Out of the various stories of the Indian Mythology which are fondly narrated to this day and have inspired a number of Bollywood mythical dramas, Samudra Manthan might come close to topping the list. The myth discusses the churning of a divine ocean to obtain Amrit (the Immortality Drink) and a fierce fight that followed between the Gods and the Demons over who must have the drink.
The Ancient Text of the Lord Creation (1825) Edwin Binney 3rd Collection-The San Diego Museum of Art (Source: Flickr)
As often happens with mythology, there are controversies around what led to the event, the actual happenings and what was the result of the event. Most tales of the Indian mythology are the ones recorded in the holy scriptures such as the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. We have tried to stay close to the narration which is supported by at least a bit of scriptural evidence if not a lot. As it so happens, the legend of the Samudra Manthan, which took place in the Satyuga, is discussed in the three scriptures- the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavad Purana and the Mahabharata.
Before we get deeper into the legend, there are a few indigenous terms, the gods and the demons that the Hindus believe in; it would be helpful to have a brief idea of these. Hindus believe in the existence of three Gods- Brahma (The creator of the Universe), Vishnu (The sustainer of the Universe) and Shiva (The destructor of the Universe). Other than that, there are deities known as Devas and the demons, known as the Asuras. The Devas occupy the heaven or the Swarga and represent the good in the world whereas Asuras represent the opposite.
Indra is the king of all Devas, some of them being Varuna (The water god), Pawan (The wind god) and others. On the other hand, the Demons are strong opponents of the Devas who are at constant battle with them to overpower the heavenly lands. As per the scriptures, the Devas and the Asuras are the sons of the same father but have different mothers, Aditi and Diti respectively which is why they differ in their nature even though both are powerful.
The aforementioned ideas must be enough to understand the Samudra Manthan which will be the following discussion.
What Led to the Event of Samudra Manthan?
Once, King Indra was on a walk with his elephant called Airavata. There he met sage Durvasa who presented him with a mystic garland. Indra put that garland around Airavata's trunk and the elephant ended up trampling the same. Seeing the condition of his offering, Durvasa became enraged. He cursed Indra, along with all the other Devas to be bereft of all their powers, strength and glory.
Powerless, the Devas stood no chance against the Asuras who would soon defeat them and take over Swarga. Frightened, they went to Lord Vishnu and prayed to him for mercy. Vishnu found a solution in which the Devas were required to churn the Ksheera Sagara (Ocean of Milk). This would produce Amrit or the Drink of Immortality. Upon drinking that, the Devas would not only regain their lost powers but also become immortal.
Now, churning the ocean as infinite as the Ksheera Sagara was no child's play and the Devas were powerless which brought the question, how to accomplish this Herculean task?!
Realising the fact that by no means could Devas churn the ocean on their own, Indra turned to the Asuras for help and in turn promised to give them a part of Amrit. Driven by greed, the Asuras agreed to help.
Scene Depicting Samudra Manthan
Churning the Ocean is analogous to churning the milk for the separation of butter, just on an infinitely larger terms. In India, the milk is taken in a pot and a churning rod is put in. A rope is wound around the rod and upon pulling the rope back and forth for some time, the milk separates into water and butter, where the butter floats on the surface. Same concept had to be applied to churn the ocean. Because the Ksheera Sagara was so large, Mount Mandar was used as the churning rod and Vasuki, a powerful snake that resides around the neck of Lord Shiva was used as the rope.
The mountain was placed in the ocean but it began to sink. To keep the mountain afloat, Vishnu incarnated as a large turtle called the Kurma and lifted the mountain on his back. The Vasuki coiled around Mount Mandar and now, the Devas and the Asuras were to hold the serpent by its head-end and the tail-end to pull it back and forth, thus churn the ocean. Vishnu talked the Asuras into holding the head-end because he knew that the serpent would vomit lethal poison while being pulled. In case that happened, it would be the Asuras who would get affected.
And so, the Samudra Manthan began.
Churning of the Divine Ocean
The Gifts of Samudra Manthan