Churning of the ocean is in Hindu mythology, a term used for the cosmic struggle between the Demons and gods over the Amrita, the water of life, often identified with Soma juice.

Durvasas (ill-clothed), a Hindu sage and an incarnation of the god Shiva, offered Indra a garland as a gift, which Indra ignored. Because of this affront, Durvasas cursed Indra, saying that “his sovereignty over the three worlds should be subverted.” Under the curse Indra and the gods grew weak and were on their way to destruction. The Asuras, or Demons, seeing an opportunity, used all of their powers to finish off the gods and gain control of the three worlds.

In desperation some of the gods fled to Brahma, asking him for protection. He advised them to seek the aid of Vishnu. “I will restore your strength,” Vishnu replied, “but you must do as I command you. Cast into the Milky Sea some magic herbs, then take Mount Mandara for a churning stick, the serpent Shesha for a rope, and churn the ocean to obtain the Amrita, the water of life. To do this you will need the help of the Asuras. Promise them some of the Amrita, but I will make sure they have no share of it.”

The gods listened to Vishnu and entered into an alliance with the Asuras, the Demons, to set about the task of obtaining the Amrita. They cast the magic herbs and took Mount Mandara for a churning stick and Shesha the serpent for a rope. (In India a churning stick is a stick with a long rope twisted around it. The rope, held at both ends, keeps the stick in a vertical position, while the turning caused by pulling the rope accomplishes the churning.) The gods grabbed the serpent’s tail while the Asuras pulled its head. Vishnu took the form of Kurma, a tortoise, his second avatar or incarnation, and became a pivot as the mountain twirled around.

Vishnu was also present but unseen among the gods and Demons pulling the serpent back and forth, as well as present on top of the mountain. Vishnu thus sustained the gods with his powerful energy. When the venom from the serpent Shesha burned the faces of the Asuras, Vishnu protected the gods from the same fate by sending up clouds with rain that drifted toward the serpent.

First, the wish-bestowing cow, Surabhi, arose from the sea. Next came the goddess of wine, Varuni, with rolling eyes. Suddenly the magic tree Parijata appeared. It was “the delight of the nymphs of heaven, perfuming the world with its blossoms.” (Later the tree was kept in Indra’s heaven and was the pride of one of his wives, Sachi. When Krishna visited Indra he carried away the tree, causing a war between the two, which Indra lost. After Krishna’s death, however, the tree was returned to Indra.)

After the appearance of the Parijata there came the Apsaras, water nymphs, then the moon, which Shiva took and placed on his brow. Next came a draft of deadly poison, which Shiva drank lest it should destroy the world. The bitter poison turned the god’s throat blue, earning for him the epithet Nilakantha (blue throat). Next came Dhanvantari, physician of the gods, holding in his hands a cup of the Amrita. Then the goddess Sri appeared seated on an open lotus. She came to the god Vishnu’s breast to rest. A fabulous jewel, Kaustubha, also appeared, which Vishnu placed on his breast.

The Demons now took the opportunity to steal the cup from Dhanvantari and were ready to drink the water of life. Vishnu then appeared as a ravishing woman, Mohini (the enchantress), which made the Demons so lustful that they forgot to protect the cup of Amrita. While they disagreed among themselves, Vishnu took the cup and gave it to the gods.

The Amrita, or Soma, as it is identified in some tellings of the myth, has been interpreted as the life-giving genital semen produced by the rubbing of the snake (phallus) at the base of the mountain.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante