Amṛta-manthana: The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. ca. 1780–90, Punjab Hills, Mandi. The Met
The creation of Rāhu, the demon of eclipses Guler, Punjab Hills, circa 1770–75
Kūrmāvatāra, Tehri Garhwal, ca. 1860–1870. Victoria and Albert Museum

The Churning of Butter

The Aryans of the Vedic era were pastoralists with the production and consumption of milk, butter and ghee being seminal to their diets and lifestyles. The Atharva Veda lists seven types of milk products included in the people’s diet : clodded curds ( āmikṣā ), sour milk ( dadhi ), fresh bulter ( navanīta ), curds mixed with fresh milk and sour milk ( payasyā ), butter mixed with sour (pṛṣadājya ), first churned curds ( phāṇṭa ), and warm milk mixed with milk ( vājina ).

Viṣṇu in his incarnation as Kūrma the turtle. Dutch engraving, 1672

The Pressing of Soma

The other, veritably main metaphor engraved in this myth is that mentioned by A. K. Coomaraswamy in his essay on “Angels and Titans: An Essay on Vedic Ontology,” that the act of churning the ocean to obtain amṛta is akin to the pressing of the soma plant within the context of the Soma rites to obtain somāmṛta probably served as a model for the composers of the epic and purāṇas versions of the myth. The same is asserted by S. A. Dange in his Legends in the Mahābhārata that “the idea of the Churning of the Ocean is not a new one and can be traced in the Vedic literature, as we note in Vedic passages, where Soma, spoken as amṛta, is said to be rising up to the heaven from the ‘samudra’ which is the name given to the Soma libation vessel. .. The legend of the churning as it is given in the MBh., thus, seems to have its roots in Vedic literature, especially in the sacrificial ritual of the pressing of the Soma.” (p. 279) He goes on to support his interpretation by noticing formal similarities between the pressing stones and Mt. Mandara, between the juice of the Soma plant and ’the various fluids dripping into the ocean from the mountain Mandara’.

Symbols of Immortality

Mount Meru is the first of the symbols of immortality. The gods gather on its summit, on the plane of supreme truth-consciousness, corroborated by to tantra literature, in which Meru is the spine connecting the mulādhāra, a four-leaved lotus at the base of the spine with the thousand-petalled lotus atop the cranium, acting as the channel for the Kundalini Śakti lying dormant at the base. The union of the two lotuses through the seven chakras along Meru, is the union of Śiva and Śakti which produces the amṛta to permeate the entire being. Mount Meru/Mandara, rooted on Kúrma, with the serpent rope stretching out on either side and crowned with forests, is also the cosmic tree: in post-Vedic literature, Meru is referred to as mulakanda. The tortoise stands for the padmamula/muladhara; the mountain represents the stem (sushumna nadi); the serpent rope is the two-side branches (ida and pingala nadis). This is also the image of Puruṣa: the stem as the human trunk, the forests as the hair, and the serpent rope on either side as the branches of the cosmic tree or arms of the primordial man: thus it stands for the created cosmos.

  1. Kashikar, C. G. “THE VEDIC METAPHOR IN THE ‘CHURNING OF OCEAN.’” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 65, no. 1/4 (1984): 241–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41693117.
  2. Parrott, Rodney. “A DISCUSSION OF TWO METAPHORS IN THE ‘CHURNING OF THE OCEANS’ FROM THE “MAHĀBHĀRATA.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 64, no. 1/4 (1983): 17–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41693039.
  3. V. M. Bedekar, “The Legend of the Churning of the Ocean in the Epics and Puranas, A Comparative Study,” Puranas IX (February, 1967) https://archive.org/details/puranavolix015195mbp/page/n17/mode/2up
  4. J. Bruce Long. “Life Out of Death : A Structural Analysis of the Myth of the Churning of the Oceans of Milk ‘ from ‘Hinduism : New Essays in the History of Religions’
  5. J. A. B. van Buitenen The Mahabharata: Book 1: The Book of the Beginning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1973
  6. WILLIAMS, JOANNA. “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk — Myth, Image and Ecology.” India International Centre Quarterly 19, no. 1/2 (1992): 145–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23002226
  7. Bhattacharya, Pradip. “Symbols of Immortality in the Mahabharata.” India International Centre Quarterly 13, no. 1 (1986): 106–15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23001678.

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