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Many Hindus are familiar with the story of Sagara

Manthan (also known as Samudra Manthan or Ksheera


Sagara Manthan) or the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. It
is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Purana,
and in the epic Mahabharata. The story goes like this.
The Story of Sagara Manthan
Once Indra lost his kingdom due to the disrespect he
showed to sage Durvasa who cursed him out of anger. He
approached Lord Vishnu, who advised him to seek the
help of the demons to churn the ocean of milk (ksheer
sagar) so that he and the devas could partake the Amrit
(ambrosia), which would make them immortal and help
them regain their lost kingdom.
According to his advice, the devas under the leadership of
Indra approached the demons (Asuras) for help. After
deliberations, they all finally agreed to churn the ocean
together and share the proceeds.
To churn the ocean, first they sought the help of Mount
Mandhara, and the great snake Vasuki. The obliged. Using
Vasuki, the snake god as the rope and Mandhara, the
mountain, as the churning stick they began to churn the
ocean. While they were churning it, Lord Vishnu assumed
the form of a tortoise and held Mandhara from sinking.
During the churning, several wonderful objects sprung out
of the ocean. However, the first to manifest from the ocean
was a deadly poison, known as halahal, which seemed to
threaten the very existence of all by engulfing the worlds
and poison everything. No one was willing to deal with the
poison that appeared in the ocean or remove it.
They prayed to Lord Shiva, the healer of sickness and
remover of all poisons. He came and saw the poison
spreading in the ocean. He gathered the whole poison
with his hands into a large cup, and while the gods and
demons were watching in amazement, he swallowed it in
one gulp. Parvathi, his consort, who was standing by his
side, pressed his neck as he swallowed to make sure that
the poison would not flow into his stomach. Fortunately,
due to the act of Parvathi the poison remained stuck
forever in his throat, neither going up into his mind nor
going down into his stomach.
Once the danger passed, the gods and demons began
churning the ocean again. As they churned, several
objects came out, Kamadhenu (the wish fulfilling cow),
Ucchaisrava (the white horse), Airavata (the white
elephant), Kaustubhamani (a rare diamond), Kalpavriksha
(the wish fulfilling tree), Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth),
and Sura or Varuni (the goddess of wine). The devas and
Asuras divided the objects among themselves. Lakshmi
was gifted to Vishnu who was supporting them all along as
the tortoise. Finally, Dhanvantari (the divine physician)
appeared with the vessel of Amrita in his skillful hands.
The Devas had a plan from the beginning to deny the
Asuras their share of Amrita because they did not want the
evil ones become immortal and become an eternal pain to
all. With the help of Lord Vishnu, they tricked the demons
and secured the entire Amrita for themselves. Lord Vishnu
assumed the form of a vivacious woman, Mohini, to
delude the demons and make them forget temporarily all
about the Amrit.
While they were lusting for Mohini, he quietly distributed
the ambrosia among the gods, which made them
immortal. By the time the Asuras realized what happened,
it was already late. Because of Amrit the gods not only
became immortal but also defeated the demons in the war
that followed and regained their world. This, in brief, is the
story of churning of the ocean by gods and demons (deva
danava ksheera sagara manthan).
The underlying symbolism of Sagara
Manthan
Now, this episode from the Puranas is not just a mythical
story. To the ignorant people, the stories from the Puranas
look like fictional stories, and some may even laugh at
them. However, the wise ones perceive in them hidden
symbolism and great spiritual lessons. In fact, many
scriptures of Hinduism, including the Vedas are couched in
deep symbolism. You will gain an insight into them only if
you have the knowledge of the scriptures or have the gift
of gods. Like many other Puranic stories, Ksheera Sagara
Manthan has a deep symbolism, which becomes evident
as you go through the following. Symbolically, it represents
the spiritual endeavor of human beings to gain immortality
or liberation (Moksha) through yogic practices such as
concentration, withdrawal of the senses, self-control,
detachment, austerities and renunciation.
