On Diwali, understanding the nature of wealth through the mythology connected with goddess Lakshmi
As the goddess associated with the perhaps the biggest Indian festival — Diwali — this seems a timely moment to deepen our understanding of Lakshmi, and all that she represents.
Editor's note: "The living (sajiva, in Sanskrit) seek food, the lifeless (ajiva) and the dead (nirjiva) don’t. This makes food the fundamental target (laksh) of life. From laksh comes Lakshmi. Lakshmi is food (anna) in nature and wealth (dhana) in culture," writes Devdutt Pattanaik in his book 7 Secrets of the Goddess (published by Westland). As the goddess associated with the perhaps the biggest Indian festival — Diwali — this seems a timely moment to deepen our understanding of Lakshmi, and all that she represents. The following excerpt from 7 Secrets of the Goddess has been republished here with permission from the author, and Westland.
In the Puranas, Lakshmi has three fathers: Varuna, Puloman and Bhrigu. Varuna is an asura in the Vedas, but in the Puranas he becomes a deva, a god of the sea, source of all water. The Puranas describe Puloman as the asura-king and Bhrigu as the asura-guru. This makes Lakshmi the daughter of asuras. The word ‘asura’ has been given a moral turn in recent times; they are visualised in children’s books as dark-skinned, fat, horned, ugly — the embodiment of evil. It is easy then to assume that Lakshmi’s association with asuras stems from the fear of materialism and the corrupting influence of wealth. But equating asuras with evil, and by extension devas with good, is more a convenient translation than a correct one, the result of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic lens that came to India first via Mughal rulers, and then the British.
In the Puranas, devas and asuras are both children of Brahma. Devas live in the sky and asuras below the earth. All wealth exists below the earth, for it is below the earth that seeds sprout, metal is created and water is hidden. To pull this wealth out, we need the sun (Surya), the wind (Vayu), fire (Agni) and rain (Indra); in other words, we need devas, who then become ‘gods’, as their actions favour humanity. Asuras become ‘demons’ as they resist sharing Lakshmi with humanity.
Varuna, as god of the sea, gives its wealth of salt and fish and pearls freely, without asking anything in return. That is why perhaps Varuna is not asura, but deva. Varuna is also the symbol of generosity: one is who is truly affluent. Puloman rules the land below the earth and does not release Lakshmi easily. Humanity has to invent complex agricultural and mining processes to procure wealth from the earth. The wealth obtained is called Pulomi (which means daughter of Puloman), another name for Lakshmi.
Bhrigu, guru of the asuras, is associated with prediction and foresight. His son Shukra is associated with creativity. A man who can predict the future, who has foresight and is creative, is more likely to create wealth. That is why Lakshmi is called Bhargavi, daughter of Bhrigu. That makes her Shukra’s sister. Lakshmi’s value comes only when she leaves her father’s realm, when she is no longer immersed in water or buried under the earth. The creation of wealth then is a violent process: forests have to be destroyed to make way for fields and human settlements. Raw materials have to be pulled out of the ground for industries. In other words, ‘asuras’ have to be killed to obtain Lakshmi. She dazzles only when she leaves her father’s realm and is seen seated beside Indra, god of the sky, bringer of rain, lord of Amravati.
Wealth that belongs to humans, which has been acquired from nature, is best represented by the pot. The pot is a human invention that allows people to own water and carry it wherever they go. It is the symbol of cultural intervention, of industry and market, creating value out of natural resources. Water in the forest is available for all animals; but water in a pot belongs to the owner of the pot and whosoever he or she gives it to. The pot that is Lakshmi belongs to Indra, and has been wrenched away from the asuras.
The asuras who are killed by devas are time and again resurrected by Shukra, who has the secret known as Sanjivanividya, which brings the dead back to life. This alludes to the fertility of the earth which brings back crops year after year. The act of harvesting the crops is equated with the killing of the asuras by devas, an act of violence that enables Lakshmi to come into the house of the farmer. Thus harvest festivals of India, be it vasant-navaratri (Goddess worship in spring) or sharad-navaratri (Goddess worship in autumn), marking the winter and summer agricultural cycles of India, are invariably associated with the killing of asuras: for example, Durga kills Mahisha-asura in Dussehra and Krishna kills Naraka-asura in Diwali. That is why the battle between devas and asuras is cyclical. It will never end as long as humans depend on harvesting nature’s bounty and seek the regeneration of nature’s fertility.
