This story is not from Sarala Mahabharata. It is from a minor puranic work in Odia, entitled Kartika Mahatmya, which was composed by the eighteenth century poet Mahadeva Dasa. The concept of Alakshmi embodied here is creatively different from the same in the classical texts.
Once, on being asked to compare between Lakshmi and Alakshmi, the inimitable sage Narada is credited to have said essentially the following in a fascinating, euphemistic language: it is beautiful when Alakshmi leaves the house and it is beautiful when Lakshmi enters the house. I do not know if there is indeed a puranic story that embodies this observation. In the rich Odia puranic literature spanning almost four centuries, a story of Alakshmi does not appear anywhere except in Kartika Mahatmya and there too rather peripherally. Her story seems to be the great taboo of our puranic literature. Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that she is referred to not in name but in terms of an epithet (“elder sister of Lakshmi”) in “Sri Sukta”, the celebrated hymn in Sanskrit to goddess Lakshmi? Was she referred to by a name other than Alakshmi at that time? Very unlikely!
In his Kartika Mahaatmya, Mahadeva Dasa retells the story of Alakshmi in Padma Purana, the only purana that tells Alakshmi’s story at some length. The prefix “a” in “alakshmi” is one of the negative prefixes of Odia; thus the word means, “anti-Lakshmi” (not just “non-Lakshmi”). Going by Dasa’s story, this goddess is, in ultimate analysis, anti-Lakshmi in that she cannot reside where Lakshmi resides. It might appear from the way they are related through their names that the two are antagonistic towards each other. But it is only language that locks them in that relationship, according to Mahadeva Dasa’s composition.
Which father would give her child such a bad name as “Alakshmi”? Such inauspicious, negative names are usually given to a child when his or her elder siblings had died early. Such a name is believed to protect the child from early death. But this was not the case with Alakshmi. Besides, there is no reason to believe that her father was unfond of her. Therefore we might presume that this uncomplimentary name was given to her later by the composers of puranas to please Lakshmi, and whatever name her father had given her was forgotten. In fact, no one must have cared.
Alakshmi was born out of the mud which was formed at the time of pralaya (the great deluge) when all existences in the creation in their purest form got assimilated into Narayana and all the impurities remained in the form of mud in the waters of pralaya. Time passed, but can one meaningfully say “time passed”? Isn’t it grossly misleading, didn’t time start with Brahma’s sristi (creation)? But how else can one describe that period between pralaya and the manifestation of Narayana’s leela again? Thus was Brahma was born, and he created the universe and in the world appeared everything again, the non-living and the living. In terms of Kartika Mahatmya, the Creator god created dharma first; it was for this reason that the mud that was the residue of the earlier existence of the universe found no space for itself in the new world. However, eventually it was born as Varuna’s daughter and she came to be known as “Alakshmi”.
Then the churning of the ocean of milk took place and the beautiful Lakshmi emerged. To please Vishnu, her father, god Varuna, got her married to him; thus his younger daughter married first. This was against the custom. It was not that Varuna had made no efforts to get his elder daughter married. But no one was willing to marry her; the goddess of mud was uncouth and ugly. Now, was she a goddess? The poet Mahadeva Dasa does not describe her as such. Neither does he describe her as anything else. But how does one describe her, god Varuna’ daughter and goddess Lakshmi’s sister, except as a goddess? What was she, if not a goddess? However, not to be unfair to the poet, which god or goddess received no worship from anyone at all and was ugly and powerless too? Which goddess could not avenge her humiliation and inspire an osha katha or brata katha (these are minor puranic stories associated with some particular fasts and rituals observed mainly by women, and at home) in her name? And which god or goddess was aware that he or she had all the negatives in his or her nature and would openly say so without any trace of virtuous arrogance that is so comforting?
Now Lakshmi lived in Vaikuntha, the abode of the Supreme Being. She was worried because her father was worried. According to the custom, it was the father’s responsibility to find a suitable husband for his daughter in case she turned out to be unattractive. He simply could not keep her at home. If this happened, he would earn papa (religious demerit). One day she told her consort about her father’s problem and pleaded with him to do something about it.
Vishnu knew that he himself would have to find a husband for his sister-in-law. He knew that not just the martya loka, the world of the mortals, no loka is favourably disposed towards an ugly woman. The Supreme god went directly to sage Uddalaka and asked him whether he would like to be related to him by marrying his elder sister-in-law. He would be very pleased to have him, the virtuous sage, as his brother-in-law. The sage readily gave his consent; it was a proposal too attractive to even think of turning down. As for his sister-in-law, Vishnu told him that in his view she was the worthiest of all: sarba tahun shrestha. We do not know whether the good sage was disappointed when he saw his bride at the time of the wedding which was attended by gods and sages; if he was, he overcame it and accepted her as she was. He knew it was Vishnu’s will.
