Thursday, November 10, 2011


Lakshmi Purana has two parts; the first part is the poor, low-caste woman Shriya’s story and the second, goddess Lakshmi’s (and her consort Jagannath’s). The first part contains an ethical code, and the second, a corrective to it. Like most bratas, this particular Lakshmi brata, called Manabasa Gurubara brata, with which Lakshmi Purana is associated, is woman-centric. This is a narrative based on a domestic conflict and the housewife is the heroine here. She is shown to be central to the family; she can break her family or bring it happiness and prosperity. Balarama composed Lakshmi Puran for the common people. Therefore he outlined, in their language, what was then believed to constitute virtuous living. Shunning the form of scholarly discourse for the purpose, he chose to simply list what one must avoid doing and what one must do. These do’s and don’ts relate to what would please goddess Lakshmi, but most of these are really general, therefore are statements about living in accordance with dharma. The directive that a woman must have a head bath on Thursdays is clearly Lakshmi-oriented, for Odias, Thursday being the day dedicated to the goddess. But “Obey your parents-in-law” is not associated with any particular goddess or god; so it is not intended to be followed only on some given day. The directives are indirect; the form is not “do this” or “do not do that”, but “whoever does this pleases the goddess” or “whoever does that displeases the goddess”. Nothing is imposed; the agency of the person is never taken away. He or she has to make the choice and act, and then face the consequences of his or her action. Incidentally indirect directive is the form often used to describe the moral code in brata kathas, mahatyamas, and the like.

Characterizing virtuous living is in terms of dont’s and do’s should not be dismissed as simplistic. At the level of day-to-day life, it really boils down to what kind of life one must live. Some of these directives may relate to the more superficial aspects of life. Prohibition against taking bitter things like neem on Thursdays and the one against telling lies while participating a meeting of any council belong to two different levels. It would appear that the first is rather superficial. The householder who practises dharma has worldly aspirations: happiness and prosperity of self and his or her family. Interestingly, Shriya prays to goddess Lakshmi to grant wealth and prosperity to her and her family, and immortality (as against, say, moksha) to her, all of which are worldly.

The moral code in Lakshkmi Puran, following which one lives a virtuous life, is about what the woman, especially the married woman, must do and must not do on Thursdays, amavasyas and sankrantis, and what both men and women must not do on any day. The code specifies the don’ts a good deal more than the do’s - this is the only way of spelling out the code since the list of the constraints would always be shorter than that of the recommendations. For instance if someone has to stipulate about food to be taken on a particular day, it would be obviously more economical to say what foods to avoid than what to eat. So the food-related directive has to take essentially the following form: “eat everything except these.” And so must such others.

The directives are about physical and mental well being: about food and food related pollution, cleanliness, family duties, and respect for culture and tradition. On Thursdays women must not take non-vegetarian food, meat cooked in bottle gourd, things roasted in fire, and left-over or burnt food. They must not fry raw rice to make lia ("a kind of puffed rice"). They must not beat children. Now, children have to be disciplined, raw rice has to be fried, and left-over and burnt food cannot always be thrown away, but such things must be done on other days. One - man or woman - must not eat rice with curd at night, and on Thursday, amavasya and sankranti nights one must not have food at all. One must not eat facing the south or the west, nor must one eat sitting on the floor without something to sit on. This emphasis on food is due to the traditional belief that it is associated with states of mind; thus certain foods are believed to cause undesirable inclinations and passions. Incidentally, some vegetables and green leaves were believed to be like non-vegetarian food in this respect. Today we do not live by the belief systems from which these derive, and we have no understanding of them. And generally speaking, whatever of the past is unintelligible today is considered superstition today. This of course is not to say that the old belief systems were “true” or “correct” in some realistic sense. After all, belief systems are only belief systems.