As Indra’s wife, Lakshmi is known as Sachi and Indra is known as Sachin. The arrival of Lakshmi turns Amravati into Swarga, or paradise. For she brings with her Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling tree; Kama-dhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow; Chinta-mani, the wish-fulfilling jewel; the Akshaya-patra, the cornucopia, the pot that is always overflowing with grain and gold. These treasures enable the devas to live a life of luxury. They do not have to work a single day. They simply have to make a wish and their desires come true. It is an enviable lifestyle.
What is never clarified in the Puranas is why Indra is entitled to all the pleasures that Lakshmi has to offer. It is simply assumed that wealth belongs to the devas. No explanation is offered. Modern retellings often equate asuras with the ‘original’ forest-dwellers who were displaced by deva ‘migrants’ who came with superior agricultural and pastoral technology. This is how the eternal battle between asuras and devas is explained sociologically. Marxist anthropologists equate devas as the ‘haves’ and the asuras as the ‘have-nots’. Traditionalists tend to describe devas as ‘good’ and thus entitled to Lakshmi, but this does not make any sense as Indra in the Puranas is always shown drunk on soma-rasa, immersed in sensory pleasures offered by apsaras, often being indifferent, even rude, to sages.
From the asura point of view, Indra is a thief. But unless the devas ‘steal’ Lakshmi out of the subterranean realm, Lakshmi cannot have value. The asuras do not see it this way. They simply want their daughter/sister back. So they lay siege to Amravati and constantly fight the devas. This turns paradise into an eternal battleground, or rana-bhoomi, with devas constantly struggling to hold on to their wealth. Indra thus has prosperity but no peace. This naturally makes asuras, source of Indra’s great displeasure, the villains of the Puranas.
We can equate Indra and the devas with ‘wealth-generators’ and ‘value-creators’ who are often at the receiving end of criticism because the process of generating wealth is invariably violent: ecosystems are destroyed and people are compelled to work so that industries and markets can thrive. Wealth generation also creates social divides on economic lines, for those who establish industries and markets (devas?) feel entitled to claim the lion’s share of the wealth generated, much more than those who actually work in industries and markets (asuras?) who end up feeling deprived and often exploited.
The devas can also be inheritors who have not earned anything but have the benefit of enjoying vast wealth because they were born in a particular family. Indra is unable to see the unfairness of the situation because he is born into privilege. He is unable to see the rage of the asuras. Each demonises the other. Neither understands the other.
The conflict between devas and asuras is very much like the conflict between capitalists and socialists. For the devas, the battle is between those who create wealth and those who do not create wealth. For the asuras, the battle is between those who steal wealth and those who do not steal wealth. What is ‘wealth creation’ for one group is ‘wealth-theft’ for another group. Neither can agree about who should get the lion’s share of the wealth generated. Each one is therefore convinced the other is wrong, resulting in a relentless ‘righteous’ battle.
While Indra may be happy with Lakshmi by his side, Lakshmi never seems happy to be beside Indra. She seems restless, always on the lookout for someone worthier.
Lakshmi is sometimes visualised seated next to Kubera, the rich king of the yakshas, who hoards treasure. Kubera is identified as Indra’s treasurer in some texts, but other texts identify Kubera’s wife as Nidhi, goddess of treasures, another name for Lakshmi. Sachi is often described as being more faithful to Indra’s throne than to Indra the person, for Indra can be easily replaced by one more worthy. Indra is always insecure, never able to enjoy his vast wealth. His throne is always shaky, threatened by rishis, rajas and asuras. This is also why Lakshmi is called chanchala or whimsical, even cock-eyed (Lokhi-tera, in Bengali). No one is ever sure who the goddess of wealth and fortune will favour. She can appear suddenly without reason, and leave without warning.
