The veneration of Lakshmi and imagery associated with the goddess have traveled across the world over many centuries together with the South Asian diaspora. Originally a personification of the earth and a fertility goddess within Hindu culture, Lakshmi came to be associated with the god Vishnu and developed into the beloved goddess of good fortune, wealth, bounty, and beauty. Vishnu, the savior or preserver, is compassionate, moderate, and peaceful, but can also be frenetic and violent. As Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi embodies his power. Lakshmi appears in numerous forms, as do the Hindu deities like Shiva, Parvati, and Krishna represented by the Chola-period sculptures on view outside this gallery. One form Lakshmi takes is Sita, the wife of Lord Rama (a manifestation of Vishnu) in The Ramayana, a foundational literary work of ancient India. This epic Sanskrit tale recounts Sita’s abduction by the demon Ravana and her rescue by Rama and his brother Lakshman. Their journey was aided by sympathizers who lit candles so they could find their way home through the darkness. Inspired by this tale, Lakshmi is celebrated on the main day of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, when people light candles to guide her to their homes and bestow good fortune for the coming year.
The transformation of Lakshmi extends beyond the Hindu context. Prior to the twelfth century, Lakshmi became an important deity in Buddhism when it was still a major religion in India. Her imagery and worship within a Buddhist context was transmitted to other parts of Asia and beyond. For instance, Kichijōten, the Japanese Buddhist version of Lakshmi depicted in a painting in this exhibition, became a goddess of wealth, beauty, and happiness. On view alongside this painting are contemporary collages by Roberto Custodio, who found inspiration in images of this Hindu deity. Together, these images represent a selection of distinctive interpretations of the goddess’s image, beauty, and power as she has been venerated across time and space.
This exhibition is part of Asia Society Museum’s ongoing In Focus series, which invites viewers to take an in-depth look at a single, significant work of art.