T he Hindu faith and its mythology is a massive collection of episodes, personalities, scriptures with most of them interconnected and woven into astonishing tales of heroics, valour, devotion, faith etc. While some of these look like spinning or concoctions, others are vividly crafted sagas which go deep into details and leave a distinct mark on the psyche and thinking of the reader.
In Hinduism, it is all based on belief and faith; if you do not believe; it is like a figment of someone’s fertile imagination and appears to be a concoction. But, faith provides you with deep insights and a sense of knowledge and power as you proceed further and get immersed in the veritable subject with reverence and devotion.
One of the most popular and endearing tales in the mythology of Hindus is the churning of the ocean which finds mention in ancient scriptures like the Vishnu Purana, Bhagwat Purana and the Mahabharata is pertaining to the production of the elixir of life otherwise called the drink of immortality Amrit.
It is believed that the nectar or Amrit was obtained after the Demons on one side and the Devas on the other, physically churned the ocean.
A slight variation occurs to this fantastic saga with the Churning of the waters of the ocean being substituted for milk; therefore, it is also called Kshirsagar manthan (kshir meaning milk and sagar meaning ocean).
This is how the story goes:
Indra was the ruler of all gods (devas) and used to go around his kingdom seated on a white elephant called Airavat. During one of his journeys he met Sage Durvasa.
The Ferocious Durvasa
The significance of this rishi needs to be elaborated before we proceed further. Durvasa muni was born to Atri and Anusuyya and, due to the story surrounding his birth, he is claimed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva.
The 44th chapter of Brahmanand Purana narrates the story of a massive confrontation between Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva; so violent was the quarrel that Lord Shiva was overtaken by his legendary rage which nobody except Parvati, his consort could face.
This rage prompted all devas to flee to avoid the effects of his violent rage; but, Parvati who was also very powerful could face him at any time. During that period, following such upheavals Parvati told him point blank that, due to his uncontrollable anger, Shiva was not pleasant company and it was becoming increasingly difficult to cohabit with him.
This pronouncement by his beloved had the desired effect on the mighty Shiva; he made up his mind to scale down his anger (rather, to get rid of it) so that he is able to mellow down to come to the expectations of his beloved.
He, therefore, deposited his anger into Anusuyya, sage Atri’s wife due to which she gave birth to a male child named Durvasa which literally translates into one with whom it is difficult to live.
Since Durvasa was made up of the component of Shiva’s legendary anger, he grew up to be armed with a mercurial temper that was quick to display itself.
The episodes of Samudra Manthan find specific mentions in the scriptures including Padma purana, Vayu purana, and the Vishnu Purana, Ahni Purana and the Srimad Bhagvata apart from others; other scriptures, however, just do not make any mention of the claim that a curse by sage Durvasa had any role in the Samudra manthan episode.
According to these scriptures the churning of the ocean was resorted to by the Devas and Asuras in their search for immortality.
In keeping a vow, Durvasa was on the move in an entranced state when he came across a beautiful nymph called Vidyadhari who was wearing a wreath of heavenly flowers; on the request of the sage, she immediately handed over the garland to Durvasa who adorned it on his eyebrow.
Indra used to undertake tours of various areas in his kingdom; it was during such a journey that the Lord accompanied with some other gods came across Durvasa Muni who was in a state of intoxication and frenzy. On seeing the king of the lords, Durvasa flung the garland towards Indra; Indra caught the garland and placed it on the head of Airawat who threw it to the ground in anger and irritation.
The reason for this action of Airawat is explained by the garland being sticky and wet and laced with nectar; it also bore a foul smell. The other reason which is attributed to this act of Airavat is that Indra, being an arrogant king of the gods, used to be a bit insulting to others.
The moist and sticky garland angered Airawat since it conveyed that Indra had no care for Airawat’s comfort; or, so Airawat thought.
Meanwhile, the disrespect to his gift angered Durvasa no end; he cast a curse on Indra stating that, as he threw the gift of his, similarly he will be cast from his exalted position as the head of the three worlds.
No amount of pleading could assuage the anger of the famed sage who carried the anger of Shiva within him; he did not heed the requests and just went away in his frenzy.
This curse had the effect of diminishing the prowess of Indra and his followers; this prompted the Asuras, who were looking for just such an opportunity, to launch a massive attack on the gods. The demons were led by Bali and they forced the gods to flee and seek help.
The first source for the gods to appeal for help was Brahma who, due to reasons that are not quite clear, refused to help the gods and advised them to proceed to Vishnu for his help and guidance.
The Fight Back Trick
Vishnu was a very powerful and wise god and he advised the gods to first strike a truce with the Asuras and then unite with them to churn up the kshirsagar i.e. ocean of milk to obtain the amrit or nectar that, when consumed, provides immortality to that person.
The plan was to ensure that the Devas would become immortal and then get rid of the Asuras who would be cheated out of the nectar of immortality.
This was actually a ruse thought up by Vishnu to enrol the massive hordes of Asuras who were also interested in consuming the nectar and achieving immortality. The agreement would be that the nectar churned up from the ocean would be shared equally by the Devas and the Asuras and their dream of immortality would be fulfilled.
But, there was a vile trick in the whole planning whereby only the Devas would be consuming the Nectar and obtaining immortality. This would enable the Devas defeat the Asuras and get rid of them forever.
Preparing for Samudra Manthan
Obviously, the Devas and Asuras got engaged in the job of planning the whole project; it was decided that:
- Mount Mandara would serve the purpose of the upright churning rod,
- The King of the Serpents, Vasuki who is always seen coiled around Lord Shiva’s neck would serve as the rope that churns the churning rod.
There was another wise twist given by Vishnu to unduly favour the Devas, he suggested that the Devas should choose to hold Vasuki from the tail of the serpent while the Asuras should hold the head and pull alternately so that the churning rod would turn and produce nectar.
The Asuras holding the head would be subjected to the fumes of Vasauki’s poison and would either faint or get drowsy and gradually weakened in their efforts; but, the scheduled churning did not go without a hitch.
The sitting of the mountain on the ocean did not go smoothly and it started sinking due to its weight; to avoid a crisis situation, Vishnu himself appeared as a Turtle named Kurma and stabilised the mountain which was shifting and sinking rapidly.
The samudera manthan then began in earnest with both the parties pulling alternately ausing the churning process to begin.
The Samudra Manthan also resulted in throwing up a number of items from the ocean; critical among them was a large amount of poison i.e. Halahala which escaped from the jaws of Vasuki and threatened to not only kill those present nearby, it was so potent that all creations could be destroyed by it.
They immediately ran to Shiva and begged him to salvage their lives from the impending danger; Shiva immediately swallowed the poison while the powerful Parvati constricted his throat by holding to his neck; this was to prevent the lethal poison from entering his body.
Thus, to save all of creation, Shiva consumed the poison but, in the great effort, his throat turned a luminescent blue; that is why Lord Shiva is also known as Neelkanth.
The following items were also produced during the process of churning of the ocean; they are as follows:
- Ratnas which were divided between Vishnu, Devas and Asuras,
- Three types of Godesses i.e. Lakshmi, Apsaras and Varuni, and
- Three types of Animals,
- There were three valuables, and
- Then, the scriptures follow their age-old practice of having divergent views since the whole scene becomes hazy.