The Ocean Within Us

By Mehru Jaffer

To want to begin from the beginning is an exercise most elusive. Imagine wading through the waters of life when it may sometimes feel that the beginning is found. But what is mistaken for the beginning invariably turns out to be the end, really. And before the next blink of the eyelid, the end dissolves into yet another beginning….

In South Asia’s cyclical view of the world it is often difficult to grasp where beginning begins and the end ends. In the linear way of the world, both beginning and end are less elusive as represented by the more tangible events of birth as beginning and death as end.

Eons of cross-cultural engagement have made the cyclical as well as the linear views of the world a part of the psyche of many South Asians, making the exercise of trying to imagine the past and the future of the region even more colourful.
To imagine what South Asia was like is to go as far back in time as possible. How far back is the question. Mystics are able to stretch their imagination about the past only as far as nothingness.
When there was nothing, sings the wanderer, there was that. And one day when that which was said be, then life became:

jab kahin pe kuuch bhi nahin tha, wahi tha, kun faya kun…

Since the mystic is unable to share with the world more knowledge about what was before there was nothing, mythology steps in to imagine what creation might be.
According to Hindu mythology, the beginning begins perhaps with the churning of the ocean. The ocean is believed to be central to life on earth. It is symbolic of the source of consciousness and considered a vast, mysterious pool of wealth and wonder.
The problem with the gods at one point in time was that the source of consciousness had turned sluggish. Life was dull and it was boring. Cursed by a sage, the gods had lost the power to deal with the stagnation that imprisoned them.

To return enchantment back into their life, the gods wondered what they could do instead of just languishing. It was decided to tap the infinite potential of the ocean of consciousness and to poke, stir and churn it into wakefulness. To try and rejuvenate life by churning the ocean was a decision most revolutionary.
Scriptures like the Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata say that the gods churned the ocean in search of ambrosia, the nectar of life. However, the gods could not take on this monumental task on their own. They needed help from the anti-gods to do so. This is the moment that taught people cooperation, compromise and the benefit of dialogue. The coming together of the gods and anti-gods in the interest of the larger good of humanity is symbolic of balance and not battle between the divine and the demonic in life.

Swallowing their dislike for each other, the gods and the anti-gods chose to rendezvous at Mount Meru—that rare spot in the world where heaven and earth meet. A rod was carved out of the mountain to churn the ocean. Vasuki, the king snake, volunteered to be the rope. The snake wrapped itself three and a half times around the rod. The gods held the snake by its tail. To support the balance of the rod and to prevent it from sinking, Lord Vishnu turned into a tortoise and held the rod securely at the bottom of the ocean. The anti-gods had the head of the snake in their hands and they suffered the fumes that sprayed out of the snake’s mouth. The churning of the ocean was tough.

After considerable effort, ambrosia surfaced. But along with ambrosia venom also came. There was panic: if allowed to spread, the venom would destroy all creation. When Vasuki vomited venom, Shiva was quick to prevent it from leaking into the ocean and poisoning the waters. Shiva sprang up to collect the venom and held it in his throat. The venom turned Shiva’s neck blue, giving him the name Neelkanta, but the world was saved from destruction. Along with ambrosia and venom, the churning threw up wealth, including Lakshmi who emerged out of the ocean to store the ambrosia in an earthen pot.

“Bas relief carving showing Asura demons pulling on the god snake Vasuki in the Hindu legend the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Angkor Wat temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.”

Gems like knowledge and beauty rode up the waves as well along with treasures like a seven-headed horse, a wish-fulfilling cow, a white elephant, a bow… wise men, the moon, the parijat flower and the kalpavriksha, a boon-granting tree…. The treasures enriched existence, and the goodies gifted to the world by the churning of the ocean were shared amongst all. That was the good news. The bad news was that war broke out between the gods and anti-gods over the ambrosia collected. In the struggle to possess it, drops of the ambrosia spilled in different corners of the region, making that ground sacred.

