In honor of Navaratri, an Indian Festival that Celebrates the Goddess over 9-Nights, I am posting transcripts of stories about the Goddess that I told on the Sivana Podcast a few years ago. Which particular forms of the Goddess that are celebrated differs in various parts and traditions of India. In some traditions, the first three nights Kali is celebrated, then three nights of Lakshmi, ending with three nights of Saraswati. In this way, we follow the energy of these Goddess to move from the more material to the more subtle, from darkness into light. Today, we’ll continue with Lakshmi! I hope you enjoy!
Today we’re gonna talk about life, about abundance, about our relationship to the gifts of the material world. Specifically, we’re gonna be talking about the goddess Lakshmi today. Now, often, people feel like to live a spiritual life, you have to give up your relationship to material things, that those material things are preventing you from realizing truth. People even point towards India and the image of the naked, ash-covered yogi as their example as to the spiritual being who has renounced the material world. Luckily for us, though, we have images and stories like those of the goddess Lakshmi that teach us reverence and appreciation for what the material world holds. In our earlier episodes, we explored stories of Kali and Saraswati, and today we get to dive into Lakshmi. And we’re gonna dive into a story of Lakshmi, but we’re gonna focus more on what are called the eight aspects of Lakshmi, sometimes even called the Ashtalakshmis, or the eight forms of Lakshmi’s.
It’s many of the monastic systems of Hindu philosophy that tend to give people the idea that wealth is shunned in India, or that has no place in Indian spirituality, and that includes Patanjali’s Raja Yoga and even Veda Vedanta. But as far back as the Rigveda, we have mentions of Sri, of Lakshmi. And Lakshmi is the very abundance of life itself. In texts like the Devi Mahatmyam, Lakshmi is the goddess in this sense, and she defeats a demon named Mahishasura, who symbolizes what is called Vikshepa Shakti, or distraction caused by the subtle desires of the subconscious. Now we’re not getting into that story today, but what we learn from that story is that by removing the distractions of the mind, divine potentiality begins to blossom. And the big distraction, and the emphasis today, is that wanting and desiring the gifts of Lakshmi are the problem, not the gifts themselves that she bestows. It’s by wanting all these material things so badly that you’re never free to really enjoy them. You suffer until you get them, if you get them. And once you do, you suffer for fear of losing them.
So, what are the eight aspects of Lakshmi? There are wealth, food, patience, knowledge, victory, strength or energy, power, and fortune. And we’re actually gonna add one more to our conversation today. It’s not considered one of the eight aspects of Lakshmi, but it will be very relevant to our conversation today. And that’s beauty. But we’ll dive into all of these things individually as well. But before we do that, let’s start our story.
There are many stories of the goddess Lakshmi. She’s been associated with Indra, the king of the gods, as the wife of Vishnu, as belonging to the demons, as well as being considered a completely stand-alone goddess of creation, and there are individual stories for all of those things. The story we’re gonna share today is a story that’s told in many fashions, and how it’s told usually will convey different ideas. It’s actually a story that no doubt we’ll address again in a future podcast, but today’s telling will give us some great insight into Lakshmi and what she represents.
So once upon a time…
The goddess Lakshmi was invoked by the demons. And as a result, these demons all became extremely powerful. But the demons plundered and hoarded the gifts of the world. They didn’t understand them. They wanted control over things, they wanted to possess everything. So it wasn’t long until Lakshmi left them. And this is actually a theme that goes throughout a lot of Lakshmi’s stories. She’s known for being quite fickle. But after leaving the demons, she goes to Indra, the king of the gods.
But Indra was kind-of a lush. He was often drunk, he loved spendin’ time in the company of the heavenly ladies. And one day, a sage by the name of Durvasa saw Indra and offered him a beautiful garland of flowers. Indra dismissed the sage and carelessly just tossed the garland over his elephant’s head. But it missed, and it fell to the floor. When it fell on the floor, it got trampled by his elephant, and this was seen as a rejection of the blessings of the goddess herself. By kind-of just giving away the garland haphazardly, not showing any care to it, he was seen as rejecting a gift of the goddess.
