Samudra Manthan- the churning of sea- is one of the greatest Indian mythological legends from ancient sacred writings ‘Puranas.’ The legend story of Samudra Manthan establishes many religious beliefs including two related to Lord Shiva. One- Why night vigil (raatri jaagaran) is observed and devotees stay awake all night on Mahashivratri festival. Two- Why Lord Shiva is also called ‘Neelkantha’ (One who has blue neck)?
Mythological Legend behind Samudra Manthan (Sea Churning)
Indra- the King of Gods- was once riding his elephant when he met Sage Durvasa who offered him a special garland. This was not a common garland but the dwelling of Sri (fortune). After accepting the garland, Indra put it on the trunk of his elephant who being irritated by this threw the garland on the floor. Sage Durvas became very angry on this and cursed Indra that all the Gods will loose all their strength, energy and fortune.
Only two powers prevailed at that time. One of Gods (virtuous power) and the other of demons (vice power). The Gods (Devas) and demons (Asuras) used to fight with each other. As a result of the curse of sage Durvasa, in the following battle between the gods and the demons, the demons led by Bali gained control over whole universe. Gods got scared and went to Lord Vishnu- the protector- for help. Vishnu suggested that demons be treated diplomatically. As a result, Gods made a treaty with demons to obtain ‘Amruta’ (nectar of immortality) from the sea and share it with them. To obtain ‘Amruta’ which was lying in the deeps of the deep sea, churning of sea was needed. Thus, ‘Samudra Manthan’ – the churning of sea- was undertaken by Gods and the demons.
Samundra Manthan & Lord Shiva
To churn a sea was not a simple task. It needed Mount Mandara as the churning rod and Vasuki- the King of Serpents- as the churning rope.
The Gods and the demons were both at each of the churning rope’s end. Many great as well as dangerous things emerged as a result of the Samudra Manthan. Some of these included:
- Sura/ Varuni – the Goddess and creator of wine
- Apsaras – Divine or celestial nymphs
- Kaustubha – Diamond believed to be the most valuable jewel in the whole universe
- Uchhaishravas – The divine white horse
- Kalpavriksha – The wish-granting divine tree
- Kamadhenu – the wish fulfilling divine cow
- Airavata – the divine white elephant
- Lakshmi – the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth.
- HalaaHala – the deadly Poison that could destroy the whole universe
The last of the listed items- the pot of halahal (poison) explains the role of Shiva in the whole act of Samudra Manthan and why this legend relates to Mahashivaratri. The dangerously toxic pot of halahal could have wiped out the whole universe. This terrified the gods and on advice of Lord Vishnu, they went to Lord Shiva for help.Out of compassion for living beings, Lord Shiva accepted the request of gods and swallowed the poison that emerged as a result of Samudra Manthan. Parvati – Lord Shiva’s consort pressed his neck so that the poison don’t reach his stomach. The poison, thus, got collected in the throat of Shiva making his neck blue. Due to this, Lord Shiva is also called Neelakantha (one having blue color neck). The term “Neela” means blue and “Kantha” means neck or throat.
The divine doctors advised gods to keep Lord Shiva awake for the whole night so that he is not affected by the poison. Thus, the gods observed night vigil and performed dance and sang songs to keep Shiva awake. The risk of getting affected by poison was avoided. When sun rose the next day, Shiva was very happy and pleased by this and blessed the gods for their efforts. This event is believed to have initiated the celebration of Mahashivratri festival as the Grand night of Lord Shiva. His devotees fast, observe night vigil, meditate and praise Lord Shiva on His night- the Mahashivaratri.
Samudra Manthan and Divine Nectar of Immortality
The mythological story of Samudra Manthan doesn’t get completed without its climax when the pot of Amruta – the nectar of immortality- was found while churning the sea. Dhanvantari – the Divine Physician appeared with the pot of Amruta (divine nectar of immortality). The Gods did not want the dicey demons to get this nectar and the demons too did not want to let Gods have it. Thus forgetting their treaty for sharing the nectar, they started fighting with each other. To protect the nectar from asuras or demons, the gods hid the nectar after dividing it into four pots at four places on the earth. These places are the following Indian cities
- Prayag in Allahabad
It is said that at each of these places, a drop of the nectar spilled from the pot. Since then, these places are said to have acquired mystical power. Grand Kumbh Mela (Kumbha Fair) is celebrated at each of these four places after every 12 years.
Eventually, Lord Vishnu took form of a beautiful woman named Mohini. On seeing Mohini’s beauty, the demons got bewildered and for sometime forgot about the nectar. Taking this opportunity, Mohini seized the nectar and gave it to the Gods. They drank the Amruta- the divine nectar of immortality immediately and became immortal.