Avatar 2: Kurma (the tortoise)

Narayana‘s second incarnation also took place during the great deluge. Kurmavatar figures in the episode known as “the churning of the ocean” (Samudra Manthan). On account of Indra‘s (king of the devas) insult to sage Durvasa, the devas were cursed and lost their strength and vigour. When the sage had offered a garland to Indra, he then gave it to his white elephant (Airavata) who trampled it leaving the sage furious. The resulting curse left the devas vulnerable to the attacks of their arch-enemy, the asuras. With Indra at their head, the devas sought Vishnu’s counsel. Narayana told them that they would need to drink amrita (the nectar of immortality) to regain their luster. The catch was that the nectar was at the bottom of the ocean and Vishnu suggested them to churn it like butter.

Indra seeks a temporary truce with the asuras, knowing that he needs their help. The plan is to use Mount Mandara as a churning rod and the great serpent Vasuki as the rope with the devas and asuras pulling each side. Indra easily tricks the asuras when he asks them to let the devas hold Vasuki’s head. The asuras, suspecting foul play, foolishly chose to take the head of the great snake. As a result the devas got the harmless tail and the asuras were weakened by Vasuki’s poisonous mouth and tongue. When the churning began they encountered a problem, the churning rod (Mount Mandara) kept sinking into the ocean. Kurmavatar appears and places Mount Mandara on his carapace to keep it from sinking, allowing the shaky alliance to churn the ocean.

As the churning continues, fourteen items emerge from the depths. The first is the world-destroying poison Halahala (which was consumed by Shiva). Then came Kamadenu, the wish-fulfilling cow, the white horse Uchchaisravas and the apsaras (celestial dancers). Many forms of Devi also appeared, including Varuni, goddess of wine and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. The ocean also brought forth a conch, bow, mace and jewel that were given to Vishnu. The last to appear was Dhanwantari, lord of physicians and source of Ayurveda; he held in his hands the nectar of immortality.

At this point the truce between devas and asuras breaks down as each side are desirous of the amrita. It is of paramount importance to the devas that the asuras do not get any of the nectar, otherwise they would quickly oppress the devas. Luckily the asuras are disorganized and Vishnu takes advantage of the situation to again help Indra’s side. Vishnu takes the form of Mohini, the most beautiful of the apsaras and dances for the asuras. They are so transfixed by her form that they don’t notice that she is actually handing all the nectar to the devas behind her back. In fact, the asuras are so distracted an taken by the illusion that they start to fight savagely amongst themselves in jealousy for Mohini’s attentions. Rather an amusing end for the asuras for came so close to gaining Indra’s kingdom but lost everything at the sight of beautiful woman.

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  1. Trackback: Shiva as Neelakantha « Sri Satchmo

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