The wedding over, the sage took his wife to his ashram, but she found the place utterly unsuitable for herself. The chanting of the sacred hymns pained her. The atmosphere of peace, serenity and spirituality in the ashram suffocated her. Alakshmi ran out of the house right on to the street. The sage was distressed to see this. He found her conduct not only disgraceful but also completely incomprehensible. He asked her why she ran out of home, why she was crying and what she had found so terribly wrong in his ashram.
Then she told him what he never knew: she could not live in a satwik (spiritually pure) environment and could live in only a tamasik (spiritually degenerate) one. She could live where people are violent, hate one another, are jealous of one another, quarrel among themselves, praise themselves and engage in malicious talk about one another, steal, practice no sexual discipline, and where there is the smell of cooked meat. Mahadeva Dasa’s list is longer than this. No point in reproducing it here. In essence, she could not live where there is cleanliness, calm, contentment and understanding, and where the sacred fire is lit and sacred mantras chanted.
The sage was aghast. He realized that he simply could not live with that woman. Such a woman would bring home only unhappiness and kula (lineage) only disgrace and eventually become the cause of her husband’s degradation in this world and in the other world too. He knew what the shastras had said; one must never live with a woman who is foul-mouthed, quarrelsome and negative. The virtuous sage did not hate her; nor did he feel cheated by Vishnu. He had no complaints against anyone. But at the same time he realized that there was no possibility at all that his marriage with Alakshmi would work. She was not going to live in the ashram and he was not going to give up life as a sage and neither wanted to impose on the other the life one liked to live. He decided to abandon her. So one day without telling her his mind, he took her to the woods, and there he told her that he was going to bring her food. He never returned. This is one rare example, in puranic literature, of vanavasa (life in the forest) which was unconnected with danda (punishment) or prayascita (atonement). Uddalaka’s act of concealing his real intentions from his wife as he took her to the forest was reprehensible. One does not know why being such a virtuous person, he stooped to that. Perhaps he did not want to hurt her. After three days of waiting, the reality of her situation dawned on her and the helpless, abandoned wife started crying.
And this was no ordinary crying. It was loud and piteous and painful, and it reverberated in lokas beyond the loka of the mortals. It was the agonized cry of the unwanted and the rejected for some suitable space. Mud cannot cease to exist merely because it is unwanted. Alakshmi’s cry reached her sister’s ears in Vaikuntha and she was sad and worried. She pleaded with her husband to do something for her sister, who, she told him, had been forsaken by her husband and was all alone in the deep forest. He must console her, she told him, and settle her in some good place where she would lead a comfortable life, or else bring her to Vaikauntha. There are many Lakshmi stories in Odia, but in none of these is the goddess of wealth and prosperity as empathetic, considerate and magnanimous as in this.
Vishnu went to Alakshmi at once. She was happy to see her bother-in-law, the Supreme lord of the universe, and became calm. The Supreme Being told her that her sister had sent him to her. He told her to come to Vaikuntha with him, a satwik abode, where lived those who had lived virtuous lives and had received his grace. Her sister was in charge there and she would enjoy all comfort there.
Alakshmi declined. In the narrative style, so characteristic of the puranas, she told him – the One who needed no telling – how she was born of the impurities that had remained after all that existed became free of the fundamental gunas (attributes – here, satwa, raja and tama) that constituted them, and as pure essence had merged into Narayana at the time of pralaya. She told him that her nature was such that purity and virtue suffocated her. Vaikuntha would make her utterly miserable. That apart, she had always been jealous of Lakshmi’s beauty and in Vaikuntha, she would be jealous of her sister’s prosperity, she told Vishnu; she said she would be in great distress in Vaikuntha. As he knew everything and took care of everyone in the creation, he should find her a place that would suit her nature, she said.
It is then not the case that in Vaikuntha everyone finds solace and lives in peace; one finds it in a place determined by one’s karma, as Mahadeva Dasa seems to be saying. Thus his Lakshmi said that her sister’s suffering was due to her karma dosa (consequence of (one’s) karma). But was it really due to her karma? Whose karma was the mud from which she was born? That cosmic mud was part of the process of pralaya. Alakshmi’s situation brings to mind the words of the great Odia poet Jagannatha Dasa in his Srimad Bhagavata: sarpare jata kalu mote/ swabhaba chadibi kemante (you chose that I be born as a snake/ How can I give up my nature?)This is what the snake Kaliya asked Krishna. In any case, Alakshmi had to be given a place of her liking. Vishnu, the ultimate provider, found such a place for her; he asked her to live in those houses where people quarrel, in those persons who are cheats and liars, who bring suffering to others, and relish the sight of others in pain, who have no respect for others’ women and who are addicted to the game of dice and who are unclean in every respect.
And from then on, on every Saturday, he told her, she would receive worship along with him under the Aswastha tree, who was none other than a Form of his. In the entire puranic literature, this is perhaps the only episode where a god is worshiped, thereby associated, with his sister-in-law. In a fascinating way, Mahadeva Dasa emphasized the all pervasiveness of Vishnu. The one whose inner eye is open can see him where the bhaktas sing his glory and also in the dens of vice.