Churning the Ocean - Samudra Manthan as a Roadmap for Sadhana
Even the most hardhearted of persons would step away from a flower lying on his/her way, being wary of crushing it under one’s feet, even though they would think nothing of kicking away the hardest of stones. The Indian tradition believes that a flower is the abode of Goddess Lakshmi, its almost divine softness and beauty being but an expression of aspects of the goddess herself. In fact, the proud god Indra who once showed disrespect to a garland of flowers had to undergo a lot of distress resulting from it.
It so transpired that the great sage Durvasa once offered Indra a garland made of beautiful blooming flowers. The vain king of gods placed it on the head of his elephant, who immediately threw it down and trampled it under his feet, prompting sage Durvasa to place a curse upon Indra that since he had disrespected Lakshmi (living in the flower), she would soon desert him.
Very soon the gods began to loose their vigor, and the demons, seeing their chance defeated them in battle and drove them out of heaven. The gods then repaired to Lord Brahma, seeking his advice.
Shri Narayana Lakshmi on Shesha Venerated by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra and Narada
The nature of Lord Brahma is such that he can give only specific boons, but never lasting relief from distress. Therefore he suggested that all of them, together with Lord Shiva, should go to Shri Vishnu asking for his intervention.
The Great God Vishnu however made it clear that the present time was favorable to the demons, and the only immediate recourse was to go ahead and make peace with them. After securing this semblance of friendship, the gods and demons should then strive to churn the ocean together, from which would result the nectar of immortality (amrita). Towards this end they could use the mighty mountain ‘Mandara’ as a churning rod and the serpent as the rope. Before beginning the actual churning, the gods must pour plants, grasses, herbs etc into the ocean. The Lord then finally promised that he would ensure that only the gods, and not the demons would get to drink this nectar.
The gods faithfully obeyed Lord Vishnu’s instructions and poured herbs into the ocean. This symbolizes that our spiritual journey has to be preceded by the hearing of the divine words of the Vedas (Upanishads, Vedanta etc), only when these sacred utterings are poured into our ears are we ripe enough to undertake the actual journey (sadhana).
They then went ahead and made peace with the demons. The two groups agreed to churn the ocean to obtain amrita. Together they uprooted the huge mountain named ‘Mandara,’ and started carrying it to the ocean. However, though it is not too difficult to pick up a heavy object, carrying it a distance is another matter. The gods and demons found its weight difficult to carry and abandoned it midway. Seeing their dejection, Lord Vishnu appeared seated on Garuda and effortlessly placed the mountain on Garuda’s wings, mounted the bird himself, and thus carried over the mountain effortlessly to the seashore.
The mountain Mandara here is symbolic of our mind (manas), its stability representing the determination of our resolve. Our mind has to be brought over to the shore of sadhana. However, this is not possible without grace of god (bhagavat kripa). It needs also to be remembered that though there was no need for God to create the whole complicated paraphernalia of churning the ocean when things could have happened by his mere resolve. The whole purpose was to bring home the fact that effort is the vehicle of divine grace. Also, the bird Garuda is symbolic of the Vedas with the flapping of its wings representing the rhythmic chanting of Vedic hymns. The Shrimad Bhagavata says:
‘The three Vedas are called Garuda.’ (12.11.19)
Chaturbhuja Shri Vishnu on His Mount Garuda
Thus only when we have placed our mind on the wings of the Veda, reposing our full faith in the divine word, can we said to be on the path of sadhana.
The next requirement was a churning rope and for this purpose the mighty serpent named Vasuki was patronized with the promise of a share in the nectar. The snake was wound round the mountain and Lord Vishnu, accompanied by the gods, walked over to the serpent’s mouth taking position there. This action was not appreciated by the demons who insisted that the tail being a ‘impure organ’, and they being from an exalted lineage, they would not work from that end. The Lord smilingly left the head and with the gods in tow, walked over to the tail.