Indra gets nervous when a rishi performs tapasya and seeks to generate tapa, the mental fire that will grant siddhi, powers that will enable the rishi to control devas. So he sends apsaras to seduce the rishis and disrupt their tapasya. He steals horses and disrupts the yagnas of rajas so that they are not a threat to his power. And he constantly runs to his father Brahma seeking help to kill asuras who lay siege to his paradise. He knows that he is king because of Lakshmi, and his kingdom is Swarga because of Lakshmi. This narrative reflects the insecurity that comes with wealth. The rich are never secure about their possessions; they constantly feel that people around them wish to steal what is theirs. This state of mind is the rana-bhoomi, the eternal battle that consumes Indra’s paradise.
The story goes that once Lakshmi left Indra’s side and went to the asura-king Prahalad. Brahma advised Indra to disguise himself as a servant and serve Prahalad diligently to find out why Lakshmi favoured him over Indra. Indra did as advised and Prahalad finally revealed his secret, ‘Lakshmi is attracted to men of action, who demonstrate strength and smartness. If you display strength and shrewdness, she will come to you. If you fail to do that, she will not stay with you for long.’ Later, when Prahalad offered the disguised Indra a boon, Indra very shrewdly asked for all of Prahlad's merits. Prahalad, bound by his word, gave his merits away. As soon as merit moved from Prahalad to Indra, Lakshmi also moved from Prahalad’s side to Indra’s side.
In the Ramayana, Ravana, king of the rakhasas, has physical power or strength. He has 20 arms and 10 heads. With brute force, he overpowers his brother Kubera and drives him out of the golden island-city of Lanka. He lays claim to Kubera's kingdom and throne. He also abducts the wife of Ram, prince of Ayodhya. Thus Lakshmi comes to Ravana by force.
In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana, eldest of the Kauravas, is shrewd and guileful. He uses cunning to defeat his cousins, the five Pandavas, who are much stronger than him and who he feels are rivals to the throne of Hastinapur (which he is convinced is his birthright). First, Duryodhana tries to get rid of the Pandavas by gifting them a palace of lac, which he sets afire while they are asleep. Unfortunately, this plan fails. Later he invites the Pandavas to a gambling match and defeats them by getting his uncle, Shakuni, master of the dice, to play on his behalf. In exchange for their freedom, Pandavas have to forfeit rights over their land for 13 years. Thus Lakshmi comes to the Kauravas by guile.
But Lakshmi acquired through strength or guile can never be retained. Someone who is stronger or more shrewd always comes along and claims our Lakshmi. Thus Ravana meets his match in Ram, the prince of Ayodhya, who defeats him in battle. And Duryodhana finds his match in Krishna, the wily charioteer, who helps the Pandavas outsmart the cunning Kauravas. Indra is never able to keep Lakshmi by his side for as long as there is always a stronger or smarter asura who comes along.
In the early part of the Vedas indicated by Brahmana texts, we find hymns and rituals about acquiring and celebrating wealth that take the form of cows, horses, grain, gold, children. Wealth is seen as ushering in happiness. In the latter part of the Vedas indicated by the Aranyaka and Upanishad texts, we find a great discomfort with wealth. Wealth is seen as something that also brings with it a great deal of unhappiness: the envy of neighbours, loss of friends, quarrels within family. This shift in thought between early and later Vedic periods on the nature of wealth is reflected in how Indra is positioned. Indra is the great warrior king of the Vedas, but in the Puranas, he is insecure and helpless, constantly seeking the help of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Giving up wealth simply because its arrival can cause unhappiness is not the answer. What is, then? This inquiry leads us to Vedanta, which explores the relationship between mind and property. Vedanta means philosophy that was milked out of the Vedas. It was communicated to the common man through the stories of the Puranas.
In the Puranas, we learn of Lakshmi’s elder sister, Jyestha, also known as Alakshmi, who always accompanies her. She is the goddess of strife. She is the reason why the prosperity of Lakshmi is never accompanied by peace. The only way to get peace into the household is to discover and invoke either Shiva or Vishnu. When Lakshmi accompanies Shiva or Vishnu, then Alakshmi does not accompany Lakshmi, and so wealth is not accompanied by quarrels.
