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Samudra Manthan

In Hinduism, Samudra manthan (Devanagari:) or 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 in the festival known as Kumbha Mela. The story
appears in the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana.

Samudra manthan is also known as —

• Samudra manthanam — Manthanam is the Sanskrit equivalent of


Manthan meaning 'to churn'.
• Sagar manthan — Sagar is another word for Samudra, both meaning an
ocean or large water body.
• Ksheersagar manthan — Ksheersagar literally means the ocean of milk.
Ksheersagar = Ksheer (milk) + Sagar (ocean).

The story of Samudra manthan

The story begins with Indra, the king of gods, riding his elephant. He came upon
a sage named Durvasa. The sage decided to honour Indra by giving him a
scented garland. Indra took the garland, but placed it on the forehead of his
elephant. The elephant was irritated by the scent and threw the garland off,
trampling on it. The angry sage cursed Indra and the Adityas(gods) to lose all
their wealth; and be deprived of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
Indra was thus immediately dispossessed of all his wealth and treasures.

Appeal to Brahma

Indra then approached Brahma, the creator, to help him regain his treasures who
suggested him to churn the Ocean of Milk in order to regain his treasures and
obtain the Nectar of Immortality. However, such a stupendous task could not be
performed by the Adityas (gods) alone, so they sought the help of their enemies,
the Asuras, with the understanding that the Asuras would be allowed to partake a
portion of the Amrutha (divine nectar of immortality).

Churning the Milky Ocean

The ocean was churned by using the Mount Mandara as the pole and the King of
Snakes, Vasuki, as the rope. The gods held the tail of the snake while the
demons (Asuras) held the head end of the snake and they pulled on it alternately
causing the mountain to rotate which in turn churned the ocean. However, once
the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Then came Vishnu in his
second incarnation, in the form of a turtle Kurma, and supported the mountain on
his shell back.

Halahal

As the ocean was churned, a deadly poison known as Halahala emerged. This
poison threatened to suffocate all living things. In response to various prayers,
Shiva drank the poison; his wife Parvati, alarmed, stopped it in his throat with her
hands. This caused the throat to turn blue. Due to this, he is called Nīlakantha
(nīla = "blue", kantha = "throat"). Then, various treasures (ratnas) emerged from
the ocean of milk. The 14 Ratnas were:

• Sura, goddess and creator of alcohol


• Apsarases, various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka
• Kaustubha, the most valuable jewel in the world
• Uchhaishravas, the divine 7-headed horse
• Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree
• Kamadhenu, the first cow and mother of all other cows
• Airavata, the elephant of Indra
• Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth
• Parijat, the divine tree
• Halahala the deadly poison
• Chandra, the moon
• Dhanvantari, the doctor
• Amrita

The nectar of immortality

Finally, Dhanvantari, the Heavenly Physician, emerged with a pot containing


amrita, the heavenly nectar of immortality. As the Asuras rushed to take the
nectar, the frightened Adityas appealed to Vishnu, who then took the form of
Mohini. As a beautiful and enchanting damsel, Mohini distracted the Asuras, took
the amrita, and distributed it amongst the Adityas who drank it. One Asura, Rahu,
disguised himself as an Aditya, and drank some Nectar. Due to their luminous
nature the Sun God Surya and the Moon God Chandra noticed the switching of
sides. They informed Mohini. But before the Nectar could pass his throat, Mohini
cut off his head with Her divine discus, the Sudarshana Chakra. The head, due to
its contact with the amrita, remained immortal. To gain revenge on Sun and
Moon for exposing this - It is believed that this immortal head occasionally
swallows the sun or the moon, causing eclipses. Then, the sun or moon passes
through the opening at the neck, ending the eclipse.

The story ends with the rejuvenated Adityas defeating the Asuras.

Symbolism of Samudra manthan

The story represents the spiritual endeavor of a person to achieve self-realisation


through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and
practice of austerities and asceticism.

• The Devas and Asuras represent the positives and negatives respectively
of one's personality. The participation of both the Devas and the Asuras
signifies that when one is seeking bliss through spiritual practice, one has
to integrate and harmonise both the positive and negative aspects and put
both the energies to work for the common goal.
• The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is
like an ocean while the thoughts and emotions are the waves in the
ocean.
• Mandhara, the mountain symbolises concentration. The word Mandhara
is made up of two words Mana (mind) and Dhara (a single line) which
means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only by concentration.
• Mount Mandhara was upheld by Lord Vishnu as a Kurma (tortoise). The
tortoise here symbolises the withdrawal of the senses into oneself (just as
a tortoise withdraws its head into its shell) as one practices mental
concentration and meditation or contemplation.
• Vasuki symbolises desire. Vasuki used in the churning of the ocean
denotes that the Devas 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. Desire, if not controlled will overpower and
destroy an individual.
• The Halahala poison symbolises suffering and pain (counter-reaction of
the mind and body) that one undergoes at the beginning of spiritual
sadhana (practice). When the mind is subjected to intense concentration,
the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great
inner turmoil. These must be resolved otherwise further progress is not
possible.
• Lord Shiva symbolises the ascetic principle. His role in this story as the
consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of
spiritual life by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage,
initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment,
compassion, pure love and asceticism.
• The various precious objects that come out of the ocean during the
churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers (Siddhis) which one
gains as s/he progresses spiritually from stage to stage. The seeker
should be careful about these powers as they can hamper her/his
progress unless s/he uses them judiciously, not for selfish gains but for
others' welfare. This is the reason why the Gods and demons distributed
these objects as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim which
was to gain immortality.
• Dhanvantari symbolises health and signifies that immortality (longevity, to
be correct) or spiritual success can be achieved only when the body and
the mind are in a perfect state of health.
• Mohini symbolises delusion of the mind in the form of (or originating from)
pride. It is the pride of achievement to which the asuras or the demons
succumbed and thus lost sight of their goal. Pride and egoism are the last
hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before experiencing self-
realisation.
• The Amrit symbolises the ultimate achievement of the goal of self-
realistion.