A modern artistic rendition of the Samudra Manthan with a dark sky and people pulling a snake on either side around a mountain

Samudra Manthan: Churning the Ocean for the Elixir of Immortality

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Samudra Manthan is one of the most well-known tales in Hinduism, a tale told and retold time and time again. The Samudra Manthan was a joint effort of the Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) to churn the ocean for Amrita, an elixir of immortality. But as you will see, along the way, they discovered many other surprises in the ocean. Some were invaluable treasures while others were deadly substances.

The Elephant and the Flowers

This story is in the Vishnu Purana, Book 1, Chapter 9 and the Skanda Purana, Book 2, Section 9, Chapters 8-10

Once, the sage Durvasa was wandering through the forest when he came across a Vidyadhari lady, an air nymph, named Madakala. She had a beautiful garland of Kalpaka flowers from the trees of heaven itself. Durvasa was captivated by the beautiful scent of the flowers, and he requested the nymph to give him the garland. The nymph bowed down to Durvasa and respectfully handed him the garland.

Durvasa then went to Swarga (heaven) and came across Indra, the king of the gods, seated on his elephant Airavata. Durvasa gifted the garland to Indra, who placed it on the elephant’s head. But the poor elephant was attracted by the strong smell of the flowers. It took the flowers in its trunk, smelled it, and then threw it down. Durvasa was known for having a short temper. When he saw this disrespectful treatment of his gift, he was enraged. “Indra, you have insulted me today! You did not bow down to me. You did not wear the garland. And now your elephant threw it on the ground. You have become arrogant. Just like you ruined my gift, your rule over the heavens will be ruined as well!” Indra begged for forgiveness, but Durvasa didn’t care.

Durvasa points and yells angrily at Indra, who is pleading at his feet. The elephant Airavata is in the back with the garland on the ground

From then on, the glory of the heavens began to decline. The entire universe became dull. Even plants began to wither away. People no longer performed sacrifices on Earth to please the gods. Adharma (unrighteousness) and Himsa (violence) became prominent as men and gods alike starved amidst droughts and poverty. The Devas (gods) suddenly began to face human problems like old age and disease. The goddess Lakshmi, representing the wealth of the Devas, disappeared from the universe and got submerged in the sea. At this time, the Asuras (demons) seized their opportunity. When the Devas were at their weakest, they attacked the heavens and further crippled the Devas.

Deprived of their home, the gods lived like beggars and hermits. They wore the skin of animals, lived in huts, and wandered around the forest with men, facing poverty and drought. Finally, at the end of one thousand years of misery, the Devas fled to Lord Brahma for protection. Brahma told them to go to Lord Vishnu.

The gods thus went to Vishnu and pleaded with him for help. Vishnu said, “There is only one solution. You have to befriend the Asuras and together, all of you must churn the ocean. Use Mount Mandara as the churning stick and the snake Vasuki as the rope. Tell the Asuras that Amrita will emerge from the ocean, and you will equally split it with them. Tell them that Amrita will make them immortal. I will make sure that the Asuras don’t actually get the Amrita.”

The “ocean” that Vishnu is referring to here is the Kshira Sagara, which translates to “the ocean of milk”. According to the Devi Bhagavata Purana and the Chandogya Upanishad, this ocean surrounds the Krauncha planet, and it is one of the abodes of Vishnu.

The Churning Begins

This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Book 8, Chapters 6-7

What is Amrita?

Amrita is essentially the Hindu equivalent of the Greek ambrosia, the drink of the gods. Just like in Greek mythology, drinking ambrosia gives the gods immortality and power. That is why they regularly drink this substance to remain youthful and energetic. In Vedic Hinduism, Amrita is also often called “Soma”. The Agni Purana says that the word “Mrtam” means “wealth received by begging”, while “Amrtam” means “wealth received without begging”.

The gods thus approached Bali, the king of the Asuras. As the gods entered the Asura city, the demons were ready to attack their unarmed enemies, but Bali restrained them. Indra spoke to Bali about churning the ocean, and Bali accepted this proposal. The gods and demons used the mountain Mandara as the churning stick. They uprooted the mountain out of the ground and carried it to the ocean, but the mountain was too heavy. Many gods and demons alike perished then and there, crushed by the mountain. Just as the gods and demons were on the verge of losing hope and giving up, Vishnu arrived. He placed the mountain on the back of Garuda (his eagle mount) and placed it inside the water.

Next, the gods and demons invited Vasuki, the king of snakes, to serve as the churning cord. They promised him a share of the Amrita, so he agreed. Vasuki was tied around the mountain and the churning began. Vishnu and the gods pulled from the tail side of the snake, while the Asuras pulled from the head side. But there was one problem. There was nothing to support the mountain from beneath, so it kept sinking into the water. The Devas and Asuras tried as hard as they could, but the mountain inevitably sank. Once again, Vishnu came to their rescue. He took the Kurma avatar, the form of a giant tortoise, and dove into the water, supporting the mountain with his shell.

