Dialectical struggle & the Elixir of Immortality

Kurmavatara, Made in Himachal Pradesh, India,1760-65 Artist/maker unknown, India, Himachal Pradesh, Basohli or Chamba, US Public Domain
Samudra manthan, churning of the Ocean of Milk, Artist unknown- C. 1760 US Public Domain

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 cosmic or universal Self.

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. It is the very capacity to be with (be mindful of) 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.


  1.  The Vishnu Purana, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, (1840), at sacred-texts.com
  2. Science of Logic (1812 and 1816) by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
  3. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
  4. Symbols of Transformation(Collected Works of C. G. Jung Volume 5)

11 thoughts on “Dialectical struggle & the Elixir of Immortality

  1. I am reminded of the verse in the Bible (Mathew 6:34), “the evil of today is sufficient. …” It is sufficient enough (and necessary [possibly]) to stir up the dialectical tension capable of bringing us into the presence of the divine. It won’t necessarily look or feel like Disneyland or Kansas, though. 🙂

    1. David,

      There are many ways to read that section of the Sermon on the Mount. And the act of reading such a text brings us into our own subjective relationship with such archetypal images as the Kingdom of Heaven, Evil, and even being versus doing.

      Many people take Mathew’s sermon to mean that we must live each day to it’s fullest and not worry about tomorrow: ‘carpe diem.”Take therefore no thought for the morrow… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

      If we are to compare this to the story in the Vishnu Purana, we might say that it is through struggling with our own demons, or own evil, that we find the elixir of immortality and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

      I am just playing with the ideas, and hope I have done justice to your thought.

  2. Your post reminded me of a passage from Edward Edinger’s book, The Anatomy of the Psyche (Pages 83-85). He talks about the churning as the process of coagulatio. This process brings to life the ego and consciousness out of the undifferentiated oneness.

    I like your comment on the bible passage above: “Live each day to its fullest, but struggle with the problem of evil.” That sounds accurate to me.

    1. Hello and Welcome Andy,

      I see from your blog that you are a Jungian Psychologist. Thank you for commenting and mentioning the work from Edward Edinger’s book. It is such a beautifully written book. One of my favorites. Here is a relevant passage for our readers:

      “Gods and genii churned the ocean of milk, using the great serpent (Sesa-naga) as a rope and the Slow-Mountain (Mandara) as a churning rod” (Danielou 1964). From this churning process various objects coagulated out like butter from cream. This same image is given a psychological application in the Upanishads. “Like the butter hidden in milk, pure consciousness Like the butter hidden in milk, the Pure Consciousness resides in every being. That ought to be constantly churned out by the churning rod of the mind.”(p.84)

      I will be reading and writing on Jung’s work on libido (CW 5) shortly. In his work on libido, Jung speaks of the rhythmic moments involved in fire boring as libindal. These movement are quite similar to churning. The boring is a “sort of hieros gamos.'(para. 215)

  3. Jenna and Andy, I appreciate the feedback you shared relating to my comment. Actually, you made me take note of the first part of that verse. I never think about it at all. I only think about the part I cited. Evil (so called evil) presents a struggle as Jenna says in her original post, a necessary struggle in my thinking; without evil we would remain unconscious, pacified and lulled into indifference, without knowledge of the divine being or our individuated being in the divine. The evil that each of us experiences each day is an amount of evil sufficient to wake each of us up or keep us awake to the presence of our being. It is a critical element in the divine mix, in the dialectic. 🙂

  4. Gary,

    I probably should have put evil in quotes, “evil.” I began by calling it “so called evil” and by that I was inferring that the phenomenon we see with our eyes is not necessarily accurately captured by the word evil.

    Our notion of evil grows out of our fear of death. With unseeing eyes we look out into the world and see death all about us. But where can this death come from? Isaiah 45:5 (which you’ve referenced says), “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me….” Isaiah also quotes God here as saying he created evil, but Isaiah probably should have used quotes, also (maybe way back in the day he actually did). How can a good tree bring forth evil fruit?

