By Devdutt Pattanaik
Paradoxically, there is nothing truer than a myth for it encodes the enduring truths of life. In a new column, we get India’s leading mythologist to reflect on some of the myths that resonate with contemporary life and challenges, beginning with the myth of the Samudra Manthan
The myth of the samudra manthan, or churning of the ocean, starts with Indra, the king of the devas, accepting a garland offered to him by the sage Durvasa, while riding his elephant. Annoyed by the garland’s smell, the elephant threw the garland down, angering Durvasa, who then cursed Indra and all the devas to be bereft of their strength, energy and fortune. The asuras came to know about it, and waged war against the devas. The only hope for the devas was an alliance with the asuras to jointly churn the kshirsagar – ocean of milk, for the nectar of immortality.
For the churning, Vishnu in the form of the turtle Kurma supported the mountain Mandaranchal, used as the churning tool, on its back. Vasuki, the king of the serpents, was used as the churning rope to rotate the mountain. After struggling with this for a long time, the churning released a terrible poison called Halahala, which caused havoc and destruction. The gods approached Shiva, and out of compassion he drank the poison, which got stuck in his throat and hence the name Neelkantha, or blue throat. A number of ratnas or gems were produced by the ocean as well. On churning the amrit, the devas kept it for themselves, not sharing it with the asuras.
This myth deals with loss, and regaining of what is lost. It starts with Indra being complacent and careless. When we let achievements or successes carry us off, we take things for granted and become careless. We then lose Lakshmi, our wealth. Not just our financial wealth, but all-round well-being. That is when we are lost, and nothing seems to go right anymore. One then realises his mistake and then cultivates the will to make things right once again. The kshirsagar, or ocean of milk, symbolises an ocean of possibilities, an ocean of life. Anything and everything possible lies in it, and can be yours with some effort. This effort is important, as it makes one worthy of what we desire. It ensures that it isn’t just a windy desire of a wandering mind.
The turtle Kurma represents stability, a base for our life. If we don’t have our roots strong and firm, no amount of effort can help us attain what we want. Mandaranchal, the mountain, represents the static aspect in us. It represents that part of us that needs to be strong and withstand any distraction. Vasuki represents the dynamic part of us, the importance of being flexible and open-minded. In order to succeed we need both the unchanging and the flexible within us, and in the correct positions. Another symbolic reference is of time and space; the mountain being space, and the serpent, time. It is only at the right ‘where and when’ that things occur. Churning required both the devas and the asuras to jointly make efforts. This symbolises that we need to use our strengths and weaknesses, our friends and enemies to succeed; we must embrace the familiar and the unfamiliar. We need to face our fears and use them, instead of avoiding them. A complementary partnership is must for this to work. When the devas pull, the asuras let go, and vice versa, force and counterforce.
Very often, the initial fruit of our efforts is negative, like poison. It is important to let it come out, as only after it is out can the real fruits, the amrit, reveal itself. Any attempt at self-transformation will first bring in awareness of our flaws and faults, and it is only when we accept and transcend them that our true perfect nature (amrit) manifests. Before the amrit was revealed, there were a few gems that were given to mankind. These gems symbolise dharma, the divine order, artha, economic progress and stability, and kama, artistic and sensual pleasures.
This myth is an allegory of regaining what is lost. If one has lost his job, Lakshmi has gone out of his life. Immediately he will have a longing for it, to get it back into his life. But that is not enough, he needs to journey in order to get it. He should first be grounded, and stable. From the ocean of possibilities, he needs to choose one path or one method and stick to it. He also needs to be aware of the right place and time for the job, not just randomly freefloat from one opportunity to the next. His effort will carry him forward, something we don’t always recognise. Effort, or the lack of it, is the sole cause of all things, good and bad. He also needs to know that once he has found a good job, he should realise that like all jobs, this too will have its merits and demerits, both of which he should accept with detachment. This analogy can also be applied to the world as a whole. Presently, we have lost much of what gives life meaning and happiness – peace of mind, contentment, health and a link to the Divine. The churning that is presently going on in the world – the overwhelming presence of violence, warfare and sex – is the poison spewing out before the amrit, the New Age, will be won.
As told to Sharukh Vazifdar
Devdutt Pattanaik has transformed his passion for mythology into a career, constructing the work culture of the Future Group www.devdutt.com
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