Gods and demons
The body is the microcosm, in which both god and
demons reside, just as they reside in their respective
spheres in the macrocosm. The gods represent the sense
organs, virtue, and pleasure principle, while the demons
represent delusion, evil tendencies, and the pain principle.
The gods also represent the sattva, purity and intelligence,
whereas the demons tamas, darkness and grossness of
the body.
Spirituality or self-transformation is a churning process
which requires the integration of both positive and
negative aspects of the human personality. The
participation of both the gods and the demons signify that
when human seek immortality or liberation through
spiritual practice they have to integrate and harmonize
both subtle and gross bodies in them and harness both
positive and negative energies for the common goal.
Secondly, in spiritual practice, impurities and evil nature
also play an important role. By creating barriers and
difficulties, they challenge the practitioners to improve their
methods or strengthen their resolve and character. As long
as a yogi is vulnerable to them he cannot progress on the
path. Every failure and set back is an opportunity to him to
improve and perfect his methods and approach. Thus,
darkness has its own place in the liberation of beings or in
gaining immortality (Amrit).
The ocean of milk
The ocean of milk (ksheer sagar), which was churned by
the gods and demons, represents the mind or the
consciousness, which contains many hidden secrets and
treasures. Immortality is also hidden in it. In Hindu
literature, the mind is always compared to an ocean (mano
sagaram) while thoughts, emotions, modifications and
projections of the mind to the waves that rise and fall. The
symbolism of the mind as an ocean is universal, known in
other cultures also.
The ocean also symbolizes Samsara, or the phenomenal
world (samsara sagaram). Just as the human body, the
world is also a mixture of both good and evil. They both
participate in the continuation of the world and play an
important role in the liberation of beings. Death is the
poison that is hidden in it. When you churn the world,
seeking things because of desires and attachments, you
incur sinful karma, another poison, which keeps you
bound to the lord of Death. You cannot resolve both,
without divine help, or the help of Shiva.
Mount Mandhara and tortoise
Mandhara, the mountain, which was used for the churning
stands for concentration. Mandhara" is a combination of
two words "man" (mind) and "dhara" (a point or line) which
means a pointed mind in a state of concentration. As you
know, you cannot practice spirituality or experience self-
absorption without reigning your mind and holding it
steady.
During the churning of the ocean, Mount Mandhara was
supported by Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as a Tortoise.
The tortoise here stands for pratyahara, the withdrawal of
the mind and senses into oneself, which is essential to
practice concentration (dharana) and meditation or
contemplation (dhyana).
The symbolism also suggests that God, Self or Vishnu, is
the support for the mind when one is engaged in
concentration and meditation or in any spiritual churning of
the mind and body. You know that the tortoise has a very
hard outer shell, while its inner parts are very tender.
Therefore, it also symbolizes a yogis state of mind which
is impenetrable from outside, but very tender and
compassionate from inside filled with devotion to God. The
tortoise also symbolizes the human head. The outer shell
represents the skull and the inner parts the brain. The
head is the support of all spiritual activities just as Vishnu
was in the churning of the ocean.
The serpent Vasuki
The great serpent Vasuki, who was used by gods and
demons to churn the ocean, represents desire or intention.
In Hindu symbolism, desire has traditionally been
compared to a thousand hooded serpent. As a divine
serpent, Vasuki represents the resolve, desire or the good
intention of the gods and demons to obtain Amrit and
attain immortality. Without right intention, there can be no
initiation into spirituality and without intention and initiation
there is no possibility of achieving liberation.
Desires are also the driving forces in our actions or
sacrifices. Desire-ridden actions are responsible for
karma, while desireless actions, which are performed for
the welfare of the world, such as the daily sacrifices, or as
a service or as sacrificial offerings to God lead to
liberation. Both gods and demons used desire as the rope
(means). However, gods churned the ocean according to
the instructions of Vishnu for the welfare of the worlds and
to protect them from evil, while the demons churned it
solely with selfish intentions to use the Amrit for their own
ends. Hence, eventually the demons failed to achieve
liberation.