The gods and Asuras surround a mountain the raging sea as they pull on a large multi-headed serpent

The Halahala Poison

The churning continued for a long time. The Devas were given energy because Vishnu was on their side, while the Asuras were constantly facing the heat of the fire and smoke coming out of the snake’s mouth. Finally, something came out of the ocean. But it wasn’t the Amrita; it was a deadly poison that spread across the sky like a dark cloud. All the gods and demons, along with the animals of the ocean, were terrified. The poison was the most powerful poison in the world, capable of killing everything. The Devas and Asuras fled to Lord Shiva for help. They sang his praise and begged him to save them from the poison. Since Shiva was powerful and the poison would have no effect on him, he agreed to swallow it. Even then, after he drank the poison, his throat became dark blue. That is why paintings and descriptions of Shiva always show him as having a blue throat, or Nilakantha. Whatever poison was left was taken by the scorpions and serpents. Thus, Shiva saved the gods and demons from the dangerous poison.

Shiva drinks the black poison in the water as the

Treasures of the Sea

This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Book 8, Chapter 8 and the Skanda Purana, Book 2, Section 9, Chapter 12

The Devas and Asuras began to churn again, and one by one, treasures emerged from the sea. Each Purana has a slightly different list of items that emerged from the sea, but these are the main items that are common across all the Puranas:

The wish-giving cow Surabhi

The very first ratna that came out of the water was the cow Surabhi, more commonly known as Kamadhenu. This cow is wish-giving, so she can produce whatever her own desires. In texts like the Garga Samhita, she is depicted as the mother of all cows and the goddess of cows. Surabhi was claimed by the rishis because she can supply them with the milk and ghee they need to perform Vedic sacrifices.

The horse Uchchaihshravas

After that, the horse Uchchaihshravas arose out of the waves. This horse had seven heads and was as white as the “radiant moon”. This horse was claimed by Bali, but it was later taken by Indra in a separate incident.

The Kaustubha jewel

The Kaustubha jewel was a ruby that radiated the sky as soon as it came out of the ocean. This precious gem was taken by Vishnu and it now adorns his chest.

The wish-giving tree Kalpavriksha

After that, the Kalpavriksha tree came out of the waters. The Kalpavriksha is a divine wish-fulfilling parijata tree. This tree was claimed by the Devas and they took it back to their gardens in Swarga.

The Apsaras

As the Devas and Asuras continued churning, the Apsaras emerged from the ocean. They were beautiful women wearing golden jewelry and dancing skillfully. The Apsaras are heavenly nymphs in Hinduism who often entertain the gods by dancing for them in heaven.

Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth

The Apsaras were followed by Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. If you remember from earlier, Lakshmi had been submerged in the ocean due to Durvasa’s curse. Here, she reemerges from the ocean. All the gods and demons were captivated by her beauty and desired her. Indra offered her a beautiful seat and worshipped her with the waters of sacred rivers. The Gandharvas sang her praises and the Apsaras danced before her. After she bathed in the sacred waters, the ocean offered her silk clothes and Varuna gave her the Vaijayanti garland. Vishwakarma, Saraswati, and Brahma each gave her jewelry. From everyone present there, she chose Vishnu as her husband, declaring that he was the only one who was free of flaws. Thus, Vishnu and Lakshmi were united then and there as eternal partners. Everyone praised Vishnu and Lakshmi.

Varuni, the goddess of wine

When the Asuras were completely disregarded by the goddess Lakshmi, they became irritated. The next being that emerged from the ocean was Varuni, the goddess of wine . To satisfy the Asuras, Vishnu gave them Varuni.

The moon

The moon also arose from the sea. The moon was taken by Shiva and that is why, in paintings and depictions of Shiva, we see the crescent moon adorned on Lord Shiva’s head.

Panchajanya conch and Sharanga bow

The Panchajanya conch shell and the powerful Sharanga bow also emerged from the sea. Both of these were claimed by Vishnu, and they are defining features of his modern representations.

  • The goddess Lakshmi sitting on a lotus in a pond with waterfalls in the background
  • A seven-headed horse Uchchaihshravas
  • A representation of the wish-giving tree
  • A picture of the moon

The Enchantress

This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Book 8, Chapters 8-9 and the Skanda Purana, Book 2, Section 9, Chapter 13

Suddenly, after all these ratnas, a man walked out of the sea. He was young and muscular, with a bluish complexion, reddish eyes, and curly hair. He was adorned with jewelry, and in his hand, he was holding the ultimate prize, what our whole story has been leading up to: a jar of Amrita. This man is known as Dhanvantari. He is an Avatar of Vishnu and he is the father of medicine.

