The Vishnu Purana, accepted by all scholars as the oldest and most authoritative Purana, points out that Sri as the Divine mother of the universe, is eternal (nitya), inseparable from Vishnu (visnoh anapdyini) and all-pervasive (sarvagatah). In the very opening verse of Sribhasya, Ramanuja states in a striking way that Brahman is Srinivasa implying thereby that the Upanishadic Reality is a personal God as associated with Goddess Sri. This doctrine of Goddess Sri which constitutes a distinguishing feature of Sri-Vaishnavism is advanced on the irrefutable authority of scriptural texts, the Pancharatra Sarhhitas, the Itihasas, the Vishnu Purana and the hymns of the Alvars. It is very old indeed dating back to the Rig Veda.
Sri in Vaishnavism
It is in the works of the Vaishnava acharyas along with the Vedic statements, the Pancharatra treatises, the Vishnu Purana and the hymns of the Alvars that the position of Goddess Sri in Vaishnavism emerges. According to Yamuna, the beloved consort of Goddess who is rightly described as Sri is Purusottama, the Supreme Person. Yamuna also describes Sri as Lokaikesvari, the Supreme Sovereign of the universe. In the words of Ramanuja, Sri is the Divine Queen of the Ruler of all the celestial beings (devadeva-divyamahisi).
Speaking of the svarupa of Sri, She is regarded as eternal (nitya), like the Supreme Lord, as Vishnu Purana affirms. She is constituted of knowledge as is Brahman. Like Vishnu, She too is all-pervasive, as Vishnu Purana states. Like Bhagavan, she also possesses all the six principal attributes- knowledge (jnana), strength, (bala), lordship (aisvarya), virility (virya), power (sakti), splendour (tejas) and is also free from all kinds of imperfection. Therefore, She is described by Ramanuja as Bhagavati (feminine of Bhagavan).
As regards the physical features of the divine personality (divyavigraha-guna), both Vishnu and Lakshmi are described by the religious texts as possessing a spiritual lustrous body like the colour of gold (hiranyavarna) and with eyes comparable to the freshly blossomed lotus petals (padmadala-yataksi).
Regarding vibhuti or the property of the Lord comprising the spiritual universe (nitya-vibhuti) and the physical universe (lila-vibhuti), Goddess enjoys equal ownership. This point has been brought out in a significant way by Yamuna in the opening verse of Catuhsloki. Both the physical universe as well as the transcendental spiritual universe is ruled by Goddess Sri.
Though Goddess is equal to Vishnu in all respects, She is held in higher esteem by the Vaishnava acharyas. This is due to the fact that She possesses certain motherly qualities such as compassion (daya) and forgiveness (ksama) on account of which She has a tendency to overlook the offences of the devotees. She also has a tender affection (vatsalya) towards all beings like a mother towards her child, by not taking notice of their offences. Above all She has a natural inclination to shower grace (anugraha) upon all.
As Vishnu-patni Goddess Sri is held in Vaishnavism as inseparable from Her Lord at all times and in all states. Thus Vishnu Purana states that Sri is anapayini or inseparable.
Sri as a Subordinate Deity in Vaishnavism
There is a lot of controversy regarding the position of Goddess Sri in Vaishnavism. There are many who hold the Goddess to be a subordinate deity. The main contention is that the Upanishads speak of three ontological entities: Ishwara or God, cit or soul and acit or matter. The question that is asked is therefore where the Goddess fits in. She cannot be included in the category of acit, because She is a sentient being, whereas acit is non-sentient. Nor can She be included in the category of Ishwara, because it is stated in the same Upanishad that Isvara alone rules both cit and acit (isate deva ekah). The only alternative left is that Goddess is to be included in the category of sentient souls (jiva-koti). Besides, the Upanishad also asserts that there is no other Being which is either equal to or higher than Ishwara. Thus, if Goddess is treated on par with God, it would inevitably lead to the admission of two Realities (Isvaradvitva), which is against the spirit of Upanishadic teaching. Lakshmi, therefore, though inseparable from Vishnu, is the highest among the souls but does not have the same ontological status as the Lord. She is a subordinate deity to Vishnu.Regarding the role of the Goddess, the Tenkalai sect lays such an emphasis on Her function as an interceder (purusakaratva) as to exclude the power to grant moksha by Lakshmi. If She could grant moksha there would be no need to intercede on behalf of the devotees for this purpose. Further, the Sruti and Smriti texts declare that God is the sole means of attaining moksha. Thus according to this school of thought Sri is sub-ordinate to Lord Vishnu.
Goddess Sri at Par with Vishnu
In spiritual matters, the Revealed Scripture and Smriti texts based on it are generally acknowledged as the sole authority for determining the nature of Reality. Logic or tarka, though important, can neither prove nor disprove a supernormal object which is beyond our perceptual experience. Logic is to be adopted only to support what is said in the Sruti. This is the stand taken by the author of the Vedanta sutra for determining the nature of the ultimate Reality and proving the existence of God. The same principle needs to be adopted for deciding the ontological status of Goddess too. In view of this the controversial issue with regard to the ontological status of Goddess Sri is to be decided by resorting to scriptural evidence duly supported by logical arguments. Accordingly, if we go by the scriptural texts, Vishnu Purana, Pancharatra Sarhhitas along with the views as expressed by Yamuna and Ramanuja in their works, Goddess Sri is infinite (vibhu) by virtue of Her essential nature (svarupa) in the same way as Brahman is. As an eternally inseparable consort of Vishnu and Sovereign of the universe (Isvari), She enjoys the same status as Her Lord and constitutes an integral part of Reality.
Thus Goddess Sri is one of the most important among the various Vaishnava Goddesses. She is said to form an integral part of Lord Vishnu and thus united they constitute Reality.