Medieval battle scene with cavalry and infantry. Silhouettes of figures as separate objects, fight between warriors on dark toned foggy background. Night scene. Selective focus

The anti-gods felt cheated. They were not given half their share of the ambrosia although they had churned the ocean with equal strength. The gods kept the precious ambrosia away from the anti-gods in the hope of curbing evil in the midst of existence.
To make sure that the anti-gods did not get even a drop of ambrosia, Vishnu transformed into Mohini, the apsara. Mohini was responsible for distracting the demons with a seductive dance while the gods took turns to consume the ambrosia. Despite all precautions, a demon made his way into the company of the gods and tricked everyone by pretending to be one of them. The demon succeeded in consuming some of the ambrosia. But before the liquid could reach his throat, Vishnu sliced off the demon’s head. This way the world was saved, first by Shiva and then by Vishnu.
The gods have always worked over time in an effort to spread goodness. But the good intentions of the gods don’t always bear fruit. In contemporary context all wars in South Asia and in other parts of the world continue to be over wealth like land, water, gold and oil and never over goodness. The on-going conflicts in the region between countries and within countries follow the same trajectory of striving to bag the maximum from Nature’s bounty, existence be damned!
This is how mythology imagines South Asia’s past and its problems in the present.
In prehistoric times tools, pottery, and clothing were invented. Homes and monuments were built. Language and rituals were developed and different ideas were expressed through diverse forms of art and writing.
The Indus Valley is an early civilisation that fell apart in one stroke. It is not certain who were the foes of the people settled along the Indus. That way of life was followed by the early Vedic period that gradually moved away from the Indus to settle on the banks of the Ganges. Here Buddhism took root in opposition to the established religion. Prince Siddharth or Gautam Buddha was born in the lap of Brahmanism, a Hindu way of life characterised by belief in reincarnation and the division of society into four castes. The Buddha gave up his claim to the throne of his privileged, upper-caste Hindu father to live amongst the majority of ordinary citizens who were deprived of their right to a life of dignity.

It is unfair and untrue to reduce all wars in South Asia to conflict only between Hindus and Muslims. Although considered a legend, the thought of the 18-day Mahabharata fought in Kurukshetra for the throne of Hastinapur still sends shivers down the spine. During that war millions died, the destruction causing Dwarka, the home of Krishna, to disappear under the waters of the Arabian Sea. Many millennia later, on July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist and Sanskrit scholar, was reminded of the devastation caused by the Mahabharata when he witnessed the first atomic bomb he had helped to invent detonate.

Quoting Krishna from the Gita, a text that is part of the epic text of the Mahabharata, Oppenheimer said:

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

There are written records of Alexander, the great Macedonian warrior, coming all the way from Greece to battle the people of South Asia before the birth of Christ. The Kushans’ was a most syncretic empire in the early part of the first century with Indo-European and Chinese roots. Kujula Kadphies, founder of the dynasty, was a devotee of Shiva who practised Greek religious rituals. The greatest Kushan ruler was Kanishka who was a devotee of both Buddhism and the Zoroastrian religion. The Kushans facilitated the spread of Buddhism to China and enjoyed excellent relations with the Roman Empire as well as the Persian Sasanian Empire, making it a kingpin of major civilisations of the time.
The great Gandhara tradition in today’s northwest Pakistan provided exceptional patronage to Buddhism and its influence stretched beyond the Indian sub-continent. Buddhism inspired various aspects of different cultures, including principles of governance. This is the period when the ideal image of the Buddha took shape which spread far and wide all the way to China along the Great Silk Route.
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes from the second century, connecting people from China to Europe and to North Africa. The main activity of those on the route was of course trade but commerce influenced local cultures and in turn local cultures impressed buyers and sellers from far and near.
A large part of north India was eventually dominated by the Mauryan Empire that fought armies from outside and within South Asia. Artistic expression accompanied most military conquests and the territory conquered by great empires like the Mauryan also sprouted centres of high culture. The most well-known ruler of the Mauryan dynasty was Asoka who fought the deadliest battle not with an invader from outside South Asia but with an independent feudal kingdom on the east coast in present-day Odisha. This was followed by the Golden Age that dawned during the Gupta Empire that reached its zenith between AD 320 and 600.
The Gupta Empire too expanded through battle, conquest and political alliances until AD 395 when it had extended across the entire Indian sub-continent.

