Amṛta-manthana: The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
Part I: Symbolism and Cosmology
The ancient myth of the churning of the nectar of ocean (amṛta-manthana) is found in the Mahābhāratha, Ramāyana, and multiple purāṇas like the Bhāgavata, Matsya, Viṣṇu, Brahmānḍa, Skanda, Padma, and the Āgneya Mahapurāṇa, with variations in the details.
The version in the Bāla kānḍa of the Rāmāyaṇa, is related to Sri Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa by the venerable sage Viśvāmitra within the brief compass of eighteen verses in the context of a long narration by the sage in which he relates the story of the death of the sons of King Sāgara, the descent of the Gaṅga and the origins of the city of Visala. It was narrated as follows: during the Kṛta or Satya Yuga (the Cosmic Era of Perfection and Truth), Diti (the supernatural personification of boundary or limits) gave birth to a powerful Daitya (demon). Aditi (= boundless, unlimited), the mother of the gods and the embodiment of Infinity, gave birth to Devarata (= delighting in the gods, pious) who was distinguished for his great heroic valor (vīrya) and righteousness.
These two supernatural beings desired to become immortal (amṛta = non-dying), incorruptible, and free from disease, old age and death. After consultation they decided to churn Kṣīroda (the Ocean of Milk) to obtain from it the rasa of immortality.
Employing the divine serpent Vasuki (‘possessor of treasures’ or ‘one who clothes all things’) as the churning rope and Mt. Mandara, as the churning rod, they commenced churning. The manthana, or churning itself is symbolic and applies equally to the vegetation on the hill, to Mandara and to the ocean — the intention being to produce the divine, the immortal ānanda through purification of the various layers of the consciousness - to flood the physical system just as the body of man is filled with and exults under the influence of strong wine. After churning for a thousand years, Vāsuki began to gnash the rocks of the mountain with his teeth and vomit venom from his one thousand mouths, thus creating a scene which resembled in appearance the pralaya which portends the end of the World Aeon. From this venom developed the awful poison halāhala or kālakūṭa, which spread throughout the world, threatening the existence of men, the Gods and even the demons themselves. With the rise of this poison, the air was full of venomous vapours and fumes which made all creatures, gods and demons — almost unconscious.
The gods sought refuge at the feet of Viṣṇu, who in turn, invoked Śiva and offered prayers to him with hymns of praise: “O Lord, thou art the chief of the gods, and should accept whatever is produced first from the churning of the Ocean. Kindly receive the poison as thy gift, the tribute of the first-fruits” Śankara, moved by the words of Viṣṇu and grieved by the plight of the gods, complied with their request and went to the ocean where the poison lay raging in all its fury. He drank the poison, which made his throat dark in complexion setting it off as a beautiful adornment to his fair-complexioned person. After the threat of kālakūṭa had thus been annihilated, the hosts of gods resumed the churning of the ocean.
While the earlier texts of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa do not, purāṇas such as the Matsya etc. describe the emergence of the toxic poison kālakūṭa during the course of the churning, and describe Śiva saving mankind through its consumption. Notably, there exists no conflict among Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava texts with regard to this aspect.
As the gods and demons resumed churning, the churning rod began to sink into the waters of the Cosmic Ocean. In response to their cries of anguish, Viṣṇu assumed the avatāra of a tortoise (kūrma) entered the waters and supported the mountain on his back. Taking hold of the peak with both hands, he churned the Ocean while standing between the Devas and Asuras. After another thousand years had passed, numerous articles of great value (ratnas) emerged from the milky-white ocean: first, Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods and author of the Ayurveda, holding a staff and a lump of clay (loṣṭa) in his hands; then, the Apsaras by the thousands, then in succession, there appeared Varuṇi or Surā (lit. ‘wine’) the wife of Varuṇa; Uccaiḥśravas, the celestial horse and prototype of the equine race which Indra kept; the magical jewel Kaustubha, which Viṣṇu chose as an embodiment of his consort Śri, and finally the juice of immortality (rasāmṛtam). The truce between the gods and demons was short-lived. Immediately after obtaining the elixir, the eternal antagonists fell to fighting for absolute lordship over the powers of life and death. In order to distract the Daityas, Viṣṇu employed his māya to take the form of a beguiling maiden, Mohini and retrieved the nectar from the Asuras by deception. The text then concludes with the statement: “Those who opposed the imperishable (akṣara) Viṣṇu were destroyed by him. In this battle, the gods slew countless Daityas. Indra, after slaying the Asuras, became king of the gods and with the assistance of the Ṛṣis, began to rule with felicity (mudita).