To churn the oceans, both gods and demons held the
serpent steadily. It is not possible to practice yoga or
austerities, unless you keep your desires under control
and practice moderation. Gods and demons were able to
churn the oceans because they firmly held the serpent
with their hands. Thus, the act of holding the serpent in
their hands and controlling its movements denotes self-
control or the act of holding desires under control in
spiritual practice.
Manthan, churning
Churning symbolizes the spiritual transformation or
purification of the mind and body on the path of liberation
when one is engaged in austerities, celibacy, restraints
and self-discipline. It leads to purification of the mind and
body and eventual liberation or immortality (Amrit). When
milk is churned, butter becomes separated from the milk.
In spiritual churning, what become separated from the
impurities of the mind like the butter are sattva and mental
brilliance (medhas) or pure intelligence. They also lead to
increased discernment or the ability to see things clearly
without distortions.
Like butter both sattva and intelligence are white in color.
They help the mind stabilize in the contemplation of the
Self. Just as butter serves as an offering in a fire sacrifice
(yajna), sattva and intelligence serve as offerings in the
internal sacrifice (antar yajna) of the mind and body. When
butter is heated on fire, it becomes ghee, which is also
used in sacrifices as an offering. Immortality or liberation is
the ghee or the final product in the practice of yoga, just as
Amrit is in the churning of the oceans. When a yogi
subjects his mind and body (butter) to intense spiritual
heat (tapah) through austerities (tapas), they become
further purified. His latent impressions become burnt as a
result and he attains final liberation (Amrit).
Halahal, the great poison
During the churning of the ocean, halahal, a great poison
emerged out of the oceans. The halahal represents all the
negativity that surfaces in your consciousness when you
begin spiritual practice. It represents pain and suffering,
evil thoughts, negative feelings and emotions such as
anger, pride, doubt, delusion or despair which initiates
experience at the beginning of their spiritual practice.
When the mind is subjected to intense training and
discipline during self-purification, it throws up a lot of
demons and negativity, which act very much like a poison
and destabilize the internal world of a yogi. Hence, it is
common for many initiates in the initial stages of their
practice to experience intense fear and doubt or feel
mentally disturbed. Some may even become mentally
unstable or fall seriously ill.
Such problems intensify if a seeker has weaknesses or
unresolved problems, or if he does not have proper
guidance or resolve. Collectively, all the suffering that
arises in the initial stages of spiritual practice can be
considered halahal, the great poison of suffering. It can
potentially destabilize a person and wean him away from
the path of liberation.
Lord Shiva
The intervention of Lord Shiva to resolve the problem of
halahal symbolizes the importance of yoga or asceticism,
virtue and purity in spiritual life. It also symbolizes the
importance of divine grace (anugraha) and the mediation
of a spiritual master (guru) in liberation. Lord Shiva
symbolizes a yogi or a renunciant (Sanyasi). He
represents the ascetic values of renunciation, equanimity,
discipline, virtue, knowledge, and self-control. He is pure,
truthful, intelligent, auspicious, and inwardly detached.
He was able to consume the poison that arose from the
churning of the ocean because he was pure, strong and
divine. Therefore, seekers who want to deal with the early
problems of spiritual life, such as the instability of the
mind, negativity or suffering, should cultivate the austere
and divine qualities of Lord Shiva. Only then, they can
withstand the rigors of spiritual life and protect themselves.
At the same time, to remain protected and progress on the
path, they should seek the grace of Shiva (God) or the
help of a spiritual master (who is also a personification of
Shiva, the universal teacher), or both.
Lord Shiva is also the lord of breath, prananath, or
praneshwar. In the body, breath is the purifier and
stabilizer. He is also the lord of the organs, who keeps the
mind and body pure by removing their impurities and evil
influences. In spiritual practice he removes the poisons of
the mind and body such as negativity, restlessness, stress,
fear and laziness. Advanced yogis gain great control over
their breath, which many can even withhold for long
duration. During meditation they also learn to keep their
minds steady and free from impurities by holding their
breath in their throat, near the palate.