Indra is so focused on Lakshmi, or rather Sachi, his wife, that he is indifferent to Alakshmi. He takes no steps to protect himself from the envy and rage of those around him. Naturally, fortune and happiness are short-lived. Eventually, inevitably, while he is busy with his wine and women and other excesses, his enemies lay siege to Swarga and declare war.
One day, Lakshmi leaves Swarga in a huff when Indra insults her: in a drunken state, he throws a garland of lotus flowers gifted to him to the ground, allowing it to be trampled by elephants. This disrespect shown to wealth and affluence is something Lakshmi does not like, so she dissolves herself in the ocean of milk. With the disappearance of Lakshmi, the world becomes gloomy, and Indra’s paradise loses its affluence. The wish-fulfilling cow stops giving milk, the wish-fulfilling tree stops bearing fruit, the wish-fulfilling gem loses its shine, and the wish-fulfilling pot becomes empty. The only way to get Lakshmi back to Swarga is by churning her out from the ocean of milk. So Indra goes to his father Brahma for help, and Brahma directs him to Vishnu.
Vishnu advises that Indra first make friends with the asuras, as a counter-force is required to churn the ocean. He then forms the churning tool by using Meru, the king of mountains, as a spindle, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, as a rope. Akupara, the king of turtles, a form of Vishnu himself, keeps this aloft. The churning begins with the devas holding the tail-end of Vasuki and the asuras holding the neck-end. When the devas pull, the asuras let go. When the asuras pull, the devas let go.
The churning goes on for eons. And finally from the waters arises Lakshmi, along with all the treasures of paradise. Along with her come Kalpataru, Kamadhenu, Chintamani and Akshaya-patra, symbols of wealth. Also with her are the elephant Airavata and the flying horse Ucchaishrava, both white as milk, symbols of royal power. Also with her is Rambha, the most beautiful damsel, who is well-versed in all forms of pleasure, and Soma, the moon-god, the most handsome and romantic of men.
Lakshmi also brings with her a pot of amrita, the nectar of immortality. This is sought by everyone, but Vishnu tricks the asuras and ensures only the devas get to drink the amrita. The devas, rendered immortal, then rise to their heaven with Lakshmi and everything that brings prosperity, power and pleasure. But there is one change. Lakshmi herself chooses to go to Vishnu. She is drawn to him. This is significant: it establishes Vishnu as superior to Indra. Indra may have defeated the asuras, but it is Vishnu who enabled the victory. And even though Vishnu enabled the victory, he does not claim the much sought after amrita.
They may seem similar, but there is a vast difference between Indra and Vishnu. This difference is not about form, but thought. Indra’s name alludes to ‘indriyas’, or sense organs.
Indra symbolises the mind that enjoys pleasure, hoards wealth, and feels constantly threatened by others. He only wants to satisfy his needs and wants. By contrast, Vishnu is concerned about the needs and wants of others. Like Shiva, Vishnu wants to outgrow the world; but his method is different. While Shiva withdraws from society to outgrow his hunger, Vishnu engages with society to outgrow his hunger. He strives hard to help humans discover their dharma.
Dharma means potential. Every creature has to do what they are supposed to do, what they are capable of. It is the dharma of fire to burn, of water to flow, of trees to grow and bear fruit, of animals to run towards food and mates and away from predators. But what is human potential? Is it to create/hoard/distribute wealth to satisfy one’s own hunger like Indra, or is it to outgrow hunger like Shiva? Humans are not clear about what path to take. That is why we need Vishnu.
Vishnu balances the shortcomings of Brahma’s sons such as Indra with the possibility offered by Shiva. He knows that humans have the capacity to satisfy their own hunger as well as the hunger of others. They also have the capacity to outgrow — and enable others to outgrow — their own hunger. He works towards enabling people to become aware of this capacity, help themselves by helping others. And he does this in the most counter-intuitive of ways.
