The Churning of the Milky Ocean

Painting of the Churning of the Milky Ocean. The devas hold the serpent tail to the left, and the asuras the head to the right. Vishnu is seated atop the lotus, whose base rests on his turtle incarnation below in the ocean. On the green hillside are the treasures which have emerged from the churning of the ocean.

The Churning of the Milky Ocean is a famous and sacred teaching from the Hindu text the Mahabharata. It illustrates the process that creates the much sought after “nectar of immortality” which both demons and angels alike wrestle for in an epic struggle. It is a teaching that operates on many symbolic levels, from the nature of the struggle of light and dark within the psyche of the individual, to the cycles of light and darkness that exist within the whole of creation.

It encodes a principle that’s worth understanding for anyone interested in higher consciousness as it shows how darkness and the struggle against it are essential elements in creation, enlightenment, and in living a worthwhile life. This principle also operates in many other alchemical and spiritual processes, which are too numerous to enumerate in this article.

The Churning of the Milky Ocean

The story tells how under the direction of Gods, the asuras (demons) and devas (angels) agree to cooperate together in a tug of war in pursuit of the nectar of immortality. With the demons on one side, and the angels on the other, each hold one end of a massive serpent, which is wrapped around a sacred mountain, balanced on a turtle swimming in the great milky ocean. As the demons and devas pull back and forth, they rotate the mountain which churns the milky ocean below. The god Vishnu oversees and enables the entire process. The process of churning causes numerous treasures to emerge, a terrible poison, and finally the nectar of immortality.

Facing Opposition

Whoever wishes to be part of the forces of light and good in the world, and whoever wishes to bring the light of consciousness within themselves will face opposition (symbolized by the demons).

Instead of seeing opposition simply as a detriment to spiritual growth, it’s more realistic to see it as an essential element of spiritual growth.

By understanding the principle of the churning of the milky ocean we learn to use darkness to generate light.

If there was only light there would be nothing to learn – it would be a form of blindness. It’s only darkness that gives shadow and allows form to be manifest and therefore visible.

Those who want to run away from opposition in the name of becoming spiritual become static. Being static nothing is created. It is only dynamism that can generate the creative energy.

What this means for enlightenment is that as we go towards the light, the darkness opposes us. The greater the light, the greater the opposing darkness. This is closely allied to two other fundamental principles of creation which are ‘action’ and ‘resistance’. Action gives movement, and movement faces resistance. Movement is in time, and in the life of an individual it is in one’s actions.

Resistance – Pulling on the Rope

Every action brings resistance; if resistance were non-existent, one thing would encompass all and creation would not be possible.

If a person tries to work for light and increases the light within themselves, they will meet a comparable resistance internally and externally due to the pulling of two opposite forces around a central pole (the symbol of infinity, and the “Seat of Satan” are other examples of the pivotal point of the pole).

The rope that is pulled is the serpent, which can both ascend and descend. It is the pulling that gives motion; in this motion, the ocean of life both externally and within a person is churned. When an ocean is churned it produces waves – motion, and what lives in the ocean is stirred up. From churning the ocean poison emerges, negativity that is within and also from others. Difficult situations can arise, but after the poison comes the nectar.

Applying the principle inwardly, the thoughts and emotions become agitated within, and externally in life, people are moved by events, just as creatures in the ocean. However, at the bottom of the ocean live the ugliest creatures and the silt or mud; with enough churning the ugly creatures and the mud mix with the other creatures and the clear waters. Thus in society the worst of human nature arises in extreme conditions, and inwardly the unseen monsters of the subconscious emerge to engulf the psyche. If there is no churning, the ocean is calm and nothing is seen, there is no action and no triumph. Likewise within an individual, if the ocean is not churned, everything appears to be fine, as only the clear calm waters are seen from the surface.

Many pursuing spirituality believe the ocean shouldn’t be churned, but if it’s not, then the monsters of the subconscious will never emerge into sight; by not emerging they continue to exist and can never be removed. Likewise in society, if people don’t fight for truth, goodness and justice, then their opposites will prevail.

The struggle in society is useful for enlightenment. In society the forces of resistance pull against those who pursue enlightenment, and this generates the churning of the milky ocean.

Individuals and groups that keep retiring from opposition will inevitably be self-indulgent, and will be unable to facilitate awakening.

To struggle against darkness is not to blunder ignorantly; intelligence is needed to generate right action. Wisdom guides whether to act or not, and if so how. Sometimes darkness is overwhelming and intelligent action is required. Sometimes silence and inaction is required, but a silence which is the result of intelligence is different from that born of fear and laziness.

In Society

Those who pursue enlightened consciousness should be agents for light in the world. It’s a duty of people of this kind to fight for light. This is part of the eternal struggle between light and darkness in the cosmos. Anyone who works for light, for the spirit, and tells others about it, will naturally find they are opposed by darkness.

Most can’t stand this opposition, preferring a quiet mundane life and to avoid any kind of confrontation with darkness both within and outside themselves. This means that people find it easier to avoid problems that challenge them and their own inner deficiencies, and can even enjoy being aggressive, having arguments, and hurting and harming others and their environment with little or no personal restraint.

This is why so few people join the cause of light, why throughout the world it is hardly known, why almost everybody is unconsciously living a material mundane life, even if they believe they are a spiritually inclined person. Many have a perception of spirituality as being a way to have a successful and comfortable life as taught by today’s very rich commercial authors and speakers who themselves have created a life of wealth and comfort from people’s search for truth, or to live away from it in hermetic inner stillness and peace, but this is not real spirituality, and by seeing how much one faces opposition from darkness in life reveals just how much someone is really working for light.

The struggle between light and darkness has existed in spiritual teachings throughout history, and is the reason why persecution plays such a big role in achieving salvation in the teachings of Jesus.

Many people have fought for the light, a handful of whom are known. To fight for light is not to be famous, but to help those few who long for the light themselves—often with little recognition, with much suffering, and tremendous effort.

The principle of good is higher than that of falsity and brute force, and those who fight for good do so because it is right to do so; win or lose, they are part of the forces of light and can gain their own enlightenment.

I’ve only reflected upon part of what’s involved in the principle of the churning of the milky ocean; it has many more aspects to it and much that could be elaborated upon, not least in the alchemical process involved in the transformation of consciousness.

To read more about the symbolism contained in “the churning of the milky ocean”, see The Spiritual Meaning of the Spring Equinox

~ Belsebuub