LAKSHMI IN TAMIL LITERATURE

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Hindu tradition is its amazing continuity. Many deities have their in remote antiquity and have undergone transformation and survived to this day. The cult of Sri Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Beauty, happens to be one of them.

The Goddess Sri, who is also known as Lakshmi or Tiru or Ilakkumi, has been known to Hindu tradition since pre-Buddhist times. She is one of the most popular goddesses with a considerable body of mythology and is widely worshipped by Hindus of all castes, Jains and Buddhists.

This article traces the development of Lakshmi Worship in Tamil country.

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The references to the Goddess in Tamil Literature show close links with those found in Sanskrit sources. It is evident that this cult had travelled far and wide and spread to all parts of India.

The earliest collection of Tamil literature now available – Tolkkappiyam, Ettuttogai, Pattuppattu and Padinenkilkanakku – belongs to the Sangam period, generally ascribed to the first three centuries of the Christian era. It contains vivid accounts of the Tamil land, its people and its culture.

In the sutra 1092-12-13, Tolkappiyam, the earliest comprehensive work of Tamil grammar, describes the hero and makes reference to divine nectar. Here the Devas tasting nectar clearly suggests that the concept of Lakshmi appearing from the churning of the ocean with a pot of nectar described in the Vishnu and Padma Puranas and the Harivamsha indicate the fact that the people of the Tolkappiyam age were aware of such information, thereby suggesting that a fusion took place between north and south India in the form of the influence of Vedic religion in Tamil country.

The usage of phrases such as Amudham and Devas, in Kurunthogai, Ahananooru and Purananooru, and the descriptions such as “the state of Vishnu holding the. magic mountain on his head incarnating as a tortoise”, “the red complexion of Tirumagal”2, and “the majestic appearance of the goddess on her lotus, sprayed with holy water by elephants on either side”3 in Kalithogai and Paripadal further confirm the fact that the story of the churning of the ocean and the emergence of Lakshmi with auspicious articles were known to the people of Tamil country.

The word Tiru and Tirumagal are to be found throughout Sangam literature. “Tiru” signifies beauty, wealth and divine grace. Tiru was referred to as a “mole” or “spot” on the chest of Lord Vishnu. Tirumal’s chest is Tirumagal’s seat4. Even before he wedded Bhudevi, the earth goddess whom he saved in the Varaha Avatara from the deluge, Tiru was seated in his chest5.  Mani or mole, during the Sangam period, denoted Lakshmi, who is a permanent feature or mark on Vishnu’s chest.

In Mullaipattu, which is a section of the Pathupattu, Hari’s majestic form caused by accepting water from Mavali (in the Vamana Avatar) is compared to the cloud that rises from the burgeoning waters of the melting snow. Here the phrase mathangu thadakai6 indicates the fact that Lakshmi existed as a separate entity.

Thiru was also spoken of as seated on the chests of kings7. The kings are often described as the wooers and possessors of Shri. They are compared to Vishnu, for he is the Lord of Shri.  All virtues are said to strive to attain her qualities. She is success8, steadfastness9 and prosperity10.  She dwells with victorious kings and with those who are righteous and truthful. Not only the rulers but the city, gates, the entrances to palaces, temples, and houses, the walls of forts, market places, the fields, the streets, the ports, and the lotus achieve prosperity and greatness due to her presence.

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She is believed to reside in the doorways and entrances to houses, palaces, temples and at the gates of cities. This concept must have been handed down by generations to represent Lakshmi in the form of Gajalakshmi, with two elephants flanking her. Maduraikkanchi and Nedunalvadai narrate that people applied mustard seeds and ghee paste on her12.

Naladiyar, a Tamil work written by various Jain Scholars dating from 450 to 750 A.D., calls her Poovinkilathi11 and questions why the goddess of vast and varied lore is seen in low estate, suffering from want. The reason is that Saraswathi abides with the learned and the lady of the flowers is jealous and does not draw13.  This was the poetic way of expressing the popular view that Lakshmi and Saraswati do not normally co-exist. In Tirukural, we get information about Lakshmi as the Goddess of hospitality, virtuousness, sincerity and akkam or red-coloured.  She is responsible for every thing that is prosperity.

Silappadikaram one of the Tamil Epics and a later Sangam work refers to the origin of Lakshmi as Parkadal14 Kannagi.  The heroine of the Epic is praised as the combination of the three goddesses: Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati.15 This idea was also prevalent in the Devi Mahatmiyam of the Markandeya Purana. Thus the Shakti cult was in full manifestation at that time in Tamil Nadu.

The Bhakti movement is an important event in the history of Tamil Nadu. The period covering roughly from 600 A.D. to 900 A.D. This movement was spearheaded by the Vaishnava and Shaiva saints, the Alwars and the Nayanmars. The main aspect of the movement was the introduction of a simple form of religion based on true devotion and free from sacrifice and rituals. The idol and temple worship gained importance. The main aim of the movement was to make religion more simple and accessible. The Alwars and Nayanmars themselves belonged to various communities.

In this period, Lakshmi was portrayed as a mole in Tirumal’s chest, as the wife of Vishnu and as an independent deity who could even grant moksha. Shaiva literature describes her origin as Parkadal and adds that she was gifted by Shiva in marriage to Vishnu16.  She is described as one of the four Goddesses; and as a worshipper of Siva.

The Alwars describe Tirumagal, Bhudevi and Nappinai, as three consorts of Vishnu. In earlier literature, the references to these three Goddesses were independent. Here they are grouped as consorts of Vishnu. Lakshmi was glorified not as a separate deity but as a consort of Vishnu. Not even a single composition was composed exclusively about her.

Tiru or Lakshmi was addressed by various names. The Nigandu, a Jain work, lists sixteen names for her17.  As years passed by her names increased.

The post-Bhakti era was a bright period in the field of art, literature and culture. The Cholas, who were dominant rulers in the Tamil country, extended their patronage to religion, literature and the arts. The period was noted for several beautiful temples rich with sculptures, paintings and bronze images. Temples came to be enlarged with an additional shrine for Goddesses and other minor deities, while the main temple dedicated to Siva or Vishnu. Lakshmi assumed a more significant place in the temples as well as in religious literature.

Adi Shankara’s dates are controversial. According to Telang, ­he belonged to the end of 6th century A.D. Max Muller, and Mac Donell hold that he was born in 788 A.D. and died in 820 A.D.  His age was a period of great cultural crisis in India. Shankara’s first composition was the Shri Kanakadhara Stotram. It consists of 18 verses to Lakshmi who is not only the Goddess of material wealth but also cleans the devotee of his sins (durita haramodya-tani). Lakshmi is not only the consort of Vishnu, but the power of the Absolute itself manifesting also as Sarasvati, the Goddesses of learning and power (shashi-sekhara-vallabha).  In the Soundarya Lahari, he glorifies her. The usual mode of gesticulations of the hands of other celestials in abhaya and varada are superfluous in her case. She is capable of protecting and conferring bounties even with her feet. The Soundarya Lahari mentions the worship of Lakshmi as Sri Vidya in the Sri Yantra form.

to be continued……….

Mohanabai,
Queen Mary’s College,
Chennai 600 004.

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 1999.


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