Welcome to this Exhibit!
Finding the Hindu Goddess of Fortune in Local Temples, Stores, and Shrines
Lakshmi Exhit: A Goddess Grows in Queens is a labor of love and a graduate school research project intended to show how the devotion of Hindus from around the globe has made this goddess a part of everyday life in the borough. The story of Lakshmi and how she has evolved through the ages and landed in Queens is told digitally - through photos, text, videos, and insights shared on this website. It was created for a class called Digital Humanities and it is hoped that this website helps introduce Lakshmi and to help bring her to life for those who cannot get to India, or to Queens, but would like to know more about Lakshmi.
Three to Five Thousand Years Young
Lakshmi is a very ancient goddess.
The tradition she hails from has rich scriptures, holy stories, ancient practices, and specific prescriptions for worship. There are so many different customs and symbols for honoring her. And she is also honored in many counties, regions, and cultures, each with its own approach.
She was originally known as Sri and began to materialize as a fully formed Divine Female in the Puranas about 3,000 years ago. Her creation story, in which she arose from the milky sea a fully formed Divine Female, is more than a myth. It is part of the Hindu religion and worship and the rituals enacted by gods and sages are recreated in Hindu temples by priests and pandits each day. She is in the Vedas and other scriptures and she has a vibrant history. She can also be found in ancient temple walls, statues, and art, and is honored in many cultures. Worshipped by Jains and Buddhists as well as Hindus, her sacred image appears in many regions—India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Indo-Caribbean nations, to name a few.
Lakshmi is Like Family
I first met Lakshmi twenty-five years ago.
I was training to be an interfaith minister, which is a form of spiritual service that embraces all faiths. I was taught the tenets and rituals of all world religions. And I was encouraged to know the Divine as one source that manifests in many ways through many paths, religions, and spiritual practices that could be represented by a wide range of deities with different names. To my delight, I also discovered that many divine beings are female and pictured with curves, real hips, and a touch of lipstick! It changed my life to be able to identify with the divine in female form and celebrate her.
The first goddess who found me—and adopted me—was Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of fortune. She set me on a research journey to find out more about her. But at the time, it was challenging to access information about her. I couldn't go to India. I had to search for her in New York.
Lakshmi in Queens
In recent decades, millions of Hindus have immigrated to the United States and they have brought their religion and traditions with them. Hindu temples have sprouted up around the country and books and studies have been written about American Hinduism. It was a special delight for me to discover that Queens is so filled with the sound of Hindu worship and the colorful traditions that have seeped into daily life. And, as it turns out, Lakshmi is all over the borough! I have made dozens of local pilgrimages to find her for this exhibit and will add more over time.
I was born in Queens and lived in Manhattan for many years. When I moved back to the borough twenty-one years ago, the Hindu culture was still growing and you had to search to find Lakshmi beyond the local temple. Now, her image and presence abound.
My Earlier Lakshmi Studies
Recently, I've found it was fun to go on Lakshmi treasure hunts just a short Uber ride away from my house so I could report on and photograph my Lakshmi findings. It reminded me of my first efforts to find this wonderful goddess.
My earliest discoveries about Lakshmi were always very close to home. I was a single mom with a special needs child and my son needed to be near hospitals and doctors. So I found her in a few local Hindu Temples, museums, exhibitions, and Indian restaurants; by talking to cab drivers and people of the Hindu faith and following her trail in Sari shops and stores that sell Hindu supplies and deities. I engaged with what I called Kitchen Table Goddessing. I would learn about her anywhere I could and then would come home and process the information while taking care of my son.
I often visited the area known as Little India in Manhattan and the Hindu shopping areas in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. There I would buy "Lakshmi stuff" and ask storekeepers to describe what certain worship objects were and how they are used. I would come home with copper trays, small metal pitchers, and little deepas, which were tiny clay holders for ghee that were used to burn as candles. These stores also had representations of all the deities in the Hindu pantheon, and I began to also learn about Ganesha, Vishnu, Saraswati, Durga, Kali, and others.
Then I discovered the Ganesha Temple in Flushing. It was the only well-established Hindu temple I had ever heard of in New York (or in the US!), and it was in my hometown of Flushing, Queens (where my mom still lived until she was 100).
Although I was very shy at first, I found the courage to attend Hindu temple services and actively engaged in a learning process to discover how Lakshmi is worshipped. I spent many a day soaking up her presence in that local Hindu temple in Queens. I would attend pujas (worship services) and even though the priests did not speak English, they would take the time to teach me how to properly honor her in the temple. I learned her rituals. Even on days when I spoke to no one, I would just sit by Lakshmi's icon (one of ten big statues in the temple) and relax into the hypnotic sound of Sanskrit chants that would fill the place, and my senses.
There were not many mainstream books widely available at the time so I ordered them from India. I read anything I could find on Hindu religious mythology and celebrations in an attempt to understand Lakshmi's place in the religion of her birth.
I studied the method of prayer in the temple and was so taken with the ease with which people born in the Hindu faith would worship their gods and goddesses; and how different it was, depending on the person. Often people would walk around to each of the deities to pray, three times. They would sometimes leave money in a little collection box and bow to the deity. Some people prostrated themselves completely, with their heads to the ground, before the icons. Some people would ring bells. When worship was done they would apply tikka (a spot of kumkum or sandalwood, or both) to their foreheads.
I was awed by what went on in the temple. I wanted to get closer to Lakshmi by deepening my own Hindu worship practice. I tried to embrace Lakshmi's culture fully.
Then into our lives came my son's first babysitter, Aisha Lakshmi, who looked like a goddess. She generously taught me so much about her faith. She was only seventeen but so wise and experienced in Hindu religious practices. She helped me become more comfortable and confident in the temple environment. Her first name means wealth and her second name, of course, is fortune.
I began to find Lakshmi and her symbols everywhere I went and built a sizeable collection of icons and accessories. One day I found a beautiful big statue of her and finally was able to build a home shrine to her. I still have the statue.
Lakshmi is Everywhere
Lakshmi is a goddess so she is, of course, omnipresent but she is also found in physical form all over the world. It is wonderful to see how much she has grown in Queens.
You don't have to be Hindu to love Lakshmi. And Hindu people are proud to share her with the world and are typically very welcoming to all. Hinduism is one of the oldest traditions and it is a major polytheistic world religion that has always embraced goddess worship along with the worship of the gods. In monotheistic faiths that have grown to prominence, the concept of the Divine Feminine is left out (except in some mystical versions of these religions). History has shown that the goddess had been downplayed, denied, deleted, and has been hidden from view for many centuries. So it is inspiring to be around a faith that openly offers devotions to the Divine Feminine.
Traditional worship may not be right for everyone. You can honor Lakshmi in your own way, a way that feels most natural. I love to keep learning about the traditions of Lakshmi worship that have been upheld for millennia and about how she is honored through different cultural practices. I also have my own way of offering my appreciation to her.
I hope that this exhibit is helpful to anyone interested in learning more about this goddess and about her presence in the world and in Queens, New York. I may not explain things the way a Hindu priest would but I offer you her story with sincerity. I recognize that some of what I have covered in this exhibit (Lakshmi in stores) may be interpreted as the commercialization of Lakshmi. But my interpretation is that her images abound because she is such an important and beloved goddess.
The humans who honor Lakshmi's divine nature typically use images and murtis (statues) to bring her alive. And they visit her in temples and attend her festivals. This exhibit aims to offer visitors a peek into Lakshmi's world.
Many blessings for prosperity, love, and joy,
Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway