We may compare lak with the word sahasra, which means “1000.” From sahasra we get sahasrara–the name of the thousand-petaled lotus (or chakra) at the top of the head in the subtle body.
In both cases, the term is indicative of infinity. The lotus at the crown chakra has “petals” which are the subtle form of the intelligences of the individual. These intelligences (for, say, musicmaking, mathematics, marksmanship or any of the innumerable fields of human endeavor) are more or less open in any given human being. They are our possibilities for infinity–for multifarious powers. Likewise, the lak of Lakshmi is indicative of her limitless fertility. She is the great Mother, the goddess of all giving and receiving, the Goddess of all fortune.
As the deity “Fortune,” she is found in the oldest texts of the Indian tradition, the Vedas (c. 1200-800 BCE) but she becomes a major goddess only in the epic poems and the texts called Puranas (c. 700 BCE to 300 CE). In the Taittiriya Samhita, she is one of the wives of the sun god, toward whom our Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) is devoted.
Her name is often preceded by the epithet Sri, which means “beautiful,” and in many of the Tantric traditions (700 to 1300 CE), Sri becomes a goddess in her own right.
The Tantric phase of Indian history had three important elements: 1) It featured female gurus, 2) it had the idea of ultimate liberation in one lifetime (jivanmukta), and 3) recognized that all Creation is an emanation of the beauty of Sri.
This Tantric view of a beautiful universe displaced a more pervasive yogic view of the world as samsara—i.e. the “difficult passage” from one rebirth to the next.
Tantra’s validation of the immanental or the “worldly” aspect of existence, allowed greater valuations of the body. The body became a site of rigorous experimentation with spiritual technologies in the later Tantrik period (1000 to 1300 CE). This lead to the liberative bodily techniques–including asana–that we now use in Hatha Yoga (originated c. 1300 CE).
In myth, Lakshmi was born from the ocean of milk that the gods had churned for 1000 years. That “milk” is the sweetness of this world, where all is “milk,” and all is eaten and all is food. The scriptural Upanishads described this world as a place where everything eats everything else.
From that ocean of being, of mutual relationship, cycle and interpenetration, all nature, all Fortune arises–hence Lakshmi arises.
Because people desire and take pleasure in fortune, she is also the Goddess of desire and pleasure, hence the Tantrik goddess who is parallel to Lakshmi is called Kamakhya (a name whose root we know from Kama Sutra, a manual on the pursuit of desires. Kama means desire, pleasure or sexual pleasure).
We often find her depicted with four arms, which are symbolic of her fertility and power generally and specifically may be representative of the four aims of life: pleasure (kama), social responsibility (dharma), vocation (artha), and ultimate liberation (moksha).
In some images, she has only two arms. Her right hand may hold the mudra of bhumisparsa. It points down, indicating the fertility of this world. It may be balanced by her right hand which holds a pot of amrita, the nectar of immortality which represents the otherworldly goal of yoga—the goal of ultimate liberation. In many images she holds lotuses, symbols of the world’s continual blossoming power, as well as the transcendence of that world (because the lotus grows beautifully from the muck of a pond, suggesting that turbulent earthiness yields the sparkling beauty of life in both jnana (knowledge of the Absolute) and karma (action for success in this world).
She may also be flanked by elephants that are symbols of her royal power, or by Vishnu, the Preserver God, who is her protector and consort, or have one foot on the ground from a sitting position, indicating her connection to our rich, Earthy world.