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Stories / Legends - Symbolism of Samudra Manthan
samudra manthan churning

Churning of the Milk Ocean (Samudra Manthan)

Symbolism of Samudra Manthan

Stories / Legends
Symbolism of
Samudra Manthan
In Hinduism, Samudra Manthan or The churning of the ocean of milk is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas and is celebrated in a major way every twelve years in the festival known as Kumbha Mela. The story appears in the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana.

Samudra Manthan is also known as: -
  • Samudra Manthanam — Manthanam is the Sanskrit equivalent of Manthan meaning 'to churn'.
  • Sagar Manthan — Sagar is another word for Samudra, both meaning an ocean or large water body.
  • Kshirsagar Manthan — Kshirsagar means the ocean of milk. Kshirsagar = Kshir (milk) + Sagar (ocean).
The story represents the spiritual endeavor of a person to achieve self-realisation through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism.
  • The Devas and Asuras represent the positives and negatives respectively of one's personality. The participation of both the Devas and the Asuras signifies that when one is seeking bliss through spiritual practice, one has to integrate and harmonise both the positive and negative aspects and put both the energies to work for the common goal.
  • The Ocean of Milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is like an ocean while the thoughts and emotions are the waves in the ocean.
  • Mandhara Mountain symbolises concentration. The word Mandhara is made up of two words Mana (mind) and Dhara (a single line) which means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only by concentration.
  • Mount Mandhara was upheld by Lord Vishnu as a Kurma (tortoise). The tortoise here symbolises the withdrawal of the senses into oneself (just as a tortoise withdraws its head into its shell) as one practices mental concentration and meditation or contemplation.
  • Vasuki, the serpant king symbolises desire. Vasuki used in the churning of the ocean denotes that the Devas and the demons held desire (to seek immortality) as a rope and churned the mind with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. Desire, if not controlled will overpower and destroy an individual.
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  • The Halahala Poison symbolises suffering and pain (counter-reaction of the mind and body) that one undergoes at the beginning of spiritual sadhana (practice). When the mind is subjected to intense concentration, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. These must be resolved otherwise further progress is not possible.
  • Lord Shiva symbolises the ascetic principle. His role in this story as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment, compassion, pure love and asceticism.
  • The various precious objects that come out of the ocean during the churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers (Siddhis) which one gains as s/he progresses spiritually from stage to stage. The seeker should be careful about these powers as they can hamper her/his progress unless s/he uses them judiciously, not for selfish gains but for others' welfare. This is the reason why the Gods and demons distributed these objects as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim which was to gain immortality.
  • Dhanvantari symbolises health and signifies that immortality (longevity, to be correct) or spiritual success can be achieved only when the body and the mind are in a perfect state of health.
  • Mohini symbolises delusion of the mind in the form of (or originating from) pride. It is the pride of achievement to which the Asuras or the demons succumbed and thus lost sight of their goal. Pride and egoism are the last hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before experiencing self-realisation.
  • The Amrit symbolises the ultimate achievement of the goal of self-realistion.
  • Lakshmi represents universal enrichment which comes as an automatic by-product of the internal self-realization or Amrita.
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