The event of churning the ocean of milk occurred in the ancient world ruled by Gods, demigods, and demons also popularly known as the devas and the asuras.
Sage Durvasa & Nymph Vidyadhari
This tale from the ancient epic starts with a sage “Durvasa”. Durvasa, was an ancient Rishi, the son of Atri and Anasuya. He is known for his short temper. Hence, wherever he went, he was received with great reverence from humans and devas alike. He didn’t think twice before giving a curse to anyone who didn’t please him. Right from Ambaraisha to Shakuntala and even Lakshman suffered due to his curse. Once Durvasa was wandering on earth and came across a female Vidyadhari (a nymph of the air) who was wearing a beautiful garland of flowers. Seeing Durvasa being attracted to the garland the nymph respectfully gave it to the sage.
Sage Durvasa & Lord Indra
Resuming his wanderings, the sage came across Indra (The king of Heaven and the Devas| The god of lightning, thunder, storms, rains and river flows) riding his elephant attended by the gods. Durvasa presented the garland to Indra, who not sure of what to do with the garland placed it on Airavata’s head. The elephant was irritated by the fragrance of the nectar in the flowers and threw the garland to the ground with its trunk and crushed it with his feet.
Curse of Sage Durvasa on Lord Indra & Battle between Devas and Asuras
Durvasa was enraged to see his gift treated so callously and cursed Indra that he would be cast down from his position of dominion over the three worlds, just as the garland was cast down. Indra immediately begged Durvasa’s forgiveness, but the sage refused to retract or even soften his curse and went on his way. Because of the curse, Indra and the devas were diminished in strength and shorn of their lustre. Seizing this opportunity, the asuras led by King Bali waged war against the gods. The Devas, already lost their power, immortality, and wealth by the curse got defeated by the Asuras. The Asuras, under the leadership of one of their best kings ever (King Bali) had taken control of Earth and then Heaven.
Lord Indra seeks help from Supreme God Vishnu
The Devas turned to Lord Brahma for help and Lord Brahma in turn directed them to seek refuge with Supreme God Vishnu. Seeing no other means, the helpless Indra rushed to Vishnu for help. Vishnu says “here’s what you must do, all the gods and goddesses and all the demons too…. Gather all parts of yourself, all that is beautiful and all the parts that you deny or that you see as ugly, gather them all and go to the four corners of the realms and gather the sacred herbs of the four directions and then together bring the sacred herbs and caste them into the ocean of milk and there you will begin to churn the great ocean of milk until one day the amrutha will rise up, the great elixir of immortality will rise up from the depths of the ocean and you will take a sip from that, one drop of the amrutha will restore your powers and strength”.
Hence, the churning of the ocean begins…..
Setting the scene
The Devas were too weak to churn the entire ocean by themselves, they had to rely on the co-operation of the Asuras. Following a detailed discussion that happens between Indra and Bali, the two kings decide to co-operate as the end result was that both parties receive Amrutha as the fruit of their efforts. However, Vishnu told the Devas that he would arrange that they alone obtain the nectar Amrutha. So they all gather together and say, “ how will we churn this great ocean?” The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an elaborate process. Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, who abides on Shiva’s neck, became the churning rope. The demons demanded to hold the head of the snake, while the gods, taking advice from Vishnu, agreed to hold its tail. In ancient days “head” represents power and authority but, while churning, serpent Vasuki emits poisonous fumes, gasses, and acids from its mouth. God Vishnu knows this before and advises the Devas to hold the tail of Vasuki. As a result, Asuras gets weakened by Vasuki’s poisonous fumes and gasses while churning. Despite this, the gods and demons pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean.
Supreme God Vishu’s Kurma Incarnation – Kurma Avatara (Incarnation of Turtle)
While churning, as there was no support for the mount Mandara, it began to sink in the ocean. Then God Vishnu in the form of a turtle Kurma came to their rescue and supported the mountain on his back. On this support, Devas and Asuras alternatively pulled the Serpent Vasuki which was bound around the mount Mandara, causing it to rotate and churn.