Not washing one’s face in the morning, not washing one’s face after eating food, not having a head bath on Thursday for a woman, having food without washing one’s feet, and applying oil to the body after bath are among the forbidden. These obviously relate to personal hygiene. Not combing and tying hair in the evening is forbidden too, but surely not for reasons of cleanliness; it probably derives from the now forgotten but then prevalent belief system. Sleeping on a crumpled bed, making a clumsy bed to sleep on and sleeping naked are among the forbidden, and these have to do with routine-life aesthetics and decency that have their roots in the tradition. Sexual discipline is an important part of the code; sex is forbidden on Thurdays, amabasyas and sankrantis, and the days the woman's body is said to be unclean, and then sex is forbidden outside of the wedlock. Women must treat the guest with respect and must light the sacred lamp in the evening, etc.; in short, they must respect tradition. And a woman who wants to live a virtuous life must not be quarrelsome, lazy, unpleasant and bold.

The most important part of the code concerns the way the woman must relate to her husband. For her nothing is more important than serving her husband. No matter what religious acts she does – go on pilgrimage, observe bratas, perform tapas, worship gods and goddesses - she acquires no religious merit if her husband is displeased with her. Her husband’s joys and sorrows must be hers, and she must always obey her husband, and be pleasing in her dealings with him, and never get irritated with him.

What is interesting is that in the second part of the tale, which is Lakshmi’s story, the goddess violates the very same moral code. In terms of the prevalent social norms, she was guilty of polluting herself and entering the sacred space of the kitchen and cooking for her family and thereby polluting the family. She asked for a divorce when her spouse wanted her to leave home, arguably it is an act of unacceptable boldness on her part in terms of the norm. A woman must not be sahasi ("bold"), says Lakshmi Puran. She was guilty of cursing her husband and ensuring that her husband and her elder brother-in-law suffered hunger for twelve long years. She did not hesitate to resort to manipulations to achieve her objective. Granted that she had been grievously wronged by her husband, but avenging herself the way she did is not in conformity with the moral code. When her husband requested her to return home, she put a condition for that: she must not be constrained from going wherever she liked. A virtuous wife would not go this far.

But there is not even mild censor of Lakshmi in the story. No one charges her of being a disobedient wife or of violating the code. And it is not the message of the story that she, being a goddess, was not bound by the code which is for the humans. The exchange between Lakshmi and Jagannath about her dismissal from the Great Temple is in human terms. When Lakshmi wanted divorce, her spouse refused because it would bring disrepute to his family. This is human social discourse, as is her laying down conditions before her husband to return home. The message of the story is not also that the powerful are above the code.

Lakshmi’s story is about something else. It questions the code on two specific points: caste-based pollution and the place of the woman in the household. It rejects caste-based pollution. It rejects the norm that specifies the duties and the responsibilities of the woman, but not her rights. It is as though she enjoys all her rights by just being married. From the perspective of this remarkable tale the marginalization of the woman in the society is a mere reflection of her marginalization in her own home. Lakshmi’s protest adds a corrective to the moral code by emphasizing the duties of the family to the woman: she must be given her own space, and her identity and individuality have to be recognized and respected by the family. The story legitimizes resistance by the wife against her maltreatment in the family; in a way it does more – it elevates the wife’s protest to the level of almost a moral duty. This is nothing short of a revolutionary idea when viewed in the context of the ethical thoughts and practices in the sixteenth century Odisha.

Friday, October 14, 2011


There are quite a few tales and practices in Odia associated with goddess Lakshmi. Here we deal with two of these: one, Lakshmi Puran, a tale that celebrates the greatness, power and glory of the goddess, and the other, our narration, in the lack of any authentic, published narration, of the Hera Panchami ritual, which is part of the Rath Yatra rituals. Of the Lakshmi tales and practices prevalent in Odisha, these seem to be the only ones directly connected with Jagannath worship at present.