Much before the Delhi Sultanate was established in 1196, the Central Asian tribe of Huns had time and again crossed into the Indian sub-continent through the Khyber Pass from the end of the fifth century. Islam came into practice in the seventh century and it was only at the start of the 13th century that Turkic warriors succeeded in conquering South Asia and founded the Sultanate. The loss of north India to Turkic warriors made local kingdoms in the South powerful like Vijayanagara.
As wars increased, the constant destruction of human life spawned poets like Jaideva who sang in praise of love. He composed countless songs in praise of the undying love between Radha and Krishna. Fed up of wars, the common citizen joined the Bhakti movement that was spearheaded by poets like Jaideva. Both Shiva and Vishnu devotees got together to recite their love for their respective gods in verse as far back as the fifth century. By the 12th century every nook and cranny of South Asia resonated with the sound of poets singing tirelessly of the need for human beings to love their creator, and also one another.

Love pierced me like a nail into a green tree.

There was the Sufi faqir, Baba Farid, who said:

‘Farid,’ I surely hear a voice say from greed’s snare, beware, beware.

Kabir was inspired by the words of Farid and he said:

You will not find me in the stupa, nor at a shrine, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals…not in legs winding around your neck nor in eating only vegetables. You will find me instantly in the breath inside the breath.

Nanak, the first Sikh guru, said that he who has no faith in himself has no faith in God and asked his followers to practise goodwill towards all. Amir Khusro’s ideas of love continue to be quoted to this day. Khusro says that love floored him with just a glance.

Mohey suhagan ki mosey naina milai ke

The Vijayanagara Empire in the south was the last great Hindu empire. The arrival of the Portuguese marked the beginning of European incursions into the Indian sub-continent, culminating in British rule a few centuries later. Modernised transportation by sea, land and air encouraged a lot more people to criss-cross the world even as military tensions and diplomatic missions operated side by side.
To this day, commercial exchanges continue to be accompanied by cultural collaborations. For example, the colonisation of South Asia by the British inspired a great cultural awakening in the region and the swadeshi movement came into being to inspire non-Western ideas in Indian art and literature.
To make better sense of life in South Asia is to look at the region’s important transcultural exchanges with the rest of the world as a bouquet of events from military, political, religious, commercial and literary points of view. It is problematic if South Asia is viewed today as having a singular, unimaginative, miserly, linear, dualistic, separatist and exclusionist way of life.
The material and the spiritual are inseparable. It is exhilarating to remember that the common energy of the planet interconnects all life on earth in a vast circular system. Circularity is inescapable and in circularity there is no beginning or end, just continuous, pulsating and eternal motion. There is no separation or permanent compartmentalisation and existence depends on a web of mutual interdependency. The attempt to separate Hindu from Muslim, woman from man, yin from yang, green from saffron…is to dance to the destructive tune of the demon. Instead, the search is for a more creative way of living together that helps evoke the unconditional and protective power and grace of Shiva who saved the world from destruction by arresting the spread of venom in his throat. It is worthwhile to try to reflect upon the potential of the ocean and to explore the possibility of the presence of the supreme consciousness within.
It is worthwhile to continue to search for invincible love in the midst of hate.
As contemporary poet Dushyant Kumar observes, the ways of the world have hardened worse than stone. It is time for this Himalaya to melt so that life may flow once again like the River Ganges.

ho gai hai pir parvat sii pighalni chahiye, iis himalaya se koi ganga nikalni chahiye.


About the author: Mehru Jaffer is a Lucknow– born author and journalist. She has taught Islam related topics at the University of Vienna, Austria and at the Vienna American Webster University. She is the author of The Book of Muhammad, The Book of Muinuddin Chishti and The Book of Nizamuddin Aulia, all published by Penguin India.


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