While the Gods were drinking the yearned-for Elixir, a Dānava by the name of Rāhu took the guise of a God and began to drink it too. The Elixir had gone down as far as the Danava’s throat when the Sun and the Moon gave alarm as a kindness to the Gods. The blessed Lord who wields the discus thereupon cut off his diademed head as he started to drink. The Dānava’s gigantic head fell rolling on the ground and roared most frighteningly. Ever since there has been a lasting feud between Rahu’s head and the Sun and the Moon; and even today he swallows them both during eclipses.
In the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Viṣṇu is presented as existing in three different guises and performing three separate roles simultaneously: (a) in His avatāra as the tortoise supporting the churning rod; (b) as the controller of the churning rope and rod and one of the churners; and (c) as the supervisor of the entire procedure, seated atop Mt. Mandara.
The version of the tale recounted in the Mahābhārata is similar excepting minor details, which will be detailed as we discuss the metaphorical interpretation of this ubiquitous purāṇic tale. The story is told in the setting of narrating the story of the two sisters Kadrū and Vinatā as a part of the Āstika legend, Sūta said to Śaunaka: “The two sisters beheld from near the divine horse Uccaiḥśravas — the best and primordial of the horses which arose while amṛta was being churned out.” Thereupon, Śaunaka asks Sūta to tell him how the illustrious horse was born and Sūta then takes this occasion to tell the story of amṛta-manthana.
Sauti’s reply begins with these stunning verses:
“There is a mountain called Meru a flaming heap of splendour.
Sunlight falls on it and scatters at the summit.
It is golden: it glitters: gods and gandharvas live on it.
It cannot be measured: many sinning man cannot come near it…
Mind cannot conceive of it… It has stood high for countless ages…
and once a gathering of gods met on its summit for consultation.
They came in search of amrita, these strict-vowed gods.
They discussed deeply, till Narayana said to Brahma:
“Churn the ocean with the gods and the anti-gods…
O gods, churn the ocean for nectar.”
In the Mahābhārata, the bringing forth of fruits from the ocean is observed in the following order: “Hearing Nārāyaṇa’s words. they waxed strong and all together they once more stirred mightily the milk of the ocean. And then from the churning ocean there arose the Sun of a hundred thousand rays, which seemed to equal it, and the bright cool Moon of the tranquil light. And Goddess Śri came forth from the butter clad in robes of the purest white, and the Goddess Varuṇi, and the white Horse Uccaiḥśravas; and the divine and lustrous Kaustubha jewel that hangs on Nārāyaṇa’s chest, resplendent in its radiance rose from the Elixir. Śri, Varuṇi, the Moon and Uccaiḥśravas, swift as thought all followed the path of the Sun to where the Gods were standing. And now came forth the beautiful God Dhanvantari who carried a white gourd that held the Elixir.” (While most of the purāṇas describe the emergence of much the same objects, albeit in varying orders, the Padma purāṇa deviates slightly and states that the entire purpose for the churning of the ocean was to bring forth Goddess Lakṣmi, and during the process, the great sages fasted, performed religions observances and continually chanted the Śrisūkta.)
The objects that emerge during the churning constitute a symbolic representation of the various levels of consciousness through which the yajamana rises as he ascends from the base of Mandara/Meru towards its summit by means of the yajna. Of these, Dhanvantari, dhanvan meaning desert; and tari being a crossing over, stands for the soul which is dry, bereft of divine grace (Ṛg Vēda VI. 12.5). Thus, the divine physician’s name itself signifies that through the arduous task of churning the ocean of his lower depths, when man at last emerges victorious with the secret of immortality. This is why Dhanvantari appears carrying the vessel of amrita.
The appearance of the white horse from the ocean is paralleled by the birth of Dadhikrāvan from the ocean in the Veda,the Taittiriya and Vajasaneyi Saṁhitas and the Śatapata-Brāhmaṇa. The aśva (horse) stands for the dynamic life-force, prāṇa, and also for Agni itself. Dadhikrāvan is said also to be born of the “Hill of Substance” and the “Waters of Light” in the Ṛg Vēda just as Uccaiḥśravas is produced from the interaction of Mandara and the ocean of sweet milk.
