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Why is Samudra Manthan the Grandest Event in Hindu Mythology?

Out of the various stories of 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 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 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 in 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 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 churning 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

As the ocean was being churned, a number of valuables came out of the ocean which were distributed among the Devas and the Asuras. Some of them are the Kamdhenu- the wish granting cow, Parijat- the evergreen tree, Lakshmi- the Goddess of wealth, and Chandra- the Moon which adorns Shiva's hair to this day.

Along with these valuables, there also emerged a highly lethal poison called the Halahal, that had the capability to destroy half of the Universe if not disposed off immediately. For the well-being of the mortals, Lord Shiva came forward and drank the poison but he didn't let it pass to his system. He rather contained it in his throat. The poison was so powerful, it turned Shiva's neck in a hue of deep blue. From then on, Lord Shiva also came to be known as the Neela Kantha- the one with a blue throat.

After years and years of churning, finally, Dhanvantri- the divine physician emerged with a pot full of Amrit.

No sooner was the Amrit out, then a fight broke out between the Devas and the Asuras on who will have the drink first. Amidst the fight, an Asura got hold of the pot and fled. The Devas again turned to Vishnu for help. Vishnu reclaimed the Amrit and gave it to Garuda, who was his own riding eagle. Garuda carried the precious vessel away from the battlefield. Now, Vishnu incarnated as an enchanting damsel named Mohini and distracted the Asuras while secretly letting the Devas drink the Amrit.

A demon called the Svarbhanu disguised as a Deva and stood in the line along the other Devas and had a sip of the Amrit. The Sun and the Moon saw through Swarbhanu's disguise and complained to Vishnu about the same. On realising what had happened, Vishnu beheaded the demon into two; the head came to be known as Rahu and the body came to be known as Ketu. By the time the Asuras understood the trick, Devas had already consumed the nectar and gained their lost powers.

Contemporary Theories About Samudra Manthan

There are a few contemporary theories around the legend that don't find much evidence in the scriptures. We don't exactly know the origin of these side theories but because they are so widely believed, they remain to be relevant for discussions.

It is said that while Garuda flew away with the pot, a few drops of Amrit fell in a few towns including Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain. The Amrit purified these places which is why the Kumbha Mela is celebrated in these locations every twelve years. However, this incident does not find any evidence in the ancient texts. So, the theologists believe these are recent theories popularized to add more value to the mentioned pilgrimage sites.

Another popular belief is that while fighting for Amrit, the Asuras did drink a handful which made them immortal. Thus the fight between the Devas and the Asuras continues to this day which is symbolic of the inner fight between good and evil that goes on in the mind of every living mortal.



Sakshi Priya

Pratha Content Writing Intern

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