Tortoise Incarnation of Lord Vishnu
The two sides then began the actual process of churning. However, due to its weight, the mountain began sinking in the ocean. Seeing their efforts thus go waste the churners became dejected. The Lord then incarnated as a giant tortoise and dived into the waters, lifting the mountain on his back. When the churning started again, the movement of the massive mountain on the back of the tortoise made God feel as if someone was pleasantly scratching his back.
The tortoise here represents the state of sadhana where all sense organs have been withdrawn and it is with such a support that the mind progresses in sadhana. The Bhagavad Gita says:
‘Like the tortoise, which withdraws its limbs from all sides, the person who withdraws his senses from all sense objects, obtains a steady wisdom.’ (2.58)
The slight scratching on the mighty Lord’s back indicates that he takes note of our spiritual endeavors, and our sadhana gives him pleasure.
Not only did the Lord incarnate as a tortoise, but also entered into the demons as their ‘demonic nature’, supplementing their essentially ‘rajasic nature’ by strength and energy. He also entered into the gods as their ‘godly (sattvic) nature’, increasing their power and then finally permeated the snake Vasuki as sleep, which was but a manifestation of its essentially tamasic nature (it is well known that a snake is one the most tamasic creature). The slumber not only made it trouble free for the serpent itself but also ensured a smooth operation of the churning rope.
The serpent Vasuki symbolizes desire and its slumber indicates that only when all our desires go to sleep (by god’s grace) can any spiritual progress be said to have really begun.
To ensure complete stability, the Lord then pressed the mount by placing a hand over it. Thus, even though this enterprise was undertaken with a ‘worldly motive,’ namely the victory of one group over the other, it was made truly divine what with the Supreme Lord pressing the churning rod from above, supporting it from below in the form of a tortoise, entering not only into the bodies of the gods and demons, but also the mountain (representing its stability and determination), and finally in the serpent too.
The demons pull from the side of the serpent's mouth
With the churning in progress, a deluge of poisonous fumes began issuing forth from the nostrils of Vasuki. The demons who had insisted that they be allowed to hold on to the serpent’s head were now the one’s facing the heat.
The gods, who had faithfully followed the directions of God, were not only safe but the same fumes tormenting the asuras on rising in the air became clouds and carried over to the gods showered their cooling waters over them.
Shiva Parvati and Ganesha Seated Against a Shiva Ling on the Icy Peaks of Mount of Kailash with Nandi
When even with the combined effort of both sides, no nectar turned out, the Great Lord began to churn the sea himself. With this invincible support, the first by product of the churning of the ocean emerged - namely the hot and deadly poison named Halahala, which immediately began to torment the worlds. The frightened creatures of the world wondered where to seek solace from this plight. They came to the realization that Lord Shiva, with all those poisonous serpents entwined playfully about his body was the only one who could perhaps resolve their distress, plus the hot poison would be an ideal drink for him living in the sub zero peaks of Mount Kailash.
Gods Praying Shiva for their Protection from 'Asuras'
They then went over to Lord Shiva and brought to his notice the fact that the world was being threatened with dissolution, and since he was the ‘Lord of dissolution’ he must to something stop this untimely annihilation of the world.
Seeing their distress Lord Shiva was overwhelmed with compassion. However, before he proceeded to initiate any drastic remedial measure, like a good husband, he took his beloved wife into confidence, informing her that he wished to drink away this poison. The Great Goddess, sharing her husband’s compassion and very well knowing his prowess, agreed to it.
Lord Shiva then took the poison in his palm and swallowed it. The same deadly venom that was threatening to end the worlds now became a beautiful ornament of Lord Shiva, turning his throat a light blue, a monument to his supremely compassionate and sacrificing nature. Truly says the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana in this context:
Shiva Ornaments Himself
Compassionate ones generally undertake a lot of trouble to relieve others of their suffering. However, this is no pain at all, because relieving others of their suffering is the highest worship of god. (Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 8.7.44)
The emergence of poison as the first product of the churning indicates that obstacles inevitably come up whenever any good work is undertaken, whether they be in form of suffering or physical impediments blocking the goal. The bigger the job you set out to do, the stronger is the poison that will turn up. Those on the path of God do know that once they have set out on their way, the negative tendencies kama, krodha (anger) lobha (greed) etc. start tormenting one with surprisingly strong vigor. Only the one, who like Lord Shiva, bears of the Ganga of knowledge on his head can survive, nay even come out stronger after encountering them. Therefore, whenever any bitter poison, be it in the form of suffering or a negative tendency, surfaces in our lives, it is to Lord Shiva we should look up to.
Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
"That which begins like poison, ends up like nectar (amrita); and that which at first seems like nectar ends up as poison." (18.37-38)
After Lord Shiva had partaken the poison, the gods and demons began to churn the ocean again with renewed effort. Next to emerge was the cow Kamadhenu, who provides us with the necessary materials for Vedic sacrifices (milk, ghee etc).
The Brahmins laid a claim on her saying that Brahmins had a right to the first thing that emerged. To the query that the first item to emerge was the deadly poison, the Brahmins became at a loss for words. However, since both the gods and the demons equally revered the Brahmins, they were respectfully allowed to have their way.
Next emerged the beautiful horse named Ucchaihshravas, radiant like the white moon. Indra had already been instructed by God not to ask for it, so he kept quiet. The king of the demons expressed his desire for it and was allowed to take possession of the horse.
The horse Uccchai (high) Shrva (praise) signifies the lofty praise and adulation that is initially heaped on those on the spiritual path. Like a swift steed it carries away the adept from the correct path. The true seeker must always resist its appeal.
Here it must be realized that gods and demons are both born of the same father, the sage Kashyapa. However, their mothers are different. The gods are born of Aditi, meaning without duality (A-diti). Aditi symbolizes the non-dual perspective of seeing things, wherein each and everything is recognized as an equal part of the universal divine whole.
The mother of the demons is however Diti, meaning taking a dual perspective of things not recognizing the inherent and essential unity underlying all manifested existence. For the sadhak it is necessary to utilize both these tendencies in his\her spiritual journey. It is not that we have to direct only our positive tendencies towards God, all the inclinations of the mind – whether good or bad need to be directed towards God.
Next came Airavat, the majestic white elephant. Since the demons had taken the horse, it was now the turn of the gods, hence Indra took the unique elephant as his vehicle. The elephant, with its eyes much smaller in proportion to its large body, is a symbol of minute (sukshma) perspective, meaning the capacity to see the essential, ‘hidden’ nature of things.
Then there came out the jewel called Kaustubha (pure consciousness), which the great Lord Vishnu took as an adornment for his chest. Thereafter arose the wish-fulfilling tree Parijata and nymphs known as apsaras, both of which ultimately became the delight of heavens. Next emerged none other than Goddess Lakshmi herself, the very embodiment of affluence and prosperity. Seeing her beauty par excellence, the hearts of all those present there (except Lord Vishnu) became agitated, kindling in all a desire to make her their own.
Indra fetched a seat for her with his own hands, Vishwakarma gave her many splendid ornaments and Lord Brahma a lotus. Thereafter Goddess Lakshmi, shining like a creeper of gold, holding a garland in her arms, set out in search of a suitable spouse, who was without blemish and would prove to be an eternal companion. She laid her eyes on all the three worlds critically scrutinizing all her suitors, saying to herself:
1). Some are high quality ascetics, but have no control over their anger (like sage Durvasa).
2). Though some are extremely knowledgeable, they are not above attachment (like Shukracharya).
3). Some are truly great but have not been able to win over kama (physical desire), like Lord Brahma.
4). Some are extremely prosperous (like Indra), but what use is such affluence when one has to depend on another for protection?
5). Some, though scrupulous in performing their dharma, lack compassion (like Parashurama).
6). Some are prone to sacrifice (like King Shibi), however mere sacrificial nature (tyaga) is not sufficient enough for mukti (final liberation).
7). For those free from attachment (like the eternal celibate brothers – Sanak etc.), they will have never have anything to do with the ‘other’, e.g. one’s wife etc, and therefore no relationship will be possible.
8). For those (like sage Markandeya) who have managed to gain a very long life (chir ayu), they do not possess the amiable nature preferred by women. For those who are amiable, they but possess a limited life span only.