A variety of terms appear in the myth referring to the phenomenon of the gems and elixir coming out of the ocean. Each of the following verbs is used : jan- be born, bear, grow, spring up, arise; bhū- become, arise, come forth, be found, come into being, spring from; pad, prefixed by ut — to be born, arise, procure, appear, produce; and finally sthã, prefixed by ut — stand, arise, gather, emerge, appear. This terminology suggests that the ratnas and elixir are “ born” from the ocean, as opposed to being created newly and indeed most scholars treat this myth as a cosmogonic tale. This is in consonance most Vedic cosmogonies which are in agreement that the world as we know it emerged from a powerfully disruptive agitation of a precosmogonic unity in accordance with the dictates of the law of necessity (Ṛta).
The amṛta-manthana can be seen as based on two different metaphoric standards, of which the churning of butter from buttermilk is the more visually obvious and the pressing of sõma in Vedic rituals being the second, more allegorical, yet more important standard.
Kalanath Jha, in his book Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature discusses the Sanskrit poetic image : “Of the model metaphor it can be said that it is a figure based on verbal similitude with the superimposition of the behavior of one thing over another … [ Poets ] describe a particular action in such a way that appreciative people are at once reminded of the corresponding action of the standard, or, if mentioned, not so explicitly. In fact, the charm of the figure lies in so describing the action of the former that the latter is at once suggested.”
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 ).
The art of churning butter itself was an Indian creation and the ocean-in-a-vessel of the myth is the corresponding metaphoric expression of the buttermilk- in-a-clay-churning pot of the typical churning apparatus of a traditional Indian households which shows remarkable continuity right from ancient times. Mt. Mandara can be regarded as corresponding to the churning stick, fitted onto the back of the great tortoise Akūpāra to serve as the pedestal; while the snake, Vãsuki, being wrapped around Mt. Mandara and manned by the gods on one end and demons on the other, corresponds to the churning rope. This entire setup serves as the background to stage the mythic characters and Gods, and so does the churning process symbolize the mythic actions described.
When the snake Vāsuki was being pulled vigorously by the gods, there issued forth from his mouth repeatedly gases mixed with smoke and fames. These columns of smoke turned into masses of clouds and rained over the gods who were afflicted by the toils and torments while churning the ocean. This can be visualised as being similar to the release of fermentation gases such as carbon dioxide during the butter churning process in Indian homes.
Further, at the beginning of the myth, as seen in the Mahābhārata at 16: 19, the ocean referred to as being salt water ( lavaṇāmbhasi ). With the flowing essences of herbs, it is changed into milk ( kṣīra , pāyas). After the elixir arises, the ocean is once again referred to as salt water, just as buttermilk (“ a thin, bluish, watery liquid”) is left upon completion of churning, so is the restored to its original water state — thus consolidating the metaphoric representation of buttermilk as the mythic milky ocean.
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’.
In the Ṛg Vēda we come across the reference to samudra being the hiding place of soma and other treasures. Garuḍa is said to have brought soma to earth from its hiding place in the celestial waters (āpam urmir samudram), and the term samudra later became restricted to mean the earthy waters.
Throughout the Mahābhārata and continuing through post-Vedic texts is this notion that the ocean is a storehouse of treasures.
“Just as our lord the ocean and Mount Himalaya are both famous treasuries of jewels, so they say, is the Bhārata.”
“Draupadi alone knows her husband’s treasury, inexhaustible like Varuṇa’s ocean, full of treasures.”
The idea is echoed once again in the tale of Aṅgiras (Mbh. 188.8.131.52–20), wherein Agni seeks refuge in the ocean and must be “ churned” out of hiding by Aṅgiras.
So also in the Śatapata-Brāhmaṇa, Prajāpati, in the form of a boar, dives into the ocean, brings up the earth, and spreads her over the surface of the water. W. Doniger in Hindu Myths observes that water is thus regarded as both the birth-place and the hiding-place of the earth, for, ancient Indians believed in a closed universe in which matter could never increase, but the semblance of creation could be produced by reordering — by finding- elements already present in the cosmos and retrieving them over and over again from the cosmic flood.
We then arrive at the metaphor of soma-pressing embedded in the amṛta-manthana episode. First, we see a clear overlap in the terminology used for both. The term amṛta to denote elixir is used interchangeably with rasa, kṣīra, pāyas etc all of which have overlapping meanings and be used to refer to the (milky) sap or juice of plants. Further, milk products and amṛta were both associated with regenerative and curative powers — the elixir made Gods immortal and protected against death, while milk products, specifically the five products obtained from the cow, pañcagavya, are seen as possessing medicinal properties that purified the body through their consumption.
