Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part IV

Main photo (alongside) is a Basohli painting of the churning of the ocean of milk, c.1730

Continuing this six-part series (Read earlier parts: Part I , Part II and Part III) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but is a reflection of the cosmos and of the Divine itself. In Part IV Subhash explains the story of the churning of the ocean and its spiritual symbolism.

Part IV: Churning of the ocean

If extraordinary experience is an epiphany, it comes at the end of long preparation. In myth, we speak of the struggle between the asuras (demons) and the devas (gods), but this struggle also occurs within the individual between his materialistic and acquisitive tendencies that are demonic, and those of sacrifice, compassion, and understanding that are divine. This struggle is described as the churning of the ocean by the gods and the demons (as in the main image alongside). On the axis rests the Goddess, who represents Nature. Note that the demons are shown with animal faces since they represent our animal selves.

Our body sense is much stronger than the sense of spirit. It is for this reason the asuras are generally much stronger than the gods. The story goes that the gods have been defeated and they are dejected. At some point they go to Vishnu for help and he suggests that they should assist the asuras in the churning of the ocean of milk, out of which will appear the nectar of immortality that would help them subdue the asuras.

Lakshmi emerging from the ocean

The gods and the demons got together and started churning the ocean with the Mount Mandara as the axis and the snake Vasuki as the rope. The gods were at Vasuki’s tail while the demons were at his head. Vishnu appeared as a tortoise to support the revolving mountain. As the churning went on, many gifts appeared including the moon which Shiva decided to use as an ornament on his head. Next came Dhanvantari, carrying a jar full of nectar. Next arose Lakshmi, with her attendant elephants of the four quarters sitting on a lotus, a gift of the ocean. She went straight to Vishnu.

The demons were dismayed that Lakshmi had not come to them, and they stole the jar with the nectar that was in Dhanvantari’s hands. But before they could drink it, Vishnu created an illusion of the most beautiful woman, Mohini, and they were so bewitched by her that they did not notice that she took the cup from their hands and gave them to the gods to drink. By the time they knew what had happened the gods had become immortal. The demons drew their weapons and attacked but it was useless. The gods once again became rulers of the three worlds.

The asuric individual is doomed for he gets distracted by the illusory Mohini, whereas one who has higher ideals finds immortality and fame (Lakshmi).

Read Part I: Introduction
Read part II: General equivalences
read Part III: temples and gods
Read part v: Krishna’s dance
Read part vi: The indian aesthetic in an age of war 
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Subhash Kak
Scientist, Professor, Vedic Scholar
Subhash Kak is Regents professor at Oklahoma State University where his work has focused on artificial intelligence, quantum information, and history of science. He is also a Vedic scholar with contributions to the fields of Indian astronomy, architecture, and philosophy and he has written over a dozen books and several hundred research articles on these subjects. His two most recent books are Arrival and Exile: Selected Poems and The Circle of Memory: an Autobiography.


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