Superficially, it seems as though Vishnu favours devas over asuras. But a closer observation reveals it is not as simple as it looks. He is granting devas immortality. Why then is Indra still craving for Lakshmi? Should he not be happy as he no longer has to fear death and hence has no real need for Lakshmi? Should he not be content? But he is not: the hunger for Lakshmi continues. And ironically, Lakshmi, grabbed from the asuras, rejects the devas, and follows Vishnu. Vishnu has that which no one else has. Yes, Vishnu is stronger than anyone else. Like Shiva, Vishnu also knows that food does not satisfy hunger. It only amplifies hunger. One can never satiate human needs and wants. His focus on thoughts rather than things is what makes Vishnu attractive to Lakshmi.
Lakshmi has two forms: Bhu-devi and Sri-devi. Bhu-devi is the earth-goddess and embodies tangible wealth like food. Sri-devi is associated with intangible wealth or glamour. One can say Bhu-devi is natural wealth and Sri-devi is cultural wealth. In south Indian temples these two forms of Lakshmi are seen beside images of Vishnu.
In the Puranas, Bhu-devi is often visualised as a cow. The story goes that a king called Vena plundered the earth so much that the rishis had to intervene and kill this greedy king. They churned his corpse and from the purified remains created a new king, Prithu. Prithu was a form of Vishnu. He discovered that the earth had run away in the form of a cow, so he pursued her with his bow and arrow, threatening to strike her if she did not stop and allow his subjects to milk her. ‘If you kill me, the world will cease to exist,’ she cried. ‘But if you cannot be milked, the world cannot survive,’ argued Prithu. So finally, assured that he would protect her and not let anyone plunder her, Bhu-devi let herself be milked by all living creatures under the watchful eye of Prithu.
As Prithu, Vishnu declared that the kings of the earth would be guardians of Bhu-devi, and that he himself would descend on earth if she was troubled. He becomes the Go-pala, or caretaker of the earth-cow, Go-mata.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Bhu-devi comes weeping to Vishnu and complains about the weight of greedy kings that she
has to bear and begs him to relieve her burden. And so Vishnu descends as Parashuram, Ram and Krishna to kill all the greedy kings of the world. Thus the avatars of Vishnu are meant to secure Lakshmi. She is under Vishnu’s protection.
In the stories of his mortal avatars — Parashuram, Ram and Krishna — Vishnu never claims ownership of Lakshmi, even in situations when he is ‘entitled’ to her.
In Krishna’s story, the Goddess takes many forms. She is Radha to Krishna before his marriage; she loves him even though she belongs to another, thus defying all cultural norms. She is Rukmini who defies her father and elopes with him to Dwarka. She is Satyabhama who obeys her father and marries him, but constantly reminds him that it is her wealth, not his intelligence alone, that makes him an influential member of the Yadava clan.
Finally, the Goddess takes the form of Draupadi, who is helpless and abused despite having five husbands to protect her. Her husbands, the Pandavas, are described as Indras reborn. She needs Vishnu to help her and he does so, as Krishna, even though he is not obliged to do so by any social law or custom. He does so out of love.
Unlike Indra, who only sees Lakshmi as pleasure, Vishnu sees Lakshmi as his responsibility. Vishnu seeks to create an ecosystem where Lakshmi is not held captive; instead she is distributed and celebrated by all.
As Hinduism made its journey from Vedic ritualism to Puranic devotion, it became increasingly monastic. This meant that the yogi, one who does not care for wealth, was given more respect in society than a bhogi, one who enjoys wealth. In such a society, Lakshmi was seen as the source of all problems. Rather than taking responsibility for their own inadequacies, human society blamed Lakshmi for the conflicts of society.
This tension between the yogi and the bhogi is a constant theme in the Puranas. The yogi Shiva is turned into the bhogi Shankara when he marries Parvati. The bhogi Indra learns from the yogi Vishnu how to transform rana-bhoomi or battleground into ranga-bhoomi or playground. Similar tensions can be seen in temple lore, where the language is regional, and the themes more practical.
The following is an Odiya story which is part of the temple lore of Puri Jagannath temple where Krishna Jagannath is worshipped along with his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra:
One day, Balabhadra sees Lakshmi entering the house of a sweeper woman. He declares that she has been contaminated and orders his younger brother not to let her into the house. Krishna obeys and shuts the door of the temple. In the days that follow, to the great alarm of the divine siblings, no food is offered to them. On enquiry, they discover there is no food being cooked in the kitchen as all vegetables and fruits and cereals and pulses and spices have disappeared from the pantry and the market. There is not even a drop of water to drink. The siblings trace this catastrophe to their rejection of Lakshmi. Eventually Krishna apologises to his wife and begs her to return to the temple.
