Samudra Manthan is a very interesting legend of ancient Hinduism. The churning of the ocean depicts that in a war between goodness and evil, always goodness triumphs. There are various underlying symbols connected with the entire series. Following are the most significant symbols that are associated with the Manthan:
The churning of the ocean of milk: On Lord Vishnu’s advice, the devtas agreed to perform the Samudra mathan in the ocean of milk in order to regain their lost power. The Gods were powerless and hence, persuaded the asuras to support them saying that it would benefit both the parties. The ocean of milk represents the mind and consciousness and the ‘mandhara’ or the mountain represents concentration and awareness. We need to focus our mind on spiritual practices in order to attain self-realization and enlightenment (amrit). Without concentration, it is not possible for one to stay goal driven.
Gods and Demons: The Gods became powerless as a result of a curse given to Indra (the Kings of Gods) by an ill-tempered sage, Durvasa. The ‘devtas’ lose their power and are overpowered by the ‘asuras’. The demons defeat the Gods and take over Swarglok, the heaven. The God here represents the goodness in us which is often overpowered by the evils (in the form of lust, greed, jealousy, anger and hatred).
Vasuki, the serpent: The enormous serpent Vasuki was tied around the mountain by the Gods and demons for churning the ocean. As the churning proceeded, large waves whirled amidst the ocean, giving rise to a toxic poison ‘halahal’. The serpent can be seen as a symbol of desire and passion without which one cannot achieve one’s goal. The desire drives a person to reach the utimate destination. Without Vasuki, it would have been otherwise impossible for the devtas and asuras to rotate the huge mountain.
Kurma, the tortoise: Kurma was one of the dashavatars (ten incarnations) of Lord Vishnu. The gods and the demons enagaged themselves in the churning process to obtain the amrit, the elixir of immortality. Vasuki offered himself as a rope, and Mount Mandara was used to churn the ocean. A firm foundation was required to steady the mountain, so Vishnu took the form of a tortoise and supported the churning mountain. Here, kurma represents the balance one requires to keep the mind in control during the sadhana.
Halahal, the poison: During the Samudra Manthan, a very toxic poison emerges out of the ocean. The devtas requested Lord Shiva to help them, else the poison may disrupt the entire ‘srishti chakra’ (creation). Shiva appeared in the scene and saw that the toxic poison was spreading all over the ocean. He gulped the poison and placed it in his throat, thereby saving the world from destruction. The ‘halahal’ represents the negative thoughts and energies that lead us astray in the initial stages of spiritual practice. It is also symbolic of the pain and suffering one has to go through to obtain the ultimate fruit. Lord Shiva, the all renouncing God represents austerity, simplicity, determination with which a ‘sadhak’ (spiritual practitioner) can transcend all the barriers and move towards enlightenment.
Amrit, the magic potion and other treasures: During the churning, several magnificent gifts and treasures sprung out of the ocean. These included Kamdhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow; the goddess of wealth, Laxmi (whom Lord Vishnu married); the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpavriksha; and finally, came Dhanvantari carrying the pot of amrita and a book of medicine called Ayurveda. These treasures are symbolic of the fruits or ‘siddis’ one receives after performing severe penance. The ‘amrit’ represents spiritual enlightenment, liberation and immortality which when given in the wrong hands can lead to long term destruction. Lord Vishnu disguised himself as Mohini and distributed the elixir among the devtas in order to ensure the protection of the world from the demons.
Garuda, the bird: When the Gods and demons were struggling for the amrit, Lord Vishnu (in the disguise of Mohini) tricked the asuras and retrieved the amrit. The asuras were applying their constant force to get back the potion. Lord Vishnu handed over the amrit to his winged charioteer, Garuda who flew with it but was attacked by the serpents. Here, Garuda represents devotion for God and the trust God places in his devotees. The Garuda is also symbolic of truthfulness.
Goddess Laxmi: Laxmi, the goddess of wealth is a symbol of fortune and prosperity. She was one of the various treasures which were put forth during the samudra manthan. She was gifted to Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, who married her. She is also symbolic of the fact that all fortune and wealth that we are given belongs to none other than the God himself.
Dhanvantari, the ayurved: Dhanvantri was one of the various gifts of the manthan. The knowledge of ayurveda spread across all parts of India, curing a number of people from illnesses. Dhanvantari also represents welfare and well being.
Kamadhenu: The divine mother Kamadhenu, the wish fulfilling cow is symbolic of mother hood, sacrifice and bounty of Earth who provides us the life sustaining milk and fulfills all our desire.
Kalpavriksha: Kalpavriksha, is a wish-fulfilling divine tree that sprung from the manthan. It is usually in the form of the Vat, Bargad or Banyan tree which is one of the most venerated trees in India. It has the ability to survive and grow for centuries and is often compared to the shelter given by God to his devotees. In Hindu scriptures, the tree is called Kalpavriksha, the tree that provides fulfilment of wishes and other material gains. It symbolizes longevity and represents the divine creator, Brahma. According to a legend, Shiva’s daughter Ashokasundari was created from Kalpavriksha by Parvati, to alleviate her loneliness.
Now. you know why mother Cow (gomata) and Banyan trees are worshipped in Hinduism. It is because they represent the Kamadhenu and Kalpavriksha respectively and are considered sacred.