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Good vs Evil Theme in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk Story

The good vs evil theme is prolific in society today, from TV shows to movies to children's shows.

Western culture has simplified this concept to demonstrate that good is always preferable to evil.

When I was studying Vedic Astrology, the astrology system of India, with a teacher in Secunderabad, India, he introduced the Vedic concept of good vs evil using this story.

This changed my thinking drastically

I had unknowingly subscribed to the black-and-white theory of good vs evil.

Now I understand that evil has its place in life.

Evil is within each of us to a certain degree, and evil can spur us on to make changes and even begin to approach liberation from the suffering of this world.

Churning of the Ocean: image of the scene described in the text
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Title: The Churning of the Ocean of Milk Date: ca. 1780–90 Culture: India (Punjab Hill, Mandi) Medium: Ink and opaque watercolor on paper

Keep reading to hear the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and some of the esoteric meanings behind the story.

This post may be more philosophical than my normal Ayurvedic posts, but what is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is the study of life, which includes all aspects of life.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk Story

Many years ago I was introduced to the Churning of the Ocean Story in a class about Ayurveda at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.

It came up again when I was studying Vedic Astrology with my teacher.

The Vishnu Purana, a major text of Hinduism, recounts this story known as Samudra Manthana, the Churning of the Ocean.

This story also appears in the Mahabharata, another ancient text that comes from India.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk has many diverse tellings, so you may see different details when you read someone else's account.

My rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk follows:

churning of the ocean: image depicting story in post
Welcome Collection, Art UK, Public Domain, Artist Unknown

While Indra, the king of the devas (gods), was out riding on his divine elephant, he met the legendary sage Durvasa who gave him a special garland of flowers.

Indra placed the auspicious garland on his mighty elephant's tusks.

The garland was so sweet-smelling insects swarmed the fragrant flowers and startled the elephant.

The strapping elephant threw the garland off his tusks, hurling it to the ground.

This act enraged the sage Durvas because the garland was meant to be treated as prasada (a religious offering) and therefore, good fortune.

Prasada should never touch the ground.

The incensed Durvasa cursed Indra and the devas to lose their energy, strength, and fortune.

Grueling battles ensued between the asuras and the weakened devas.

In the end, the "good" devas (gods) were defeated by the "bad" asuras (demons) who won control over the whole realm of existence.

Soon after, Vishnu, always the cunning and fearless leader, guided the devas to make a pact with the asuras to work together to obtain the nectar of immortality, amrita.

The agreement was to divide the nectar of immortality evenly between the devas and the asuras.

The scheming Vishnu had a plan and assured the devas that he would con the asuras out of receiving any of the nectar.

The retrieval of the nectar of immortality was no small undertaking.

If you can imagine this scene, a mountain, Mount Mandara, was uprooted to become a churning rod (or paddle), and Shiva's snake, Vasuki, was wrapped around the mount to be used as the churning rope.

Vishnu instructed the devas to hold the head of the snake, but the asuras feared holding the snake's tail would be inauspicious.

The asuras demanded to hold the end with the snake's head.

The asuras lined up holding the head and the devas held the end with the snake's tail.

They pulled back and forth as if they were in a giant tug of war, which made the mountain churn the ocean of milk.

Traditionally in India, yogurt (curd) and water are churned into butter and buttermilk (not the buttermilk we buy at stores in the US) in a big clay vessel with a paddle in the middle.

A rope is placed around the paddle and the rope's two ends are pulled to rotate the paddle and churn the yogurt.

This churning of curd separates the buttermilk from the butter, which is then transformed into ghee, an elixir in its own right according to Ayurveda.

This same process was happening with the ocean of milk.

However, the mountain was so heavy that it sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Vishnu, always thinking, took the form of a turtle (Kurma) and dove under the mountain to lift it and support it on his shell.

churning of the ocean: depiction of story in post
Churning of the Ocean

Can you picture that?

As they churned, a plethora of substances arose from the great Ocean of Milk, just like butter rises when the curd is churned with water.

The first to surface was a lethal poison that could destroy all of creation.

Shiva drank down the poison, held it in his throat, and neutralized it in his throat to protect the realm of existence.

This poison turned his throat blue and gave him the name Nīlakantha, or "Blue Throated One."

After the poison, different gems, deities, and substances began to emerge until, finally, Dhanvantari, the "doctor of the gods" appeared with the amrita (nectar of immortality).

This is what the devas and asuras had all been waiting to find.

