Stories from Indian Mythology: Samudra Manthan - the churning of the celestial ocean

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Samudra Manthan - the churning of the celestial ocean

In the early days of our universe, the devs (demigods) and asurs (demons) were in an eternal fight for superiority.The devs, led by Indra, their supreme commander, were gaining victories after victories over the asurs and were set to rule the universe. Our story begins then.

One day, Indra was roaming around in the celestial plane riding his elephant and came upon Durvasa muni (sage). Durvasa, the renowned muni, was wandering in a divine ecstasy and coming upon the dev took out a garland from his brow and gave it to Indra in the form of his blessings. Indra however was bloated up by hs recent victories over the asurs and instead of showing the due respect to the muni, paced the garland on the trunk of his elephant. Irritated by the floral smells, the elephant threw down the garland and trampled on it. Sage Durvasa was enraged by Indra's insult. 

Durvasa muni, who was born out of the anger of Lord Shiva, was renowned for his rage.  Brahma and Shiva once got into a heated quarrel. So violent was Shiva's rage as a result of this quarrel, that his consort, Parvati, complained that Shiva was now impossible to live with. Realising the disharmony his anger had caused, he decided to deposit this anger into Anasuya, the wife of sage Atri. From this portion of Shiva deposited into Anasuya, a child was born, who was named Durvasa (literally, one who is difficult to live with).

But coming back to our story....Slighted by Indra's behavior, Durvasa cursed Indra and all the devs to become poverty-stricken and bereft of all influence and strength and that their lives loose all auspiciousness. Afflicted by the muni's curse, the devs began floundering in their war with the asurs. Distressed by the declining fortunes of the devs, Indra prayed and appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu advised the devs to join hands with the asurs and churn the milky ocean of the universe (Milky Way?) to obtain amrit (nectar of immortality) from its depths. 

With a promise to share the amrit with them, the devs were able to reconcile with the asurs to churn the great ocean. The samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) that ensued was an elaborate affair. The entire race of devs and asurs came together for the first time. Mount Mandarachal was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the churning rope. To demean the devs, the asurs demanded that they would hold the head of Vasuki in the churning. However, this strategy of the asurs worked against them. As the manthan began, poisonous fumes coming with breath from the million heads of Vasuki caused much distress among the Asurs. 

As the churning began, the great Mandrachal mountain began sinking into the ocean, pulling with it the devs and asurs. Realizing that the sinking of Mount Mandrachal would create a great deluge in the ocean which would engulf the entire universe, Lord Vishnu took the form of a giant tortoise, Kurma, and lifted Mandrachal on his back. This was Lord Vishnu's second avtar in our known universe. Supported by Vishnu's Kurma avtar, the churning of the ocean began. As the churning intensified, the first thing that emerged from the bottom of the ocean was Halahal, the most dangerous poison in the universe with the capability to destroy entire creation. Both the devs and asurs were terrified expecting imminent destruction. However, Lord Shiv came to the rescue of the entire creation. Out of compassion for living beings, Shiv swallowed the poison in an act of self-sacrifice. However, his consort Parvati who was looking on, terrified at the thought of his impending death, choked his neck with both her hands and prevented the poison from descending into his body. Thus the poison was stuck in Shiva's throat with nowhere to go, and it was so potent that it changed the color of Shiva's neck to blue. For this reason, he is also called Nilakant (blue necked). 

Once again the manthan progressed and fourteen ratnas (treasures) emerged one after the other. These the devs and asurs divided among themselves. These included Goddess Lakshmi, various Apsaras, Varuni (goddess of alcohol), Kamdhenu (the all wish granting divine cow), Airavat, Uchhaishravas (the divine 7-headed horse), Kaustubh ( the most valuable jewel in the world), Parijat (the divine flowering tree with blossoms that never fade or wilt), Sharanga (a divine bow) and Balchandra (the moon which adorned Shiva's head). In the end emerged Dhanwantri, the doctor of the devs, carrying amrit in a kalash (pot). Seeing Dhanwantri holding the desired amrit, both the devs and asurs forgot their pact and started fighting among themselves. In the epic battle that followed, the asurs defeated the devs and seized the kalash containing the amrit for their own consumption.During the battle, four drops of amrit spilled from the kalash and fell finally on four spots on earth - Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. This legend is the basis for the belief that these places acquired a certain mystical power and spirituality.

Seeing the devs defeated in their purpose, Vishnu transformed himself into the most beautiful woman, the divine enchantress Mohini, and approached the asurs. The asurs were enraptured by the beauty of Mohini and readily handed over the kalash to her for distribution. Mohini then sat the asurs in line on one side and the devs on the other. She then walked down the line giving a portion from the kalash in her hand alternatively to the seated devs and the asurs. However, while she gave a portion of amrit to each dev, when she turned towards the asurs, she replaced the amrit kalash with one containing madira (wine) and gave that to the seated asur. The enraptured asurs did not notice the change. 

Only one asur, Rahuketu, seated down the line saw what Mohini was upto. His entrapment by her beauty was shattered and he saw the true form of Vishnu behind his facade as Mohini. Rahuketu, who was a shape shifter, then transformed himself into a dev and went and sat near the end of the devs line in between Surya and Chandra. As Mohini poured amrit for Rahuketu, Chandra and Surya through their light saw Rahuketu's true form and shouted out to Vishnu as a warning. as Rahuketu ran away from the assembly, Vishnu transformed himself into his true form and throwing his sudarshan chakra cut off the head of the asur. However, the amrit had already made its way into the body of Rahuketu and so he could not die. From that day, his head was called Rahu and body was called Ketu who became planets later.

With the nectar inside, the devs regained their original splendour and strength and they were able to conquer the asurs, who had to flee to the netherworld.