Stories have many functions – as well as being entertaining, they help us understand philosophies and have a way to tell us the truth – the real meaning behind something, in a manner that is easy for us to understand and remember.
The story of the Samudra Manthan, is one such story – told in the Mahabharata and also in the Vishnu Purana, Sanskrit epics of ancient India.
In the many versions of the story we will always find details of the origin of the Amrit ‘The Nectar of Immortality’, the Kumbh Mela and it also unfolds the mystery of how eclipses occur and the existence of Rahu and Ketu.
A great ascetic and avatar of Lord Shiva, sage Durvasa was walking holding a garland of flowers called Santanaka. Lord Indra, the King of the devas (the Gods) came across the sage and accepted the flowers placing it on the trunk of his elephant Airavata. Irritated by the smell, the elephant threw the garland on the floor – this infuriated the temperamental Sage Durvasa, who lost his temper and cursed Indra that he would be cast down from his position as King of the Gods and that all the devas would lose their prosperity and wealth. Indra begged for forgiveness but the sage refused.
Due to Durvasa’s curse, Lakshmi, Goddess of power, bravery, enthusiasm and radiance left Indra and went away, leaving him miserable.
This opened up an opportunity for the demons to invade heaven. In the battle between the devas and the asuras (demons) led by king Bali, the asuras gained control of the universe. Indra therefore lost his kingdom and hid from the asuras.
After a few years, Indra’s teacher, Brihaspati and the devas went to Lord Brahma, the creator of the Universe, who then went to Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the Universe, to try and help Indra out of this situation. Vishnu said to Indra; “Don’t fear, I shall show you the way out. The sea of milk must be churned (Samudra Manthan) – It will be a very difficult job so you must gain the friendship and trust of the demons to get their help. Make sure you treat them in a diplomatic manner”.
Brihaspati went ahead and facilitated an alliance with the asuras to jointly churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality (Amrit) and agreed to share the nectar with them as the asuras were keen to also have this Amrit.
However, Vishnu told the devas that he would make sure that the devas would get all the nectar for themselves. He told them when the Amrit was ready, they should drink it to gain immortality and strength to then defeat the asuras.
He told them to use Mount Mandaranchal as a churning tool (dasher) and Vasuki, the king of the serpents as a churning rope and at the right moment he himself would appear to assist them and that Goddess Lakshmi, who had disappeared for some time, would also reappear to offer her grace.
The asuras and the devas gathered to churn the ocean and carried Mount Mandarachal and dipped it into the ocean of milk, using Vasuki as the rope – the Gods held the tail of the snake while the demons held its head and pulling alternatively the mountain rotated to create a churning affect. However, once the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink to the bottom of the ocean bed.
At this moment, Lord Vishnu appeared to help, in his incarnation as Kurma the tortoise, and brought the mountain back to the surface, balancing it on his back, providing stability, so the churning could continue.
A dreadful poison called Kalakuta or Halahala came out of the ocean while churning. It’s fierceness and toxicity frightened all the asuras and the devas, so, on the advice of Vishnu the devas approached Lord Shiva to help them.
Shiva helped by drinking the poison, which left a blue mark on Shiva’s throat, hence he is sometimes referred to as Neelakantha (the blue-throated one).
As they continued to churn the ocean fourteen Ratnas (celestial divine treasures) came up, one of which was Goddess Lakshmi, the daughter of the king of the milky ocean appearing on a fully bloomed lotus, wearing a lotus garland which she placed on Lord Vishnu, choosing him as her consort.
The last treasure to come up was the Amrit, the nectar of immortality.
The 14 Ratnas:
- Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth.
- Kaustubha, a divine jewel worn by Lord Vishnu representing pure consciousness shining in all its luminous manifestations.
- Parijat, a divine night-flowering coral jasmine tree that never fades or wilts.
- Varuni, Goddess of water, wife of Varuna and creator of wine.
- Dhanvantari, God of medicine and healing and an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
- Chandra, God of the Moon.
- Kamadhenu, a wish-fulfilling divine cow and Mother of all cows.
- Kalpavriksha, a wish-fulfilling tree.
- Airavata, Indra’s white elephant.
- Apsaras, celestial nymphs, female spirits of the clouds and waters.
- Uchchaihshravas, a divine 7-headed flying horse.
- Sharanga, the celestial bow of Vishnu.
- Shankha, Lord Vishnu’s conch.
- Amrit, the nectar of immortality.
As the Amrit appeared in a sacred pot held by Dhanvantari, fierce fighting began amongst the asuras and the devas to claim it.
To protect the nectar from the asuras, Vishnu’s eagle Garuda took the pot, flew away and hid it in four places on earth; Prayagraj (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, the locations of which host the Kumbh Mela every twelve years.
Somehow the asuras got hold of the nectar and started celebrating. The devas were worried and asked Vishnu in desperation to help them. As promised (Vishnu had said at the right time he would come to help) he appeared disguised as a beautiful apsara damsel called Mohini. This distracted the asuras who were mesmerized by her and listened to her intently as she told them all not to fight for the nectar as she herself would present herself as nectar if they sat in two rows.
The asuras sat in one row and the devas in another and as she distracted the asuras, she skillfully took the Amrit and distributed it to the devas who drank it. At the same time she served intoxicating drinks to the asuras who, enamoured by her beauty and charm, did not realise what was happening.
One of the asuras, Svarbhanu, had disguised himself as a deva and managed to get hold of the nectar and drink it himself. Due to their luminous nature, the Sun god Surya and Moon God Chandra both noticed that he had switched from asura to deva and quickly informed Mohini. Mohini reacted by cutting off the head of Rahu with her divine disc the Sudarshan Chakra.
As Svarbhanu’s head had already come in contact with the amrit, it remained immortal and became known as Rahu and his body as Ketu, two energies from the same body.
To take revenge on Surya and Chandra for exposing him, he occasionally swallows the Sun or the Moon, causing what we know as eclipses.
The Sun or the Moon then passes through the opening of the neck, ending the eclipse.
The devas continued drinking the Amrit and became immortal and free from the fear of death. A while after, when the asuras realised that they had been deceived, they waged a war. But, the devas, who had gained strength from the amrit defeated them and drove them away.
In Vedic astrology Rahu and Ketu correspond to the North and South Lunar Nodes respectively.
Although the Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon, it is also about 400 times as far from the Earth than the Moon.
This situation causes the two luminaries (Sun and Moon) to appear as about the same size in the sky.
When the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, it casts a shadow. If this shadow falls on the earth, it causes an eclipse.
The Moon passes between the Sun and Earth every month, yet it does not cause an eclipse to occur every month. An eclipse can occur only when the Moon is zero latitude i.e. it is in the plane of the orbit of the Earth around the Sun.
The points of intersection of the orbital planes of the Moon (around earth) and the Earth (around Sun) are called Rahu and Ketu. Rahu is the ascending node i.e. the turning point where the Moon begins to gain latitude and Ketu is the descending node of the Moon.
Naturally, for an eclipse to occur, the Sun and Moon would appear to conjoin in the skies, and it is necessary for either of the nodes to be in contact for the shadow to fall on Earth. Since the shadow can fall on Earth only when either of the nodes conjoins this conjunction of the luminaries, the nodes are also called shadowy planets or shadow-causing by nature. This is referred to as Maya.