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The legend behind the churning of the ocean is as follows:
The gods, having grown weary of their interminable enmity with the demons or anti-gods (asuras), approached Vishnu for the boon of immortality. Vishnu counseled the gods to seek cooperation with the asuras to churn the great ocean together, which would reveal the gems, herbs, and nectar of immortality (amrta) hidden within its depths. With the help of Lord Brahma, and the great serpent named Vasuki, they were able to uproot the vast mountain Mandara, which they intended to use as the churning stick. Vishnu manifested himself as a tortoise, and on the back of this tortoise was placed mount Mandara. Brahma stabilized this arrangement by pressing it from above. The serpent Vasuki wound himself around the mountain as the churning rope, and at the either end of the serpent the gods and asuras pulled back and forth, pivoting the mountain and churning the ocean.
The churning caused chaos in the ocean, as gradually the water was churned into milk, and then clarified butter (ghee). The following things emerged from the ocean during the process of its churning:
The first to emerge were the sun and the moon, these were taken by Shiva for his diadem.
Next arose the white horse Uchaishravas, and the precious six-tusked white elephant Airavata; these Indra took for his mounts.
Then arose the wish-fulfilling tree Kaplavriksha (or Parijata), and the brilliant red gemstone Kaustubha; the gods claimed the tree, and Vishnu claimed the gemstone as his breast ornament.
Next to emerge was the Goddess Lakshmi, the bestower of fortunes. Vishnu took her as his wife. She can be seen in this painting emerging from the ocean.
Next emerged the intoxicating goddess of wine, Sura. the gods were able to drink her without ill-effects, but the asuras were not able to hold their alcohol. From sura is derived the word 'asura', meaning 'those unable to consume wine' or 'those without the goddess of wine'.
As they continued their vigorous churning, there next arose the wrathful, fiery Halahala. Halahala was the embodiment of poison. The naga serpents claimed the essence of his poison as their own. Another version of this legend tells us that it was Shiva who restrained this poison in his throat, thus causing it to turn blue. Nilakantha-the blue-throated one-is thus one of the epithets of Shiva.
Next to arise was Surabhi, the wish-fulfilling white cow', whose abundance of dairy products grants all round prosperity.
Finally there emerged Dhanvantari - the physician of the gods- bearing in his hands the vase full of amrta, the nectar of immortality. Dhanvantri is also attributed with revealing the medical science of Ayurveda.
The asuras, reverting to their inherent characteristics, fought to obtain the possession of all the amrta. But Vishnu, assuming the illusory form of the enchanting goddess Mohini, beguiled the asuras and served the amrta only to the gods.
Thus ended the struggle to obtain the possession of amrta. This struggle is said to have taken twelve days. Four drops of amrita spilled out during this contest. It is believed that these four drops fell at the following four cities: Allahbad, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain. At each of these four cities the great religious festival known as the Kumbha Mela is held every three years in rotation, with a larger festival taking place every twelve years (derived from the concept that one day for the gods is equivalent to one human year).
This description by Nitin Kumar, Executive Editor, Exotic India.
Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999.
Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.
Wilkins, W.J. Hindu Mythology. Calcutta: Rupa & Co, 1986.