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The following is an excerpt from a World Bank report on "People with disabilities in India: from commitments to outcomes."

BOX 2.1: DISABILITY IN INDIAN MYTHOLOGY AND BOLLYWOOD MOVIES

An interesting perspective on Indian attitudes to disability is two forms of mythology: the traditional Hindu myths, which still play an important role in shaping social norms and values, and the “modern myth machine” of Bollywood, which has impacts on popular culture and society.

In Hindu mythology, the portrayal of people with disabilities is often negative, but it also exhibits a strong gender bias in terms of the perceived capacities of disabled men and women.

Disabled men in the Hindu myths are in some cases powerful and capable people, as can be seen with the visually impaired king Dritarashtra and the orthopedically impaired Shakuni in the Mahabharata war (though both are on the side of evil). Such images of powerful but threatening disabled men have been reinforced by historical figures such as Taimur Lang.

In contrast, women with disabilities in Hindu mythology are simply irrelevant. A prime example comes in a story from the Karthik Poornima, where Lord Vishnu refuses to marry the disfigured elder sister of Lakshmi, saying that there is no place for disabled people in heaven. The sister is instead married to a peepul tree.

Overall, there are however also positive examples of people with disabilities in Hindu mythology and ongoing research of Sruti Mohapatra from Swabhiman in Orissa is looking into the social and cultural aspects of portrayal of disabled people in both Hinduism and Islam.

Is there a scriptural basis for the above story involving Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī's elder sister?

Is this elder sister, Alakṣmī or a different person?

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There is a scriptural reference involving Vishnu, Alakshmi and Peepal tree but it is different from what is said in the World Bank report quoted in the question.

This Alakshmi is same as the elder sister of Lakshmi, it is a yes. Alakshmi or Jyeshta (the eldest one) is the sister of Lakshmi who emerged from the churning of the milky ocean. The devas gave some places where she likes and dislikes. From Padma Purana Brahma Khanda chapter 9.

"O goddess, we are giving you a place in the homes of those men where quarrel takes place. O eldest one, accompanied by evil stay (there). Always remain, causing misery, in the houses of those men who speak cruel and false words and who the mean men, eat at dusk. O eldest one, there is no doubt that your stay will be there where there are skulls, hair, ashes, bones, and chaff fire. Always remain, causing grief and poverty in the houses of those mean men who eat without washing their feet. Stay, always giving grief, and with dissension, in the houses of those who clean their teeth with sand, salt or charcoal. O you eldest one, causing filth, your stay will be in the houses of those mean men who eat mushrooms and a left-over coconut. There is no doubt that you will stay in the houses of those men of sinful thoughts, who eat sesamum-flour, bottle-gourd, garlic, shoots of young plants, a species of kadamba (called kalambaka) and onions. O you inauspicious one, always stay there (i.e. in that house) which is bereft of sacrifices (offered to) preceptors and gods, and bereft of gifts to guests, and where the sound of (the recital of) the Vedas is absent. O you inauspicious one, always stay there, where there takes place quarrel between a husband and his wife, where no worship of the dead ancestors or gods takes place, and where there is (indulgence in) gambling. Causing sins and poverty, always stay in that place where there dwell men who are adulterers, who snatch away the wealth of others, and where brahmanas, good men and old men are not honoured." [7b to 22]

Saying thus, they continued to churn the ocean and after the emergence of many other, goddess Lakshmi emerged. The gods saluted her and praised her with the hymns of Sri Suktam. They offered goddess Lakshmi to Vishnu and asked him to marry her. Then Goddess Lakshmi says thus [From Padma Purana Chapter 10]

O Madhusudana (i.e. Vishnu), O lord, how do you desire to marry me, the younger (sister), without marrying the elder sister, Alaksmi? Does the younger sister get married when the elder remains unmarried? [12]

She asks to either marry her sister himself or to any other person because it is not recommended to perform marriage for a younger sister while the elder one is still unmarried. Hearing it, Vishnu along with the Gods give Alakshmi to the sage Uddalaka according to the Vedic text (means according to the rites prescribed).

