When a Goddess walked out on her husband
by Lipipuspa Nayak on 18 Apr 2010 6 Comments

This happens in a text written about five hundred years ago by a rebel poet from Puri, a seacoast town in Orissa famous for the grand temple of lord Jagannath. Lakshmi Purana by Balaram Das (16th century) sanctions an independent mind to goddess Lakshmi, consort of lord Jagannath, in delineation of her story of disturbed domesticity where she avenges her insult and hurt from her husband and his elder brother, lord Balaram, by walking out on her husband and forsaking her status of a married wife.


Lakshmi Purana is the story of goddess Lakshmi in simple narrative verses. Set in Puri and the temple of Jagannath, the plot of the text spins around lord Jagannath and goddess Lakshmi. The goddess invites the wrath of her husband and brother-in-law, the other residents at the temple, as she obliges Shriya, a poor woman from the community of chandaals (at the time of the composition of this text, the chandaals stood for people from low classes, who hunt and slaughter animals, scavenge carcasses) by stepping inside her immaculate hut.


Ironically, the name Shriya means beauty, and she stands for cleanliness, perseverance, discipline and order in life. In the text she is the next major character after Lakshmi; in a way she represents the mortal manifestation of the goddess on earth and outweighs the male lords in terms of relative significance. Jagannath and Balaram are custodians of the Great Temple. Lakshmi’s interface with Shriya is a threat to their sense of sanctity of the temple. This class-prejudice and arrogance of the lord brothers decide the fate of the goddess, she is shown the door. And the text thus trails the tale of her troubled household, her ridicule by her husband and brother-in-law, and her consequent revenge at restoring dignity, not only to her wounded ego, but to humanity at large. And a woman’s revenge it is, effected in meticulous machinations, climaxes and catharses, and complete with the show of her one-upmanship.


What pushes the hubris of the goddess? For one, she is only too sure that she is the Mother of Creation. Then, she does not buy the argument of the lord brothers that she is flawed because she has visited the sparkling-clean house of a woman from the ‘lowest’ rung of society, who was meditating on her mercy, and has defiled the divine abode at the temple. She tries to reason out the mechanics of Creation – she, as consort of Vishnu (Jagannath is an incarnation of Vishnu in Indian theology) must rear ‘day after day/ matters and beings, /which move and do not move, /and the lowliest insects.’ Thus she must bestow her mercy on everyone.


But in the eventuality of dominance of patriarchal ego she loses her battle, but decides to walk away, dignified in her confidence, and not without subjecting the men residents at the temple to a taste of her power. She spews a curse on them as she stalks out of the temple – they will starve for years till she, now a defiled woman as she has stepped inside a lowly woman’s house, serves them food.


And the curse comes through; the brothers go through a prolonged tortuous dark and dishonorable phase of starvation and ostracism, till through several twists of irony they have to accept food from Lakshmi, an ‘untouchable’ woman. In this part of the text we are treated to a very dark side of the goddess - the quintessential scheming woman. She is possessive of the wedding gifts given by her father, in particular, ‘the priceless four-poster’, and sees no wrong in torturing her husband and brother-in-law to avenge her hurt. Conversely, her action is also her fight for ascendance in the hierarchy of male power structure. 


Lakshmi Purana, the second major household scriptural text in Orissa after Bhagabata, is recited in every household of Orissa in the month of Margashira on all the four Thursdays. In most households, this text is recited throughout the year, every Thursday. As a creative piece of work, the text stands on its own aesthetic and sociological strength, drawing on the local myths and folklore of Jagannath temple of Puri, outside the esoteric Sanskrit puranic tradition. Essentially a text with primacy for women, the text survives primarily because of its feminist concern – it is about empowering woman; the arrogance of the brothers is the arrogance of the male outside any caste bias.


It is in the role-reversal of lord Balaram, and not lord Jagannath, that this feminist concern attains its height and logical finish. As the elder brother, lord Balaram is the guardian of their household. Though his role is ornamental, he stands for the institution of joint-family structure of the Hindu society. Yet with his flawed wisdom he becomes the disintegrator of his own household. In the text the treatment of his plight almost borders on comicality; with quaint humor the author lampoons him and drives home the point of gender-equality more effectively.


Lakshmi also commands primacy as she is associated with crops and food; women invoke her on a mound of new grain and recite the song written on her. She prescribes ideal codes for women on tending family, with the message to stay indoors. The text perhaps advises the people of Orissa to revert back to economic activities (agriculture) instead of the practice of mendicancy of the period (under the influence of Chaitanya Deb who herded people out of their houses to roam the streets chanting god’s name deliriously).


Rice continues to be the staple agricultural crop for Orissa, where farming remains the chief source of economic activity (this applies to rural India as well). I personally believe that this text in its numerous agricultural motifs in the worship-rituals of the goddess had a great influence on Orissa farmers, particularly women, in restoring themselves to the integrity of the family. Besides, the text endorses vegetarianism.


Like the entire state of Orissa acquiring its superstructural mores from the dictates of the temple at Puri and its everyday running, Lakshmi Purana too owes its genesis and endurance through centuries to the same contingency. Puri is the abode of lord Jagannath, His elder bother Balabhadra and His sister Subhadra. Adi Sankaracharya born in present-day Kerala established four peethams to identify four important holy places for Hindus. These places represented four Vedas. Puri was named by Adi Sankaracharya as Govardhan Peetham and stood for Rig-Veda. Rig-Veda did not recognize division of human beings on the basis of birth – the basis that generated the concept of class (and caste) with the advancement of civilization. The institution of lord Jagannath managed by Hindus transcended the subsequent class barriers in other religious establishments.