So Durvasa cursed Indra and the other gods. “All of the gods,” he proclaimed, “will lose their health and their wealth. You shall lose your youth and become old and decrepit.” And as soon as the words left his mouth, the curse came to be. As the gods all lost their vitality, Lakshmi disappeared into the Ocean of Milk. And with Lakshmi gone, the world instantly became dull, became colorless and lifeless. The earth stopped sprouting and giving life. They say that cows stopped giving milk. So all the gods ran to Vishnu, the preserver, and asked for his help. Vishnu actually said that the gods need to enlist the help of the demons and to churn the milky ocean in order to bring Lakshmi back, as well as what’s called the Amrita, the nectar of immortality, which would give the gods their lost youth and vitality back.
So they went and got the demons, and they go to this mountain called Mandara, which represents space. And they get a rope. That rope was a serpent called Ananta or Adishesha, which represents time, so we’ve got space and time. And here you’ve got the positive and negative forces of life, the gods and the demons, and they’re combining to churn the Ocean of Milk, the ocean of causality, right? So the churn is the mountain. It’s the space within which everything happens. Right, so you’ve got space, you’ve got time, you’ve got the negative and positive forces of the universe all coming together. Now, at one point, the mountain even starts to slip down into the ocean, and it’s Vishnu who comes and takes the form of a giant tortoise to help prop the mountain back up. Even when both the demons and the gods start getting tired, it’s Vishnu again who comes and takes a form with a thousand arms to help both sides churn the ocean.
Eventually, all sorts of wonderful things come out of the ocean. All kinds of boons, all kinds of gifts arise. And even eventually, Lakshmi, too, rises back up out of the ocean. She’s seated on a glowing red lotus covered in a beautiful red and gold sari. She’s ordained with jewel and gold and ornaments. And when she arrived, both sides, the gods and the demons, just kind-of stopped in awe. And then they saw this beautiful, majestic woman who brought with her all the bounty, all the color, all the radiance of life. And they started clamoring over one another in attempt to please her, like, “Hey, Lakshmi! Look at me over here!” They all wanted to impress her, they all wanted her attention. They all wanted her boons.
But as she looked around, she noticed one being who seemed totally disinterested in the entire scene. And that was Vishnu. So she went up to Vishnu, and she took the garland of flowers that was around her neck, and she placed it around Vishnu’s neck, signifying that she was choosing Vishnu to be her husband. And so it’s said that Lakshmi blesses those who don’t chase after her. Indeed, she blesses, or she gives her blessings, to those who worship her husband. And what does her husband Vishnu represent? Well, he’s the preserver god, the god that helps support all of life. So if you want the bounty that life has to offer, don’t go seeking the bounty itself. Go help life thrive. Support others, and that’s what brings the gifts of Lakshmi.
And so what are the gifts of Lakshmi? What are the eight aspects of Lakshmi? Well, we’ll talk about the first aspect, and I say first, but there’s no particular order with these. We’re just kinda gonna go through the list.
And the first on our list is wealth. It really only takes one look at corporate America to realize the trappings of prioritizing wealth. People over profits is and has been the cause of some of the greatest tragedies in the world. And you only have to look and gaze into the life of the average American to see the cost of people prioritizing wealth. Life becomes an eternal struggle of not enough. In America, children are told, “Well, you better do well in school so you can get into a good college. You have to do well in college so you can get a good job. And you need a good job to be able to afford, i.e., buy, all the things you’ll need to be happy.” This gives off the illusion that it’s money that will buy you happiness, and if you’re not making good money in your job, you can’t possibly be happy. Never mind passion, never mind doing what you love. If you’re not making loads of money, you won’t be happy. Or, so they tell us.
