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Lakshmi: A Hindu Goddess Reinterpreted

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A devotional statue depicting Vishnu and Lakshmi
This week, South Asian leaders gather in Markham to discuss family violence in their communities - violence aimed mostly at women.

Mary Wiens goes beyond the headlines to explore the story of Lakshmi, the most important female goddess in the vast pantheon of Hindu deities, and an important archetype for South Asian women of all religions.

Lakshmi is the goddess of economic prosperty. Her story is at the heart of Diwali, the biggest Hindu festival, when houses are cleaned and rows of lamps lit to welcome the goddess.

The goddess is also closely associated with the birth of little girls as well as the moment in a wedding ceremony when, as a grown woman, "Lakshmi" enters her husband's home, a ceremony that speaks to the central role a daughter-in-law plays in Indian families.

Part 1: Listen audio (runs 7:07)
Part 2: Listen audio (runs 6:22)

Good life, good kids, good house, prosperity... Lakshmi

Nidhi Bhan, owner of Astro Solutions, a store in Brampton that sells religious statues and music, says the most popular items at Astro Solutions, are not the statues, but rather the Lakshmi yantras - small squares of copper, coated in 24-karat gold - which believers use to help focus their prayers and intentions. The small sheets sell for $16.99 each. The larger ones - which sell for several hundred dollars each - were sold out on a recent visit to the store.

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Lakshmi yantra
The Lakshmi yantras are especially popular, says Bhan, for people in business. She also sells small booklets of prayers and instructions for religious rituals. In the case of the Lakshmi yantra, says Bhan, rosewater or milk are often used to wash the yantra. "And you offer flowers, you offer food," says Bhan. "You actually treat it as though it's the energy of Lakshmi sitting right there. You make your offerings, you ask for whatever you want."

In the colourful pantheon of Hindu deities - and there are thousands - Lakshmi is one of the most important. She is especially associated with the birth of girls. In fact, when a little girl is born, Hindus say that a little Lakshmi has come.

More than money

Shyam Sharma
Shyam Sharma
Shyam Sharma, a priest and founder of Hindu Sabha in Brampton, one of the oldest temples in the GTA, says he has two "Lakshmis", as he calls them - two daughters - in his own home. One of his daughters is married, the other engaged to be married - another role in which the goddess, Lakshmi, plays an important role.

During a Hindu wedding ceremony, when the bride enters the home of her husband's family, she steps barefoot into a plate of red dye. The red footprints she leaves behind symbolize Lakshmi's arrival. As Sharma says, Lakshmi symbolizes much more than money, as his wife did when she entered his home.

"When she came to my home, I was so happy, I was so blessed," says Sharma. "So she's Lakshmi. Money doesn't mean money-Lakshimi. Lakshmi means all-around Lakshmi, you know. Good life, good kids, good house, prosperity, that's Lakshmi."

But every archetype has its dark side. And it can be heard in stories about the abuse of daughter-in-laws and in the violence against daughters, or even the murder of wives.

This week in Toronto, South Asian leaders are discussing family violence at a special conference. Many of them were shaken recently by news of Poonam Litt. Her body was discovered in nearby Caledon. Poonam Litt's sister-in-law has been charged with second-degree murder (read the news story).

A universal lesson

Poonam Litt
Poonam Litt
To Sharma, it is an attack not just on an individual woman, but on the spiritual role of women in the home, in a religion which highlights the role of the daughter-in-law in the extended family.

"In our religion," says Sharma, "the woman is always first. Before men. We have to respect her. Woman gave me birth. And we are killing women?"

For Nidi Bhan, the story of Lakshmi has particular relevance for women who are being disrespected or abused by their husbands or in-laws.

"I would like to speak to the daughters-in-law themselves and tell them to believe there is god - there is Lakshmi within them, and not to take abuse. And once you give yourself that respect you will always see more respect coming to you.

"Try to keep families together but build your confidence to the point that you're bringing in a lot of money, that you're bringing in respect for yourself, for your kids," says Bhan. And whether it's in India or in Canada, says Bhan, "end of the day, money and Lakshmi is what talks."

It is a universal lesson from a goddess who is often depicted pouring out a vessel of gold coins - a lesson about the connection between money and value. For Bhan, while this myth speaks to the value of a woman to her husband and his family, its most important message may be to women themselves about self-esteem and the need to value themselves.