The Bhagavatam (also called Bhagavata Purana) is one of the most loved texts in Hindu dharma. Written by the great sage Veda Vyasa, it drips with devotion and sublime knowledge. It is indeed one of the most beautiful examples of Bhakti (devotion) expressed in poetry. The Bhagavatam consists of innumerable stories of the various avatars of Lord Vishnu, each story steeped in deep symbolic significance.
One well-known story from the Bhagavatam is the one of the churning of the milky ocean. Vishnu agrees to help the devas (good forces) when they approach him after being defeated by the asuras (evil forces). He asks the two parties to churn the great milky ocean, which thus churned, would produce the nectar of immortality. The party that consumes this nectar could then permanently defeat the other. However, this churning would need to be a collaborative effort for the mission to be successful. The devas and asuras agree to set aside their differences temporarily. When the day comes, Vishnu directs them to a favorable spot in the ocean, brings the great mountain Meru to the agreed upon spot to serve as the axis, convinces Vasuki the king of snakes to function as the rope, and Himself assumes the form of a turtle, perching under the mountain and stabilizing it. Thus begins the enormous effort to churn the ocean using Meru with Vasuki wrapped around it, the devas and asuras rhythmically pulling each end of the great snake to disperse the waters and reveal it’s treasures. As the teams tire out with the excessive effort, Vishnu Himself takes up the churning on both sides with his yogic powers. Vasuki begins spewing deadly poison from being used as a rope, this poison threatening to consume the entire cosmos. At this juncture, Lord Shiva, the great yogi and ascetic graciously steps in and consumes the poison, effortlessly holding it in his throat chakra (and comes to be known as Neelakantha, the blue-throated one). Eventually, mystical objects and phenomena begin to arise from the ocean, including Airavata the celestial elephant, Ucchaisravas, the flying horse, gems and treasures. Vishnu distributes the “gifts” equally to both parties. The churning continues until the radiant Mahalakshmi arises from the churning waters. Dazzling and beautiful beyond description, she ignores the amorous advances of the devas and asuras, choosing Vishnu as her husband. She disappears into his heart and lives there as his Shakti for eternity. Finally, Vishnu himself takes the form of Dhanvantari, who comes forth bearing the much-awaited nectar (amrita). Vishnu then takes the form of Mohini, the bewitching damsel and tricks the asuras by distributing all of the nectar to the devas. A war ensues between the devas and asuras, and the devas (aided by the nectar of immortality) win back their heavenly abode.
There is a much deeper symbolism to this story from the standpoint of spiritual practices and progress along the path of yoga. Below is my interpretation of amritha-mathanam (churning the ocean for amrita) from this angle. It is said that the Atman (soul) hovers around the mother after conception, waiting to enter the fetus. Around month 6 of pregnancy is when it “enters” the fetus, forming the subtle chakras and nadis “top down”. The sahasrara (crown chakra) is the first chakra to be formed, where there is only Brahman/Supreme Consciousness/Oneness, with no individual “I”. It is when the anahata (heart chakra) is formed that the “I-ness” emerges (ahamkara), that gets denser and stronger as the manipura (navel chakra) and swadishtana (sex chakra) are formed. Finally, that soul completes formation of the base/root chakra, the muladhara (complete individualization), becoming dormant as the latent Kundalini. The chakras lie along subtle channels along the spine, the central sushumna flanked by ida and pingala. The ida and pingala channels criss-cross around the sushumna like the well-known symbol of medicine, the caduceus. In most of us, the sushumna remains closed, with all energy supplied for sustenance through the ida and pingala (that correspond to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems). These two channels represent the sun and the moon, and driven by separation, all opposites that we are continuously prone to – pain and pleasure, likes and dislikes, dark and light, heat and cold, etc. The sahasrara represents devas ruling over the kingdom of “heaven” (Oneness), while the muladhara represents asuras ruling over “hell” (separation or loss of knowledge of Oneness).
When the spiritual aspirant realizes that the devas have “lost” the battle (that there is something more to human life than material gains), he/she calls to his/her inner guru (Vishnu) to help regain the “kingdom of heaven”. And so the churning of the ocean of consciousness begins with the devas (sahasrara) and asuras (muladhara) at the two ends of the great snake (sushumna), yogic practices resulting in gradual opening of the sushumna. As a result, the latent Kundalini residing at the root chakra awakens and begins the ascent up the sushumna. The manipura is the “middle ground”, the anchor of consciousness (the navel is where the fetus is joined with its mother through the umbilical cord; it is said that during astral travel, what keeps us in the body is a cord attached to the navel). The manipura (literally, “city of gems”) is thus “churned” by the devas and asuras (opposing tendencies that are responsible for all inner conflict). The ego represents Mount Meru, the anchor that is used to churn the ocean. This anchor is held steady by the tortoise underneath, the inward drawn mind. Anyone that has practiced yoga will know that all sorts of subconscious tendencies and pain are brought up into conscious awareness with continued practices; this is the poison spewed by the great snake in the churning process. In yoga, Shiva represents inner silence and awareness. Thus, poison spewed up with continued yoga practices is consumed by Shiva – when we let go of the churned up stuff, it is Shiva (inner silence) that consumes it, leaving no trace of these karmic tendencies and burning up conditioned patterns that keep the illusion of the separate self strong. All sorts of “gems” (siddhis/latent abilities) and insights come up in the churning, for example, Airavatha the celestial elephant (intuition) and Ucchaisravas the celestial horse (inner strength). Now, in the Bhagavatam story, Vishnu distributes these gems among the devas and asuras – exactly what happens on the spiritual path; if these siddhis produce attachment, the asuras in us can begin to use them for purposes far from divine. On the other hand, if they are let go of, we get closer to the kingdom of heaven. Importantly, even deep insights and knowledge must be given away to gain entry into the kingdom of heaven. Nothing can be kept or owned for oneself. Goddess Lakshmi represents the inherent bliss and beauty that is present in all of creation. She cannot be “had” by either the devas or asuras; thus, she chooses Vishnu, the sustainer of the cosmos, for she is the essence (Shakti) needed for all sustenance and creativity. As the churning continues, Dhanavantari finally makes an appearance with Amrita, the nectar of immortality – not merely the amrita that trickles down from the crown from the nectar cycle, a well-known phenomenon among yogis, but the nectar that gives back the devas their kingdom of heaven (Oneness). Immortality is that state where one is beyond all dualities and pairs of opposites. Not driven by past conditioning and with no fear of the future, the immortal yogi resides in the eternal present.
All through this churning, it is the inner guru/light (Vishnu) that is responsible for the spiritual aspiration, for planting the idea of churning the great ocean, for “doing” the churning, for stabilizing the ocean as a tortoise (withdrawing the mind within itself like a tortoise, as explained in the Bhagavad Gita, 2:58), bringing up the gems and finally coming up with amrita as Dhanavantari. This inner guru also takes the form of Mohini to help the aspirant along the way to detach from lower, asuric tendencies and to favor the higher, deva-like ones. In all of this, it was never the individual seeker “doing” anything; he/she was under the illusion of Vishnu’s own created illusion (Maya), simply believing that he/she was the doer.
On with the churning!