By Devdutt Pattanaik
In the last issue we discussed the significance of the myth of the churning of the ocean. Here, we delve into the symbolism and meaning behind the amrit that was the fruit of their effort
Why would the gods require the nectar of immortality, the amrit? One might ask, does this mean they were mortal? The gods in Indian mythology are different from the Biblical, omnipotent God. We don’t always capitalise the ‘G’ in gods. When we use the word God, it implies a self-created being, for example Vishnu; but the devas, such as Indra, were not self-created, they were born. The devas, the god-like beings that live above the surface of the earth; and the asuras, the god-like beings that live below the surface, are half brothers, having the same father, Kashyap, the ancient rishi. The devas were born of Kashyap’s wife Aditi, while the asuras of his other wife, Diti. Since they were born, they can also die, and so both devas and asuras long for immortality. In their quest, the devas ask Vishnu for immortality, who instructs them to churn the oceans to extract it.
Most of us label the devas as good and righteous, and the asuras as bad and deficient. Nowhere in the scriptures is this mentioned. Attributing morality to the deities is a very recent innovation, of not more than a few hundred years vintage. In ancient temples and sculptures, the devas and asuras are portrayed identically. Neither species is shown to be stronger, or more virtuous. In fact the scriptures describe the asuras as being more responsible and hard working, while the devas were complacent and hedonistic.
The amrit symbolises immortality, which in today’s times, is the legacy that succeeds us. We are born and will eventually die; but what lives on is our legacy. Building property or a material empire is one way of establishing such a legacy. Another way is through one’s children. Both these involve effort, an active outlook to life. To build up a legacy one needs to work together with those around one; just as the devas and asuras co-operated and found the amrit together. In the battle that ensues after the amrit is churned out, the asuras take possession of the amrit. Vishnu appears in the form of Mohini, an enchanting damsel, takes the amrit from the asuras and gives it to the devas. This is where the division into good and bad got instituted.
Once the devas have the amrit, they protect it with all their might. They don’t want to lose it to the asuras or anyone else. The asuras, who want immortality, are craving for the amrit. Vishnu, who advised the devas to churn the ocean, has engineered a conflict between the devas and asuras. By giving one set of brothers the amrit, and denying it to the other, we find the rise of insecurity in one group and craving in the other, a vicious cycle one has to transcend if one needs to break free from fear of death. Vishnu has tricked them into an internal endless battle, that of craving and fear. This can be seen in everyone today. Those that have something hold on to it for fear of losing it, and those who want something go on craving for it. Each one of us is craving for and holding on to something. Each one has the deva aspect and the asura aspect within us.
Both the emotions, craving and fear, are delusions of the material realm. One needs to move beyond attachment to all things in order to distance oneself from such emotions. .
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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