Coming to the realm of sacrificial rituals, we see the close link between amṛta and milk. During the somayāga or soma libation, soma was pressed three times a day, its talks found it in a mortar (called dronakalaśa) with pestles made of stone ( adri). Vyasa's description of Mandara as savana provides a further reinforcement of this structural symbolism. It does not mean merely "with forests" but refers to savana-sadhana, which is the implement for crushing soma during the Vedic ritual.
The meaning of Mandara itself is "slow, tardy, sluggish", which suggests an identification with the Vedic adri ("hill, rock") representing the dense, unmalleable physical consciousness. It is out of this hill or rock that the streams of madhu, or Soma, are milked out by Indra. After straining, the liquid was mixed with water, milk butter or curds, or gruel (yavāśira) in order to dilute the juice and sweeten its taste, placing milk and milk products on par with the divine elixir soma as divine offerings to Agni.
“Sufficient for Mitra, Varuṇa and Vāyu, the exhilarating (Soma), mixed with the three ingredients, is prepared by the performers of good rites.”
Ṛg Vēda 9.97.11
“Milked forth by the stones ( Soma ) flows through through the ( sheep’s ) hair coming into contact with its sweet flavoured stream.”
Ṛg Vēda 9.70.8
We also observe the close relationship between milk and amṛta, established clearly in the Ṛg Vēda as seen in the following hymns (translated by H. H. Wilson).
“The sweet Soma juices have hurried to the god like milch cows ( to a calf) ..”
“When the swollen Soma stalks were milked like cows with (full ) udders ..”
Mount Mandara catching fire during the churning process is yet another symbolic layer. The flaming mountain refers to the Vedic concept of baking the Soma vessel in fire in preparation for housing the ecstatic brew. The flames enveloping Mandara are smoky, for the inner flame initially works during sadhana in the lower vital regions, obscured by senses and desires. When, however, it rises to the realm of war (Indra) it becomes the pure white, winged steed Uccaiḥśravas, the Vedic Dadhikrāvan, with the lower consciousness wholly transformed by the purifying action of the divine flame of aspiration.
As described in the Mahābhārata, while the ocean is being churned, the essence of herbs ( rasa) growing on Mt. Mandara flow down into the ocean changing it from salt water to kṣīra or payas, or from water to elixir, just as soma juices flow down the stone pestles. Therefore, in the words of J. Bruce Long, the tale represents the soma ritual celebrated by means of a narrative performance, with the various structural components of the story taking the place of the sacrificial paraphernalia of the rite.
- NOTE: Rodney Parrott’s statement that the pressing of the Soma is a “subordinate standard” when compared to the churning of butter is against the popular consensus among scholars. C. G. Kashikar in “The Vedic Metaphor in the ‘Churning of Ocean’”, published in Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Vol. 65, no. 1/4 (1984): 241–43) reiterates that most scholars, including A.K. Coomaraswamy, S. A. Dange, J. Bruce Long are of the view that soma libation is, in fact, the most important and perhaps only metaphor employed in the telling of the myth. Kashikar contends that the pressing of soma, while it may not similar to the churning of the ocean in all respects, need not be “dragged” to fit into its structure (a conclusion I personally have arrived at as well after an extensive reading of the subject).
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.
Next, the ocean constitutes the single most important clue to the hidden meaning of the myth. In sloka 12 of chapter 17 it is referred to as kalaśa, which is the name of the receptacle of Soma in the Vedas (Ṛg Veda IX. 17.4; 18.7; 82.2; and Sāma Veda V,2,3). Even its other appellative, samudra carries the same connotation in the Ṛg and the Sāma Vedas. Vamadeva’s hymn to Agni (Ṛg Veda IV. 58) provides the explanation to the symbolism of the ocean. It mentions two oceans: the upper is the luminous ocean of the superconscient while below is the darkness of the subconscient and between the two lies conscious existence as a horizontal line. Vāmadeva also speaks of the hridyatsamudrat, the heart-ocean out of which flows the waters of clarity, ghritasya dharah, which get progressively purified by the mind and the inner heart. The honeyed wave rising from the heart-ocean is equated by him with Soma, “the pure delight of existence by which we can arrive at immortality”.
- BHATTACHARYYA, A. K. “THE THEME OF CHURNING OF THE OCEAN IN INDIAN AND KHMER ART.” Arts Asiatiques, vol. 6, no. 2, [École française d’Extrême-Orient, Smithsonian American Art Museum], 1959, pp. 121–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43485245.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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’
- J. A. B. van Buitenen The Mahabharata: Book 1: The Book of the Beginning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1973
- 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
- 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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