Lakshmi Puran is a narrative in the form of brata katha and its authorship is attributed to the sixteenth century poet, Balarama Dasa. As a brata katha (a tale associated with the observance of a ritual fasting, mostly by women, it is recited during the worship of the goddess or god associated with that ritual) it invites attention in many ways. It is the only brata katha that drags Jagannath Himself into its ambit, which makes it as much a Lakshmi tale as a Jagannath katha. It is immaterial that Jagannath is shown in some poor light, but it still remains Jagannath katha. The other tales, very few indeed, that do bring in Jagannath are not brata kathas in the sense that they are not connected with any religious ritual. Lakshmi Puran is certainly not the best but is unquestionably the most popular composition of Balarama Dasa, and I suspect, its popularity is significantly due to its being a Jagannath katha. Containing around five hundred fifty couplets, it is somewhat longer than a typical brata katha and unlike typical brata kathas, it deals with not merely how a ritual has to be performed, and what benefits accrue to the one who performs the ritual and the hardships that await the one who does not do so; it is also concerned with the characterization of a virtuous life. Intended seemingly for the educationally limited, largely female audience, it does not philosophize on ethical living, but lists what all please the goddess Lakshmi and what do not, thus, what a virtuous person must do and what she or he must not. The code of conduct articulated here is for the most part, if not entirely, woman-centric, the reason being that the woman is projected here as the one who sustains a family. Thus when Lakshmi leaves, her consort Jagannath’s family collapses and His brother and He suffer hunger and thirst for twelve years, and when she returns to Him, normalcy returns to His household. The husband suffering hunger in his wife’s leaving him seems to be an ancient idea. In one version of the goddess Annapurna story, Shiva told Parvati that he had no need for a woman at home; she was hurt and left home. The hungry Shiva then begged from door to door for food, but no one could give him as much food as he needed, so he remained hungry. He could have his fill only when Parvati in the form of Annapurna gave him food. Shiva acknowledged her greatness and her indispensability in his life and implored her to return home. She did so. The story of Lakshmi Puran is very similar. Incidentally, Balarama Dasa is not the first Odia poet who wrote out an ethical code in terms of don’ts and do’s. About four decades ago, Sarala Dasa, celebrated as the aadi kavi of Odia literature, had given a similar, although not as detailed, code in his less known and minor work, Lakshmi Narayena Bachanika. In Lakshmi Puran, Lakshmi is portrayed as the goddess who, when not cooking for her family, visits her devotee’s houses to accept their worship. In this story, her most sincere devotee turns out to be low in social status, poor and a woman. This is also more or less Sarala Dasa’s idea of her devotees too, as his short, prose piece, Nityani Gurubara Katha shows. In the same piece, Sarala conceptualizes the goddess as the provider of food to all of the living, whether human or worm. Lakshmi Puran expresses the same view of the goddess.

What, then, are new in Balarama Dasa’s narrative? They are the following: (a) the caste factor is brought into the narrative, (b) the woman’s asking for her own space in the family is strongly supported and the denial of the same to her is rejected as totally wrong, and (c) an account is offered for a certain unique practice in Jagannath worship, namely that considerations of caste, or things similar must not matter in the least at the time of the partaking of the food cooked by Lakshmi and offered to Jagannath (called “Mahaprasad”, “great prasad”)). Nothing ritualistically prevents one from taking mahaprasad from another’s leaf, and there is no pollution associated at all with the left-over mahaprasad.

Balarama Dasa’s Lakshmi goes to the house of a low caste woman to receive worship, which her family considers unacceptable, and at His brother’s instance, her husband, Jagannath asks her to leave the temple. Hurt and humiliated, she leaves the temple, but pronounces a curse on the brothers, namely that for twelve years they would suffer hunger and thirst and their agony would end only when they take food cooked by her, whom they have called low caste. This is what eventually happens. Lakshmi does not go back to her father; she keeps her father’s family out of it all. She knew that after some three or four days Jagannath would arrive at her father’s house to take her back, and her father would readily and happily oblige. Her curse would never materialize. She had to work for it, and she got help from others: vetals and gods and goddesses – Saraswati, Agni, Pawana, etc. – and other celestials. She persuaded them that if Jagannath and Balabhadra did not suffer, men would treat their women as disposable. The brothers undergo hunger and thirst and humiliation. They realize that Lakshmi’s curse had materialized. In the guise of brahmins they beg for food, and are sometimes given food too, but they cannot eat it because something or the other happens, like the wind blowing away the food. So people conclude that they are rejected by Lakshmi and drive them away fearing that associating with them would displease the goddess and bring them misery. Finally, they reach Lakshmi’s palace, not knowing it was hers, and beg food, and are told by her attendants that it was the house of a low caste woman. To cut a long story short, they finally convey to her that they are totally famished and have no compunctions about accepting cooked food from her. She serves them not only the food they like, but also in the manner in which items are served to them in the temple. The brothers realize that it has to be the food cooked by Lakshmi. Directed to do so by His brother Balaram, Jagannath requests her to return to the temple, now that her curse has materialized and her greatness established. She seeks assurance from her lord on two counts before she returns to the temple: she would not be constrained from visiting her devotees, and mahaprasad must be partaken of in the way mentioned above. He gives her His word and she happily returns to the temple.

