Symbolism in the Story of Sagar Manthan, the Churning of The Ocean
Many Hindus are familiar with the story of sagar manthan or the churning of the ocean. The story goes like this. Once Indra lost his kingdom due to the disrespect he showed to sage Durvasa.
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 can partake the amrita (ambrosia) which would make them immortal and help them regain their lost kingdom.
As per his advise, the devas approached the demons and they all agreed in the end to churn the ocean of milk. They sought the help of mount Mandhara and the great snake Vasuki for this purpose.
Vasuki, the snake god, was used as the rope and Mandhara, the mountain, as the churning stick to churn the ocean. While they were churning this great ocean Lord Vishnu assumed the form of a tortoise and held the Mandhara from sinking. While the churning was going on several wonderful objects came out of the ocean .
The first to come out was halahal, the deadly poison, which threatened to engulf the worlds and destroy them. While no one was willing to accept the poison, Lord Shiva came forward to accept it.
He swallowed it and Parvathi who was standing besides him pressed his neck as he swallowed it and prevented it from going into his stomach. Thus the poison remained there struck for ever in his neck, neither going up into his mind nor going down into his stomach.
Then came Kamadhenu (the wish fulfilling cow), the Ucchaisrava (the white horse), Airavata (the white elephant), Kaustubhamani ( a rare diamond), Kalpavriksha (the wish fulfilling tree), Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), Sura or Varuni (the goddess of wine), and finally Dhanvantari (the divine physician) with the vessel of Amrita in his skilful hands. These objects except the last one were divided between the devas and the demons.
The nectar of immortality was of course finally denied to the demons and was distributed among the gods only, through a fine act of trickery enacted by Lord Vishnu, who assumed the form of Mohini to delude the demons and make them forget temporarily all about the amrit, while he went on distributing it among the gods who took it. Because of the effects of amrit, they not only became immortal but also defeated the demons summarily.
This is the story of churning of the oceans in brief.
Now the symbolism hidden in this story is this.
The story represents the spiritual endeavor of man for gaining immortality through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism.
The gods represent the pleasure principle in ourselves. The demons represent the pain principle. The gods also represent the senses, while the demons the evil and negative thoughts and impulses. The participation of both the devas and the demons signify the fact that when one is seeking immortality through the spiritual practice one has to integrate and harmonize both the positive and negative aspects of ones personality and put both the energies for the common goal.
The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is always compared to an ocean (mano sagaram) while the thoughts and emotions to the waves. The mind as an ocean is in fact a universal symbol, known to other religions and cultures also.
Mandhara, the mountain stands for concentration. The word "mandhara" contains two words "man" (mind) and "dhara" ( a single line) which means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only during mental concentration.
The mountain mandhara was upheld by Lord Vishnu as a Tortoise. The tortoise here stands for the withdrawal of the senses into one self as one practices mental concentration and meditation or contemplation. It also suggests that the mind should rest itself upon or freely surrender itself to the divine will.
The great serpent Vasuki stands for desire. The desire is always compared to a thousand hooded serpent. The 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. You can hold desire in your hands and manipulate it only when you have control over your desires. So control of desire is suggested through this symbolism.
The halahal represents suffering and pain we undergo at the beginning of spiritual sadhana. When the mind is subjected to intense churning by opposing forces, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. We are told by many that when an initiate starts his spiritual sadhana he faces a number of difficulties. The problems become intensified because of inner conflicts, where one part yearns to pursue the spiritual path while the other opposes it.
In the initial stages of sadhana a seeker's mind throws out all kinds of reactions, negative thoughts, desires and impulses out into open so that he can deal with them appropriately. These problems are basically physical suffering and mental suffering without resolving which further progress is not possible. In short we can say that halahal is the instability of the body and the mind that arise as a counter reaction against ones spiritual practice.
Lord Shiva represents the ascetic principle. He is the destroyer of illusion, one who is innerly detached, pure and austere. His role in this story as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life, such as the instability of the mind and its restlessness, by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment compassion, pure love and asceticism.
Alternatively it also means gaining control over the mind through breath control. Lord Shiva is controller of breath. He is prananath, or praneshwar, Lord of the Breath. In spiritual sadhana, it is essential that one gains complete mastery over ones breathing pattern. Many spiritually advanced souls have the capacity to hold their breath in their throat, near the palate, as they meditate.
The various objects that came out of the ocean during the churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers (siddhis) which one gains as he progresses spiritually from stage to stage. These siddhis are spiritual powes which come to a seeker as he progresses on the spiritual path. We are told that a seeker is to be careful about these powers as they can hamper his progress unless he uses them judiciously, not for his selfish gains but for others' welfare. This is the reason why the gods and demons distributed these powers among others without keeping anything for themselves as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim which was to gain immortality.
Dhanvantarari stands for health. The vessel containing the amrit was brought before the gods and the demons by Dhanvantari, the divine physician. This signifies that immortality can be achieved only when the body and the mind are in a perfect state of health. Spiritual success is not possible in case of a person who is mentally or physically sick or whose gross body is not fit for receiving divine illumination.
Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini stands for delusion of the mind in the form of pride. It is the pride of achievement to which the asuras or the demons succumbed and thus lost their right to enter into the world of immortality. Pride and egoism are the last hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before experiencing self-realization.
This is in brief the symbolism hidden in the story of Sagar manthan.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Beware the Gods are Here
- The Story of Brahma, Gods, Demons and the Humans
- The Story of Gods, Demons and the Soul
- Goddesses, Energies and Divinities of Hinduism in our Inner Universe
- The Wheel As A Symbol Of Creation With God As Its Hub
- The Concept of Brahman As Priest and As Supreme Self
- An Important Lesson From the Mahabharat
- The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Practice of Atma Yoga Or The Yoga Of Self
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- The Practice of Tantra and Tantric Ritual in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Tradition Of Gurus and Gurukulas in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Hinduism, Way of Life, Beliefs and Practices
- A Summary of the Bhagavadgita
- Avatar, the Reincarnation of God Upon Earth
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Bhagavadgita On The Mind And Its Control
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
- Hinduism and the Belief in one God