“Halahal” – Poisonous drink which could destroy the whole creation
During the churning of the ocean, it first produced a poison called “Halahal” that spread in all directions. This terrified the Gods and demons as the poison was so toxic that it effects would have wiped out the entire creation. On the advice of Lord Vishnu, Gods approached Lord Shiva for help and protection as only he could swallow it without being affected. On the request of gods and out of compassion for living beings, Lord Shiva gathered the poison in his palms and drank it. However, Parvati Lord Shiva’s consort pressed his neck so that the poison does not reach his stomach. Thus, it stayed in his throat neither going up nor going down and Shiva remained unharmed. The poison was so potent that it changed the color of Lord Mahadeva’s neck to blue. For this reason, Lord Shiva is also called Neelakantha (the blue-necked one) where ‘Neela’ means blue and ‘Kantha’ means neck or throat.
Precious Extractions from Churning
All kinds of herbs were cast into the ocean and fourteen Ratnas (gems or treasures) were produced from the ocean and were divided between Asuras and Devas. Though usually the Ratnas are enumerated as 14, the list in the scriptures ranges from 9 to 14 Ratnas. Most lists include: According to the quality of the treasures produced, they were accepted by Vishnu, the Devas, and the Asuras. There were three categories of Goddesses which emerged from the ocean;
There were three categories of Goddesses which emerged from the ocean;
- Lakshmi = the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth – who accepted Vishnu as Her eternal consort.
- Apsaras = various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka, Punjisthala etc. – chose the demigods as their companions
- Varuni – taken – somewhat reluctantly (she appeared disheveled and argumentative) – accepted the demons.
Likewise = 3 types of supernatural animals appeared;
- Kamadhenu or Surabhi = the wish-granting divine cow – taken by Vishnu, and given to sages so ghee from her milk could be used for Yajna and similar rituals.
- Airavata, and several other elephants, taken by Indra, leader of the Deva.
- Uchhaishravas = the divine 7-headed horse – given to the Indra.
There were three valuables;
- Kaustubha = the most valuable Ratna in the world, worn by lord Vishnu.
- Parijat = the divine flowering tree with blossoms that never fade or wilt – taken to Indraloka by the Devas.
- Sharanga = A powerful bow – symbolic of the demon’s belligerence.
Additionally produced were;
- Chandra = the moon which adorned Shiva’s head
- Dhanvantari, the Vaidya of the Deva’s with Amrutha the nectar of immortality. (At times, considered as two different Ratna)
- Halahala = the poison swallowed by the Lord Shiva.
This list varies from Purana to Purana and is also slightly different in the epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Lists are completed by adding the following Ratna:
- Shankha = Vishnu’s conch
- Jyestha = the goddess of misfortune
- The umbrella taken by Varuna
- The earrings given to Aditi, by her son Indra
- Kalpavriksha plant
- Nidra or sloth
Battle for Amrutha
Finally, Dhanvantari, the heavenly physician, emerged with a pot containing Amrutha, the heavenly nectar of immortality. Looking at the pot of nectar, Amrutha, Asuras immediately lost control and patience. They snatched the pot away by force and a fight began. Again, Asuras won and Devas lost the battle, which lasted for 12 days. Asuras took the pot of nectar and were fighting among themselves for Amrutha.
Mohini Incarnation by Supreme God Vishnu
Supreme God Vishnu, realizing that evil cannot be made immortal, incarnates into Mohini, a supremely beautiful lady, who is successful in enticing the asuras. Mohini suggests that she divide the drink equally between both parties. Except that she uses Maya (illusion) to swap vessels every time she serves a demon, thus ensuring that evil does not become immortal.
When one of the clever demons himself uses illusion to make him look like a God and drinks the elixir, Mohini reincarnates to her true form as the God Vishnu and uses his serrated disc called the Sudarshan Chakra to cut off the demon’s throat. However, the head of the demon, which had drunk the elixir becomes immortal!
That’s pretty much is the story of the “Samudra Manthan – Churning of the Ocean of Milk”
- “What is the underlying symbolism of the ‘Samudra Manthan’?” question answered by Sourojeet Chakraborty in Quora.
- “Durvasa” from Wikipedia.
- “Samudra Manthan” from Wikipedia.
- “How Rishi Durvasa’s curse resulted in the ‘Greatest Show on Earth – The Kumbh Mela’!” in mythnosis.wordpress.com.
- “Samudra Manthan” in Kidsgen.com.
- “Churning of the ocean of milk” in michellecross.co.uk.
- “Samudra Manthan Scene at Thailand Airport” in sanskritimagazine.com.