Milky Ocean: Creation Story

How gods defeated demons

Balinese Painting: E74177A

Balinese Painting: E74177A
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

People in all cultures tell their stories of the Origin. In these stories the world began in many different ways. In some the earth was first, in others it all began with water or light. Some have a tortoise diving into an ocean to bring a piece of earth from which the world was moulded. In one of the earliest stories of creation all began with the splitting of a cosmic egg. In it, the god Brahma creates the waters. The seed that he plants in the waters grows into a golden egg. The god himself is reborn from the egg which he later splits into heaven and earth.

But Indian mythology also offers more tentative explanations of this perpetual mystery of origin. One of the hymns in the Rig-Veda, an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, considers the possibility of various cosmic forces bringing the universe into existence. The hymn concludes with a delightfully sceptical passage: 'But, after all, who knows, and who can say whence it all came, and how creation happened.'

One of the most enchanting creation stories, taken from ancient Hindu mythology, is the Churning of the Milky Ocean. This story comes from the great Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The first part, Adiparwa, contains stories of the origin of the world and the first human kingdoms. The story was variously rewritten in India and beyond. Here is the summary.

The Churning of the Milky Ocean tells how the gods defeated the demons and became immortal. The principal god Vishnu encouraged the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean in order to recover lost treasures, including Lakshmi, the goddess of success and wealth, as well as the elixir of immortality. With these possessions, the gods would be able to defeat the demons who had taken over the universe. But the gods could not churn the great ocean themselves, so the demons were recruited to help, in exchange for their share of the treasures, including the elixir of immortality. On Vishnu’s advice, the gods and demons used Mount Madura as a churning stick, and the giant serpent, Vasuki, as a rope. Vishnu persuaded the demons to pull the head of the snake, which was spitting angrily, as the gods pulled the tail end. Coiled around the mountain, the serpent was pulled alternately in one direction and then the other, making the mountain rotate in the water.

The churning was not without problems and at one stage the mountain began to sink. To save the endeavour, Vishnu incarnated as a giant tortoise and placed the mountain on his back to act as a foundation stone. Some versions say the churning took a thousand years before anything emerged from the ocean. And when it finally emerged, it was Lakshami, a woman of exquisite beauty, as well as the elixir of immortality. Demons rushed to snatch the elixir. But Vishnu, disguised as the pretty woman Mohini, distracted them and changing the elixir for alcohol, secured the precious drink for the gods. Lakshami, standing on a lotus flower, watched the gods and then chose the most worthy one, Vishnu. They became partners forever.

A contemporary parody of the story with potent message emerged from the Kattaikkuttu Youth Theatre School in Tamil Nadu, India.

The LightShade Productions theatre from San Francisco in USA offered a different philosophical version.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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