In this story, Krishna’s ascetic brother, the yogi Balabhadra, learns that notions of contamination and pollution make no sense to the goddess of wealth. These are artificial cultural norms created by humans to satisfy their craving for hierarchy. Food will satisfy without discrimination the hunger of all, be it a sweeper, a king or a god. In other words, food is satya, truth independent of human opinion. Notions of contamination, which is the hallmark of the caste system, is mithya, dependent on human opinion. When we discover that Lakshmi does not discriminate between saint and thief, that all hierarchies are man-made creations, then Lakshmi becomes a tool for liberation.
The following is a Telugu tale from one of the richest temples of India — the Tirupati Balaji temple that enshrines Vishnu on earth:
The sage Bhrigu, a yogi, decided to pay a visit to Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. He found Brahma too busy conducting a yagna with Saraswati to pay him attention, so he cursed Brahma that he would not be worshipped at all. He found Shiva too busy being intimate with Shakti to pay him attention. This time, his anger wasn't as fiery, so he said Shiva would be worshipped, but only as an abstract symbol, the linga.
He then moved to the ocean of milk, to Vaikuntha, convinced that Vishnu would surely pay him attention. But there he found Vishnu sleeping, his feet being massaged by Lakshmi. Furious that he mattered to none in the trinity, Bhrigu kicked Vishnu on his chest, where is located Srivatsa, the symbol of Lakshmi.
Vishnu did not get upset; he understood Bhrigu’s frustration and apologised to the sage, and checked if Bhrigu had hurt his foot while kicking his chest. Watching Vishnu touch his feet, Bhrigu was happy. Then realisation dawned as to how foolish he was being: though he claimed to be a yogi, his attention-seeking behaviour revealed he was actually a bhogi.
Lakshmi did not appreciate Vishnu’s servility, whatever his reason. She was furious that Vishnu did not punish the sage for insulting the Srivatsa. She walked out of Vaikuntha in a huff and went down to earth. Vishnu followed her, desperate to bring her back, for Vaikuntha cannot remain Vaikuntha without Lakshmi.
He decided to stay on earth until Lakshmi agreed to return. But he found no house; devotees would give him shelter until someone richer or more powerful came along. Finally, he saw the seven hills that reminded him of the seven hoods of his serpent Sesha on whose coils he reclined on the ocean of milk. This was Tirumala, the sacred hill. Homesick, he wished to settle here, but for that he had to marry the local princess Padmavati, born of a lotus flower. Her father, the local king, demanded a huge bridal price. Without Lakshmi by his side, Vishnu was the impoverished Daridra Narayana, and so he had no choice but to take a huge loan from Kubera. This narrative demonstrates the value of wealth in society; even Vishnu needs wealth to get himself a wife and home on earth. One who rejects Lakshmi cannot expect to have a home or a spouse.
News of Vishnu’s marriage to Padmavati upset Lakshmi who came to the wedding and demanded her place in Vishnu’s chest. So Vishnu expanded his chest to accommodate his two wives. He placed the celestial Lakshmi (Sri-devi) on the left side of his chest, near his heart, and the terrestrial Padmavati (Bhu-devi) on the right.
This Vishnu at Tirumala is trapped and needs the help of his devotees to repay his debt, so that he can return to Vaikuntha. He is called Venkat, he who can destroy (kata) bondage (vem), for in exchange of the wealth received, he grants his devotees the wisdom of yoga that explains the relationship one should have with wealth in order to be truly happy. This is further demonstrated in the ritual of giving wealth to transform Daridra-Narayana (the poor Vishnu) into Lakshmi-Narayana (the rich Vishnu): when Lakshmi is used to enable others to repay their debts, Vaikuntha is established and Lakshmi becomes a tool for liberation.
Devdutt Pattanaik writes on the relevance of mythology in modern times, especially in areas of management, governance and leadership.
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