The objects
The various objects that came out of the ocean during the
churning of the ocean symbolize the psychic, spiritual or
supernatural powers or perfections (siddhis), which
manifest when a yogi progresses on the path of yoga or
liberation. According Hindu tradition, one has to be careful
about such powers since they can seriously interfere with
ones spiritual progress. They should be used with great
caution and discretion for the welfare of the world or
others, rather than for selfish gains. Probably it was why
gods and demons readily distributed those powers without
any quarrel, since they did not want to become distracted
from their final goal of achieving liberation.
Goddess Lakshmi
Among the objects that emerged during the churning, the
most prominent one was goddess Lakshmi. She was
gifted to Lord Vishnu. The gifting of Lakshmi has an
important symbolic significance in spiritual life. Lakshmi
symbolizes material wealth or abundance. The underlying
symbolism of the act of gifting her to Vishnu is that since
all the wealth in the universe belongs to God or Brahman
(Vishnu), it is necessary to return to him whatever wealth
which a devotee finds or earns in his life. His sacrifice will
keep him free from karmic debt and facilitate his progress
on the path.
As the Isa Upanishad declares, Brahman is the true
inhabitant of the universe and everything in the universe
belongs to him. One should therefore live selflessly,
performing all actions as an offering to God. The scriptures
such as the Bhagavadgita also suggest that on the
spiritual path when wealth manifests as the fruit of one's
actions, one should renounce the ownership of it and offer
it to God as a sacrifice to avoid the consequences of
owning wealth or spending it.
Dhanvantari, the divine physician
Dhanvantari is the divine physician. He represents health
or physical Wellbeing. During the churning of the ocean he
manifested in the end with the vessel, which contained the
Amrit. Dhanvantari symbolizes the physical vigor, energy
and mental brilliance which arise from the long and
arduous practice of yoga and austerities. Prolonged
spiritual practice also lead to liberation and immortality.
Thus, the body of a liberated being (jivanmukta) is not only
healthy but also divine as a vessel of immortality.
Mohini
At the time of the distribution of the elixir, Lord Vishnu
manifested as Mohini, a beautiful, celestial maiden and
ensured that it was distributed to gods rather than the
demons. One may criticize him for his partiality. However,
there is an underlying symbolism in this also. Lord Vishnu
is beyond the dualities of likes and dislikes. He treats
everyone alike. In distributing the Amrit to gods he did not
show any partiality. He simply performed his duty as an
upholder of Rta (order and regularity), Karma and
Dharma.
The Asuras were evil people, each with a long history of
evil actions. No one denied them immortality. They denied
it to themselves by their cruel and evil actions and
intentions. Vishnus actions symbolize the role of God in
creation as the upholder of Dharma. It suggests that no
matter how good you are, or how good your current action
may be, you cannot escape from the sins of your past or
the karma which you incurred as a consequence of your
actions. By denying the distribution of Amrit to the
demons, he saved the world from their oppression and
protected Dharma.
Mohini also symbolizes the power of Maya, who deludes
the worlds and beings from pursuing liberation by
subjecting them to delusion, desire, duality, and ignorance.
Because of their evil nature and demonic qualities, the
asuras easily fell under the spell of Maya and lost their
chance to become immortal. The gods were intent upon
securing immortality. Hence, they remained focused on it
and kept themselves free from the spell.
There is also an important message in this. Human life is
precious because only humans can practice spirituality
and attain liberation by using their intelligence. Therefore,
people should not throw away the precious opportunity by
pursuing evil desires or engaging in selfish actions under
the spell of Maya. They should practice yoga, cultivate
divine qualities and work for liberation to become
immortal, without becoming deluded or distracted and
without losing their focus on liberation. This is in brief the
symbolism hidden in the story of Sagar manthan.