Lakshmî’s multiple importance in Hindu mythology cannot be captured in a few paragraphs. Three perspectives will demonstrate the breadth of her roles and the changes in the ways in which she was perceived.
Linguistically and historically, lakshmî in the Rigveda was a word of feminine gender that quantified good fortune (the one of hundred thousands). Lakshmî became personified in the later Vedas as the correspondences (bandhu) with the priestly tradition found in the universe.
In the S´atapatha Brâhmana she and S´rî were the two wives of the celestial father, Âditya. However, Âditya as father creator disappeared when âditya became a term for a group of gods, the âdityas— the sons of Aditya. Throughout the Vedic period Lakshmî floated from one father to another: daughter of Prajâpati, Kshîrasâgarakanyakâ (“churning of the milky ocean daughter”), mother of Kâma—usually with a lotus in one hand (padmâ).
By the time of the Epics Lakshmî had become a major goddess. She appeared in the sage Nârada’s list of gods and goddesses whom he worshipped, and elsewhere she had become associated with Vishnu as his wife, or as one of his wives. From this point on, the myths about Lakshmî were imbedded in theological perspectives.
In goddess theology (S´âkta) Lakshmî was Devî, the mother and source of the universe, supreme energizing and creative energy of Vishnu. In Hindu polytheism Lakshmî was one of the many interesting goddesses with a myriad of stories about her many births and rebirths. In Vaishnava theology Lakshmî was wife of Vishnu—the Supreme, from whom all exists.
Shaiva theology honored Lakshmî as Vishnu’s wife in much the same way as Hindu polytheism. Thus, depending on the perspective, there were many variations of birth, or origin, myths, purpose, or savior, myths, and so on. Lakshmî’s birth in the Devî Bhâgavata Purâna was from the Supreme Being’s left side.
Then she divided herself again into Lakshmî Devî and Râdhâ Devî, each wedding different aspects of Vishnu to herself. Then in each incarnation (avatâra) of Vishnu, according to the Vishnu Purâna, Lakshmî also incarnated: at the churning of the Milky Ocean as Padmâ, in the dwarf avatâra as Kamalâ or Padmâ, in the Paras´u-Râma incarnation as Dharanî, in the Râma avatâra as Sîtâ, in the Krishna avatâra as Rukminî.
In all other descents, she was there as well. From this perspective Lakshmî’s story would be found nested in the story of Vishnu’s incarnations. There were stories from perspectives that suggest that Lakshmî was appropriated by S´aivas. These fragments could be explained from any perspective, but they are worth mentioning to suggest her role in situations other than that of being Vishnu’s wife.
Lakshmî cursed Mahâvishnu to have his head fall off; she stayed in the court of Kubera (god of wealth) and also in the court of Brahmâ, and then as the goddess S´rî, saying that she was only Lakshmî, not Sacî (a wife of Indra), and that she had left Bali for Indra.
The stories about Lakshmî courting kings may have been responsible for a division of Mahâlakshmî (Great Lakshmî) into two forms: a chaste and virtuous Vishnu-priyâ-Lakshmî and a flirtatious Râjya-Lakshmî. But a curse was used to explain why she lived with or was the wife of so many different gods.
As the goddess of wealth and plenitude, Lakshmî is worshipped in temples and homes in many forms, such as Gajalakshmî (a river goddess) or Dhanalakshmî (giver Lakshmî). Her images almost always hold a lotus (padmâ) in one hand.