    We should probably put good in quotes, too, “good”. Our idea of good is born out of our fear of death also. Evil is anything that leads to death and good is anything that leads away from death.

    Our species has really only begun to throw off the shackles of ignorance to realize the truth about our being, about all being. We live, move, and have our being in a quantum universe in which there is no death or dying, only possibilities and probabilities becoming. As we learn to remove the old projections, this will become more and more apparent. I believe this was and is the goal of Jung’s great work.

    I see by Jenna’s comment above that you are a Jungian psychologist, so this clarification is probably unnecessary. I’ll visit your blog too.This is all great! 🙂


    1. I’m only a novice, not a professional psychologist. A lover (amateur) more than a scholar. It’s the love of learning, the search for meaning, truth, wisdom and the struggle with vanity and pride that brings a depth to psychology, imo.
      I think whether we like it or not “evil” is an ontological issue. It may have it’s origin in the human condition or it may be metaphysical. In archetypal psychology when one is open to such things as the numinous, giving the dead a voice, the redemption of the fallen to a previous state of honor, gods, angels, demons, deamons, oracles, dreams as revelations from the collective personal unconsciousness, psyche as soul, the work of personal / spiritual growth… the epistemology of evil is a must, imo. Scientific empiricism is only so rewarding.
      The more I think I know, the more apparent denial, delusion, deception, derangement and ignorance becomes. The great hope is to achieve a small measure of grace toward wisdom and compassion and other virtuous values.
      The awareness of death and the immanence of pathology (the logos of pathos) and the transcendence of life are in sharp contrast to the mundane, apathy, and woe. I think we would also do well to remember that the quantum universe of possibilities and probabilities also allows for hubris, crime and punishment. Of course we prefer the confirmation bias toward Eros to the sticky problem of evil or thanatos or chaos. Maybe that’s how it ought to be. Maybe Eros is the logically valid inference, the sense of the moral compass.

  5. Sorry, Gary, I was seeing Gary and thinking Andy when I spoke of you as being a Jungian psychologist. I’m not a scholar either, but I would be if I had the aptitude for it. I love searching for knowledge, but I can mostly only read the research of others. That’s why I like Jenna’s blog. She has the gifts of a scholar, the wisdom of Sophia, and the voice of a poet. Her blog is both informative and a pleasure to read. 🙂

    You are absolutely correct in calling “evil” an ontological issue whether we like it or not. It is all around us, in our neighbors, in our leaders, our spouses, and even in our own hearts. But a lot of what you wrote in your response to me is difficult for me to put in context. I don’t understand how the content in the sentence beginning, “In archetypal psychology…” applies in contrast to what I wrote? Don’t get me wrong; I really don’t see it. Are you saying that an archetypal psychology must take all those topics under consideration and also include “the epistemology of evil”? And this is the case because “Scientific empiricism is only so rewarding?” And it leads one into thinking he or she knows when they don’t really know?

    I do understand that you want me (blog readers) to remember that the quantum universe of possibilities and probabilities also allows for hubris, crime and punishment. But you leave me wondering again when you bring in the passages about “bias toward Eros to the sticky problem of evil….”

    I want to discuss these issues in depth, but I don’t know how to do it in a way that would be fair to Jenna and her readers. Evil can be an ontological issue without being an existential truth. Consider all the old truths that have fallen since the invention of the printing press. 🙂

  6. A great metaphor for “the grasping of opposites in their unity” is a molecule. In their elemental states neither hydrogen nor oxygen resembles water, but when they are joined together in a covalent bond (sharing of electron pairs between atoms) then they are transformed into the singular entity called water. I experience it as a unified substance even if I know in my mind that it is a compound.

    If I go to the theatre I cannot be moved by the play until I practice “suspension of disbelief.” Life is just like that.

    1. NZ,
      Thank you mentioning the molecule as an image of the unity of opposites. It is a wonderful metaphor for unity, difference, and transformation.

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