Updated: May 31, 2021
At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation is the Hindu way.
Hindu Mythology is a diverse collection of narratives that are found in Hindu Texts like the Vedic Literature, the great epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Upanishadic and Puranic Literature. Hindu mythology does not often have a congruous, monolithic composition. The same myth is seen to appear with a different version and flavour across various socio-religious beliefs. These myths are interpreted to have deep, symbolic meanings, a spiritual agenda, and a very human, practical implication.
The Amrit Manthan or the Samudra Manthan literally translates to the churning of the Ocean of Milk by the Hindu Gods and their counterpart Demons. It’s a legendary episode that appears to shine in the ‘Vishnu Purana’ as well as Bhagvad Gita. The myth is considered to come from the ‘Satyuga’~ the first golden age or era as per Hindu theology. The Amrit Manthan was all about the struggle to acquire the pot of ‘Amrit’~ a miraculous potion, a sip of which makes one immortal. Buried in the depths of the colossal ocean, the nectar was sought by the Gods and the Demons alike which called for their mutual alliance. The Amrit Manthan also gave birth to many other epic sub-stories that are famous today. It’s a myth with a moral that the good triumphs over the bad, however, I consider it to be more than that.
After eons of existence, why seek a hidden treasure anyway? It began after Indra~ God of lightning, rain and thunder, and King of Heavens arrogantly insulted the revered yet short-tempered Sage Durvasa. ‘Rishis’ or sages have a high hold in Hindu Vedic tradition and are believed to be enlightened, wise, and creators of sacred hymns. The insult led to a curse being laid upon Indra and other divinities from heaven. They lost all their power to protect themselves and carry on the safekeeping of the puny humans on Earth. Like anyone from a sub authority level, they too scurried for help to the higher power- Lord Vishnu ~ member of the Hindu Trinity and the Protector of the Universe. Holding up the protector profile, he always had a way out. Here, gaining the ‘Amrit’ from the depths of the ‘Kshirsagar’- Ocean of Milk was the only way to restore the power of the Gods.
The ocean couldn’t be churned alone and the Demons who always felt unequally treated wanted a share in the experience of feeling immortal. Here we are, amidst a struggle for power one side and struggle for equality on the other. A mountain named ‘Mandara’ was taken as the pole for churning and a giant, sacred Serpent King named ‘Vasuki’ as the rope to churn. However, it was difficult to balance the mountain in the centre of the ocean and that’s when the Protector stepped in. Lord Vishnu took his second avatar~ Kurma- the Giant Tortoise. Kurma went to the base of the ocean and balanced the mountain on its back, making the herculean task doable.
They churned and churned and churned! A variety of things would appear from the ocean and the desired nectar would not be in the first few. Obstacles would grow and the churning would continue for years. The first to appear was the ‘Halahala’ ~ the most nocuous venom in the universe. It started to weaken the Gods and the Demons and brought the process to a standstill. Let’s finally introduce our next majestic character- Shiva~ another member of the Hindu Trinity and the God of Destruction as the myth goes. He was the only one who could consume the venom. His consort- Parvati ( whose original form- the ‘Adi Parashakti’ is considered as the Supreme Being who created all of creation), held her finger at his throat to stop the poison from spreading. He was hailed as ‘Neelkanth’ or the one with the blue throat and till today all humanly depictions and illustrations show Shiva with a blue throat. The little drops of poison that fell while he drank are believed to be consumed by scorpions and snakes and that is how their species adapted to the venom as one of their features.
The milk ocean kept spitting out more and more treasures. The holy cow (Kaamdhenu), the seven-headed horse (Uccaihsrava), the holy elephants (Airavata and Abhramu), the two most valuable gems in the universe (Kaustubha-Mani and Padmaraga-mani), a divine flower that never fades or wilts ( Parijat flower), three celestial nymphs (Menaka, Rambha, Punyasthala) came one after the other. Slowly, emerged the Goddess of Fortune- Lakshmi who was finally reunited with her consort Vishnu. After her, emerged Varuni~ Goddess of Alcohol.
The scriptures claim that many other items appeared too like Vishnu’s conch, the Moon (Chandra), Goddess of Misfortune, a powerful bow symbolising the demon’s pugnacity, a basil plant, pieces of jewellery, etc. After years and years of strenuous churning, a man named Dhanvantri (considered to be another avatar of Vishnu) appeared with the bowl of Amrit and a book of Vedic Medicinal Study (Ayurveda).
Now starts the real drama. Not a spoiler alert, but the legend turned into a battle of deceptive tricks. The Demons snatched the pot of the immortal nectar from the Devas. The struggle continued and led to a few drops of the nectar spilling onto four places in India-Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Nasik in Maharashtra. The belief in this event has led to the ever-growing popularity of the occurrence of Kumbh Mela every 12 years at these places. A dip at the Kumbh Mela is said to relieve each person of their sins and purify their souls.