9). The one who possesses both (longevity and amiability like Lord Shiva), lives inauspiciously.
10). Finally, the one who is totally auspicious, eternal and infinitely amiable, is indifferent to me (Lord Vishnu).
Coming to this conclusion, Devi Lakshmi finally chose as her spouse the Supreme Lord Vishnu, the eternal abode of all auspicious qualities, untouched by the three gunas, absolutely independent, and not expecting anything from anybody (nirpeksha).
Thus, much like the Hindu Marriages today, The Goddess Lakshmi placed a garland of flowers round the neck of Lord Vishnu, and stood by him silently waiting for his grace. She made the bosom of Lord Vishnu her permanent abode, thus ensuring that he would never embrace anybody other than Goddess Lakshmi. Actually, the one who is completely free from desire, not coveting any form of material prosperity is truly the ‘richest.’ All others, wandering here and there, tormented by the desire to possess material objects, are the poorest.
From her cosy niche on her beloved God’s chest, Goddess Lakshmi bestowed her grace on the gods, since they were the objects of her husband’s affections. The gods thus were endowed with all virtuous qualities, She ignored the demons however and they became dispirited, unenterprising, shameless and greedy.
Next arose from the ocean a girl with lotus eyes, she was Varuni, the presiding deity of wine. She was taken by the demons.
At last there emerged from the ocean a wonderful person with long and muscular arms, holding in his hands a vase brimming over with the nectar of immortality. This was none other then Dhanvantri, the founder of Ayurveda.
The demons, first to break the terms of agreement, forcibly took away the vase, intending to deprive the gods of their rightful share. Thus cornered, the gods once again took refuge with Lord Vishnu. The Lord consoled them saying that he would ensure that the demons would not get to drink the nectar.
Meanwhile, a quarrel had ensued between the demons themselves, each clamoring to get a share of the nectar first. At this moment Lord Vishnu took on the form of a bewitchingly beautiful woman named Mohini. Her color was slightly dark, and her body taut and highly attractive. The sari falling over her big island like hips, the melodious tinkling of her anklets, her bashful amorous smile and dancing eyebrows, set ablaze the demon’s hearts with desire.
Captivated by her charms, the demons addresses her thus:
"Lady, who are you? Where have you come from? Tell us whose daughter you are. It is pretty clear that your beauty is untouched. You have come here at an opportune moment. Right now, we demons, even though we are the sons of the same father, are fighting each other for the nectar of immortality. We request you to distribute the nectar on our behalf, so that we do not again fight between ourselves."
To this Mohini replied:
"How can you high bred people place faith in a wanton woman like me? Certainly no wise person would do so." By such jocular and enticing remarks she made the demons trust her all the more. Laughing aloud they handed over precious vase to her. Taking the pot in her hands, Mohini said in a sweet voice: "You will have to accept whatever I do, whether right or wrong, only then will I distribute the nectar." The demons, their intelligence clouded by the dark clouds of infatuation, did not fathom the depth and significance of her words and agreed to her condition.
Lord Vishnu as Mohini with Amrit Kalasha
The two groups then sat in a big hall. After a while Mohini entered the premises, wearing a very beautiful sari. Burdened by the weight of her hips, her gait was slow and deliberate, her eyes swimming as if inebriated. Looking at the gathered assembly with side-glances and captivating smiles, she enchanted all by her persona, helped in so small measure by the slight slipping of the cloth covering her nubile chest. She arranged the mesmerized assembly into two separate rows of gods and demons. Mohini then started feeding the gods first with the nectar of immortality, even though all the while her gaze was directed at the demons, beguiling them with the charming movement of her eyebrows and the alluring smile dancing on her cheeks.
Lord Vishnu as Mohini
The demons were abiding by the pledge made to her, and out of affection for her and feeling it below their dignity to quarrel with a woman they kept quiet. They were wary of affecting their bond of attachment with her. Mohini continually fed their self-esteem even as she continued to feed the gods, saying, "let these niggardly gods drink first, sensible people like you can wait a bit."
