Samudra Manthan - The Churning of the Milk Ocean


Aug 08, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A two part summary of sastric descriptions of the great Churning pastime.

Samudra manthan, or the pastime of the 'Churning of the Ocean of Milk', is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas, and is celebrated in a major way every twelve years at the Kumbha Mela. The pastime is described in the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and various Puranas, including the Bhagawat, Brahma-vaivarta, Agni, and Vishnu Purana.

"Manthanam" is the Sanskrit equivalent of 'manthan' meaning 'to churn'. In the phrase "sagar manthan", 'sagar' is another word for 'samudra', both meaning an ocean or large water body. The term "kshirsagar manthan", 'kshirsagar' literally means the 'Ocean of Milk'.

The pastime begins with King Indra who, while riding on his vahana elephant, came upon the sage Durvasa, who offered him a special garland. Indra accepted the garland but put in on the trunk of the elephant. The elephant was irritated by the smell and threw the garland on the floor, thus enraging the sage, as the garland was a dwelling of Sri (fortune), and was to be treated as prasada. Durvasa Muni therefore cursed Indra and all the devas to be bereft of strength, energy, and fortune.

In numerous battles that followed this incident, the devas were defeated and the asuras, led by King Bali, gained control of the universe. Finally the devas sought help from Lord Vishnu, who advised them to treat the asuras in a diplomatic manner. The devas therefore formed an alliance with the asuras, and they cooperatively set out to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality, Amrita, to be shared among them. Lord Vishu, however, had ensured the devas that He would arrange it so they alone obtained the nectar.

The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an inconceivably elaborate process. Mount Mandaranchal was used as the churning rod and Vasuki, the King of the Nagas, served as the churning rope. The demigods held the head of Vasuki while the demons held his tail. Each side pulled alternately, thereby causing the mountain to rotate and churn the ocean. However, once the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink, so Vishnu in His form as Kurma, the tortoise, came to their rescue and supported the mountain on His shell.

Various differences are found in some versions of the pastime. For example, in the Mahabharata it is described that Akupara, the King of Tortoises, took the form of Kurma at the request of the devas and asuras.

Halahala (Poison)

Due to the churning of the Milk Ocean by the asuras and devas, a pot of poison called Halahala, or 'kalakuta', was produced from the ocean. This terrified the demigods and demons, because the poison was so toxic that it could wipe out the entire manifest creation. On the advice of Vishnu, the demigods approached Lord Shiva for help and protection. Out of compassion for the living entities, Shiva drank the poison, which was so potent that it changed the color of Shiva's neck to blue. For this reason, Shiva is also called Neelakantha, the blue-necked one ('n?la' means 'blue' and 'kantha' means 'throat'). It is also described that Parvati, alarmed at her husband's drinking of the poison, stopped it in his throat with her hands, thus earning him the name Vishakantha (the one who held poison in his throat).


Fourteen different ratnas (gems) were also recovered during this pastime of churning, and these were mostly kept by the demigods, although the asuras tried to cheat them out of the treasures. All kinds of herbs were cast into the ocean to produce these fourteen ratnas, which were divided between the asuras and demigods, as follows:

    * Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth
    * Kaustubha, the most valuable jewel in the world
    * Parijata, the divine flowering tree
    * Varuni, goddess and creator of intoxicating beverages
    * Dhanvantari, the doctor
    * Chandra, the moon
    * Kamadhenu, the wish-granting divine cow
    * Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree
    * Airavata, the elephant of Indra
    * Apsaras, various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka, Punjikasthala, etc.
    * Uchhaishravas, the divine 7-headed horse
    * Sharanga, the bow of Vishnu
    * Shankha, Vishnu's conch
    * Amrita, the nectar of immortality.

Again, this list varies from Purana to Purana and is also slightly different in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The Nectar of Immortality

Eventually Dhanvantari, the Heavenly Physician, emerged from the Ocean of Milk with a pot containing the amrita. Fierce fighting thus nsued between devas and asuras for the nectar. The devas hid the pot of nectar at four places on the earth: Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. At each of these places, a drop of the nectar spilled from the pot and since then, these places have been imbued with mystical powers. For this reason, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated at these dhamas every 12 years.

The Asuras eventually got hold of the nectar and started celebrating, but the appealed to Vishnu, who then took the form of Mohini. As the beautiful and enchanting damsel, Mohini distracted the asuras, took the amrita, and distributed it amongst the Adityas, who drank it. One asura, Rahu, disguised himself as a deva and drank some of the nectar. Due to their luminous nature, the Sun God Surya and the Moon God Chandra noticed the switching of sides. They informed Mohini, and before the Nectar could pass his throat, Mohini cut off Rahu's head with Sudarshana Chakra. Rahu's head, due to coming into contact with the amrita, remained immortal, and is said to be the cause of the eclipses.

The Samudra Manthan pastime came to a close with the rejuvenated Adityas defeating the asuras.