The matter resolved now, one would feel tempted to ask the following question since the context is so clearly the Puri temple: as her brothers were suffering, where was Subhadra? And where was Sudarshan? Were they silent witnesses? Lakshmi Puran does not even mention them. But let us not ask such logical questions. Which puran, which brata katha and works such as these does not contain inconsistencies? Besides, let us suspend our entirely logical skepticism for the moment and submit to the force of narrative imagination.

This Lakshmi and Jagannath story has attracted the attention of the people for centuries, for different reasons, and interestingly, has not been a closed story. Lakshmi Puran has a closure of course but not the Lakshmi and Jagannath story. Probably nobody ever claimed to write a modified version of Lakshmi Puran; it is only to be expected because it had become almost a sacred text. Now, as for the story under reference, at least once has a creative film maker modified it. And the novelist Surendra Mohanty sees a new meaning in the “Adhara Pana” ritual performed on the rathas of the Deities the day before the twelve day long Ratha Yatra comes to its end. On each ratha, the Deity is offered a pana, a sweet drink, in a big and tall earthen pot that is filled to the brim. Immediately after the ritual offering, the pot is broken on the ratha itself, and the pana, the mahaprasad, flows out. It is believed to be intended for the gods and the goddesses and the spirits who attended on the Deities during their Rath Yatra, and also for the unredeemed existences hovering around. But inspired by Lakshmi Puan, Mohanty finds a new meaning in this ritual. In his classic Neela Saila, he says that Jagannath’s twelve year long thirst was finally quenched with this pana, prepared by Lakshmi. This is a very imaginative perspective on the Adhara Pana ritual. Recently a film has been made on the story – “Jai Jagannath”- that gives a significant twist to the ending. At the goddess’s moment of triumph Narada appears, and with that Narada-like mischievous smile, the celebrated sage extols the glory of Jagannath’s lila. A surprised Lakshmi asks Narada whether all that had happened was in the knowledge of Jagannath and whether He was a party to His own suffering. She should have expected Narada’s answer! She understood that the drama had been enacted for the elimination of the caste-based prejudices and if suffering was necessary for the purpose, then Jagannath Himself was willing to undergo it. Lakshmi does not feel let down, knowing that there is no victory for her. And of course there is that other perspective, so clearly articulated in the following couplet of Srimad Bhagabata, composed by the sixteenth century Odia poet, Jagannath Dasa: kari karauthai muhi / mo binu ana gati nahi. In some rough rendering into English, it would read like this: I am the doer and I am the causer of all things / There is no alternative to Me. Now, does the twist to the story rob it of the empowerment of the woman aspect? Really not, since whatever Lakshmi wanted she gets; it is just that no individual stands empowered. From one point of view, this question of empowerment becomes hardly meaningful now, because all those who had felt they were agents of what had happened, including Lakshmi and Balaram, now realize the truth that there was a Causer really, and they were His agent-instruments: agents in appearance and instruments in reality.

We now turn to the Hera Panchami ritual. If we give it the form of a narrative, it would essentially, although, may be, somewhat crudely, look like the following: Jagannath goes with brother Balaram and sister Subhadra (and Sudarshan) for Rath Yatra and leaves Lakshmi behind. He seems to have left for the Yatra festival in a hurry, without having made proper arrangements for her. So the provider of resources to every living thing has to depend on what the pilgrims give her as offering. Lakshmi feels humiliated. Two days before the Snan Yatra (bathing ceremony) Lakshmi is separated from Jagannath, and on the day of Snan Yatra the Deities fall sick. During their sickness and recovery, Lakshmi is not with her consort. The Deities are taken care of by a category of servitors, known as the daita, who are considered to be His traditional and very dear worshippers. No one but them have access to the Deities during those fifteen days. And the day after they recover, their Rath Yatra starts. They go to a small temple, called Gundicha Mandir, some three kilometers away from the Great Temple (Bada Deula). There they stay for a week and then start their journey back to the Great Temple. During their return journey they stay in their rathas for about four days.

