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Samudra Manthan, or the pastime of the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’, is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas, and is celebrated in a major way every twelve years at the Kumbh Mela. The pastime is described in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and various Puranas, including the Bhagawat, Brahma-vaivarta, Agni, and Vishnu Purana.
“Manthanam” is the Sanskrit equivalent of ‘Manthan’ meaning ‘to churn’. In the phrase “sagar Manthan”, ‘sagar’ is another word for ‘Samudra’, both meaning an ocean and large water body. The term “kshirsagar Manthan”, ‘kshirsagar’ literally means the ‘Ocean of Milk’.
The pastime begins with King Indra who, while riding on his vahana elephant, came upon the sage Durvasa, who offered him a special garland. Indra accepted the garland but put in on the trunk of the elephant. The elephant was irritated by the smell and threw the garland on the floor, thus enraging the sage, as the garland was a dwelling of Sri (fortune), and was to be treated as prasada. Durvasa Muni therefore cursed Indra and all the deva’s to be bereft of strength, energy, and fortune.
In numerous battles that followed this incident, the deva’s were defeated and the asuras, led by King Bali, gained control of the universe. Finally the deva’s sought help from Lord Vishnu, who advised them to treat the asuras in a diplomatic manner. The devas therefore formed an alliance with the asuras, and they cooperatively set out to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality, Amrita, to be shared among them. Lord Vishnu, however, had ensured the deva’s that He would arrange it so they alone obtained the nectar.
The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an inconceivably elaborate process. Mount Mandaranchal was used as the churning rod and Vasuki, the King of the Nagas, served as the churning rope. The demigods held the head of Vasuki while the demons held his tail. Each side pulled alternately, thereby causing the mountain to rotate and churn the ocean. However, once the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink, so Vishnu in His form as Kurma, the tortoise, came to their rescue and supported the mountain on His shell.
Various differences are found in some versions of the pastime. For example, in the Mahabharata it is described that Akupara, the King of Tortoises, took the form of Kurma at the request of the devas and asuras.
Due to the churning of the Milk Ocean by the asuras and devas, a pot of poison called Halahala, or ‘kalakuta’, was produced from the ocean. This terrified the demigods and demons, because the poison was so toxic that it could wipe out the entire manifest creation. On the advice of Vishnu, the demigods approached Lord Shiva for help and protection. Out of compassion for the living entities, Shiva drank the poison, which was so potent that it changed the color of Shiva’s neck to blue. For this reason, Shiva is also called Neelakantha, the blue-necked one (‘neela’ means ‘blue’ and ‘kantha’ means ‘throat’). It is also described that Parvati, alarmed at her husband’s drinking of the poison, stopped it in his throat with her hands, thus earning him the name Vishakantha (the one who held poison in his throat).
Fourteen different Ratnas (gems) were also recovered during this pastime of churning, and these were mostly kept by the demigods, although the asuras tried to cheat them out of the treasures. All kinds of herbs were cast into the ocean to produce these fourteen ratnas, which were divided between the asuras and demigods, as follows:
* Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth
* Kaustubha, the most valuable jewel in the world
* Parijata, the divine flowering tree
* Varuni, goddess and creator of intoxicating beverages
* Dhanvantari, the doctor
* Chandra, the moon
* Kamadhenu, the wish-granting divine cow
* Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree
* Airavata, the elephant of Indra
* Apsaras, various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka, Punjikasthala, etc.
* Uchhaishravas, the divine 7-headed horse
* Sharanga, the bow of Vishnu
* Shankha, Vishnu’s conch
* Amrita, the nectar of immortality.
Again, this list varies from Purana to Purana and is also slightly different in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The Nectar of Immortality
Eventually Dhanvantari, the Heavenly Physician, emerged from the Ocean of Milk with a pot containing the amrita. Fierce fighting thus nsued between devas and asuras for the nectar. The devas hid the pot of nectar at four places on the earth: Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. At each of these places, a drop of the nectar spilled from the pot and since then, these places have been imbued with mystical powers. For this reason, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated at these dhamas every 12 years.
The Asuras eventually got hold of the nectar and started celebrating, but the appealed to Vishnu, who then took the form of Mohini. As the beautiful and enchanting damsel, Mohini distracted the asuras, took the amrita, and distributed it amongst the Aditya, who drank it. One asura, Rahu, disguised himself as a deva and drank some of the nectar. Due to their luminous nature, the Sun God Surya and the Moon God Chandra noticed the switching of sides. They informed Mohini, and before the Nectar could pass his throat, Mohini cut off Rahu’s head with Sudarshana Chakra. Rahu’s head, due to coming into contact with the amrita, remained immortal, and is said to be the cause of the eclipses.
The Samudra Manthan pastime came to a close with the rejuvenated Aditya’s defeating the asuras.
The story represents the spiritual endeavor of man for gaining immortality through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism. The gods represent the pleasure principle in ourselves. The demons represent the pain principle. The gods also represent the senses, while the demons the evil and negative thoughts and impulses. The participation of both the devas and the demons signify the fact that when one is seeking immortality through the spiritual practice one has to integrate and harmonize both the positive and negative aspects of one’s personality and put both the energies for the common goal.
The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is always compared to an ocean (mano sagaram) while the thoughts and emotions to the waves. The mind as an ocean is in fact a universal symbol, known to other religions and cultures also.
Mandhara, the mountain stands for concentration. The word “Mandhara” contains two words “man” (mind) and “dhara” (a single line) which means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only during mental concentration.
The mountain Mandhara was upheld by Lord Vishnu as a Tortoise (Kurma). The tortoise here stands for the withdrawal of the senses into one self as one practices mental concentration and meditation or contemplation. It also suggests that the mind should rest itself upon or freely surrender itself to the divine will.
The great serpent Vasuki stands for desire. The desire is always compared to a thousand hooded serpent. The Vasuki used in the churning of the ocean denotes that the deva’s and the demons held desire (to seek immortality) as a rope and churned the mind with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. You can hold desire in your hands and manipulate it only when you have control over your desires. So control of desire is suggested through this symbolism.
The Halahala represents suffering and pain we undergo at the beginning of spiritual sadhana. When the mind is subjected to intense churning by opposing forces, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. We are told by many that when an initiate starts his spiritual sadhana he faces a number of difficulties. The problems become intensified because of inner conflicts, where one part yearns to pursue the spiritual path while the other opposes it. In the initial stages of sadhana a seeker’s mind throws out all kinds of reactions, negative thoughts, desires and impulses out into open so that he can deal with them appropriately. These problems are basically physical suffering and mental suffering without resolving which further progress is not possible. In short we can say that Halahala is the instability of the body and the mind that arise as a counter reaction against ones spiritual practice.
Lord Shiva represents the ascetic principle. He is the destroyer of illusion, one who is inertly detached, pure and austere. His role in this story as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life, such as the instability of the mind and its restlessness, by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment compassion, pure love and asceticism. Alternatively it also means gaining control over the mind through breath control. Lord Shiva is controller of breath. He is prananath, or praneshwar, Lord of the Breath.
Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini stands for delusion of the mind in the form of pride. It is the pride of achievement to which the asuras or the demons succumbed and thus lost their right to enter into the world of immortality. Pride and egoism are the last hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before experiencing self-realization.