Having heard this, Vishnu, along with the gods, and according to the Vedic text, gave Alakshmi to Uddalaka. Then the glorious Vishnu accepted Lakshmi. Then all the hosts of gods again and again saluted him. [13-14]

No rejection was done here by Vishnu saying that she was crippled or disabled. Alakshmi is not disabled but she has an old body with big face, bright body, white teeth, red eyes, rough and tawny hair.

After the episode of churning of ocean and the consequences, the story of Alakshmi is further told in the Padma Purana Uttara Khanda chapter 116 as a part of Kartika Mahatmyam. This is the story of Kartika Purnima which the report mentioned.

Uddalaka takes her to his ashrama. She could not stay there because she doesn't like chanting of the Veda mantras. She asks him to take somewhere else without delay and says the places where she likes (quoted above already). Hearing the words of Alakshmi, the sage Uddalaka's face was dejected. He took to several places but she refused to come because there was Vishnu's worship there. At last, Uddalaka feeling afflicted, spoke the following words to her,

O AlakshmI, stay "for a moment at the root of this Asvattha tree till I return after finding a place for (our) stay. [18]

(Suta Said) Thus keeping her there, Uddalaka went (away). When she who was waiting for him for a long time did not see him, she, afflicted due to being forsaken by her husband, wept piteously. Laksmi, in her abode in Vaikuntha heard her weeping there. Then with her mind dejected, she respectfully said to Vishnu: [19-21]

O lord, O kind one, my elder sister is afflicted due to being forsaken by her husband. If I am dear to you, then go to console her. [22]

Then Vishnu, full of compassion, came there with Lakshmi, consoled that AlaksmI, and said these words to her: Sri Visnu said: O AlaksmI, being in possession of this Asvattha tree, be stable. I have made from my portion this abode for you. May this younger sister of you be stable with those householders who everyday worship you, the elder one. [24-25]

Vishnu made that peepal tree abode of Alakshmi due to the request of his wife out of compassion because she was forsaken by her husband and didn't reject her because she was disabled or ugly looking.

  • What is the message of this Lakshmi-Alakshmi story? Why did Vishnu give her to Uddalaka knowing very well he'll leave her? – sv. Jun 21 '18 at 17:12
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    @sv. Definitely not portraying Alakshmi as disabled and crippled. The story occurs while talking about peepal tree and a vow called Kartika mahatmaya. In that vow, that tree should not be touched on saturdays. That question is asked and sage replies. Vishnu knows everything but that shouldn't be applied in this story. In the story, it's not said that he did the marriage intentionally even though he knows that Uddalaka will leave his wife. – Sarvabhouma Jun 22 '18 at 2:53
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Personification of Alakshmi:

Alakshmi represents extreme ugliness. She is depicted as an old, haggard, dirty, messy woman riding a donkey. Her skin is dark, leathery and shrivelled. Her hair is dishevelled and matted, full of dirt and grime. She likes to live where people are full of ego, vanity, and selfish mindset.

Co-existence of Lakshmi and Alakshmi:

Alakshmi is said to co-exist with Lakshmi. Where there is Lakshmi, there is Alakshmi. Some legends believe she is invisible in existence while some believe she is always near Lakshmi in the form of a owl.

And they say that Vishnu secretly keeps Saraswati in his mouth, on his tongue, hidden from Lakshmi. That is how he manages to keep Alakshmi at bay. That is why Lakshmi is always by his side.

The real story behind Alakshmi marriage can be read here

What is the story of Alakshmi?

Conclusion:

  1. She was not disabled instead opposite side of Ma Lakshmi

  2. Goddess Lakshmi existed before Sagar Manthan, she just disappeared because of curse of Rishi Durvasa and later came back from Sagar Manthan. So how could he (Vishnu) have married her (Alakshmi)?

Other references here

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