July 10, 2011

Churning the Cosmic Ocean of Milk - on the other side of chaos and complexity

I have many friends who have chosen as a strategy of survival to ignore the news. I am not one of these people, although I am sympathetic.

Complexity invoked
Collaboration with Mars by Damon Soule

I have restricted myself to check news online twice per day (two ten minute sessions) - otherwise I feel my brain gets eaten by the flickering of images, headlines, and stories. "Kidnapped victims found decapitated"; "Amputee trown out of roller coaster to his death"; "Sex bomb answers answers claims of botox use"; "Meet Mince (3), the two-headed albino snake"; "Knife robbery at McDonald's," are some of today's headlines in a leading national newspaper. One has to be very strong to navigate through the headlines without being lured into the sweet embrace of the sirens of flash news. I know a few people (no names mentioned) who wake up from the embrace only to see that most of the day has gone, and they swear never to be seduced again, until next morning...

Joseph Campbell is one of my heroes. He was a scholar of mythology and comparative religion and was highly skeptical of mainstream media and the focus of daily news:

...look at what people are reading in the papers. You get into the subways and people are all reading the same thing - this murder, that murder. This rape, this divorce. What topics to be mentating on! This journalistic accent in our lives is murder. Murder.
                                                                                Campbell interview by Tom Collins, 1986

So, dear reader, I would like to invite you to read a more timeless kind of story with me today. I can neither promise images of naked breasts nor juicy details of a football star's (a family man, dear God!) sordid affair with a Big Brother star. It is much more satisfying than that. This is a story to sustain your being in a time were chaos and complexity seems to be the background music of our lives. 

It is a tale that has been dancing in the back of my mind since the day I fell into it perhaps fifteen years ago while reading one of Campbell's books on mythology. It is the Hindu story Samudra Manthan - about the churning of the universal sea of milk. 

The gods and anti-gods churning the cosmic sea for the butter of immortality
Unknown source

Once upon a time - at the beginning of the history of the universe - the gods (devas) and their arch-enemies the anti-gods (asuras) were engaged in one of their eternal battles. They decided to take a little breather from their fighting and undertake a common task: to churn the Milky Ocean for its butter of immortality (amrita).

To churn the cosmic, milky sea demands sturdy tools. The devas and asuras looked around and decided to use the Cosmic Mountain (mount Mandranchal) as their churning-spindle and the Cosmic Serpent (Vasuki) as a twirling-rope. They wrapped Vasuki around Mandranchal and started their churning - the devas and asuras pulling at each end of Vasuki.

The devas and asuras quickly found that the mountain was too heavy; it threatened to sink into the sea. To their good fortune they were assisted by the god Vishnu who transformed into his turtle incarnation, Kurma, and swam under the mountain, supporting it on its back. The churning could continue. (The picture above gives a wonderful impression of the whole event - notice brave, little Kurma supporting the cosmic mountain on his back.)

Shiva drinking poison
As they had been churning thus for a thousand years or so a great, black cloud of poisonous smoke rose from the sea. The churners stopped - they were in dire need of help as the smoke was absolutely treacherous for all beings. All beings save one. Only Shiva - the supreme God - had the power to contain the situation.

When called upon, Shiva was moved with great compassion. He took the poisonous bluish-black cloud into his begging bowl and drank the poison. His sweetheart Parvati was alarmed: "No, Shiva, no!!" - she hurled herself towards him and clenched her hands around his neck to stop the poison from its further journey into his body. The poison was stopped in his throat, coloring it forever blue. It was thus that Shiva got the name Nilakanta or Blue Throat.

After Shiva had performed his glorious, selfless deed, the devas and asuras could return to their work.  They churned and they churned until one day - lo and behold! - all kinds of gems started to float up from the ocean: the moon, the sun, an elephant with eight trunks, a glorious horse, various medicines, and finally a radiant vessel filled with the ambrosial butter of immortality- the amrita.

I love this story because it is hopeful - it's not a conservative story telling us to return to "old ways", "old religion" or nationalism when we are scared. It is an invitation to see that out of the seeming complexity and chaos comes new life - richer, tastier life.

As Joseph Campbell said of this story:
This old Indian myth I offer as a parable for our world today, as an exhortation to press on with the work, beyond fear.
Whenever I am scared or confused, I think about this story. I even think about it when I am happy.

Bon Ap├ętit!

ps. For those of you addicted to news  - here is an article work reading: Overcoming News Addiction by Steve Pavlina


  1. arent the gods already immortal? why are they trying to make an immortality butter?
    i read the news only when i dont have anything better to do :)so it s not an addiction it s a time spending.

  2. Good question. First of all, the devas are demi-gods and thus not all-powerful; they are below the Supreme God in the hierarchy. Apparently at that time the devas were under a curse from a sage who had become angry with their king (Indra) so they were losing their powers. That is why they were churning the ocean to get the nectar (amrit).

  3. Thank you so much, Fuzzy. Looking forward to seeing the T-shirts on your blog :-)

  4. Being an Indian I should have know all the details before. Now I know the story in its entirity - will recommend my kids to read it :-)

  5. Yes, it is a wonderful story; any child should have it in her little box of stories :-)