What Lakshmi wants to show us is that it’s not money or wealth itself that is the problem, it’s the desire to acquire more of it for its own sake. Thinking that money itself will fulfill you. This is a theme we explore quite a bit as well in my Ganesha miniseries, that I did on the Sivana Podcast. But it gets addressed here in our conversation of Lakshmi as well. It’s not about rejecting wealth, it’s about understanding our relationship to it. If money comes or goes, great. It does that. That is, in essence, what it does. It comes and goes. But if you make it the driving force of your life, organize your life around acquiring it, well then the blessings of the goddess Lakshmi will turn away from you. And like the demons who attained all the wealth, all the boons from Lakshmi, but didn’t understand its blessings and attempted then to gain more and more of it and hoard it, well, and that’s when Lakshmi left them. That’s when Lakshmi will leave you. Her gifts will leave you, and you suffer.
So let’s move on to food, the second aspect of Lakshmi. Now anyone, and I mean truly anyone who’s studied nutrition knows, everyone’s got a theory. They all have science to back it up it seems. It contradicts the guy over there and his theory, who also seems to have his own scientific study to support his or her claim. “Fat is bad for you.” Well, wait. No, maybe it’s good for you. “Gluten is the cause of all your problems.” Oh wait. Maybe it’s not. Eat meat. Don’t eat meat. Atkins Diet, South Beach Diet, this diet, that diet. Our modern American relationship to food is bipolar, to say the least. And while I think it’s safe to say, of course, that there are some basic things to be aware of when it comes to food and health, like it’s probably not a good idea to live off pop tarts and soda and potato chips and fast food, it’s time for us to let go of our obsession with food. Perhaps when you can view food as medicine, you’ll allow yourself an opportunity to listen, to be receptive to the needs and aversions of your own body. And this doesn’t come by obsessive thinking of the mind, but from a deep listening, a deep accepting.
Take something like chocolate cake. Let’s pretend it’s later in the evening and you’re thinking about thinking a bite of that chocolate cake. Most consider something like chocolate cake as like a naughty or a bad food. That obsession then leads to, like, “Well, if I’m good if I don’t eat it, I’m bad if I do.” If you eat it, you have somehow failed, like, “Oh my gosh, you’re just a terrible person.” Now, while you might have a hard time arguing about the physical health benefits of chocolate cake, that doesn’t detract from what you might actually get from it mentally or emotionally. Maybe that chocolate cake is just what you need. Maybe it soothes you and calms you. And that psychological effect might outweigh any negative nutritional effect. Again, obviously, it can be undone by eating chocolate cake every single night and perhaps you’re overpowering your body a bit. But truly, the point I’m trying to make is that how we treat food, how we approach our eating of it, is a lot more complex than a black-and-white, “Well, this is good for you and this is bad for you” type conversation.
And there’s a great story. I think it’s of Swami Shivananda, but I could be totally incorrect in my memory of it. It’s kind-of irrelevant anyways. But you’ve got this yogi. And every day he’s sitting down with people, feeding everyone, enjoying the company of his spiritual community, and all day long that’s what he does. He sits with people, he feeds them, and he eats with them. And as one might expect, he starts to put on some serious weight. And his wife comes up to him and says, she says, “My love, what is happening? You’re supposed to be this great, healthy hatha yogi. But now all you do is eat. You’re getting fat. People are starting to talk.” And to which he replies, he says, “Look. Feeding people is my yoga. Right now, it’s my anchor into the world. Without food, I’m gone. Without this, there’s nothing left holding me onto this world. So don’t worry about me eating. Worry if I stop eating. For if I do, you’ll know I’m ready to leave my body.” And that’s what happened. He continued to feed people and eat with them for quite some time, but eventually one day he stopped eating altogether. And it was just a few days later that he left his physical body.
Our obsession with the way we look and with foods leads to suffering. Do you feel like you’re somehow more godly if you’re skinny? Less divine if you have adipose, if you’ve got fat tissue built up in your body? This idea that you have to eat a certain type of food to be spiritual, or that if you’re not eating healthy you can’t be a spiritual being, it’s just ridiculous. It’s a rejection of the fundamental truth that yoga teaches us, that everyone is divine. We are all divine, and we don’t have more or less of that divine within us because we choose to eat one type of food or another.
Next aspect of Lakshmi is patience. Now, this is one I definitely struggle with. I want things on my schedule done when I want them done. And the result is almost continual stress anytime I create some sort of self-imposed deadline on myself or someone else or the world. Now living in Thailand helped me a lot with this. I grew up in Los Angeles. It seems like I had access to everything at any time. A very sort-of self-gratified type thing where I could just get what I wanted when I wanted. And the American expectation of time and things getting done on schedule pervaded my entire life.
