As a region rich in diverse cultures and religions, the subcontinent of India has seen the origin of numerous religious traditions over the centuries. This cultural diversity has fostered acculturation and accommodation of religious beliefs and ideas from one tradition to another. A notable manifestation of this trait is the adaptation of deities from one religion to another. This phenomenon is exemplified by the presence of Shri/Lakshmi in traditions which are outside the fold of Hinduism. Shri is initially mentioned in the Rig Veda and the Shatapatha Brahmana as an all-powerful deity. Over the years, with the advent of Buddhism and Jainism, she was also adopted as the deity of wealth and fortune in the new religious traditions. Additionally, many other deities and semi-divine beings such as Ganesha, Kubera, Indra, Krishna and more were embraced in Jainism and Buddhism, particularly in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Interestingly, these traditions initially began with the concept of “godlessness”, and no divine figures were worshipped in Jainism and Buddhism. However, over time, the followers started to worship deities belonging to Hinduism and other folk religions, who became visible in the texts and temples of their traditions. One possible reason for the adoption of divine and semi-divine figures is that the followers of the new traditions came from different religious and social groups. Along with their support for newly adopted religions, they also brought deities, worship patterns and other cultural attributes from their own traditions.

Shri/Lakshmi in Buddhism

The oldest known depictions of Lakshmi, dating back to the second century, are found in the Buddhist cave temples of Bharhut and Udaygiri, as well as the stupa at Sanchi. The image is represented in these structures on gates and stone railings, in the form of Gaja Lakshmi. In the Sanchi stupa, Lakshmi is depicted in several places, as standing on a full-bloomed lotus and two elephants standing on lotuses flanking her on both sides, showering water on her from a kalash (pot) held in their trunks. The Gaja Lakshmi image from Bharhut was donated by a bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun), attesting to the fact that Shri was accepted as a Buddhist deity by then.† In the earliest Pali literature, the term Siri (Shri) is used to refer to “luck” or “fortune” and Lakshmi is referred to as Lakkhi. Siri/Lakkhi is mentioned in many Jataka stories to refer to “luck and fortune” and sometimes as the goddess of fortune. The Sudhabhojana Jataka mentions Siri as one of the four daughters of Sakka (Shakra/Indra).

In some texts, she is also referred to as the goddess of beauty and prosperity. In the Siri Jataka, the term “lakhhika” is used to refer to someone who is favoured by luck (lakkhi). However, she is not always seen as the embodiment of fortune and wealth but also as a deity who symbolises more than material wealth. In the same Jataka, Buddha explains to his disciple that the favour is earned through virtuous conduct in the previous life. Therefore, it would mean that Siri is also the goddess of conduct who rewards those who are of meritorious behaviour.

The Siri Kalakanni Jataka further attests to this aspect, when Siri talks about her qualities that she is happy with those who are righteous, responsible, respectful, munificent, gentle, honest and kind but abandons those who grow proud and conceited after receiving her good grace. Therefore, a person’s happiness is their responsibility and they attain whatever is deserved in terms of their conduct. Her association with kingship is also visible in some instances.

The Tesakuna Jataka, while mentioning the qualities of a good king, also mentions that the goddess grants greatness and victory to a righteous ruler who is brave, vigorous, non-envious and benevolent towards his people.§ In the Culavamsa, a Sri Lankan Pali text, the term “Viralakkhi” is used to refer to the goddess/fortune of a successful hero on the battlefield. So, here she is connected with the luck related to military valour or victory in battles. Another text, the Brahmajāla Sutta of Digha Nikaya, prescribes invocation for the worship of Goddess Shri.

In later Buddhist texts, the mention of Lakshmi is prominently seen in Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist traditions. The Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra mentions Shri as the provider of happiness and well-being to the bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) by offering them food, garments, medicine, bedding and other necessary articles so that they can expound dharma in the world.

According to Mahayana tradition, she is also considered the daughter of Hariti, who was originally a Yakshi, but later was adopted as the goddess/ protector of children. Niṣpaṇṇayogāvalī, a Tantric Buddhist text, mentions many tantric Mandalas where the goddess is positioned. Shri is placed along with a series of other deities in one of the Mandalas known as Durgatiparisodhana. Another Mandala referred to as the Bhutadamara Mandala, mentions eight goddesses placed in eight quarters, and Shri is placed in the eighth segment. In the Kalachakra Mandala, Shri and Lakshmi are placed on two petals of a lotus Mandala.

