The animal companions of three Hindu goddesses teach us valuable lessons about strength, abundance, and wisdom.
In India, various land animals, birds, and even reptiles are considered extensions of, or carriers of, divine feminine energy. Hindu goddesses Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati are said to ride divine creatures called vahanas, which are said to support the goddesses in their work while transporting them all over the universe. Durga is often depicted astride a lion. Lakshmi’s vahana is the owl, and Saraswati’s is the swan.
Each of these sacred creatures acts as a representative of their respective goddess, and they are divine entities themselves. Vahanas are much more evolved than humans, and they share the powers, strengths, and wisdom of the deities they serve.
The vahanas—along with their assigned gods or goddesses—are treated with great respect and devotion. In no way should we regard them as “beasts of burden.” In fact, they are a continuation of a deity’s divine consciousness and an expression of the divine feminine in animal form.
Meet the Goddess Durga and Her Lion
Durga is the goddess of courage, strength, and raw power. She reminds us that we never need to people-please, avoid conflict, go along with the crowd, and be neither chronically overlooked or overbooked, nor feel the need to overcompensate. She reminds us that engaging in anything that smacks of codependence or self-abandonment ultimately takes away our power.
A male or female lion (sometimes a tiger) transports Durga as she attends to emerging and collapsing universes, symbolizing Durga taming the patriarchal instincts of domination, aggression, and violence. These instincts do not control her—the goddess is in control. This image of Durga is forceful, defiant, and invincible.
Imagine working at a cutthroat company where it feels everyone is in competition—but today you ride in on your lioness. Imagine not giving in on an issue concerning your child the next time your in-laws raise their eyebrows, because you are riding your tigress. Imagine finally coming out of the closet, and you are bold and unapologetic as you reveal your sexuality.
When Durga’s lion kills, it does so dharmically, not to score points or harm anyone or out of anger. Steady and majestic, the lion neither apologizes for its power nor attacks unnecessarily. It only hunts to satiate biological hunger and to protect its territory.
Four Lessons from Durga’s Lion
Be the hero of your life.
Believe me, when you show up channeling Durga, riding your lion, and roaring like a goddess, your faultfinders, mockers, and critics will run in the other direction—sometimes for good!
Meet the Goddess Lakshmi and Her Owl
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, prosperity, and abundance. The popular perception of Lakshmi tends to be more about material wealth (which comes at a cost), yet I believe that Lakshmi teaches us instead about the uncovering of inner wealth (contentment) and higher values (dharma).
Those who possess the latter truly experience abundance and get “richer” with each passing day. Indeed, Lakshmi’s emergence in our heart spells auspicious tidings, with a wealth of cheerfulness, a radiant disposition, an inner contentment, and a sense of peace with our relationships and possessions. Lakshmi drives away anxiety, worry, and gloom and puts us in a perpetually festive mood.
Lakshmi, akin to higher awareness, becomes activated when a person decides to cultivate dharma or higher values and ethics, versus grasping and chasing after wealth at any cost. We become stressed and filled with feelings of inadequacy and frustration when our quest for wealth and safety is not accompanied by honesty, integrity, and the practice of contentment.
That is why Lakshmi’s vahana is the owl. The owl signifies patient observation and conscious action. These qualities are especially important when we are surrounded by the darkness of hedonism, materialism, and capitalistic greed.
As a nocturnal bird reputedly blinded by daylight, the owl serves as a symbolic reminder to refrain from blindly playing out scripts handed down by a materialist society. The owl instead instructs us to choose to remain conscious. Dharma sets us up for a long-term and deeply satisfying quest for abundance, quieting out anxiety and turning senses inward to find our inner Lakshmi: our hidden talent, creativity, abundance, generosity, gratefulness, and spiritual steadiness despite adversity.
When we are not balanced, we get in our own way, and no amount of lucky charms, mantras, or rituals will work because our inner goddesses will be buried under our own self-ignorance. Therefore, to be truly abundant like Lakshmi, try to maintain balance in your material and spiritual quests and endeavors.
Meet Goddess Saraswati and Her Swan
While Durga represents the raw power of Self and Lakshmi represents fullness of Self, the Saraswati archetype represents sacred wisdom—the knowledge and the realization of the goddess within. As you connect with Saraswati’s archetype, she drives away self-doubt, anxiety, worry, and gloom, and your mind becomes illumined with divine light.
When Saraswati is present, no possible illusion about who you are can exist. Truth alone is present, bare-bone perfection in imperfection, light in darkness. We feel joyous as a peacock and serene like a swan floating in water.
This goddess is often depicted in art as playing a lute and riding a white swan or a gorgeous white peacock, often against a vast expansiveness of blue skies dotted with calm, white clouds. Simply gazing at her image arouses clarity, peace, and joy within our hearts. She is the Goddess of Knowledge and Higher Wisdom and Bestower of Peace, because knowledge of Self is the final gateway to abiding peace.
The peacock is a gentle bird, known for its beauty, elegance, and poise. The peacock dances with joy to its inner music. It suggests that you can seek the help of Saraswati if you too want to dance to your inner music, particularly if you are pursuing higher education, fine arts, aesthetics, dance, music, or theater.
Saraswati’s swan offers a gentle teaching: that of spiritual discernment. In the Vedas, the swan represents the power of subtle discernment between good and bad, true and false, real and unreal, and is believed to be able to separate milk from water. This is symbolic of the informed intellect capable of “knowing better” and separating truth from falsehood.
All women have powerful discernment, despite our intellect being historically suspect or mocked. We must use it! We must become swans ourselves and question default beliefs and conditioning. We must objectively look for and listen to our inner truth, especially when it goes against the status quo.
Riding Your Own Vahana
Just as these goddesses are depicted on their vahanas, you too can draw lessons from what they symbolize and allow that animal wisdom to inform your everyday life.
Durga rides her lion to victory, every single time. You can, too. Lakshmi sits on the owl of dharma for all her pursuits, especially in her quest for abundance. You must, too. Saraswati’s most beloved vahana is the majestic swan, representative of the true Self, one who realizes their inner swan shines, because veils are lifted and doubts are destroyed, revealing calmness, clarity, and psychological wholeness. May you realize your Self, too!
Original artwork from the book by Ekabhumi Charles Ellik. Reprinted with permission by Sounds True.
Acharya Shunya is a spiritually awake internationally renowned and awarded spiritual teacher and scholar of nondual wisdom (Advaita) and a classically-trained master of Yoga and Ayurveda. The first female head of her...