Rahu - Navagraha (The Nine Planet Series)
The demon Rahu saw through the Lord’s actions and disguising himself as a god, stealthily entered their row, seating himself between the sun and the moon. However, no sooner had he partaken the amrita, he was exposed by the duo he was sitting between. Lord Vishnu immediately cut off Rahu’s head with his discus. His torso, where the amrita had not reached fell to the ground while the head, which had been touched by the amrita became immortal.
Cherishing this old enmity, Rahu to this day, periodically assails the sun and moon. Here the message is amply clear – one who backbites or complains, has to face eclipses. Also, the recognition of God in his true form is bound to yield at least some lasting effect, exemplified in the partial granting of amrita to Rahu.
In this way even though the factors such as time, place, apparatus, activity and the objective of both the gods and demons were the same, there was a great divergence in the fruits the two sides reaped. The gods easily obtained the fruits of their labor, namely the nectar of immortality, because of taking resort of the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu. However, looking away from these grace-bestowing feet, the demons, even though having worked equally hard, were excluded from the fruit.
The great sage Vallabhacharya says:
"A single lila of God achieves many objectives." (Commentary on Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 10.6, Karika 2).
Thus through the one act of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean), the following objectives were achieved:
a). The positive forces in life gained the nectar of self-realization.
b). Through the actual process of churning, a roadmap was laid for all sadhakas (spiritual aspirants).
c). All in all it is a delightful lila of God for all to savor.
d). Establishes the inspiring ‘nature’ and supremacy of Lord Shiva.
e). Points out that it is the hand of God which is behind each and everything that takes place in this world.
f). Lays down the principles of political expediency (for eg. There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics).
g). The secret of success is surrender to god, meaning obeying his will, and not in giving up action.
h). Drinking up other people’s troubles is a permanent ornament (for those like Lord Shiva) even though they may not be well-dressed in the conventional sense.
i). The only perfect being in this world is Lord Vishnu, making him the ideal suitor for Goddess Lakshmi, signifying that he has the sole claim on all the world’s prosperity, including the miniscule portion we are lording over possessively. All of it needs to be put into use as directed by God.
j). God has strange ways of bestowing his grace. What at first may seem detrimental to our interests may turn out doubly beneficial (as the gods experienced when they were made to hold the tail end of the churning rope).
Don't miss the Tortoise supporting the mountain under the waters
It was God who inspired the whole process of samudra manthan. It was he who informed the gods as to how to go about it. It was he who carried the mountain over to the ocean. He as a tortoise supported the mountain on his back. From the top he pressed the mountain down giving it a firm stability. He was inside all the gods and demons (as their strength) and inside Vasuki as sleep. When nothing turned up for a while and the two groups became dejected, he himself churned the ocean. Finally, it was the Lord himself who made sure that it was only those who deserved it (adhikari) received the nectar of immortality. Indeed, lot is happening in the world, but behind all is working the one and only shakti (power) of God.
References and Further Reading:
- Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002.
- Devi, Shrimati Dayakanti. Shrimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (With Word to Word Meaning in 8 Volumes): Allahbad, 1993.
- Dogre, Shri Ramachandra Keshav. Shrimad Bhagavat Rahasya (Collection of Discourses): Delhi.
- Goswami, C.L. and Shastri, M.A. Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (English Translation in Two Volumes) Gorakhpur, 2005.
- Puri, Swami Shantananda Puri. Srimad Bhagavatam Its Message for the Modern Man: Mumbai, 2002.
- Prabhupad, A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. Srimad Bhagavatam (47 Volumes): Mumbai.
- Saraswati, Acharya Bhagavatananda. Shrimad Bhagavat Parijat: Varanasi, 2002.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagawatamrit (The Elixir of the Bhagwat) Mumbai, 2005.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavat Vyanjan: Mumbai, 2006.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavat Sarvasva: Mumbai, 2005.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Tagare, G.V. (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes (Annotated)) Delhi, 2002.
- Tejomayananda, Swami. Shrimad Bhagavata Pravachan (Discourses on The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana): Mumbai, 2006.
- Vallabhacharya, Shri. Subhodini (Hindi Translation in 13 Volumes): Jodhpur, 1968.