5. Churning of the ocean of milk
This is one of the most fascinating and popular stories of Indian mythology. The typical stories are mostly about fights between the Devas and the Asuras. But there were some short intervals of peace between them. This story is about one such rare occasions.
Once the Asuras captured the heaven and drove out the Devas by taking advantage of a curse spelled on them. The defeated Devas came to lord Vishnu for advice. Since it was a bad time for the Devas, Vishnu advised them to have a truce with the Asuras for the moment. He suggested them to work together to churn the cosmic ocean of milk.
Churning is a process that transforms milk into butter. The goal of churning the cosmic ocean was to obtain something of supreme value – amrita, the nectar of immortality.
Churning the ocean was not a child’s play. Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod and Vasuki, the king of Serpents from Shiva’s neck, was used as the churning rope. When the mountain was place in the ocean, it started to sink. To stabilize the mountain, Vishnu took the avatar of a kurma or turtle and held it on its back.
The snake Vasuki was wrapped around the mountain. The Asuras demanded to hold the snake at the head. Taking advise from Vishnu, the Devas agreed to hold it at the tail.
When the Devas and Asuras alternatively pulled the snake, the mountain rotated and started to churn the ocean. Holding the snake near the head turned out to be bad for the Asuras. The snake emitted poisonous fume from its mouth which burned the Asuras.
As the ocean got churned up, the first thing that came out of it was a deadly poison called Halahala. It was so lethal that the whole existence was threatened by it. In order to rescue everyone from the poison, Shiva drank it up. His wife Parvati held his throat so that it could not go into his stomach. Consequently, the poison stayed in his throat, giving it a blue color. This is how Shiva got the name Neelakantha or “the blue throated.”
As the Asuras and Devas resumed churning the ocean, many treasures and wonders came out of it, one after the other.
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity came out. She chose Vishnu as her husband.
Many Apsaras or divine nymphs came out. They went to the heaven to entertain the Devas by singing and dancing.
Varuni, the goddess of alcohol came out and went with the Asuras.
Kamadhenu or the divine cow came out. It was given to the sages so that they could use the ghee made from its milk for performing rituals.
Many precious gems and animals with supernatural powers came out. They were distributed among the Devas and Asuras.
Chandra, the moon came out. It took its place at Shiva’s head.
Finally Dhanvantari, the god of Ayurveda, came out with a pot containing the amrita.
As soon as the amrita arrived, fierce fight broke out between the Asuras and Devas. Everyone wanted to drink it. In order to protect the Amrita from the commotion, the divine bird Garuda, the carrier of Vishnu, snatched it and flew away. The brawling mob chased it.
As Garuda flew with the pot, four drops of amrita spilled out of it. They fell on four spots on earth: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain, transforming them into holy sites of pilgrimage. Every 12 years, millions of people visit these sites with the hope of washing their sins away or to attain Nirvana.
In the meantime the Devas came to Vishnu for help. Vishnu took the form of a beautiful damsel called Mohini. Mohini distracted the Asuras, took the amrita and distributed it among the Devas.
One Asura called Rahuketu disguised himself as a Deva and drank the Amrita. The sun and the moon gods saw through his disguise using the light inside them. They alerted Mohini. Mohini instantly cut the throat of RahuKetu with her weapon Sudarshana chakra. Rahuketu was split into the head Rahu and the body Ketu. But since he sipped the amrita he became immortal.
Ever since then Rahu is angry at the sun and the moon. Occasionally he swallows them up to take revenge. But because he does not have a body, the sun or the moon comes out from the other side, through his severed neck. This is the mythical story behind solar and lunar eclipses.