There are many versions of this story that appears in numerous old texts.
Our story begins with Indra, the god of thunder, having a pretty good day. He is not known to be sharp-witted or diplomatic. Riding his elephant, on his way back to his kingdom, he comes upon the powerful sage, Durvasa. Durvasa is also having a good day. He was just given a garland of immortal flowers by a celestial nymph. Now he sees mighty Indra. So he presents Indra with this garland to honor him. Indra happily accepts the garland and places it on his elephant’s head.
Some claim the elephant was irritated by the smell of the flowers, some claim he sneezed, and yet others say he was just playing with the garland. But everyone agrees that the garland falls to the ground and is trampled by the elephant's big feet.
All this takes place right in front of Durvasa. Durvasa is not someone to be taken lightly. He is extremely powerful and highly temperamental. He curses quite freely and has a long history of cursing those who incur his wrath. As he sees the garland being trampled, Durvasa feels deeply insulted by Indra, and he is livid. In his fury, he immediately curses Indra and the gods, instantly stripping them of their glory and powers.
This is a major curse, not just for Indra, but for all the gods. The gods, Sura, and the demons, Asura, are often battling. If the Asura get word of this incident Indra had with Durvasa and the curse, they will surely crush their foes with ease. The Sura gods are now and powerless and they will be pretty mad with Indra.
Indra seeks great Brahma, the Creator. Hearing Indra’s predicament, Brahma tells him that there is just one way to regain the powers to become strong. The gods must churn the Ocean of Milk and extract the Nectar of Immortality from it. This is a monumental task and Indra knows that he and the other gods cannot accomplish it, especially now that they are weak. Brahma understands this and counsels Indra to seek the help of his enemies, the Asura. Indra thinks this is impossible. Why would the Asura help the Sura become powerful? Brahma is very clear and firm with Indra. The Sura and the Asura have to work together. If the Sura gods offer to share the Nectar of Immortality with the Asura, the Asura will not refuse to work together.
Indra cannot believe his ears. How can Brahma want the Asura to have some of the Nectar of Immortality and become immortal? Brahma assures Indra that the great gods will make certain that the Asura do not get the nectar. Indra is no position to argue and has no choice. He approaches the Asura and they are quite happy to put aside their differences. Both sides come together. They need something to churn the ocean. The Asura are very strong and resourceful. They get the mountain Mandhara and place it in the ocean. They get Vasuki, the king of serpents, to be the rope. The Sura hold the tail at the top and the Asura hold the head at the bottom. Everything is set up and organized quickly.
The churning begins. All is well for a while. But soon, Mandhara slips and falls to the bottom of the Ocean of Milk. They cannot get it back up. Not knowing what to do, where to seek help, they all pray for it. Hearing the plea, Vishnu the Preserver, takes the form of a tortoise. He goes to the bottom of the Ocean of Milk and holds the mountain, Mandhara, on his back. The churning resumes.
After some time, something appears to be emerging from the Ocean of Milk. They were all expecting to see the Nectar of Immortality. What emerges is the deadly poison Halahal. Even one tiny drop of this poison was capable of destroying life. Everyone is terrified and frantic. Who will handle this awful poison and where can it be put? Petrified, they cry out to the greater gods for help. This time, it is mighty Shiva, the Destroyer, who appears. Shiva drinks the poison and holds it in his throat so it does not affect his head or his stomach. Shiva’s throat turns blue and that is why he is depicted with a blue throat and is called Neelakanth or Blue-throated. There is no one else who could have handled the poison.
Now that yet another crisis has been handled, the churning resumes. The Sura and Asura have been working really well together. Soon objects begin to emerge from the Ocean of Milk. One by one, fourteen treasures appear and are distributed. Finally, the pot of Nectar of Immortality emerges.
Seeing the nectar, there is mayhem. Everyone is pushing and shoving to get some. The Asura are always extremely big and strong. The Sura feel particularly weak stripped of their powers and strength. They feel overwhelmed by the Asura’s pushing and shoving. At this rate, the Asura will get the Nectar of Immortality. The Sura gods find themselves again praying for help.
Vishnu, the Preserver, comes to the rescue as enchantress Mohini. Mohini distracts the Asura with her charms and dances while she distributes the Nectar of Immortality to the Sura. The gods, Sura, regain their power and now have immortality. All is well.
