Ayurveda is not only a system of medicine, but is also a system of holistic living that imparts physical, mental, and spiritual health of an individual. According to Bhagvat Puran (2.7.21) When Indra lost his kingdom due to the disrespecting sage Durvasa and were in serious peril, he appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. Lord Vishnu advised him to seek the favour of the demons to churn the ocean of milk (ksheer sagar) so that he and devas can partake the amrita (ambrosia) that would make them immortal and help them regain their lost kingdom.
So, devas approached demons and they mutually agreed to churn the ocean of milk. They sought the help of mount Mandhara and the great snake Vasuki for this purpose. Vasuki, the snake god, was used as the rope and Mandhara, the mountain, as the churning stick to churn the ocean. While they were churning this great ocean Lord Vishnu assumed the form of a tortoise and held the Mandhara from sinking. During the process plethora of precious objects came out of the ocean.
The first to come out was “Halahal”- the deadly poison, which threatened to engulf the worlds and destroy them. While no one was willing to accept the poison, Lord Shiva came forward to accept it. He swallowed it and Parvathi who was standing besides him pressed his neck as he swallowed it and prevented it from going into his stomach. Thus the poison remained there struck for ever in his neck. Then came Kamadhenu (the wish fulfilling cow), the Ucchaisrava (the white horse), Airavata (the white elephant), Kaustubhamani ( a rare diamond), Kalpavriksha (the wish fulfilling tree), Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), Sura or Varuni (the goddess of wine). Finally, Dhanvantari (the divine physician) with the vessel of Amrita in his skillful hands appeared. These objects except the last one were divided between the devas and the demons.
The nectar of immortality was of course finally denied to the demons and was distributed amongst the Devas’/Gods only, through a fine act of trickery enacted by Lord Vishnu, who assumed the form of Mohini to delude the demons and make them temporarily forgetful all about the Amrit, while he went on distributing it among the gods who took it. Because of the effects of Amrit, they not only became immortal but also defeated the demons summarily.
This was the story of churning of the oceans in brief and birth of Lord Dhanvantri. Now, we will explain the symbolism hidden in this story. The story represents the spiritual endeavor of man for gaining immortality through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism. The gods represent the pleasure principle in ourselves. The demons represent the pain principle. The gods also represent the senses, while the demons are the evil & negative thoughts and impulses within us. The participation of both the devas and the demons signify the fact that when one is seeking immortality through the spiritual practice one has to integrate and harmonize both the positive and negative aspects of ones personality and put both the energies for the common goal.
The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is always compared to an ocean (mano sagaram) while the thoughts and emotions to the waves. The mind as an ocean is in fact a universal symbol, known to other religions and cultures also. Mandhara, the mountain depicts the concentration. The word “Mandhara” contains two words “man” (mind) and “dhara” ( a single line) which means aligning the mind. This is possible only during mental concentration.
The mountain Mandhara was upheld by Lord Vishnu as a Tortoise. The tortoise here stands for the withdrawal of the senses into one self as one practices mental concentration and meditation or contemplation. It also suggests that the mind should rest itself upon or freely surrender itself to the divine will.
The great serpent Vasuki stands for desires of the being. The desire is always compared to a thousand hooded serpent. The Vasuki used in the churning of the ocean denotes that the devas and the demons held desire (to seek immortality) as a rope and churned the mind with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. You can hold desire in your hands and manipulate it only when you have control over your desires. So, control of desire is suggested through this symbolism.
The Halahal represents suffering and pain we undergo at the beginning of spiritual sadhana. When the mind is subjected to intense churning by opposing forces, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. We are told by many that when an initiate starts his spiritual sadhana he faces a number of difficulties. The problems become intensified because of inner conflicts, where one part yearns to pursue the spiritual path while the other opposes it.
In the initial stages of sadhana a seeker’s mind throws out all kinds of reactions, negative thoughts, desires and impulses out into open so that he can deal with them appropriately.
These problems are basically physical & mental sufferings without resolving which further progress is not possible. In short we can say that halahal is the instability of the body and the mind that arise as a counter reaction against ones spiritual practice.
Lord Shiva represents the ascetic principle. He is the destroyer of illusion, one who is detached, pure and austere. He consumes poison to suggest that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life, such as the instability of the mind and its restlessness, by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment compassion, pure love and asceticism. Alternatively, it also means gaining control over the mind through breath control. Lord Shiva is controller of breath. He is prananath, or praneshwar, Lord of the Breath. In spiritual sadhana, it is essential that one gains complete mastery over ones breathing pattern. Many spiritually advanced souls have the capacity to hold their breath in their throat, near the palate, as they meditate.
The various objects that came out of the ocean during the churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers (siddhis) which one gains as he progresses spiritually from stage to stage. These siddhis are spiritual powers which come to a seeker as he progresses on the spiritual path. We are told that a seeker is to be careful about these powers as they can hamper his progress unless he uses them judiciously, not for his selfish gains but for others' welfare. This is the reason why the gods and demons distributed these powers among others without keeping anything for themselves as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim which was to gain immortality.
Dhanvantari stands for health. The vessel containing the Amrit was brought before the gods and the demons by Dhanvantari, the divine physician. This signifies that immortality can be achieved only when the body and the mind are in a perfect state of health. Spiritual success is not possible in case of a person who is mentally or physically sick or whose gross body is not fit for receiving divine illumination.
Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini stands for delusion of the mind in the form of pride. It is the pride of achievement to which the asuras or the demons succumbed and thus lost their right to enter into the world of immortality. Pride and egoism are the last hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before experiencing self-realization.