To live is to struggle. Whether we are rich or poor, beautiful or plain, famous or more humble, we will struggle. The struggle arises from within. It is a struggle of the mind. Yet it is this very struggle that brings forth the potential for growth and Self-realization. It is our ability to be with the struggle, to work with the tensions of life, that opens a horizon for growth and awareness.
The Vedic tradition speaks to this struggle. We are said to live within the world of Maya, the world of duality: good and bad, dark and light, sun and moon, day and night, up and down, inside and outside.
In Vedanta, this struggle of duality is related to avidyā. Avidyā is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘ignorance’ and ‘delusion.’ This word is opposed to Vidya, meaning ‘correct knowledge.’ Avidyā is represented in images of the demons. Avidyā is said to be the ignorance which prevents an understanding of the true nature of the Self, as beyond duality.
There is a story in the Vishnu Purana which illustrates the struggle. The story was written before the third century CE. The struggle is between Avidyā and Vidya, as illustrated by the demons and the deities.
The story begins as the deities pray to Vishnu (the supreme Self) for refuge:
“Spirit of all, have compassion upon us; defend us with thy mighty power.”
Vishnu (the Self) answers with a command:
“Cast all sorts of medicinal herbs into the Sea of Milk; and then taking the mountain Mandara for the churning-stick, the serpent Vásuki for the rope, churn the ocean together for ambrosia.”
In the story, the Sea of Milk is a sacred borderland lying between the temporal and the eternal, between the measurable and unmeasurable. It is a liminal realm, and from a Jungian perspective can be seen as representing the realm of imagination.
In the story, Vishnu requests that the deities work together with the demons. Working together represents both struggle and integration. They must churn the Ocean of Milk using the serpent Vásuki for the rope, and in their labor they will create the ambrosia. Vishnu says:
“You must be at peace with them [the demons], and engage to give them an equal portion of the fruit of your associated toil.”
The deities and demons work together to churn the Ocean of Milk:
“Being thus instructed by the god of gods, the divinities entered into alliance with the demons, and they jointly undertook the acquirement of the beverage of immortality. They collected various kinds of medicinal herbs, and cast them into the sea of milk, the waters of which were radiant as the thin and shining clouds of autumn. They then took the mountain Mandara for the staff; the serpent Vásuki for the cord; and commenced to churn the ocean for the Amrita. The assembled gods were stationed by Krishńa at the tail of the serpent; the Daityas and Dánavas at its head and neck.”
The deities and demons churn the sea of milk, and from this churning all sort of wondrous things arise:
“From the ocean, thus churned by the gods and Dánavas, first uprose the cow Surabhi, the fountain of milk and curds … Then, as the holy Siddhas in the sky wondered what this could be, appeared the goddess Váruní (the deity of wine), her eyes rolling with intoxication. Next, from the whirlpool of the deep, sprang the celestial Párijáta tree, the delight of the nymphs of heaven, perfuming the world with its blossoms. The troop of Ápsarasas, the nymphs of heaven, were then produced, of surprising loveliness, endowed with beauty and with taste. The cool-rayed moon next rose… “
As well as wondrous things, a poison emerges from the churning:
“A poison was engendered from the sea, of which the snake gods (Nágas) took possession.”
And then, a cup of Amrita [the elixir of immortality] came forth, along with the goddess Sri:
“Dhanwantari, robed in white, and bearing in his hand the cup of Amrita, next came forth…Then, seated on a full-blown lotus, and holding a water-lily in her hand, the goddess Śrí, radiant with beauty, rose from the waves. “
It is Sri, the mother of all beings that is the final product of the churning:
“she was produced from the sea, at the churning of the ocean by the demons and the gods, to obtain ambrosia.”
The archetypal elixir of immortality (Soma) is coincident with the emergence of the divine mother. Indra bows to the mother of all beings:
“I bow down to Śrí, the mother of all beings… thou art ambrosia, the purifier of the universe: thou art evening, night, and dawn: thou art power, faith, intellect: thou art the goddess of letters. Thou, beautiful goddess, art knowledge of devotion, great knowledge, mystic knowledge, and spiritual knowledge; which confers eternal liberation.”
At the end of this story we are told that wherever there is God, the mother is as well.
“[For if] the lord of the world, the god of gods… descends amongst mankind (in various shapes), so does his coadjutrix Śrí. Thus when Hari was born as a dwarf, …Lakshmí appeared from a lotus; when he was born as Ráma, she was Dharańí; when he was Rághava, she was Sítá; and when he was Krishńa, she became Rukminí. In the other descents of Vishńu, she is his associate. If he takes a celestial form, she appears as divine; if a mortal, she becomes a mortal too, transforming her own person agreeably to whatever character it pleases Vishńu to put on.”
On a last note, it is a said to be a great blessing to hear this story:
“Whosoever hears this account of the birth of Lakshmí, whosoever reads it, shall never lose the goddess Fortune from his dwelling for three generations; and misfortune, the fountain of strife, shall never enter into those houses in which the hymns to Śrí are repeated.”
It is through the struggle between the deities and demons that immortality is found. Both the demons and the deities are necessary for the emergence of elixir of immortality. It is the struggle that churns the ocean of milk; the churn brings forth the elixir.
In modern Western culture, I often hear people speaking of enlightenment as if it happens instantaneously. One moment you are a depressed, lifeless human being and the next you are enlightened, even immortal. I believe this is an idealized notion of a process that is much more gradual and humble. I would counter that it is the very capacity to tarry with the tensions of duality that leads to ‘enlightenment.’
I will refer to GWF Hegel to elucidate this process. Hegel’s work is a dialectical philosophy about the dialectics of being. He speaks of duality using terms such terms as ‘contradiction’ and ‘dialectic.’ For example, Hegel says: “Everything is inherently contradictory.” (Science of Logic, 1816) And also: “Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of the dialectic.” (Encyclopedia, 1817)
For Hegel the dialectic is neither right nor wrong. Instead a dialectical tension drives spirit in its forward movement and development. Hegel is clear on this point: “contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality.” (Science of Logic, 1816) Through struggling with the dialectical tensions of being we come into greater and greater awareness: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
We are neither gods nor demons. But within us, the archetypal potentials of the gods and demons play out a divine play. Insofar as we are capable of struggling to learn and grow, we churn the milky sea of consciousness. From this churning, creativity emerges, producing all sorts of beautiful, good, intoxicating things, including Soma the archetypal images of immortality.
Reference: The Vishnu Purana, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, (1840), at sacred-texts.com