Of course, the devas and asuras began fighting over the nectar, even though they had a pact to share it evenly.

Now was the time for the crafty Vishnu to initiate his plan to prevent the asuras from receiving any of the nectar of immortality.

Vishnu transformed into Mohini, a voluptuous and enchanting woman who used her wiles to distract the asuras.

churning of the ocean: Indian goddess dressed in white swinging on a swing
Mohini by Raja Ravi Varma,

Mohini had the asuras and devas sit in two different rows.

Her beauty diverted the asuras' attention as she duplicitously distributed the nectar only to the devas.

At the last second, one asura realized what was happening--the entire nectar was about to be consumed only by the devas.

Disguising himself as a deva he drank a drop of the sweet nectar of immortality before anyone noticed.

When Vishnu in the form of Mohini learned what happened, he chopped the asura in half.

The head of this asura became known as Rahu (the north node in Indian astrology) and the tail became Ketu (the south node).

Rahu and Ketu are two "planets" notorious for creating illusion, confusion, and delusion in human lives.

The "bad" asuras were incensed that they were tricked and the fighting began again.

However, in this battle, the nectar strengthened the devas and they easily won the conflict and banished the asuras to the underworld.

The esoteric meaning behind this story of the churning of the ocean

churning of the ocean: image depicting story in blog
Hindu Goddess Sagar Mathan,

What I love the most about Hindu mythology is the esoteric meaning behind the stories, of which there are many for each story.

Ayurveda tells us the human body is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe.

The ocean in this story can be likened to the mind.

The devas and asuras both reside in the minds of all of us in the microcosm.

The devas have been said to represent the sense organs (ears, eyes, etc.), sattva (purity), intelligence, and pleasure.

While the asuras have been said to represent delusion, tamas (inertia), darkness, and pain.

My astrology teacher said that both the asuras and devas are necessary in life to churn the mind to manifest the "nectar" of the mind, which is the transformation of the self and liberation.

churning of the ocean: image depicting story in the post
The Churning of the Ocean:

The devas represent higher consciousness while the asuras represent the negative part of the ego.

We all need some ego, or we wouldn't be individuated from one another, but roblems occur when there is an over-connection to the ego.

The devas (the higher self within you) become quite lazy when the asuras (excessive connection to ego) aren't bothering them.

This obliterates the need to do the internal work necessary to grow.

But the asuras (excessive connection to ego) bring the devas (higher self within you) to life, making them fight for growth, and allowing the plumbing of the unconscious mind.

This churning of the mind requires both the asuras and devas, each holding the opposite end of the churning rope.

Everyone has the potential for connection to the higher self within (good) and an excessive connection to the ego (evil).

Just like the ocean spewing out great riches while being churned the human mind is a vast reservoir of unknown wealth that can be accessed through the churning of the unconscious with the help of the asuras and devas.

The poison spewing forth from the ocean in the story can represent the negativity that first spews forth when beginning spiritual practices as the asuras and devas begin churning the mind and consciousness.

Negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions may also arise.

This "poison" often leads to the destabilization of the mind, pulling you away from the liberation sought.

Lord Shiva's consumption of the poison spewed from the ocean represents your own higher consciousness devouring the poison of negativity intended to throw you off your path toward liberation.

The nectar of immortality has been likened to multiple things.

Some liken it to immunity and spiritual power.

churning of the ocean: depiction of story in post
Samundramantha, The Churning of the Ocean:

Others have likened the nectar to the functioning of the pituitary gland which releases hormones into the bloodstream creating better health and longevity.

We can go back to the reference that the churning of the ocean is similar to the churning of curd to get butter and buttermilk.

When churning the curd, the butter lifts to the top, just as sattva (purity) and intelligence rise to the top as the mind is churned in spiritual practice.

Some would say if the asuras (evil) in the mind were not present, there would never be liberation.

The world is much less black-and-white than I used to realize.

Today I can see that the things that bring me suffering have a lesson if I allow the churning of my mind and consciousness to bring forth the nectar.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

This story is rich in esoteric symbolism, and this post has just scratched the surface.

Ayurveda's goal is to make the body a strong vessel so we can do the deep work of churning the mind while withstanding the fight between the devas and asuras within ourselves.

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May 11

Belinda, well done. I like your use of this analogy to help people understand the purpose of darkness, pain and suffering. We all need to understand the process is one of purification and to identify with the Light as we traverse the ocean of illusion. We do seem to be in unusually intense times, so the purification must be quite profound. May the Devas once again achieve the upper hand!


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