter; but Whose path is inaccessible to those whose senses are directed towards material objects.”

Here we must observe that Gajendra did not call out to God by any specific name. He addressed himself to the highest God, who is cause of all names and forms, but is Himself beyond any name or form. So, none of the other deities like Brahma etc came to his rescue, because they all identified themselves with a particular name and form. It is only the Supreme Bhagawan Narayan who is beyond all manifestation, who replied to Gajendra’s call and seated on His bird Garuda, came surging to liberate him.

With great difficulty, Gajendra picked up a lotus in his trunk and offered it to Bhagawan. All creatures of the world rejoiced on seeing God’s vigilance in answering the distress of those who ask for His help.

The story of Gajendra occurs in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 8, Chapters 2-4.


References & Further Reading: