The Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) were engaging in war all the time. Shukra was the Asura’s Guru, using His Divine Powers to revive the Asuras from death, but the Devas didn’t have this type of assistance. On top of this, Indra, King of the Devas, had been cursed by Sage Durvasa; so Indra and the Devas were without their strength, radiance and wealth.
Indra, with the other Devas, approached Lord Vishnu for advice. Lord Vishnu said the only way to regain what they had lost was to churn the ocean of milk, to drink of amrit (nectar of immortality). This would make them immortal and restore their lost strength, radiance and wealth.
Because of their depleted powers, Vishnu also suggested they would need the help from their half-brothers, the Asuras, to achieve this. Following His advice, Indra approached the Asuras for help. After deliberations, the Asuric King Bali agreed to churn the ocean together with the Devas and share the results.
The churning of the ocean was not going to be an easy task, though the Devas and Asuras were working together. They needed a huge churning rod and a very strong rope. As Lord Vishnu advised, they sought the help of Mount Mandara as the churning rod, and the Snake God Vasuki to be the rope. Both Mount Mandara and Vasuki obliged.
Bringing Mount Mandara to the ocean became a difficult task. Together, the Devas and Asuras couldn’t bear the weight of the mountain. They got tired and let it slip towards the earth. Mount Mandara landed with a thundering sound, crashing and killing everything beneath it. At once Lord Vishnu came to their rescue, flying on His vehicle Garuda (the eagle). He placed Mount Mandara on Garuda, flew to the ocean and placed Mandara in the middle of it.
The churning of the ocean began. As suggested by Lord Vishnu, the Devas took hold of Vasuki’s head. The Asuras refused to hold the tail and demanded to hold the head. They switched sides, which was all according to Lord Vishnu’s plan. The Asuras, holding Vasuki’s head, got poisoned by the fumes coming out of Vasuki’s mouth, due to the strain of the churning. Despite this, the Devas and Asuras pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean.
As they began churning, Mount Mandara started sinking in the ocean of milk. Lord Vishnu assumed the form of a turtle (kurma) and held Mount Mandara steady. This is His Kurma Avatar (incarnation), to save both the Devas and Asuras. He gave the Asuras strength and the Devas courage so they could continue the task at hand.
During the churning, Vasuki was in great pain. The most deadly poison, known as halahala, started coming from His mouth, threatening the existence of the universe by engulfing and poisoning everything. As instructed by Lord Vishnu, the Devas and Asuras prayed to Lord Shiva, who is the healer of sickness and remover of all poisons.
Lord Shiva came to the Devas and Asuras and saw the poison spreading in the ocean. He gathered the whole of the poison with His hands and, while the Devas and Asuras watched in amazement, He swallowed the halahala poison in one gulp. Goddess Parvati, standing by His side, was terrified at the thought of losing Him, so She squeezed His neck as He was swallowing the halahala, to make sure that the poison would not descend into His body. Fortunately, Parvati’s act made the poison remain stuck forever in His throat, not going down. Thus the color of Shiva’s neck is blue, giving Lord Shiva the name “Neelakanta,” which means Blue Throated One (Neela = Blue) + (Kanta = Throat).
Once the danger from the halahala passed, the Devas and Asuras began churning the ocean again. As they continued to churn, several Divine Objects came out.
- Kamadhenu (the wish fulfilling cow) was given to the Rishis (Sages)
- Ucchaisrava (the white horse) was given to the Asura King Bali
- Airavata (the white elephant) was given to the Deva King Indira
- Kaustubhamani (a rare diamond) was placed on Lord Vishnu’s chest
- Kalpavrksha (the wish fulfilling tree) was sent to Deva Loka (Heaven)
- Sura, also known as Varuni (the goddess of wine) sent to the Asuras’ realm.
Nearing the completion, Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) appeared, Her radiance brighter than lightening, illuminating all four corners. She was holding a garland in Her hand, looking for a suitable companion in this realm, one who deserved Her. The Devas and Asuras competed with each other for her attention, but Her eye landed on Lord Vishnu, who was concentrating fully on the task at hand.
Lakshmi was a bit taken aback that Lord Vishnu didn’t notice Her. Noticing this, Lord Vishnu appeared before Her and accepted Her garland. Devi Lakshmi garlanded Him to accept Him as Her consort. When they united as a couple the three worlds erupted into ecstasy. After being blessed by the Divine Union, the Devas and Asuras continued their task of churning the ocean of milk.
Finally, Dhanvantari (the Divine Physician) appeared with the vessel of amrit in His skillful hands. The Asuras strove to seize it to drink it all themselves, to fulfill the cunning plan they’d had from the beginning. They overpowered the Devas, weakened by Durvasa’s curse, and grabbed the amrit. Seeing the situation, Lord Vishnu turned Himself into the loveliest nymph, Mohini. Moha means delusion. Mohini charmed the Asuras who were totally distracted by Her, so She took the opportunity to steal the amrit and distribute it to the Devas.
After Indra and the Devas had the amrit and regained their strength, the three worlds once again became filled with radiance and power.
Om Namah Shivaya