The Myth of Diwali is unmistakably a magical one. After slaying the invincible ten-headed demon, Ravan, a triumphant prince Ram comes home to claim back his kingdom. Lights and fireworks, feasts, and prosperity on a dark moonless night. Alongside, Goddess Lakshmi arrives to dispel the darkness and bring good luck. But have you ever wondered how these two seemingly unrelated figures from mythology became symbols of Diwali?
When my young son asked me how Lakshmi was related to Ram, I was stumped. Children have the uncanny ability to ask the wisest questions with the hardest answers. I had to buy time for this one because honestly, I did not have an immediate answer. Having grown up in India celebrating Diwali in traditional ways, I have always been keenly interested in myths. I knew that I already knew the answers, but I had to pry within.
Lakshmi represents womanhood. But within this story, is it Sita who is Lakshmi? When I posed this simple question to a mythologist friend, she confirmed that Sita is Lakshmi because she is the wife of Vishnu who has taken the Avatar of Ram. Every time he comes, she comes with him as His female counterpart. While Ram represents Purusha or the spiritual dimension of creation, Sita represents Prakriti or the outer dimension.
When Ram’s stepmother Manthara conspired to send him on an exile for her son Bharata to be throne king, she invited ruin and bad luck into the kingdom because when Lakshmi (Sita in this case) leaves a place, her sister Alakshmi takes over. Then there is dirt, poverty, and misery. People treat each other badly and even the crops don’t grow well. When Ram returned, Valmiki writes, “The night of ignorance was dispelled, the owls of sin sought to hide, and lust and passion withered like lilies…Lotuses of every description…opened in the pond of piety.” One can see the parallels between Lakshmi and Alakshmi. Owl is the mythological vehicle for Alakshmi while Lotus is the well-known vehicle upon which we see Goddess Lakshmi standing in most common depictions.
There also seem to be parallels between the births of the Goddesses. Mythologically, Goddess Lakshmi is believed to have emerged from the ocean during the great churning called the Samudra Manthan along with Kuber, the god of wealth, on the day of Dhanteras – when Diwali starts. Similarly, coming from another element which is the earth itself, legend has it that Sita’s birth was one of the supernatural proportions. She was not born from a mother’s womb, but appeared miraculously in a furrow, while king Janaka was plowing the field as part of Vedic ritual in the kingdom of Mithila. Both these images to me represent the primal, feminine shakti that these powerful figures represent. Hence, the coming back of Sita to Ayodhya is a victory for Lakshmi, because Sita is reinstated on the throne to take her place as the rightful queen of Ayodhya. She is also Ram’s shakti because of whom he goes on to become Dharma Raja. In fact, if one thinks deeper, the epic of Ramayana would not take place without Sita. If she had not stepped out of the Lakshman Rekha, how would the battle between good and evil ever occur between Ravan and Ram? And how then would victory be achieved?
Could the Ramayana also pose the question of the constant conflict between Lakshmi and Alakshmi within the choices we make in our lives? The space within the Lakshman Rekha represents Lakshmi, it is safe – like a home, while the outside represents foreign forces like demons and wildlife. In a moment of weakness, Sita faltered and stepped over that line. A mistake that any human is likely to make anywhere, within any context, and at any time in history.
I am continually amazed at the timelessness of scriptural myths and the wisdom behind them. Stories of such depth never age because we continue to find traditional and new meaning in them vis-à-vis our own lives. So, this time when we light diyas, and clean our houses to welcome Lakshmi, maybe we will look at her with more awe than ever before.