The temple at Puri mixes everyday reality and matters of divinity with amazing ambivalence. Incredible anecdotes on the mystery of the deities and stories involving real people and places cohabit to add to the temple lore with the rolling of years. The deities are gods, yet they are quite human too. The text has been built on these local legends and practices of the temple. As characters, the deities are presented in the tradition of temple practices. Goddess Lakshmi, the protagonist, can grant ‘a million auspicious cows’ as boons to her devotees. She too is entitled to alimony of ‘rice grains and other essentials’ at the imminent separation from her husband. As the deities are representative of the Oriya consciousness, rituals of standard Oriya festivities are observed in the temple and the deities participate in them. Conversely, the rites and festivities practiced by the deities must have shaped the list of festivals and rituals of Orissa.


Gundicha temple is the abode of the mother of Jagannath. The journey to this temple is taken every year by the deities of the Great Temple during Rath Yatra. Lakshmi does not accompany the deities on this journey, as Jagannath does not inform her about his trip. A wife does not like the husband to go to his ancestral place. This metaphor of rejection of the visit of the God to his maternal place by his wife is yet another example of the text, which probably sends a message to wives: do not prevent the husband from taking care of his mother.


Balaram Das was among the five great poets in 16th century Orissa who translated and reinterpreted some Sanskrit texts and wrote original texts borrowing from local folklore, beliefs and mores. They were patronized by Pratap Rudra Deb, the king of Orissa under whom Orissa lost its political areas and strength as a warrior state. But the martial failure of the period also coincided with the build up of standard Oriya language and Oriya literature. Oriya literature gained patronage from a king, evolved to acquire a permanent identity and sustained itself through popular demand.


The five poets had been inspired by non-casteism of the temple of Jagannath. Lakshmi Purana is almost the epitome of this anti-caste, anti-class egalitarian philosophy of the new poets.


Excerpts from the text:

“…Shriya, a woman in that lane of chandaals, lived outside Puri, premises of the kingdom of Lord Jagannath. And lo! Her greatness as a devotee was not known to the gods. She swept clean the streets of the kingdom of Lord Jagannath everyday with rapturous devotion for the Lord.


On that day, Shriya had left her bed when the night was still in its third quarter and fetched the dung of a single-coloured cow from the streets. With the dung and water she had swabbed the floor of her house and veranda in meticulous swathes. She had also sprinkled a few drops of the urine that she had collected from a calf, and had consecrated her house further. Then she drew murals on the floor of her house with raw rice paste. She drew an intricate lotus motif with sixteen petals. She lighted a wicker lamp filled with ghee that had ten mouths to bear ten wicks, placing it at the center of the mural. On this mural, she spread out fruits and tubers of ten colors. She kept a thread of ten hanks on this. She became restive and fetched raw rice and ten stems of duba, creeper grass. She also offered incense, burning wicks dipped in ghee, sacred food, flowers, and aromatic oil, on the patterns she had drawn. Then, she invoked the gods:


I worship you O Lakshmi and Jagannath!

Glory be to You, Mother, the homemaker of Hari,           

Hari is the Emperor of the Universe.

I am ignorant in the matters of religious rituals

as I am from a low servile caste, and on top of that,

I live in the Lane of the Chandaals,

and I am a Chandaal woman.

O Lotus-faced Mother please deign

to accept my veneration.   


Lakshmi, Vishnu’s Maharani was passing by along the main street. She could not ignore the pleadings of the chandaal woman and was moved with her piety. The lotus motif in the house too tempted Lakshmi. So she entered the house of the chandaal woman, and materialized on the lotus motif. The entire household of the poor woman glittered to an unusual radiance in the presence of Lakshmi, and when the Goddess had graced the house, how can I even think of a metaphor to narrate the splendour of the spectacle?


‘Now, dear Shriya,’ said Lakshmi, ‘ask and carry for yourself a boon, since I’ve been pleased with you. I promise you, I’ll wipe out your woes.’


The poor woman tells, her hand placed on her head:

What can I ask for?

 I don’t know how to ask for a boon.

Well, give me a billion auspicious cows.

Give me riches Mother,

which should measure up only to Kuber’s,

provide son to my lap,

give enough gold bangles and armlets

to cover both my hands,

and make me immortal through the four eons

of Satya, Dwapara, Treta and Kali, the eon of sin.


Laxmi heard her and said: ‘You have lost your head. I can give you all you have asked for except that I have no power to bestow on you immortality. How could you ask for this boon? You will wallow in immeasurable wealth as long as you live. After your life on this earth expires, you will reach at the abode of Vishnu. Keep this Penance for me everyday; let your being lie at the feet of Laxmi-Narayan.’”


(The English translation of Lakshmi Purana: A Paean to the Hindu Goddess of Prosperity, by Lipipuspa Nayak, has been published by Grassroots, Calcutta.

The author is a translator and critic of comparative Indian language literatures. She has published eight books, including a Sahitya Academy publication)

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