The story can be interpreted in several ways. We have three ways of looking at it.
The first interpretation is the obvious good versus evil and requires no further explanation even though there is nothing “evil” that the Asura have done in this story and the reader just has to assume that the Asura are the “bad” ones. In fact, it is the god Indra who is weak in this case. So good and bad are relative and it is in the so-called “good” or positive that we sow the seeds of negativity. It is in the “bad” or negative that we sow the seeds of the positive.
We take a deeper look in the second view. The godly and the demonic, the Sura and Asura, are aspects within each person. We all have both. The godly is the spiritual life and the demonic is earthly human life. The conflict, or the battle, between them is frequent or constant. Brahma, the Creator, asks that we accept both aspects and try to harmonize them. Living a human life, we cannot ignore the human needs of making a living and fulfilling our obligations. However, to lead a more fulfilling life, the human must be balanced with the spiritual. For most of us, a totally spiritual life is not feasible. The struggle for balance becomes a constant reminder that it is the spirit that is undergoing the human experience. One could make the case that the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita are greatly expanded versions of this struggle described in Samudra Manthan.
Brahma counsels the weakened Indra to consciously use the human experiences to realize the spiritual core. Thrown off-balance as a result of his unconscious behavior, Indra does not know how to harmonize the two. Brahma tells him to work with the Asura, extract the Nectar of Immortality (wisdom and awareness of Self-realization) from the Ocean of Milk, and drink it.
The Ocean of Milk is the mental space, chitta, with all its turbulent waves of thoughts, emotions, both positive and negative. There is ceaseless, restless activity with all its ups and downs. How can anyone extract the Nectar of Immortality in this choppy life? Milk must be churned to get butter. If we churn without any awareness of this process, we just keep getting buffeted. If we are conscious and aware, we use the churning to extract butter. The story starts creating this awareness and it gives advice on how the butter can be churned.
Keep the mind focused on something steady, not on the choppy waves of thoughts. The mountain Mandhara is that steady visual focus that acts as an anchor, focal point. (See Up to the Summit.) Mandhara comes from two words, manas meaning mind, and dhara meaning line. Keep the mind steady and focused in one line. When the Sura and Asura were doing just that, there was harmony.
When focus is lost, and this happens often in our conflicted lives, we must withdraw from distractions like a tortoise and regain our steadiness. The churning takes place because of constant and endless desires. Thwarted desire is the cause of fear, loss, and disappointment. Desire is the snake Vasuki. But desire can be positive or negative and here we use desire in a constructive way. The desire to achieve a certain positive outcome helps keep the mind steadily focused through ups and downs. The concentration and focus is not deeply established yet, because as soon as we encounter a disturbing situation, we are again floundering into the churning waters of the mind. Guidance comes again, in the form of Vishnu as a tortoise. We experience the world through the mind and senses (see Prana: Breath of Life in Stories or Understanding Prana Through Story in this section). They are the gateways. Close them and withdraw into the sanctity of inner space like the tortoise. Regain your balance.
As we are steadily churned through the ocean of existence, when we embark on a spiritual quest, all the toxic elements in us emerge first. This is the poison. It is part of the process. People who start meditation expect beautiful thoughts to emerge right away. They are disturbed when they see the content of the mind. Often they believe that meditation has caused these disturbing thoughts. That is not right though. Meditation just opens the lid of the mind and what is emerging is everything we keep bottled up. It is all the negativity that we suppress and deny. Detoxification at the mental and emotional levels is absolutely essential. The grip of negative thought waves and conditioning keeps the person tied down to the earthly stage of Asura. So both the Sura and Asura go through this stage successfully. They give these disturbing thoughts and emotions to mighty Shiva, the Destroyer.
Once the negativity is cleared, the psychic powers or the treasures emerge. There are still pitfalls! It is easy to fall prey to arrogance, greed, jealousy that arise from these powers. We are tested again! Mohini (also called Maya or, in Buddhism, Mara) is the enticing enchantment of these powers which are delusions. If we give in at this point and get trapped in these delusions, we will miss getting the Nectar of Immortality. If we stay focused and aware, we move on in our quest. The Sura move on and the Asura give in.