It also drove me crazy in my early times in Thailand. When interacting with things and trying to get things done, if someone said, “Well, we’ll be there in the morning,” what they actually meant was that they’ll be there in the afternoon. If they said, “Oh, we’ll be there in the afternoon,” what they actually meant is that they’ll be there tomorrow. It just took some time to adjust to, but it also removed a ton of anxiety once I kind-of got over that hump. ‘Cause ultimately, who cares if it didn’t get done today? In the grand scheme of life, who cares? It eventually became wonderfully liberating.
Now, time and schedules are a big trigger for a lot of people in America. People literally feel personally offended if you don’t respect their time, like time is a possession that must be protected. If you want to suffer in life, try to hoard time. It points to a desire to control life, to control other people and ourselves, and it inevitably will lead to suffering. As well, telling ourselves we need more patience can also be extremely detrimental. Like, “Oh, I’m not patient enough. I must not be spiritual enough. I suck.” So it can really go both ways. What Lakshmi invites us to do is to look at our relationship to patience. She’s not telling us we must force ourselves one way or the other, but simply come to a greater understanding of what motivates us.
Our next aspect to look at is knowledge, and this is another one that I really struggle with personally, because I always want to know more. And what’s wrong with knowing more or wanting to know more, you might ask. It’s because I’m usually coming from the place of, I don’t have enough knowledge. I’m a compulsive book-buyer because, well, this process inside myself that goes, “If I can just get the knowledge from this book or that book, then maybe I’ll be happy. I’ll be satisfied because I’ll know that thing.” Knowledge is great, learning is great, but it’s helpful to explore our motivations and internal dialogue around these things. Like, what would happen if you didn’t get that knowledge? Would you be less divine? Is that knowledge really gonna help you feel more connected to God, whatever God might mean to you? Does not having that knowledge mean that you can’t connect to the divine?
So truly, as in the case of all of these aspects of Lakshmi, it’s about our relationship to knowledge that is most helpful to explore. And let’s say that my dharma, my path in life, in the world, is to do X. Well then, maybe I learn about X as part of my dharma. But there is no “less than” simply because you haven’t acquired more knowledge. Being well-read, for example, simply means that you’re more well-read. It doesn’t directly mean that you’re a better person just because you have knowledge. So in that sense, we can truly say that it’s one’s application of knowledge that is more important than the quantity of knowledge one possesses. But again, it’s really about looking at our relationship to knowledge.
Next comes victory, Jaya. One look at our sporting or business culture should be enough to understand why always seeking victory can be detrimental to the soul. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with competition, but when we’re motivated only by a desire for victory, we’re likely to attempt anything in our attempt to get it, no matter what the cost. If you offer your best, that is the ultimate victory. And that doesn’t require you winning something, it simply requires that you be yourself.
Energy, or it can also be interpreted as “strength,” is our next aspect of Lakshmi to explore. Energy in particular can be a big one in yoga and health circles. Like, “If I only had more energy, then I can do all the things that I’d want to do. Then I’d be happy. I’m unhappy now, but if I magically had more energy that I need to do stuff, then I’d finally get fulfilled.” And that’s just nonsense. It’s poppycock. Sure, it’s nice to have nice and high energy levels, but it’s not gonna make you more or less happy. “When I can feel all of my chakras and pierce them with the power of Kundalini Shakti, of sexual energy, of life force energy, then I’ll be all yogi-like and enlightened. Then I’ll be fulfilled.”
Whether we’re talking about more energy, or we interpret this as strength, it’s the attempts to get more that inevitably lead to delusion of the mind and suffering. Like, I’m more divine if I’m channeling the energy of Shakti through my chakras. I mean, it’s silly when you actually think about it. When we are already completely and utterly filled with the divine. And if we think we need more strength, right, “I need more power. I need more strength over people. I need to be able to protect myself. Otherwise I won’t be safe. If I’m not safe I won’t be happy.” And we can keep returning to the story in the Devi Mahatmyam with the goddess defeating Mahishasura, defeating the unconscious desires of the mind that tell you that you need more of something to be fulfilled. Chasing after Lakshmi, after her gifts, becomes the very expression of Mahishasura, of this demon that leads toward suffering, leads you away from the actual gifts of the goddess, because you’re being pulled to the desires themselves.
