2nd Avatar Kurma

Kurma Avatar is the foundation and support of life.

In Kurma Avatar, Sriman Narayana incarnates as a turtle for the great churning of the ocean.


Kurma, or turtle, is the second incarnation of Sriman Narayana. Devotees also refer to this avatar as Adi-Kurma. This Avatar was taken by Sriman Narayana to help the Devas acquire the Amruta, or elixir of life, during the Samudra Manthan or churning of the ocean. The information about the Kurma Avatar is mainly found in the Bhagavad Purana, Agni Purana and Ramayana.

Sage Durvasa had cursed Indra, the King of the Devas because he had insulted the sage’s gift (a garland) by giving it to his elephant. Thus the Devas lost their strength and powers of immortality. Being vulnerable, they approached Sriman Narayana for help. Sriman Narayana advised him to seek the help of the demons to churn the ocean of milk. The Devas can drink the nectar which would make them immortal and regain their strength.

However, it was not easy to achieve the nectar, since it was hidden in the ocean of milk. After declaring a truce with their foes both, Asuras (Demons), Indra and his Devas (Demi-Gods) all agreed to churn the ocean of milk. They sought the help of the great serpent Vasuki as a churning rope and mount Mandara as the churning staff. When the churning commenced, the mountain began sinking into the ocean. Taking the form of a turtle (Kurma), Sriman Narayana bore the entire weight of the mountain and the churning continued. Various mystical objects were thrown out.

The first to come out was halahal, the deadly poison, which threatened to engulf the worlds and destroy them. The rules of the churning was that anything that comes out must be accepted. While no one was willing to accept the poison, Lord Shiva came forward to accept it. He swallowed it and Mother Parvati who was standing beside Shiva pressed his neck as He swallowed it to prevent the poison from going into his stomach. Then the serpant King Naaga Raja coiled himself around Shivs neck. Thus the poison remains there stuck forever, neither going up into Shivs mind nor going down into his stomach.

Then came Kamadhenu (the wish fulfilling cow), the Ucchaisrava (the white horse), Airavata (the white elephant), Kaustubhamani (a rare diamond), Kalpavriksha (the wish fulfilling tree), Sura or Varuni (the Goddess of wine), Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth), and finally Dhanvantari (the divine physician) with the vessel of Amrita in his skilful hands. 

The nectar of immortality was denied to the demons and was distributed among the Gods only, through a fine act of trickery enacted by Sriman Narayana, who assumed the form of Mohini to delude the demons and make them forget temporarily all about the Amrita, while He went on distributing it amongst the Gods. Because of the effects of Amrita, they not only became immortal but also defeated the demons.

The symbolism hidden in this story is this. The story represents the spiritual endeavour of man for gaining immortality through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism. The Gods represent the pleasure principle in us.

The demons represent the pain principle. The Gods also represent the senses, while the demons the evil and negative thoughts and impulses. The participation of both the Devas and the demons signify the fact that when one is seeking immortality through the spiritual practice one has to integrate and harmonize both the positive and negative aspects of one’s personality and put both the energies for the common goal.

The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is always compared to an ocean (mano sagaram) while the thoughts and emotions to the waves. The mind as an ocean is in fact a universal symbol, known to other religions and cultures also. Mandhara, the mountain stands for concentration. The word; Mandhara; contains two words, namely man (mind) and dhara (line); which means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only during mental concentration. The mountain Mandhara was upheld by Narayana as a turtle.

The turtle here stands for the withdrawal of the senses into one self as one practices mental concentration and meditation or contemplation. It also suggests that the mind should rest itself upon or freely surrender itself to the divine will.

The great serpent Vasuki stands for desire. The desire is always compared to a thousand hooded serpent. The Vasuki used in the churning of the ocean denotes that the Devas and the demons held desire (to seek immortality) as a rope and churned the mind with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. You can hold desire in your hands and manipulate it only when you have control over your desires. So control of desire is suggested through this symbolism.

The halahal represents suffering and pain we undergo at the beginning of spiritual sadhana. When the mind is subjected to intense churning by opposing forces, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. We are told by many that when an initiate starts his spiritual sadhana he faces a number of difficulties.

The problems become intensified because of inner conflicts, where one part yearns to pursue the spiritual path while the other opposes it. In the initial stages of Sadhana (spiritual practice) a seekers mind throws out all kinds of reactions, negative thoughts, desires and impulses so that he can deal with them appropriately. These problems are basically physical suffering and mental suffering. Without resolving this further progress is not possible. In short we can say that halahal is the instability of the body and the mind that arise as a counter reaction against ones spiritual practice.

Lord Shiva represents the ascetic principle. He is the destroyer of illusion, one who is detached, pure and austere. His role in this story as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life, such as the instability of the mind and its restlessness, by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment, compassion, pure love and asceticism.

Alternatively it also means gaining control over the mind through breath control. Lord Shiva is the controller of breath. He is Prananath, or Praneshwar, Lord of the Breath. In l Sadhana, it is essential that one gains complete mastery over ones breathing pattern. Many spiritually advanced souls have the capacity to hold their breath in their throat, near the palate, as they meditate.

The other objects that came out of the ocean during the churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers (siddhis) which one gains as he progresses in the path of spiritually from stage to stage. We are told that a seeker is to be careful about these powers as they can hamper his progress unless he uses them judiciously, not for his selfish gains but for others welfare. 

This is the reason why the Gods and Demons distributed these powers among others without keeping anything for themselves as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim which was to gain immortality.

Dhanvantarari stands for health. The vessel containing the amrita was brought before the Gods and the demons by Dhanvantari, the divine physician. This signifies that immortality can be achieved only when the body and the mind are in a perfect state of health.

Spiritual success is not possible in case of a person who is mentally or physically sick or whose body is not fit for receiving divine illumination. Sriman Narayana in the form of Mohini stands for delusion of the mind in the form of pride. 

It is the pride of achievement to which the asuras or the demons succumbed and thus lost their right to enter into the world of immortality. Pride, lust, greed, anger, and egoism are the last hurdles one has to overcome in spiritual life before experiencing self-realization.

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