The Underlying symbolism of the Samudra Manthan

Samudra Manthan is one of the most legendary incidents in Hindu mythology. Samudra means ocean in Sanskrit and Manthan means churning. Thus, Samudra Manthan is the churning of the ocean of milk.

The story of Samudra Manthan appears in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Vishnu Purana, and explains the origin of amrita, the drink of immortality. This was a significant event as after this the Devas, who were weakened by Durvasa’s curse before, were able to gain strength and defeat the Asuras, to restore order to the Universe.

The churning of the ocean was an elaborate process. Mount Mandara was used as churning rod and Vasuki, the King of Serpents, became the churning rope. Lord Vishnu himself had to intercede in so many ways to aid the Devas.

As the ocean was stirred, many valuable items were produced along with the Amrita. But Halahala, a dangerous poison which could destroy the entire Universe was also released from the ocean floor. Lord Shiva drank this poison to save the Universe and Goddess Parvati prevented the poison from going down his throat. As a result, his throat turned blue and he gained the name of Neelkantha or ‘blue-throated God’.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, depicted in bas-relief on the south of the east wall of Angkor Wat's third enclosure.
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, depicted in bas-relief on the south of the east wall of Angkor Wat’s third enclosure.

In celebration of the finding of the Amrita, Lord Vishnu took the form of Mohini and started distracting the Asuras with her divine charm and distributing the Amrita among the Devas, who were seated away from the Asuras. Rahuketu, an Asura who disguised himself as a Deva drank some Amrita, but Suryadev (Sun God) alerted Mohini about it who cut off Rahuketu’s head before he could swallow it.

After drinking the Amrita, the Devas regained their powers again and defeated the Asuras easily. Thus, the Samudra Manthan played a key role in destroying the forces of evil and restoring peace in the Universe.

The story of the Samudra Manthan symbolizes the spiritual endeavor of a person, trying to achieve self-realisation by concentrating his mind, withdrawing his senses, controlling his desires and practicing severe penances.

Symbolism of the Samudra Manthan

  • The Devas and the Asuras represent the positives and negatives of one’s own self. It represents how to achieve self-realisation, one must control both sides of his self and balance them in order to reach the goal
  • The Mandara Mountain (Mana – mind; dhara – in one line or flow) symbolizes concentration.
  • Vishnu’s Kurma Avatar – symbolizes the withdrawal of one’s senses – just like a tortoise retracts its head under its shell. It symbolizes contemplation through meditation and concentration.
  • Vasuki – the serpent king – was used as the churning rope, and it signifies the desire to attain the nectar of immortality. It’s as if the Devas and Asuras, churned their mind with a rope of desire.
  • The Ocean of Milk – is the collective human consciousness or the mind.
  • The Halahal poison – Represents the suffering and pain that comes to the fore when one goes through severe penance. As the Devas and the Asuras (the positives and the negatives of one’s self), churned the ocean of milk (the mind) for the nectar of immortality (self realisation), with Mount Mandara (concentration) resting on Vishnu’s Kurma Avatar (withdrawing their senses), using Vasuki (desire) as the churning rope, the first thing that came out, was the Halahal poison (pain and suffering) which had to be resolved for further progress.
  • Here’s where Lord Shiva comes in. His consuming the poison symbolizes that to resolve the pain and suffering that has resulted out of severe concentration and penance, one needs the qualities of Lord Shiva himself: courage, compassion, willingness, initiative, simplicity, austerity, detachment et al.
  • The precious objects that came out of the ocean of milk represent the psychic or spiritual powers that one is rewarded with, after he continues his penances, having resolved pain and suffering. The Devas and the Asuras distributing these gifts of the oceans symbolize that one needs to use these gifts for the common welfare and not for one’s personal gains. Only then, could they progress in the epic churning project.
  • Dhanvantari symbolizes health – implying that immortality (or to be more practical, longevity) or in this case, self-realization can only be obtained through a state of health. The body and mind must be in a state of perfect health for the attainment of this goal.
  • Mohini – is symbolic of delusion or pride. Once they were very close to their goal, the Devas and the Asuras succumbed to their pride and were deluded. They were thus, led astray. Thus, pride must be overcome before the final truth is attained.
  • The Amrit or the nectar of immortality that is finally obtained is symbolic of self-realisation after one has given up his/her pride.
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