Many of us know 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 could partake the amrita (ambrosia) which would make them immortal and help them regain their lost kingdom.
As per his advice, 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 the 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 world and destroy it. When no one was willing to accept the poison, Lord Shiva came forward to accept it. He swallowed it and Parvathi who was standing beside him, pressed his neck as he swallowed it and thus, prevented it from going into his stomach. Thus the poison remained struck there forever 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 devas only, through a fine piece of trickery enacted by Lord Vishnu. He assumed the form of Mohini to delude the demons and make them temporarily forget 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. But two of the Daityas (demons) managed to partake of the Amrit. And they both became immortal. Therefore, the strife between good and evil continues to this day.
The story represents the spiritual endeavor of man for achieving immortality and inner happiness through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism.
1. The devas represent the pleasure principle in us. They also represent the senses.
2. The demons represent the pain principle and the negative thoughts and impulses.
3. Indra represents the Intellect, which can become egoistic.
4. Ksheer Sagar or 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.
5. 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.
6. The tortoise stands for the withdrawal of the senses into oneself as one practices mental concentration and meditation or contemplation. It also suggests that the mind should rest upon itself or freely surrender itself to the divine will.
7. 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 one’s personality and put both the energies for the common goal.
8. The great serpent Vasuki stands for desire. The desire is always compared to a thousand hooded serpent.
9. Halahal represents the turmoil of mind one suffers in the initial phase of meditation
10. The celestial gems represent the spiritual powers or the sidhis one can attain during meditation
11. ‘Amrit’ or nectar represents the inner happiness
12. Immortality represents moksha
The another interpretation of the story is:
The story represents the need for doing meditation (churning of the mind in the ocean) to gain control over ego, which takes over when the mind and intellect (Indra) lose their track.
The process involves intention to do the meditation (devas approach the Vishnu (consciousness and in turn advised to do the manthan) and attention (focus, concentration) on the object of concentration (God or consciousness and here the tortoise). The process involves concentrating on a mantra or the breath continuously and giving preferences to the object of concentration over the thoughts. Meditation is incomplete without withdrawing the senses (tortoise). By yoga sutras of patanjali it is called ‘pratihara’ by creating a spiritual atmosphere. The contemplation or the continuing concentration is a must (mandhara).
Meditation is the process of slipping in the silent gaps between the thoughts. Negative thoughts are the asuras, the devils or the demons. Meditation involves bypassing the thought and needs both the positive and the negative thoughts to cooperate with each other like in a rope.
While meditating, one is bound to be affected by a chain or rope of desires (vasuki). The same needs to be tightened up, caught firmly by the thoughts, and ignored by giving preference to the object of concentration, the self (the tortoise). When in difficulty, every one has to take the help of God.
To summarize, 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 the desire in your hands and manipulate it only when you have control over your desires.
In the initial phase of meditation or intense churning by opposite forces, one is affected by turmoil of the mind. Most people who start meditation leave it in this phase only, as they cannot bear this turmoil and get agitated or disturbed. That is one reason it is said that one should learn meditation under the guidance of a teacher, doctor or a guru.
The halahal represents this suffering and pain one undergoes at the beginning of spiritual sadhana. The problems get intensified because of inner conflicts, when one part yearns to pursue the spiritual path (devas) while the other opposes it (demons). In short, ‘halahal’ is the instability of the body and the mind that arises as a counter-reaction against one’s spiritual practice.
One can compare this to the release of the mental toxins comparable to the physical toxins which gets released when we rest and after a daylong rest complain of leg pains.
The mental turmoil representing all kinds of reactions, negative thoughts, desires and impulses associated with some degree of physical turmoil (body movements, flickering and tingling) need to be tackled here to complete the process of meditation.
One cannot take out these negative thoughts in the open nor can one keep it in (you can not throw the halahal out or swallow it). It needs to be managed or ignored by keeping it in the throat which is what was done by Shiva. Shiva here represents the ascetic principle (leading a life of self-discipline and self-denial).
It also means that another mode of controlling the turmoil is by controlling the breath. Shiva is the controller of breath and is called a ‘prananath, or praneshwar’ - The Lord of Breath. In meditation, it is essential that one gains complete mastery over one’s breathing pattern. Most sages hold their breath in their throat, near the palate, as they meditate to control this turmoil of mind.
The various objects that came out of the ocean during the churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers (siddhis) which one gains as one progresses spiritually from stage to stage.
These siddhis are spiritual powers, which come to a seeker as he progresses on the spiritual path. We are told that a seeker should 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 (inner happiness).
After the ‘halahal’, came Kamadhenu (the wish-fulfilling cow), the Ucchaisrava (the white horse, as white as the moon), Airavata (the white elephant), Kaustubha mani ( a rare diamond, type of ruby), Kalpavriksha or the Kalpataru (the wish-fulfilling tree, called Parijata), Rambha Apsara the (celestial dancer), Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), Sura or Varuni, the Somarasa (the goddess of wine), Sankha (the conch), Sankra Dhanush (the weapon), and finally Dhanvantari (the divine physician) with the vessel of Amrita in his skillful hands.
Dhanvantari 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.
These spiritual powers are the ones which one can attain while doing basic and advanced meditation and includes the capacity to fullfill desires, to give boons to others, to acquire health, wealth etc. Meditation is not possible in case of a person who is mentally or physically sick or whose gross body is not fit for receiving meditation benefits.
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 final hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before being able to experience self-realization.