Lakshmi is confused and worried; she does not understand why she was left behind. As Rukmini, she had married Him only three days (on ekadasi) before the Snan (“bathing”) Yatra (on purnima). A day after the wedding, the daitas take charge, and she could no more be with her lord. She now apprehends that her spouse may not be interested in her, and had gone out for others’ company. And He has taken His sister with Him; the sister and not the wife, then, is His preferred companion. She feels a sense of jealousy too. She consults the other goddesses who are in the temple and receives their sympathy and support. Goddess Bimala, a form of Shakti, advises her to go to Him. She must carry with her a charm in the form of powder and use it on her consort so that He returns to her. Thus on the fifth day of the nine-day Rath Yatra festival, in the late hours of the night, Lakshmi sets out in regal style to meet her consort. She takes the same road on which the rathas had rolled just three days ago: Bada Danda (“Grand Road”), the main road of the town. She comes to the hall of the Gundicha temple and from there sees Jagannath at a little distance, in the sanctum sanctorum. At that time, the ritual of food offering was taking place. Now as soon as the eyes of Lakshmi and Jagannath meet, and before she is able to have an eye-fill of her lord, the doors of the sanctum sanctorum close. Lakshmi feels the doors have banged on her; she feels utterly unwelcome. And her humiliation has taken place in the presence of outsiders - thousands of devotees witnessing the ritual of food offering. In frustration, embarrassment, anger and humiliation, she leaves the hall, and as she returns to the temple, the angry goddess breaks a piece of Jagannath’s ratha. She returns to the temple like an ordinary woman, without her regal style, and does not take the Grand Road, but a by lane of the locality called “Hera Gohiri Sahi”. As a woman who has felt unwanted by her spouse, she has fallen in her own self-esteem; so she could no more feel at ease with the regal style.

Now, as for the closing of the doors of the sanctum sanctorum, the ritual of food offering reaches a stage when those doors must close for some particular puja to be performed indoors, out of the view of everyone unconnected in ritual terms with that stage of the offering. Thus there was nothing unusual about it. It was just that the goddess arrived when the offering had reached that stage. She should have known it all, but in her specific situation, she thought, quite understandably, that the closing of the door indicated her lord’s unhappiness at her presence in the Gundicha temple. The tatwiks may say what they want; say, for example, that Bhagawan was in the company of those who are the dearest to Him, namely, His bhaktas, and at such times nothing else matters to either Bhagawan or the bhaktas. But at the laukik (mundane) level, the wife feels neglected and humiliated at her spouse’s indifference. And those who would see both Lakshmi Puran and this narrative together would find in the former the story of empowerment of woman, and in the latter, a reflection of the social reality in which the sensitivities of the woman are generally not taken note of by her man.

The Hera Panchami narrative is not the end of the Lakshmi- Jagannath story; it is continued in the ritual called Niladri Bije (roughly, “return to the temple”). Part of it constitutes the ritual in which Lakshmi avenges herself during her lord’s return to the temple at the end of Rath Yatra. After Sudarshan, Balaram and Subhadra enter the sanctum sanctorum, Lakshmi closes the doors of the temple on Jagannath. Twice: first the doors of the Lion’s Gate, which is the first and the main entrance to the temple, and then the doors to the inner hall, known as “Jaya Bijaya dwara”. Skipping many details of this fascinating engagement, we would only say here that after much argument between Lakshmi and Jagannath, much persuasion, much appeal to the goddess to see reason and much pleading by her lord, Lakshmi relents and allows Him to enter, and she is happy as Jagannath feeds her delicious sweets at that moment of reconciliation. As far as we know, the Hera Panchami part of the conflict has not attracted as much attention of the poets and story tellers as the one concerning Lakshmi’s closing of the entry doors to her spouse. “Lakshmi Narayana Kali” (quarrel between Lakshmi and Narayan) is a popular narrative. Lakshmi is not a powerless goddess, but as wife she is, in relation to her husband, power being a context-dependent relation, and resistance by the powerless against the powerful and the victory of the former over the latter is a theme that has inspired the imagination of the poets ever since, at least, the bhakti period in our literatures.