Finally, having overcome everything, we gain the wisdom and awareness of Self-realization, which is the Nectar of Immortality. The churning human experience is a necessary process to extract the wisdom; to transform the human being into the spiritual being in this human existence. Through this odyssey of life, every time help is needed, and prayed for, guidance is always given. Faith never fails.
What is puzzling is why Brahma is not honest about the sharing of the Nectar of Immortality? He is a greater god! For this, we had to dig into the meaning of Sura and Asura further. The answer lies in the Puranas. They tell us that Sura and Asura are brothers. Asura are the older ones. This is the unconscious, ignorant mind. Sura are the younger brothers. They are the ones with conscious awareness. However, they too are not infallible.
We all start out as Asura, unconscious and unaware of who we are. Through the human experiences we are made aware, Sura. That awareness must become deeply rooted and established. So by not giving the Nectar of Immortality to the Asura, the state of ignorance of who we are is not perpetuated. Awareness of who you are spiritually is wisdom.
Now from the third perspective, the traditional yogic point of view, we see something else in the story. Samudra manthan explains the stages of yoga meditation. It is certainly about balancing the inner spiritual life of the Sura with the external life of Asura. A more detailed set of instructions is available to achieve this balance. In the second viewpoint, we just had an outline.
In raja yoga and tantra, we have yamas and niyamas, the social and personal codes of conduct, to help harmonize our social interactions. Human relationships and interactions are a huge factor in the mental and emotional churning. Asana, the physical aspect is to harmonize the body physiology. These are specific ways for balancing and organizing external life--healthy relationships and healthy bodies. We start bringing awareness to our physical being and our relationships in life that make-up the macrocosm.
Pranayama, conscious breathing, begins the transition to the inner life of the microcosm. In tantra, just as Earth has two poles, so does the etheric body. The positive pole is at the top of the spinal cord and the negative pole is at the bottom of the spinal cord. The bottom, mooladhara chakra, is the earth element, earthly life, and has the qualities of the Asura. However, the seeds of spirituality are in mooladhara.
We all start out with the consciousness at this level. The positive pole is ajna chakra, whose trigger point is the eyebrow center. Its element is the mind and it is the guru center with the qualities of the Sura, heavenly life. Both mooladhara and ajna are important spiritual centers. The two must work together in harmony and balance each other in the churning of life. As mentioned earlier, the Puranas say that the Asura and Sura are brothers, the Asura are older as they represent the unconscious, or unaware mind. Then through the process of life churning, the consciousness becomes aware of itself and these are the Sura. So there are no demons and gods. They just represent the states of consciousness. Both exist within us, everything is within us. The purpose of life, the churning of life experiences, is transformative because it makes conscious what was unconscious.
The spinal cord is the mountain Mandhara. Through pranayama we keep the mind in line, following the flow of prana moving up and down the spinal cord. Vasuki is the serpent energy (kundalini) that flows up and down and constantly churns the ocean. It is consciously churning it to separate the “butter” from the “whey” and here the butter is the Nectar of Immortality. So this churning is different from the turbulence of the mental emotions that are out of control.
It is easy for the mind to wander off and sink into the ocean. For this, the process of sense withdrawal or pratyahara, is essential. This is the tortoise that supports Mandhara. The poison is all the gross, negative experiences and emotions that emerge in a spiritual aspirant as the mind begins to detoxify. These are all the mental suppressions toxic to spiritual growth. The only one who can handle them is Shiva, the original yogi, the Master yogi. The aspirant gives all his negativity up to the guru who can destroy them. Focus starts developing more strongly at this point and this is dharana.
Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva signify the importance of guru.
With further churning, keeping the mental awareness focused and concentrated on a single point, we have meditation or dhyana. After cleansing the mind of all its concepts, conditioning, and programming, the treasures emerge. In yoga, these are psychic powers known as siddhis. This happens when blockages or toxins in the chakras have been removed. The chakras along the spinal cord start opening up. The nectar, wisdom, finally emerges from within.
It is still possible to fall at this stage due to pride and ego. When they are finally overcome, immortality is sahasrara, the crown chakra opening up. The vital energy fuses into its source. The final stage is samadhi or Self-realization. This is drinking the Nectar of Immortality. Immortality is when the individual consciousness merges into the universal consciousness.
Samudra manthan is the allegory of raja yoga.
This is the odyssey of our lives. The end of the journey is realizing that we are the Supreme Consciousness that has temporarily manifested itself as this body.