The story goes that the Devas (demi-gods) were slowly losing their strength because of a curse by a great rishi. Their archrivals the Asuaras (demons) took advantage of this opportunity and threatened to wage war against the Devas. Fearful of what may come to pass, the demi-gods approached Lord Vishnu (known as the Preserver in the Trinity of Hinduism) for a solution. The great Lord told them to churn the primordial ‘Ocean of Milk’ or Ksheera Sagara to receive Amrita, the nectar of immortality, through which they may regain their strength.
This churning, however, was not so easy a task that it could be conducted by the demi-gods alone. So they forged a temporary peace with the demons to attain their goal, after which the nectar would be distributed equally between the demons and the demi-gods. Using the King of Serpents as a churning rope and Mount Mandara as a churning stick, the demi-gods and demons began a task that would take 1000 years to complete. Lord Vishnu, incarnated as his Kurma avatar of a tortoise, held Mount Mandara on His back, so that it would not sink into the ocean during this time.
Working tirelessly for centuries, the reward they sought was not so easy to attain. The first thing to come out was not nectar, but poison. The Halahalam, as it was called, was so potent that it enveloped the universe and threatened to destroy all. Lord Shiva (known as the Destroyer in the Trinity of Hinduism) stepped forward to take this poison. His wife, Parvathi, stopped it from spreading to the whole body by constricting His throat. Lord Shiva’s name Neelakanta or ‘blue-throated one’ is derived from this incident, the poison having turned His neck blue due to its potency.
Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was almost the last thing to come out of the ocean. When it did, it was held in a kumbh (pot) by Dhanvantari, the physician to the gods. Fearful of the consequences of what could transpire, the demi-gods tricked the demons out of drinking from the pot. Lord Vishnu incarnates again in the form of Mohini, the irresistible temptress, and tricks the demons into giving her the pot. What ensued was a dozen days and nights of fighting between the two groups.
During this time, as Lord Vishnu fled with the kumbh from earth to heaven, a few drops of the nectar fell in four places in India: Haridwara, Prayag (Allahabad), Nashik and Ujjain. It is in these places that the Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious festivals in the world, takes place on a rotational basis every 3 years. The one-and-a-half month festival is taking place in Nashik this year, on the banks of the Godavari River. By the time it has rotated to the other three sites and returned to Nashik, 12 years (representing 12 days and nights of fighting) will have passed by. It is scheduled to finish on 25th September 2015, during which time millions upon millions of devotees will have paid homage at the holy site. Even today, bathing in the rivers of Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari and Shipra, where the nectar drops fell is considered sacred and is said to wash away sins.
Swami Sukhabodhanada visited Nashik in July for the Kumbh Mela. Watching the ocean of humanity that churns in and out of the sacred place is not unlike the ocean’s churning in the story. In fact, it is not unlike the turmoil that takes place continually inside many of us.
The mind is constantly being churned by the positive (represented by demi-gods) and negative (represented by demons) aspects within us. For the spiritual seeker, one part will yearn to pursue the spiritual path, another will oppose it. Both these aspects must be in harmony. Keep in mind that both the Devas and the Asuras worked together for the churning. This painful churning brings out first suffering and unhappiness before it gives any rewards. It is the Halahalam that threatens to destroy. Lord Shiva, who drinks that poison, represents the ascetic principle. He represents simplicity, pure love, discipline, courage and detachment. The poisonous instability of our minds can only be stopped by cultivating these principles within us.
The Serpent King represents desire. Mount Mandara stands for concentration. The name ‘Mandara’ contains two words: ‘man’ meaning ‘the mind’ and ‘dara’ meaning ‘straight line’. Therefore the name itself stands for concentration of the mind. The mind, like Mount Mandara during the churning, must rest itself upon divinity (Lord Vishnu’s incarnation of the tortoise) and give itself up to that divinity, if it is not to sink into the ocean.
Therefore, desire must be held in firm hands and controlled, the mind focused on a single aim, rested upon divinity, with all our negative and positive aspects harmonized if spiritual enlightenment is to be attained. What keeps us from this enlightenment and the immortality that it represents? Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini represents the delusion of the mind. It is the delusion of pride and ego; they are the last hurdles one has to overcome.