I resort to Lakshmi for shelter in this world,
Who is beautiful like the moon, shining brightly,
Who is blazing with renown,
Who is adored even by the gods,
Who is highly magnanimous, and grand like the lotus.
May my misfortunes perish! I surrender myself to Thee,
O Thou, who art resplendent like the Sun!
Rig Veda, Sri Sukta, 5-6
Lakshmi's worship probably dates back to the prehistoric fertility cults of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. By the late second millenium BCE, her earliest recorded hymn appears in the Rig Veda -- the "Sri Sukta," fifteen verses appended to the hymns of the Khila Sukta. Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society advises that "the Sri-Sukta of the Veda is recited with benefit especially on Fridays, together with formal worship of the Goddess, for peace, plenty and all-round prosperity." By the time of the Upanishads and the Puranas, the Goddess Sri had come to be called Goddess Lakshmi as well. In the untold centuries since, "Sri-Laksmi" has been worshipped as the goddess of wealth, prosperity, fertility and beauty.
HER ICONOGAPHY AND WORSHIP
Lakshmi is usually shown as wearing a beautiful red sari richly embroidered in gold, lovely jewelry, and with golden coins showering from Her hand. She is often accompanied by elephants, symbolizing Her power of bestowing royal power and legitimacy, and also hinting at Her special relationship with the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh/Ganapati. Lakshmi very often carries a brimming pot, again suggesting abundance; She is almost almost surrounded by flowing water, indicating fertility and the life-giving nourishment of the Earth; and she invariably carries a lotus in two of her hands, while also standing or sitting upon a lotus (interestingly, the ancient Indian goddess form now known as Lajja Gauri shares all of these characteristics).
Regarding Her strong association with the lotus, the scholar David Kinsley notes, "Sri Lakshmi thus suggests more that the fertilizing powers of moist soil and the mysterious powers of growth. She suggests a perfection or state of refinement that transcends the material world."
Indeed, I chose the top picture on this page -- with its unusual lack of material adornment -- precisely because it seems to emphasize Lakshmi's rarely discussed transcendent aspects.
In later Hinduism, Lakshmi came to be conceived first as fickle wife (think of the fleetingness of good fortune) to a variety of gods, including Soma, Dharma, Indra, and even the Yaksha god Kubera -- before finally settling into mainstream Hindu mythology as the loyal consort of Vishnu. (As the wife of Vishnu, Lakshmi is also the wife of all of Vishnu's avatars; for example, Vaishnavas see Her as both Radha to Krishna, and as Sita to Rama.)
Most Vaishnava portrayals present Lakshmi as submissive and subordinate to Vishnu; more sophisticated views conceive Her as equal and non-different from Him -- as expressed in the figure of Lakshmi-Narayana, the fused androgyne form of Vishnu (right side) and Lakshmi (left side), expressing essentially the same truths contained in the Shiva-Parvati fusion of Ardhanariswari.
The most important festival in which Lakshmi is worshiped today is Diwali, or Deepavali, the "Festival of Lights," held each autumn on the darkest night of the year (In 2002, Deepavali fell on Monday, November 4!). The focus is upon prosperity (for example, merchants worship their account books, understanding that there can be no wealth or success without Lakshmi's presence and grace); fertility (She is worshiped in the form of crops in rural areas, or simply food in more urban communities); and good fortune (alongside Ganesh/Ganapati, the other principle deity of Deepavali, Lakshmi grants riches and good luck).
SHAKTA APPROACHES TO LAKSHMI
Shaktas who worship Lakshmi often approach Her as Kamala, Lakshmi's primary Shakta form, best known as a member of Shaktism's primary group of deities, the Ten Mahavidyas. As with all of the Mahavidyas, Kamala is an independent form of the Goddess: It is She, and not Her consort, who merits attention and worship -- Vishnu is barely ever mentioned in relation to Kamala.
The philosophy of Lakshmi as supreme, independent deity is most fully fleshed out in Pancharatra school -- a kind of Tantric subsect of Vaishnavism, which propounds a decidedly Shakta approach to Lakshmi; that is, one that elevates Her to the status of Supreme Divinity. Kinsley explains:
"In the Pancharatra creation scenario, Vishnu remains almost entirely inactive, relegating the creative process to Lakshmi. ... Lakshmi alone acts, and the impression throughout the cosmogony is that She acts independently of Vishnu (although it is stated that She acts according to His wishes). ... The practical effect ... is that [Vishnu] becomes so aloof that Lakshmi dominates the entire Pancharatra vision of the divine. In effect, She acquires the position of the Supreme Divine Principle, the underlying reality upon which all rests, that which pervades all creation with vitality, will and consciousness."
The most important Pancharatra text is the Lakshmi Tantra, which -- among other things -- teaches us that Lakshmi both created and embodies the entire Universe (seen and unseen) out of a mere one-billionth fraction of Herself (14.3). Lakshmi here performs all of the acts that traditional Hinduism attributes to the great male gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. As Lakshmi Herself puts it:
"Inherent in the Principle of Existence, whether manifested or unmanifested, I am at all times the inciter, the potential in all things. I manifest Myself as the Creation, I occupy myself with activity when Creation begins functioning, and I ultimately dissolve Myself at the time of destruction. I alone send the Creation forth and again destroy it. I absolve the sins of the good. As Mother Earth to all beings, I pardon them all their sins. I am the Giver of Everything. I am the thinking process itself and I am contained in Everything." (50.65-67)
In the Lakshmi Tantra, Lakshmi (not Vishnu) is creator, maintainer, and destroyer; She is the sole object of devotion and meditation; She is the dispenser of grace; She is the bestower of liberation (50.131-132).
And yet, for all of that, She retains Her fundamental association with fertility, abundance and well-being -- again, like Lajja Gauri, She is the "sap of life" that vitalizes all Creation; but here She is also said to be the supreme "sap of consciousness" that underlies the entire manifest world (50.110).