Many of you might have seen this sculpture at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. Here is the story behind it.
Background. There are numerous ancient Hindu scriptures ranging from the 4 Vedas, the Upanishads, the epics – Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (the essence of all knowledge of the scriptures – the Bible or the Quran equivalent for Hindus) and the various Puranas (which contain narratives about Gods and demons, and form the bulk of ancient Indian mythology). The story of ‘Samudra [Ocean] Manthan [the Churning]’ appears in two of the puranas (Bhagavad Purana and Vishnu Purana, as well as the Mahabharata). Hindus see God as one but with different forms and attributes, primarily as a trinity of the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu and his 10 avatars/incarnations as Ram, Krishna, etc.) and the destroyer (Shiva and his forms such as Hanuman). There is also the female energy in the form of Durga, Kali, Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth, workshipped during Diwali; the wife of Vishnu), Saraswati (the Goddess of learning and knowledge; the wife of Brahma), etc. Subsurvient to these are other deities or divinities who control individual forces of nature (referred to as ‘devta’ or ‘deva’ in Hindi) – Indra (the king of the devas; king of ‘swarga’ or heaven; controls thunder and lightning), Varun (the deva of rain), Agni (the deva of fire), Vayu (the deva of wind), etc. The evil forces are represented by the ‘asuras’ (the demons), who are in constant battle with the ‘devas’ (allegorically, the battle of the good versus evil within our minds). The devas and the asuras are both sons of the same father, but two different mothers – Diti and Aditi respectively. Both the good and the evil, or the ‘daivic’ and ‘asuric’ natures, reside within humans. Qualities such as fearlessness, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, austerity, simplicity, non-violence, truthfulness, freedom from anger, renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion, gentleness, modesty, steady determination, forgiveness, cleanliness, freedom from envy, etc. are classified as ‘daivic’ or godly qualities (Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-3). Materialism, arrogance, pride, anger, conceit, harshness, ignorance come under ‘asuric’ or demonic qualities (Bhagavad Gita, 16:4). Both the ‘devas’ and the ‘asuras’ draw their energies from the supreme trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The Story. In the story of the Samudra Manthan, the devas (Indra and the other divinities) were once cursed by the Sage named Durvasa, such that they lose all their strength. The asuras then win them in battle and take control of the universe. The devas go to Lord Vishnu for help, who advises that only the nectar, which resides at the bottom of the celestial ocean of milk (Ksheer [milk] + sagar [ocean]; sometimes alluded to the Milky Way galaxy) can make them strong again, and they would become immortal. However, the ocean would need to be churned in order for the nectar to surface, and this was a task they coudln’t do alone (considering they were bereft of energy). They would need to seek the help of the demons/asuras for this, with the lure of the nectar.
Now, churning is the process of making butter from milk i.e. vigorously shaking the milk to separate the butter/cream and the water elements from milk. Yashoda, the mother of Krishna, is often depicted in images were she is churning milk by pulling 2 ends of a rope tied to a wooden rod that is dipped in a pot of milk. For the churning of the ocean, the devas sought the help of the mountain Mandara to serve as the churning rod. Vasuki, the king of snakes (the snake around Lord Shiva’s neck) was approached to serve as the rope for the churning and to be bound around Mount Mandara. The devas were to pull one end of the giant serpent, and the asuras, the other. The demons/asuras held the head of the snake, while the devas, its tail. The churning went on for a 1,000 years. The force of the churning was so great that the mountain began to sink. Lord Vishnu then took the form of a huge turtle (Kurma avatar) and, like an island, supported the mountain on his back. The asuras turned pale due to the fumes and coming out of the mounths of Vasuki, the snake (as they were closer to the head). Then, a terrible poison came out from the ocean. Lord Shiva swallowed the poison and his throat turned blue since then. A number of valuables (14 in total) emerged from the ocean, which were divided by the devas and the asuras. Kamadhenu, the wish-granting cow was taken by Vishnu and given to the sages. Uchhaishravas, the 7-headed horse was given to the demons/asuras. Airavata, the white elephant, was taken by Indra, the king of devas. Parijat, the tree with never-fading blossoms was taken by the devas to Swarga or heaven. Varuni, the creator of wine or alcohol, was taken by the asuras. Then emerged Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. She chose to marry Lord Vishnu. Also produced was Chandra – the Moon, which adorned Lord Shiva’s hair. Finally, Dhanvantari, the divine physician emerged, holding a pot of nectar. The devas and asuras both began to fight over it. Garuda, Vishnu’s eagle [adopted as the national emblem of Indonesia, and the name of its national airline], took the pot and flew away. A few drops of nectar fell in Prayag (Allahabad) and 3 other places – Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, where the ‘Kumbh Mela’ is celebrated every 12 years. One of the asuras got hold of the pot. The devas then appealed to Vishnu. He took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, and distracted the asuras. Volunteering to distribute the nectar to all of them, she gives some nectar each to each of the devas. RahuKetu, an asura, took the form of a deva and joined the line of the devas receiving the nectar. He gets a sip. Vishnu immediately cut off the head of the demon, but it had become immortal in two parts – Rahu, the head, and Ketu, the body. Rahu swallows the sun and the moon at regular intervals, causing eclipses 🙂 By the time the rest of the asuras realized what was happening, and that the beautiful Mohini was actually Lord Vishnu, the nectar had been distributed to the devas. The rejuvenated devas were able to defeat the asuras in battle, and regain their glory.
[Reference: Wikipedia and other online sources, Amar Chitra Katha comic, “The Churning of the Ocean: Vishnu saves creation”]