by Jayaram V
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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