The moment the Asuras saw the jar of Amrita, they ran towards Dhanvantari and snatched it away from him. Seeing the Asuras take the Amrita, the gods once again turned to Vishnu. Vishnu assured them that he had a plan. Meanwhile, the Asuras were fighting amongst each other. They yelled “Me first!”, “No I get it first!”, “Not you!” as they grappled with each other for the jar.

At this time, a beautiful woman appeared. Her facial features were perfect and she had an hourglass body shape. Her limbs were adorned with jewelry and her hair with flowers. The Asuras immediately forgot about their fight for the Amrita as soon as they saw the woman. They stared at her and surrounded her in curiosity. “Oh beautiful lady, who are you? Where have you come from? Why are you here? This Amrita has turned us against each other. Please distribute the Amrita equally so that there are no fights.”

This beautiful lady was Mohini, an Avatar of Vishnu. Mohini simply laughed and said, “If you are willing to accept whatever I do without question, then I will distribute this Amrita among you.” The Asuras were in a daze, mesmerized by her beauty. They simply nodded and handed over the jar. Mohini then turned to the Devas and Asuras and instructed them take a ritual bath and perform the Svastyayava rites. After this, they all sat down in a row and waited for the enchantress Mohini to arrive.

Soon, Mohini seductively entered the hall and began distributing the nectar. Very intelligently, she first distributed the Amrita to the row of gods. The Asuras would have obviously objected, but she continuously seduced them with smiles, playful words, and playing with her garments. The Asuras were too entranced by her to speak out, and they didn’t want to upset her.

Mohini carries the pot of Amrita as the gods and demons sit with their bowls ready

The Eclipse

One of the Asuras, Rahu, realized what was going on. Mohini was giving all of the Devas the Amrita. He disguised himself as a Deva and sat in the row of the Devas, between the sun god Surya and the moon god Chandra. Mohini continued from one Deva to the next, and when she came to Rahu, she didn’t suspect anything, so she also gave him the nectar. Just as Rahu raised the pot to his mouth to drink the Amrita, Surya and Chandra realized that he was an imposter. They immediately told Mohini, who invoked the Sudarshan Chakra (discus) and beheaded the demon. But it was too late. The Amrita had already gone down his throat. Thus, his body was separated into the head and the torso/legs, but both parts of his body lived on. He was immortal. These two parts of his body are known as Rahu and Ketu.

Rahu and Ketu hold their enmity with Surya and Chandra till this day. Thus, a couple of times each year, Rahu and Ketu will cover up the sun and the moon respectively. This is what we know as the solar and lunar eclipse. Rahu and Ketu are even included among the nine Navagrahas (nine gods that represent planets).

Mohini launches Sudarshan Chakra which splits open

The Deva-Asura War

This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Book 8, Chapters 10-11

Thus, Mohini gave the gods all of the Amrita. By the time she reached the Asuras, there was nothing left in the pot. She assumed her true form as Vishnu. The Asuras stared with their jaws open. They couldn’t believe how they had just been tricked. Vishnu mounted the eagle Garuda and flew away, while the Asuras stared at him in shock. As they comprehended what had happened, they became enraged. They had just exerted so much effort churning the ocean, and nothing even came out of it. They didn’t get any of the Amrita. Furious, they picked up their weapons and attacked the gods. The gods fought back, and thus, on the shores of the ocean of milk, a violent war was fought between the Devas and Asuras.

In the Brahmanda Purana and Padma Purana, it is said that there were 12 major wars between the gods and the demons during the Varaha Kalpa. The war on the banks of the milk ocean after the Samudra Manthan is the 4th of these wars: the Amrtamanthana war.

Thus, on the sea shore, Devas and Asuras stood at opposing sides, reading with their weapons and armor. On one side was the Asura king Bali, in his flying chariot called Vaihayasa. This chariot was able to fly anywhere upon the rider’s command. Bali was surrounded by powerful demons like Namuchi, Sambara, Bana, Vipracchiti, Ayomukha, Aristanemi, Maya, Sumbha, Nishubha, Jambha, etc. On the other side was the king Indra on his elephant Airavata. He was surrounded by Vayu, Agni, Varuna, and other nature gods.

Both sides ran at each other on foot, and on elephants, chariots, horses, camels, and all types of other animals. King Bali fought King Indra, Kartikeya conflicted with Guha, Vishwakarma battled his counterpart Maya, Namuchi fought the god Aparajita, and the goddess Bhadrakali fought Sumbha and Nisumbha. Durmarsa fought Kamadeva, the Maruts fought the Nivata-kavacha demons, and so on. The battlefield was covered with a cloud of dust and pools of blood. Severed limbs, broken bows and flag staffs, and broken ornaments littered the battlefield.

