Lakshmi on the Image
It is pointed out that the image of Lakshmi, forms an integral part of the mula murthi of Lord of Tirumalai. It is represented as a seated image in the padmasana or lotus pose, She has four arms; the two upper hold lotus buds; the right lower arm is in the Abhaya pose, the other lower arm on the left is in the Varada hasta pose. [Sitapati: 32]
Lakshmi was a Buddhist deity
The idea of Lakshmi as one of the consorts of Vishnu is so deeply ingrained in present day Indian psyche that, the fact that She was originally a Buddhist monuments, and not a Brahmanic ones. Dr. Vasudeva Upadhyaya observes:
"...The birth of Buddha is depicted by many symbols, in addition to Bodhi tree, chakra and Stupa. In the toranas of Bharhut and Sanchi the birth of Buddha is depicted by an elephant (dream of Maya) and a devi sitting or standing on a lotus. ... In one place a devi seated on a lotus is being anointed with water from jars held over her head by two elephants. This is termed in Hindu art as Gaja Lakshmi. In Buddhist art this is considered a symbol of birth of Buddha. It is the opinion of western scholars that the idea of Gaja Lakshmi of Hindus is copied from this Buddhist symbol. Evidences of this is found from the artistic examples of Bharhut, Boudha Gaya and Sanchi. Gaja Lakshmi had a place in Buddhist art of Shunga times..."
Upadhyaya, however, does not agree that Hindus copied her from Buddhist, and thinks that Hindus originated the idea from the Shrutis. However, he admits that no Brahmanic image of Lakshmi before the Christian Era is found. [Upadhyaya: 312- emphasis ours] Whether Gaja Lakshmi of Hindus is influenced by Buddhist or not, the fact remains that the earliest archaeological representation of this form of devi is found only in Buddhist sculpture, and not in Brahmanic ones. The earliest Brahmanic representation is at Mahabalipuram:
"...Gajalaxmi ... in Varaha temple at Mamallapuram (being first to appear in the Hindu garb, though the Buddhism had used it from the times of stupa of Bharhut)..." [Bhattacharya: 1967: 329]
Saraswati was also a Buddhist Deity
It may also be mentioned that Saraswati was also a Buddhist Deity and the earliest representation was evident in Buddhist monuments and not in the Brahmanic ones. J.N.Banerjea observes:
"...a Bharhut railing pillar, contains a standing female figure playing on a harp; it may be regarded as the earliest representation of Saraswati in Indian Art. Her separate figures from the late Gupta period onwards, however are comparatively common..." [Banerjea J.N.: 1967: 314]
Even in literature Lakshmi was not related to Vishnu
It may seem strange, but it is true that Lakshmi was originally not related to Vishnu. H. D. Bhattacharya has the following to observe:
"...That Lakshmi was originally not linked with Vishnu may be gathered from the fact that she was supposed to have been bestowed upon Vishnu after the churning of ocean had brought her forth, though a later tradition would have it that she came out of the lotus which grew out of Vishnu's forehead" [Bhattacharya: 1968: 470]
Before Lakshmi came to be recognized as one of the consorts of Vishnu, her position in Brahmanic tradition was not very steady. Dr. J. N. Banerjea observes:
"...The tendency to regard some of the goddesses as indispensable consorts of the major gods, led to the multiple matrimonial alliances of Sri and of Saraswati. As noted above Sri and Lakshmi (regarded as two personalities) appear in the Vajasanniyi Samhita as two wives of Aditya. Later tradition made Sri and Mahaveta the two wives of Surya, one on either side of the Sun Image. This was followed by the still later conception in North India (especially Bengal) of Lakshmi and Saraswati as the two wives of Vishnu, placed on two sides of Vishnu image. Identification of Lakshmi with Durga, Amba, Devi or Ekanasa is also not unknown. Even Skanda's wife of Devasena has Lakshmi as one of her names, and Kubera, too claimed her as wife at a later time. Popular belief, however, made her wife of Vishnu, and in some Puranas his creative activity; and in Vishnudharmottara it is mentioned that gifts dedicated to Lakshmi should be given only to one well versed in the Pancharatra doctrine. Her figure appears in the lintels of Vishnu temples at Badami and Aihole, and latterly she degenerates into a parivardevata in the temple of Brahma as Visvakarma. If she had not lost her hold on veneration of men, it is because she represents the docile type of womanhood intensely attached to the husband and devoted to his service, and also because she is looked upon as goddess of wealth in the pursuit of which all sects are equally interested." [Banerjea J. N.: 1970: 452]
Lakshmi recognized as consort of Vishnu, only since Alvandar's time
This discussion should be sufficient to show that the devise of Lakshmi was in Buddhist traditions and that the image of Lakshmi found on the chest of Lord of Tirumalai does not exclude it from being considered as Buddhist image. At the same time mere presence of Lakshmi on the chest of this idol does not prove it that the idol is that of Vishnu.
We have already seen in Chapter 10 that even after Her acceptance as a consort of Vishnu, Lakshmi was depicted only with the Sheshashyai form and not with the standing form.
However, we have to consider the time when Lakshmi got accepted as a consort of Vishnu. It was Alvander, who for the first time propagated Lakshmi as consort of Vishnu in South India. [Raghavacharya: I,150]
This raises another question. If Lakshmi was not considered as the consort of Vishnu as late as the time of Alvander, (918- 1038 A.D.) then how do you account for Her presence on the chest of Lord of Tirumalai? Surely the image was earlier than this period. This is discussed in next chapter.