As we saw in a prior post, Vishnu’s first manifestation was a fish named Matsya; that was a flood tale, whereas in many a flood tale, one good man was instructed to build an ark.
For the second Avatar of Vishnu, the story is centered on Gods and Demons.
Once upon a time, the King of the Gods enraged a sage. Now, Vedic sages were more than seekers of knowledge; they were quasi-magical in their powers, especially in their curses. As a result of a perceived slight, the sage in question cursed the Gods to mortality.
Not wanting to die, they went to Vishnu, the Hindu God of Preservation. Vishnu’s advice: churn the Ocean of Milk, a vast cosmic sea that contained the gifts of both life and death.
Using a sacred mountain as a churning rod, and Shiva’s (the God of Destruction) serpent Vasuki, the King of the Snakes, as a rope, the Gods joined forces with their Demon kin, each aligned on either side of the mountain, and proceeded to churn.
Many splendors, and just as many horrors came from the water. At one point, a world consuming poison rose from the foam; Shiva swallowed it and froze it in His neck. As a result, many images of Shiva depict Him with a blue spot on His throat.
As they continued churning, the mountain began to sink; at this point, Vishnu assumed His second Avatar, that of a giant tortoise, and dove beneath the ocean to hold the mountain up on His back.
Finally, the Elixir of Immortality was brought forth. The Demons snatched it and ran off.
End of Story?
Not quite yet.
Vishnu took on a new form; that of the most beautiful woman imaginable. In this form, (S)he is known as Mohini, and while this is the only female Avatar of Vishnu, it’s one that He uses many times again – even using this form to seduce Shiva – but that’s another story.
So, Mohini goes to the Demons, does a little nudge-nudge wink-wink, and while the Demons are watching her, they take their eyes of the Elixir.
Within the wink of a Kohl lined eye, Mohini was gone. Gone with Her was the Elixir.
The Gods regained their immortality, and the Universe went rolling along.
Some interesting facts:
In Chinese and Japanese mythology, the serpent Vasuki is known as one of the Eight Great Dragon Kings.
In Hindu iconography, the serpent that coils around Shiva’s blue throat is none other than Vasuki.
Vasuki also shows up in Buddhist mythology, where he is often an attendee for Gautama Buddha’s lectures.
In Sanskrit, the Demons are called the Asuras, while the Gods are referred to as Devas. However, the Gods are also sometimes known as Suras. Here’s why:
Sura means to drink; since the Devas drank the Elixir, they are Suras; since the Demons didn’t, they are Asuras, the A being a negation, as it is in Latin derived languages.
If you want to celebrate Song, Wine and Women, the Sanskrit phrase is “Sur, Sura, Sundari”, another usage of the term Sura.
Some other interesting things came with the churning, including deities:
Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and the eventual consort of Vishnu;
Chandra, the Moon, which Shiva wears in His hair.
Dhanvantari: the Physician of the Gods, who actually bears the Elixir in a pot, known as a Kumbha (see below).
Every twelve years in India, a festival takes place to celebrate four spots where the fleeing Mohini (or one of the other deities involved, depending on the narrative) is believed to have spilled some of the Elixir. Called the Khumba Mela (Khumba=pot, Mela=festival), the location rotates every twelve years between the four sites.
The last Khumba Mela, in 2013, lasted two months and had an estimated attendance of over one hundred and twenty million pilgrims. That’s more than 1/3 of the entire population of the United States. During this time, the faithful believe that bathing in sacred rivers associated with the sites will wash away any Karmic debts they have accrued.
So, we’ve moved further up the evolutionary ladder, starting with a fish in a flood, then moving on to a tortoise who helped release what might be considered the Hindu equivalent of the Holy Grail, the magic that heals the afflicted Wasteland.
So where do we go from here?
Next stop: Varaha, Vishnu’s Avatar as a wild boar.