The Protector (Vishnu) stepped in and devised another plan to trick the Demons and end the battle. He took the form of the most gorgeous damsel named ‘Mohini’. The Demons were spellbound by her beauty. Mohini was successful in fooling and distracting them. She only served the Amrit to the Gods. One of the Demons named ‘Rahu’ noticed the deception. Rahu took the form of a God and waited to receive the nectar. However, the Sun and Moon Gods recognized a difference in his aura and informed Lord Vishnu. Rahu faced a painful, graphic death through Vishnu’s Sudarshan Chakra- a spinning, sharp, dish-like weapon that beheaded Rahu. The catch here is that Rahu had already consumed the nectar and so he was immortal too. The head and body are considered to exist separately as ‘Rahu’ and ‘Ketu’. Till today, they are called shadow planets/ the north and south lunar nodes. It is believed that what Hindus consider as Rahu and Ketu are actually lunar nodes that cause the eclipses as per the placement of the Sun and Moon. Rahu is said to affect the Sun while Ketu impacts the Moon. The tragedy ends with another battle that is won by the Devas who have finally regained the powers and are now indestructible. A happy ending for the Gods and a partial end of the Demons. This is how the tale has exchanged ears through layers of interpretation.
As per a research article published on The Speaking Tree~ Hindus knew more about Cosmology than other ancient cultures. The Rig Veda covers subjects like the Big Bang Theory, the Cosmic Egg, the Cosmic Man, Cosmic person, Cosmic Heat, Architect of the world, Birth of Gods, etc. The Rig Veda has more hymns of creation than any other book during 1500 BCE or earlier. George Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, proposed to believe in a theory in the 1800’s that a big chunk of the earth was knocked off from above the Pacific Ocean which went on to become the moon. So, the Hindus may be accurate in saying that the moon emerged from the eternal ocean during the Manthan. (Swaminathan, 2014)
We have a lot of scientific interpretations of the KshirSagar (milk ocean). Some believe it to be the Milky Way Galaxy and some believe it to be the fifth from the centre of the seven oceans. Some interpret the churning of the ocean as a marine exploration while some consider it as a symbol of fruition after hard labour. The legend is also looked upon from the view of geomythology in India wherein Gods and Demons were responsible for geological processes on Earth.
Now comes the more essential explanation. Is this story from the Puranas just fun for fiction? Why was it handed down through generations of time to just exist like a mythical tale? Why were these years of struggle essential? Why does mythology in any culture even exist? Mythology brings lessons and symbolisms that are evergreen. It is a sign of eternal life and the unchanging nature of creation. Evolution is the change that we weather as ceaseless entities. The legends are a reminder of who we were and who we ought to be. Pick any mythology in the world, it isn’t just a book of adventurous tales. Beyond the limits of science, mythology, fiction and, religion, there exists a sense of spiritual life. All mythologies reiterate:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
-French philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
If we change the focus of our perspective, a few unanswered questions arise. Have we only been lured by the miraculous potion and been scared by the poison? Is the Amrit Manthan only meant for the ocean and its hidden treasures? Does the tale have no more depth than just believing that the good triumphs over the bad?
I believe otherwise. The Samudra Manthan was an indication for mankind to leave the materialistic side for a while and stir things up within themselves. The eternal ocean of milk only truly fits the unparalleled depth of our consciousness. Very often, humans forget their intrinsic spiritual nature that exists joyously and wholesomely in its true form. We see nothing other than matter and material. We never channel or explore our true powers, leave alone restoring them. I believe that the Samudra Manthan was a classroom lesson pushing us to churn the depths of our consciousness, to feed our hungry inner-sharks, and realise our true selves. Gaining the Amrit/ immortality equals to a sense of self-realisation/self-acceptance and God-realisation which in many religions is called enlightenment or ‘Moksha’ or ‘Nirvana’, etc. Going within and facing our own fault lines can be disturbing enough to suck out the will to continue living. It's poison that corrodes until we move past it. With determination, we do find ways and tools that miraculously aid us. We soon discover ways in which we are tiny, unique specks that matter to the cosmos. We soon find our own gems that resonate with the Light. We are indestructible fragments.
(Deliberate attempt at sounding philosophical) It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a believer, what matters is your perspective and what you consider yourself to be. You play a pivotal role in the cosmos and you are more than just a human body. The Amrit Manthan was a mesmerising episode, so will be your inner journey.
Allow mythology to knock you out into a space you don’t visit but belongs entirely to you. So, let’s all try Amrit Manthan within ourselves. Let’s create a stir. Let’s worship the God within and defeat our demons. Let’s meet our real selves.