The Alchemy of Suffering and Freedom

The capacity to think and remember brings with it an acute feeling of separation and impending loss. We suffer both because we want more and are fearful that we will be deprived of what we have. A quiet scream rises inside when we remember that we have seen beauty but don’t know how to hold on to it.

But is suffering the human condition? Is it the basic nature of life, programmed, if you will, into the game of life? And must we, as many experts expound, simply change our attitude towards negative happenings and get on with it? “Think positive”, “Suffering is optional” are catchy phrases but is there a more existential explanation of what suffering is in the human context and is there a way of transforming this poison of life into nectar?

Samudra Manthan

The sea with its ebb and flow, high and low tides, the emptying of all rivers into the one ocean appears to describe our experience of life. The allegory of the Samudra Manthan (1) (churning of the ocean) holds many exquisite truths. It’s almost as if the more the waters of this legend are churned, the more they reveal the mystic secrets (just like the gifts emerging from the ocean in the legend itself). In an earlier article we looked at how the Samudra Manthan helps us understand the spiritual dimension of Ayurveda.

Samudra manthan, churning of the ocean with the devas on the right and asuras on the left. Vishnu’s Kurma (turtle) avatar supports Mount Mandhara at the base

The story illustrates how life is a dynamic interplay between the positive and negative, between light and dark, between good and bad. In the legend, the asuras (demons) and devas (lower gods) together churn the ocean of milk for the many gifts the ocean contains, the most coveted of which is the nectar of immortality. The churning of the ocean symbolises human life out of which emerge experiences that are either positive (gifts going to the devas) or negative (gifts going to the asuras).

The Samudra Manthan is symbolic of the truth that in the experience of life, duality is a given which means that illness, misery, failure and so on are as programmed into the game of life as are health, joy and success. Our suffering is due to these oppositions within us, which we are unable to bridge in any permanent way. At best, one can hope to dance between these oppositions and hope that one doesn’t trip in the process.

The poison of nothingness

The Samudra Manthan story describes not only the dualities of materiality and the spirit but also a deeper existential threat that arises in the form of an existential poison (halaahal). The poison threatens both the devas and the asuras and indeed all creation until Shiva (who is a witness to the churning and represents cosmic awareness) drinks it.

The poison is held by Shiva in his throat, turning it blue, hence his name ‘Nilakantha’ or blue-throated, and it generates tremendous heat in his body. The temple ritual of pouring water and milk over the shiva-linga is symbolic of cooling this heat. The ritual is sacred theatre to connect the worshiper to a deeper experience of the Self.

The poison is the existential dread of nothingness that afflicts existence. If it were to seep into one’s cells, that is the end of life. By holding it within his being, Shiva transforms the fear of nothingness into auspicious salvation. In this paradox lies the exchange of fear for Grace.



In the world but above it

The seven chakras in the human body
The seven chakras in the human body

A yogic interpretation of the symbolism may be that the poison is held in the throat at the vishuddha chakra, the chakra associated with filtering and discrimination, which lies at the intersection of the higher and lower centres of consciousness.

The poison emerging out of the play of life is thus willingly held by the experiencing Self (Shiva) in a way that both allows the lower energy centres to carry on the play of life and the higher consciousness centres to remain unaffected. In other words, the Self allows the play of duality, participating willingly for the sake of experience while at all times remaining untouched. Looked at another way, the only reason we can endure the churning of the ocean, the unceasing change that is life, is because we are the Self (Shiva), a dimension beyond, the unchanging one.

This is the central idea in Indian spiritual traditions that one can realise one’s higher Self while being a willing player in the game of life. The idea is often expressed through the metaphor of a lotus that blooms in a pond of mud while remaining spotlessly clean. It is the call to rise above maya or illusion by recognising the world as a divine play (leela) and being the witness (sakshi) of the play.

This is not the same as adopting a certain attitude or chanting positive affirmations, which though guiding us towards the light still keep us trapped in duality. This is about the realisation of the nature of our existence. It is neither about doing, nor undoing, but just simply being.

(1) For more and related information, see article here.


Read also: the Spiritual Foundations of ayurveda
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