Following are three versions of the Samudra Manthan pastime, from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Visnu Purana.


"Sauti said, 'There is a mountain called Mandara adorned with cloud-like peaks. It is the best of mountains, and is covered all over with intertwining herbs. There countless birds pour forth their melodies, and beasts of prey roam about. The gods, the Apsaras and the Kinnaras visit the place. Upwards it rises eleven thousand yojanas, and descends downwards as much. The gods wanted to tear it up and use it as a churning rod but failing to do so same to Vishnu and Brahman who were sitting together, and said unto them, 'Devise some efficient scheme, consider, ye gods, how Mandara may be dislodged for our good.'

Sauti continued, 'O son of Bhrigu! Vishnu with Brahman assented to it. And the lotus-eyed one (Vishnu) laid the hard task on the mighty Ananta, the prince of snakes. The powerful Ananta, directed thereto both by Brahman and Narayana, O Brahmana, tore up the mountain with the woods thereon and with the denizens of those woods. And the gods came to the shore of the Ocean with Ananta and addressed the Ocean, saying, 'O Ocean; we have come to churn thy waters for obtaining nectar.' And the Ocean replied, 'Be it so, as I shall not go without a share of it. I am able to bear the prodigious agitation of my waters set up by the mountain.' The gods then went to the king of tortoises and said to him, 'O Tortoise-king, thou wilt have to hold the mountain on thy back!' The Tortoise-king agreed, and Indra contrived to place the mountain on the former's back.

And the gods and the Asuras made of Mandara a churning staff and Vasuki the cord, and set about churning the deep for amrita. The Asuras held Vasuki by the hood and the gods held him by the tail. And Ananta, who was on the side of the gods, at intervals raised the snake's hood and suddenly lowered it. And in consequence of the stretch Vasuki received at the hands of the gods and the Asuras, black vapours with flames issued from his mouth. These, turned into clouds charged with lightning, poured showers that refreshed the tired gods. And flowers that also fell on all sides of the celestials from the trees on the whirling Mandara, refreshed them.

Then, O Brahmana, out of the deep came a tremendous roar like unto the roar of the clouds at the Universal Dissolution. Diverse aquatic animals being crushed by the great mountain gave up the ghost in the salt waters. And many denizens of the lower regions and the world of Varuna were killed. Large trees with birds on the whirling Mandara were torn up by the roots and fell into the water. The mutual friction of those trees also produced fires that blazed up frequently. The mountain thus looked like a mass of dark clouds charged with lightning. O Brahmana, the fire spread, and consumed the lions, elephants and other creatures that were on the mountain. Then Indra extinguished that fire by pouring down heavy showers.

After the churning, O Brahmana, had gone on for some time, gummy exudations of various trees and herbs vested with the properties of amrita mingled with the waters of the Ocean. And the celestials attained to immortality by drinking of the water mixed with those gums and with the liquid extract of gold. By degrees, the milky water of the agitated deep turned into clarified butter by virtue of those gums and juices. But nectar did not appear even then. The gods came before the boon-granting Brahman seated on his seat and said, 'Sire, we are spent up, we have no strength left to churn further. Nectar hath not yet arisen so that now we have no resource save Narayana.'

On hearing them, Brahman said to Narayana, 'O Lord, condescend to grant the gods strength to churn the deep afresh.'

Then Narayana agreeing to grant their various prayers, said, 'Ye wise ones, I grant you sufficient strength. Go, put the mountain in position again and churn the water.'

Re-established thus in strength, the gods recommenced churning. After a while, the mild Moon of a thousand rays emerged from the Ocean. Thereafter sprung forth Lakshmi dressed in white, then Soma, then the White Steed, and then the celestial gem Kaustubha which graces the breast of Narayana. Then Lakshmi, Soma and the Steed, fleet as the mind, all came before the gods on high. Then arose the divine Dhanwantari himself with the white vessel of nectar in his hand. And seeing him, the Asuras set up a loud cry, saying, 'It be ours.'

And at length rose the great elephant, Airavata, of huge body and with two pair of white tusks. And him took Indra the wielder of the thunderbolt. But with the churning still going on, the poison Kalakuta appeared at last. Engulfing the Earth it suddenly blazed up like a fire attended with fumes. And by the scent of the fearful Kalakuta, the three worlds were stupefied. And then Siva, being solicited by Brahman, swallowed that poison for the safety of the creation. The divine Maheswara held it in his throat, and it is said that from that time he is called Nilakantha (blue-throated). Seeing all these wondrous things, the Asuras were filled with despair, and got themselves prepared for entering into hostilities with the gods for the possession of Lakshmi and Amrita. Thereupon Narayana called his bewitching Maya (illusive power) to his aid, and assuming the form of an enticing female, coquetted with the Danavas. The Danavas and the Daityas charmed with her exquisite beauty and grace lost their reason and unanimously placed the Amrita in the hands of that fair damsel.'"

So ends the eighteenth section in the Astika Parva of the Adi Parva.


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