Bali fired ten arrows at Indra and Airavata, but Indra intercepted them with his own arrows in the sky. Bali invoked a Shakti missile, but Indra destroyed it before Bali could even launch it. Bali took up many weapons, but Indra destroyed all of them. Bali was a master of illusions. He disappeared and created a mountain over the battlefield. Burning trees, boulders, serpents, lions and tigers fell down from the mountain and attacked the armies of the gods. Female Rakshasis (ogresses) hurled flaming rocks at the Devas. The gods panicked and prayed to Vishnu for help. Vishnu flew into the battlefield and just as he appeared, all the illusions disappeared. The demon Kalanemi attacked Vishnu with a javelin, but Vishnu caught the javelin and killed Kalanemi with it. He also killed the Asura general Malyavan.

Indra vs. Bali

With Vishnu’s help, the Devas regained their morale and energy. Indra loudly proclaimed that he was going to kill Bali and raised up his signature Vajra (thunderbolt) weapon. As Bali retorted, Indra fired his Vajra at Bali. The great demon collapsed unconscious and his chariot fell from the sky.

Seeing his friend and his king Bali lying on the ground, Jambha attacked Indra. He approached Indra on his lion and struck Indra’s elephant Airavata with his mace. The powerful blow knocked down the elephant and it fell unconscious. Indra’s charioteer Matali immediately brought a chariot yoked with a thousand horses. As Indra got off the elephant and onto the chariot, Jambha threw a javelin at Matali. Matali tolerated the immense pain, and in retaliation, Indra once again launched his Vajra and beheaded Jambha.

Jambha, mounted on a lion, swings a mace at Indra who is mounted on an elephant in the air

Death by Foam

Namuchi, Bala, and Paka then rushed at Indra. They fired thousands of golden-hilted arrows at Indra, his chariot, his horses, and Matali. Indra and his chariot were covered with a cloud of arrows. The attack overwhelmed Indra, but he quickly regained his composure. He invoked his Vajra and beheaded both Bala and Paka. Namuchi screamed in rage and grief when he saw his friends die. He grabbed a golden javelin and hurled at Indra, but the god shattered it into thousands of pieces with his arrows. Indra once again threw his Vajra at Namuchi, but this time, nothing happened. The thunderbolt didn’t even pierce Namuchi’s skin. Indra was baffled. His thunderbolt had never failed him before. The Vajra had killed many great demons like Vritra, but it was now unable to kill an insignificant Asura.

Suddenly, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This demon cannot be killed by weapons wet or dry! He has been given a boon that he would not die from anything wet or dry. You will have to find another way to kill him!”

Indra contemplated. As he looked around, he eyes wandered upon the foam in the sea. A light bulb went off in his head as he realized that the foam was neither dry nor wet, it was rather both wet and dry at the same time. With this foam, he chopped off Namuchi’s head.

Narada Ends the War

This story is in the Bhagavata Purana, Book 8, Chapter 11

At this time, as the war raged on, Narada appeared on the battlefield. He addressed the senior gods and told them, “You have won the nectar. You are supported by Vishnu and Lakshmi. You should now stop your fighting and return to your homes in peace.”

The gods ended their fighting and return to heaven triumphant. They had secured the Amrita and won the war. The surviving Asuras carried their unconscious king Bali to the western mountain. There, Shukracharya (the Guru of the Asuras) chanted the secret samjivani mantra that had been given to him by Shiva many years ago. This mantra was able to revive anyone. Thus, Bali and the other Asuras were revived and fled back to Patala.

Vishnu and Lakshmi’s Wedding

This story is in the Skanda Purana, Book 2, Section 9, Chapter 14

After the war, the marriage ceremony of Vishnu and Lakshmi was celebrated as they had been reunited. All of the gods and other divine beings from across the Universe came for the wedding. Tvastra built a massive beautiful hall for the ceremony. The hall was lined with pillars decked with bejewelled glowing lamps, wish-yielding trees, and arches. The great sages performed Lakshmi’s ablution as Gandharvas sang and played instruments. Apsaras danced and created a festive environment. After Lakshmi took her ritual bath, she was dressed in yellow silken garments and ornate jewelry. All of the gods presented her with precious gifts. Since Lakshmi was technically the daughter of the Ocean, the Ocean god officially gave her to Vishnu in marriage. The wedding rituals were performed by Brahma and the rishis. Vishnu and Lakshmi circumambulated the sacrificial fire. The wives of the gods and the river goddesses sang the praises of the couple and presented various gifts. All together, the wedding was celebrated with joy and grandeur, a happy ending to our tale of the Samudra Manthan.

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