Once, Indra, morch of all gods, lost his kingdom for showing disrespect to sage Durvasa. Deeply chastened, he approached Lord Vishnu who advised him to churn ksheer sagar, the divine ocean of milk. From this churning would emerge amrita, the ambrosia that would make all gods (devas) immortal and help them regain their lost kingdom.
But the devas were much weakened. So they sought the help of their worst enemies, the asuras or demons, who were always physically stronger. They all agreed to churn the ocean of milk together. But with what would they churn the ocean with?
So they approached Mandhara, the gigantic mountain, to serve as the churning stick, and the great ske god Vasuki to serve as the rope. Lord Vishnu then assumed the form of a tortoise and held the Mandhara from sinking.
As the churning went on, celestial objects began to emerge from the ocean. But first, it was the deadly poison halahala that floated up — threatening to engulf and destroy the three worlds. Frightened, the devas and asuras prayed to Lord Shiva who swallowed the poison smilingly as his neck turned blue.
By this act of supreme sacrifice, Lord Shiva set an eterl example of facing and overcoming evil without allowing it to enter the soul and wreak its damage. Thus He became Neelkanth, who with equanimity accepts the sorrow and pain of devotees, protecting and blessing them.
Meanwhile, up from the ocean came the wish granting cow Kamadhenu, the heavenly tree Parijat, the goddess of wine Sura, the celestial nymphs apsaras, the magnificent steed Ucchaisrava, the divine elephant Airavata, the wish fulfilling tree Kalpavriksha and the priceless gem Kaustabha. Goddess Lakshmi emerged and chose to be forever by the side of Lord Vishnu, while Chandra, the Moon, adorned Lord Shiva’s hair.
At last appeared Dhanvantari, the divine physician, holding the vessel of amrita. Immediately, the devas and the asuras began to fight over it. Filly though, the nectar of immortality was denied to the asuras through a subterfuge by Lord Vishnu. Assuming the form of the incomparably lovely Mohini, He deluded the asuras while distributing amrita among the devas. Thus becoming immortal, the devas permanently gained the upper hand over the asuras.
But the story does not end there. It is ected again and again in the heart of every human being. This is the long and mighty battle that must be waged in the quest for spiritual purity. The senses representing the higher principles are the gods, the negative thoughts and impulses are the demons.
As the seeker concentrates his mind, he must withdraw his senses, control desires and practice austerities. The participation of both the devas and the asuras in amrita manthan signify that in spiritual practice, the positive and negative aspects of the persolity must all be harnessed in a harmonious manner, so that both the energies are integrated for the common purpose.
The ocean of milk is the human consciousness, whose waves are but the thoughts and emotions that constantly agitate the mind. Mandhara, the mountain, is the enormous concentration needed to focus the mind along a single line.
The Tortoise which upheld Mandhara signifies the withdrawal of the senses into one’s self as the mind, resting upon itself freely, is concentrated during meditation. The serpent Vasuki stands for desire which can be held in one’s hands and manipulated only if it is under control .
As sadha or spiritual practices begin, the mind is subjected to great turmoil. An intense churning by opposing forces causes doubt, pain and suffering. The seeker yearns to pursue the spiritual path but negative forces in his mind oppose it strongly.
It is this poison halahala that the seeker must learn to deal with through proper yogic practices. Only then, can he proceed to gain the psychic or spiritual powers (siddhis) one after the other as signified by the celestial objects that emerged during the churning of the divine ocean.
But the powers gained must never distract the seeker from the attainment of amrita, the supreme knowledge, the ultimate goal.