Lakshmi appeared in Buddhist texts until the seventh century, and with the advent of Vajrayana Buddhism, Vasudhara (stream of gems) became the goddess of wealth. After this time period, Lakshmi was visible in Buddhist traditions outside the subcontinent of India. In Tibetan Buddhism, the goddess became a minor wealth deity. However, in Japanese Buddhist mythology, Lakshmi was adopted as Kichijoten, one of the seven fortune gods. She is considered the goddess of happiness, fortune and beauty. Similar to Lakshmi, Kichijoten is also shown as standing on a full-bloomed lotus in her iconography.

Lakshmi in Jain Tradition

In Jain tradition, Shri and Lakshmi are present in both texts and temples. The Kalpa Sutra, a Jain text about the lives of Tirthankaras, mentions Shri in the description of the conception dream of Mahavira’s mother Trishala. The text states that Trishala dreamt about fourteen auspicious symbols when Mahavira descended into her womb. One of these symbols was the appearance of Goddess Shri with four arms holding lotuses, adorned with various ornaments, two elephants flanking her sides and a golden aura behind her.

Lakshmi is also found adorning many Jain temple structures. Her icons and sculptures are found at the Jain temple of Sarnath, the cave temples of Udaygiri and Khandagiri, the Parsvanath temple at Khajuraho, the Mahavira temple at Osian and the Vimlavasahi temple (Jain group of temples) at Mount Abu. In Rani Gupha, a group of caves in Udaygiri, the form of abhisheka Lakshmi (symbolizing the consecration of the goddess) is sculpted on the torana (gateway), where she is depicted as holding a pair of lotus, rising from a lake of lotus and flanked by two elephants consecrating her. The form of Gaja Lakshmi is found in the eastern corridor of the Mahavira temple. In the Vimalavasahi temple, one of the most popular Jain temples, the goddess is depicted as a four-armed Gaja Lakshmi seated in Padmasana (lotus pose) on a pedestal supported by lotus and water vases. She holds lotuses in her upper two hands and her lower hands are in dhyana mudra (meditative hand pose).

Lakshmi is also celebrated in the festivals of Jains. Diwali is among the most important festivals of the Jain tradition. The goddess is worshipped as a family deity in the homes of many Jain traders or business people. However, there is another prominent significance of the festival for them. For the Jains, Diwali is the celebration of the nirvana (enlightenment, emancipation) of Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara.† The Kalpasutra, describing the life of Mahavira, states that he died and attained nirvana in Pavapuri on the day of amavasya (no moon). The next day after his death, eighteen kings of Kasi and Kosala, nine Mallas and nine Licchhavis fasted and lit lamps in their homes, saying, “Since the light of intelligence is gone, let us make an illumination of material matter.” The Jain New Year begins on the day following Diwali and people (mostly traders and businessmen) buy new account books for the upcoming year. This day is also commemorated because, in the Jain tradition, non-violence is considered the most important tenet; therefore, most Jain people prefer mercantile trade as an occupation as this does not involve harming any living being in daily life. The practice of burning firecrackers is also not followed by them as it might accidentally harm live creatures in the environment.

The presence and adaptation of Shri/Lakshmi in traditions beyond Hinduism exhibit the rich cultural and religious diversity of the Indian subcontinent. In Buddhism, she is depicted as the provider of material support for the monks and as a symbol of fortune and well-being. In Jainism, she is venerated as the goddess of wealth and prosperity, associated with auspiciousness and abundance. From the early Buddhist cave temples to the Jain temples, Shri/Lakshmi has found her place in different religious contexts, evolving and taking on new meanings. The portrayal of Shri/Lakshmi in Buddhist and Jain texts and temple structures demonstrates the diverse interpretations and symbolism associated with her.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Lakshmi in Buddhism and Jainism’ by Menka Rai in Treasures of Lakshmi: The Goddess who Gives, edited by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, Penguin India.