SRI LAKSHMI IN AUSPICIOUS SYMBOLS – PART I

Lakshmi, the chief consort of Visnu, has the appellation ‘Sri’. The word “Sri” signifies “the sign of beauty”, “the token of good fortune”, “the mark of royal power”, and is synonymous with luck, prosperity, grace, happiness, and royal domain. She is widely worshipped in our country by all religious sects, including the Jains and the Buddhists.

Apart from the usual iconographic representation found in numerous temples all over India, certain auspicious symbols are associated with her.

Svastika

The Svastika is a mystical and popular design of very ancient origin. It is found even in the remains of the Indus civilization. Svastika means “auspicious”, “securing welfare” and “bringing about prosperity”. It takes the form of a Greek cross with the tips of the lines suggesting a circle or a square. The arms from these four tips move in the same direction to form a circle or a square. The four tips indicate the four cardinal directions and the area covered by them represents the universe. The moving arms symbolize solar energy1.

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The Svastika mark is painted on sacred pots or drawn with powdered rice grains on the consecrated ground to indicate the presence of Lakshmi to secure good fortune.

The Svastika is a common factor and not claimed by any particular sect. It occurs in Buddhist, Jain, and Brahmanical monuments. In the famous inscription of Kharavela from Udayagiri of the 2nd century B.C., the symbol Svastika and Srivatsa are marked. This is the best example of Svastika suggested by a symbol; otherwise, inscriptions begin with the word “Svasti‑Sri”.

Srivatsa

The symbol of Srivatsa is also very ancient. It is the auspicious mark on the right chest of Visnu and represents goddess Sri. The symbol is also found in the chest of Jaina Tirthankaras. The presence of the symbol indicates the Mahapurushalakshanas. In Buddhist monuments, Srivatsa along with Svastika is prominent. Srivatsa, in the beginning, is represented as a four-petaled lozenge-shaped symbol. In South India, Sri-Lakshmi is represented in Srivatsa form in sculptures from the Pallava period. The figure of Lakshmi is of special interest for her hands and legs are curled up at the sides, so that the outline of the figure comes to form the Srivatsa symbol. Srivatsa symbol of Sri is shown between the horns of the cow called Kamadhenu.

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The Cow

The zoomorphic representation of Sri in cow called Kamadhenu, (the wish-fulfilling cow) is another form of Sri or Lakshmi. The whole cattle population on earth is conceived as her offspring and in no way less important than herself.

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The Rig Veda describes the cow as representing great celestial combinations2. In the Yajur Veda, general prayers are made to the celestials to make the cows rich in milk yielding3. The Puranas state that Bhudevi, the goddess of earth assumed a guise of a cow. There is a beautiful Kangra of the Bhagavata series in the National Museum illustrating this episode4.

The cow was as it were the secret of success in ancient India. For all the obligatory rites and ceremonies such as Panchamahayajnas and Bhudevitabali, milk products were essential. Part of the procedure of the coronation as contained in the Baudha Griha Sutra 1, 23 is washing the crown with cow’s urine, dung, milk, and curd, etc. The cow that gave all this was indeed most gracefully worshipped5.

Since the cow was taken as the symbol of prosperity, the Mahabharata describes her as the dwelling of all celestials6. The Maratha school of Thanjavur painting has two examples to illustrate the above aspect. One is in the National Museum and the other in the Allahabad Museum. They clearly portray the various celestials situated in different parts of the body of the cow. Lakshmi is represented in the Srivatsa from between the horns. Explanation as labels in Nagari script is given at the bottom of the painting.

Ragoba, the Maratha Peshwa, on his defeat and expulsion from the capital had a cow made of gold and passed through it in the hope of bettering his fortune. At about the same time, the Brahmanas persuaded the king of Travancore, who wished to atone for all the blood he had split in his wars, that it was necessary for him to be born again. A cow of gold was made, through which the king, after lying in it for some time was passed, regenerated, and was freed of all the burden of the crimes of his former life. It is said that to this day, the Rajas of Travancore, on succeeding to the throne, all go through the same ceremony7.

The cow is so sacred that Hindus conduct gopuja to honour her. They give a dhana (gift) of a milking cow and calf during ceremonies and for fulfilling a vow. In South India and especially in Tamil Nadu, Mattu Pongal is celebrated in the month of Thai. Cow dung is sacred to the Hindus. In the early morning, cow dung mixed with water is sprinkled outside one’s threshold with kolam, a floral design made out of rice flour. People believe that Lakshmi will visit their house in the early morning. Cow dung is also used on the floor in the villages, and used for lighting the sacrificial fire (homa) during functions. Cow dung is also used as manure to yield more crops. In the olden days, cow’s urine used to be sprinkled in the four corners of the house to ward off impurities. In every Hindu house-warming ceremony, a cow with its calf is taken inside the new house, which signifies the coming of Grahalakshmi into the house.

Elephant

The elephant is the symbol of royalty. It is one of the precious objects that arose from the milky ocean along with Sri. The celestial elephant is rolled Airavata. It is described in the Ramayana as having chaturdanta, or four tusks. Kalidasa compares the four tusks of the elephant to the four arms of Visnu8.

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The elephant is closely associated with Gajalakshmi. The trunk of the elephant that sucks in water and sprinkles it on Lakshmi suggests prosperity in abundance, and thus elephant is the symbol of prosperity.

In a yearly ritual for rainfall, crop fertility, for the fecundity of cattle and man, and for the general welfare of the kingdom, the white elephant, so constantly associated with goddess Lakshmi, plays a significant role. Such a festival is described in the Hastyayurveda. The elephant is painted white with sandal paste and taken in a procession through the capital. Its attendants are men wearing women’s dress and making merry with clownish and salacious remarks. Through their dressing as women, they did honour to the cosmic female energy and it is believed that their utterance of licentious stimulated the dormant sexual energy of the eternal power. The high officials of the realm finally worship the elephant.

Of such a festival, the Hastyayurveda remarks, “if due worship is paid to the elephant, they will thrive and prosper together with their wives and sons. Crops will sprout in due time, Indra the rain God will send rain in due time; there will be no plague, no drought. They will live a hundred years with many sons and many cattle and will have a sturdy progeny. Whoever wishes to have sons, will have sons, and longings after riches and other goods will also be fulfilled. The earth will abound in treasures of precious metals and jewels”. Thus, the worship of the white elephant as a divinity bestowed on a man all those earthly blessings, which the goddess Sri-Lakshmi has in store. The symbolic character and significance of the animal is brought out by the two appellations used, “Sri-Gaja” (the elephant of Sri) and “Megha” – (the cloud)9.

To be continued …

Dr. R. Mohana Bai M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D.,
Reader in History,
Queen Mary’s College, (Autonomous), Chennai.

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 2000

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