Our next aspect is power. And I feel like in some ways it doesn’t get more obvious than this one, ’cause stories from across time and cultures and the planet point to the dangers of seeking power. The desire to seek more power seems as old as humankind itself. When one seeks power, they inevitably create misery for themselves and others. Another archetype we see, though, however, is that throughout history, we see this image of the reluctant leader, and the reluctant leader often making the best leader. Why? ‘Cause it’s someone who doesn’t want the power, doesn’t seek the power, so they tend not to be corrupted by it, which is often a pretty necessary trait in a leader. When you seek power and you create suffering. If power leads its way into your life as part of your dharma, that’s one thing. But trying to acquire more of it will only lead to trouble.
That leaves fortune. How does fortune differ from wealth? Well, we tend to use the word fortune in our culture to describe someone’s material wealth, like, “Wow, he’s amassed a huge fortune,” or “That probably cost a fortune,” and so forth. How we’re using it here is we could say that fortune has more to do with your circumstance. As in, that person had the good fortune to meet so-and-so. They just missed getting hit by a car, or you just made your flight. What good fortune. And I think we can all agree that we like good fortune. The problem comes when we seek it out or avoid situations because we think we won’t have good fortune. “No, that would be too hard. No one would accept it, they’d fight against it.” And then we use things like that as an excuse for not doing what we know is what we need to do. When something is done for its own sake, not simply because of the odds or the expectation to get something from it, well, we call that play, and play nourishes us in ways that only a child really understands. And don’t seek good fortune. Live your life. Do what you know to be right and fortune will find you. The goddess Lakshmi will bless you.
One final piece that’s not considered one of the eight aspects of Lakshmi, but it still fits into our conversation today, and that’s beauty. People are obsessed with beauty. They want more of it. They pay big money to mutilate their bodies surgically thinking that it’ll make them more beautiful. And they spend countless dollars on clothes and fashion, in hopes that the clothes will somehow make them more beautiful. I was traveling in a certain city recently and I noticed that a lot of the men were trying really hard to be fashionable. So many of them looked exactly the same, and so many of them looked really uncomfortable. It didn’t seem like they were dressing that way because it’s what they felt good in or what felt right for them and their body. So much of it seemed like they just were wearing those clothes because that’s what they were told was the most stylish, the most attractive thing to wear. And I think this is something that women have had to deal with since who knows when, and it’s just this cultural idea that’s put on us all the time that, “Oh, if you dress this way you’ll be more beautiful.” But beauty shines from the inside. One who’s comfortable with one’s self is beautiful and it doesn’t matter what type of clothes they’re wearing.
This obsession can also lead people to only want beautiful things around them: beautiful places, people, possessions, to constantly be seeking out beautiful experiences. Like having a stockpile of travels to beautiful places in the world, that’s somehow really gonna fulfill you, make you happy. You seek beauty outside of yourself, and it will remain eternally elusive and unfulfilled. It will stay outside of yourself. But you look inside, realize the beauty of the gifts that are not only just inside of you, but are you, and beauty will be forever revealed.
And what our stories today want to show us, what Lakshmi herself is trying to teach us, is don’t seek out these bounties of life. Don’t seek money or power or good fortune. Serve the world. Help others. Seek Vishnu. Find the ways that you can help support and preserve the world, and then the goddess will come. And again, we don’t need to think of Vishnu as some deity, some being out there, but recognize what Vishnu actually represents: the preservation of the world. Right? When we’re willing to step in and support and act as the agent of that, well, then the blessings, then the boons come. But it requires changing our perspective, changing our aim. The aim is not the stuff. The aim is the service. The aim is helping others. You do that, and life will grant you all the blessings in the world.
So that’s it for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed. Namaste!