“…the gods came …saying, ‘O Ocean; we have come to churn thy waters for obtaining nectar…After a while, the mild Moon of a thousand rays emerged from the Ocean. …Then arose the divine himself with the white vessel of nectar in his hand. And seeing him, the Asuras [demons] set up a loud cry, saying, ‘It be ours.’…
…But with the churning…the poison appeared…Engulfing the Earth it suddenly blazed up like a fire attended with fumes…And then Siva [Shiva], being solicited by Brahman, swallowed that poison for the safety of the creation….”
– From The Mahabharata, Section 18
When Oxfam released its latest report on wealth inequality last week, announcing that the wealth of just 80 individuals in the world is now equal to that owned by the bottom 50% of the global population, or 3.5 billion people, I was reminded of this myth of the Samudra Manthan or churning of the cosmic ocean.
There are several versions of this myth from at least three different sources, but they all share the same general story: The gods (devas) and demons (asuras) were battling over control of the universe. The gods had already suffered several defeats and approached Brahma, the god of gods, for advice. Brahma suggests that the gods convince the demons to help them churn the cosmic ocean – the source and life-bed of all creation – to access the sacred nectar of immortality (amrita). He continues on to say, however, that the gods should not share the nectar with the demons, but keep it to themselves to finally prevail over them.
The gods bring this idea to the demons, who, unaware of the gods’ trickery, agree to work together on the strenuous task of churning the ocean. Their first attempt is unsuccessful and they are spent by their exertion, even while their actions begin to release a lethal poison (hala-hala) into the waters that is powerful enough to destroy all of creation. This is described in great detail in the epic Mahabharata: “Then, O Brahmana, out of the deep came a tremendous roar like unto the roar of the clouds at the Universal Dissolution. Diverse aquatic animals being crushed by the great mountain gave up the ghost in the salt waters. And many denizens of the lower regions and the world of Varuna were killed. Large trees with birds on the whirling Mandara were torn up by the roots and fell into the water…The mountain looked like a mass of dark clouds charged with lightning.….”
This foreboding destruction does not, however, dissuade the gods and demons from their plan and they appeal to Brahma for renewed strength. It is granted. They continue to churn the ocean, finally accessing the nectar, but at the same time unleashing the full force of the hala-hala. To prevent its catastrophic potential, the gods approach Shiva who consumes the poison himself.
This is not, however, the end of the story. By drinking the poison, Shiva threatens the life that already exists in the universe, which is cradled in his belly. Shocked by his act, the Goddess Parvati (his partner) presses her hand to his throat, nearly strangling him, but ultimately saving both Shiva and the universe. In turn, Shiva’s neck turns blue.
There are three aspects to this story that are particularly relevant to the dire situation of economic and political inequality reported on by Oxfam. First, what releases the poison into the world is the effort of gods and demons, together, to access the nectar of immortality for themselves. There is a reason this nectar – important for the continuity of all life and creation – is kept at the bottom of the cosmic ocean, where it remains inaccessible but still a part of and infused into all creation, thereby ensuring that life itself is eternal. When the gods and demons attempt to hoard this resource for their own benefit, exclusive of the rest of creation, they end up threatening all life. Likewise, an economic and political system that makes it possible for 80 people to have as much wealth as 3.5 billion people is life-threatening, because it means that bulk of the world’s economic resources, wealth and productive potential are owned and controlled by the very few, thereby condemning the masses to poverty, dispossession and exploitation.
Second, in this myth the cosmic ocean and the universe are distinct – the first is what creates life, and the second is where all life that has been created exists. The actions of the gods and demons do not just threaten the life that already exists, they threaten the source of life and therefore the possibility of life existing at all. Shiva drinks the poison to protect that essential resource of life, the cosmic ocean. In our society today, the essential resources of life – water, land, modern science and technology – are not harnessed for all humanity. Rather, they have increasingly become held and controlled by a small minority of people, used to produce profits for them instead of well-being for the rest of us.
While some may claim that those profits ultimately benefit the masses, the reality proves otherwise: in the United States, 1 in 5 children in 2014 would have gone hungry had their families not qualified for public assistance (up from 1 in 8 children in 2007). Yet, not only did Congress cut $8.6 billion from food stamps funding in 2014, but 30 percent of the food that is produced in this country (over $48 billion worth) is thrown away. A record 14 million (1 in 9) US homes remain vacant while 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year. While health care has been one the most profitable industries after the economic crisis, medical debt remains the primary cause behind most bankruptcies. Our capacity to create food, homes and wealth is not being used for the masses of people in this country or around the world.
It is not the forces that have unleashed catastrophe upon catastrophe into the world who end up saving the universe. It is the force that is intimately tied to the reality of life – and the possibility of annihilation – that ends up saving all.
Finally, the third and most important detail of the Samudra Manthan has to do with what happens after Shiva drinks the poison, when Parvati chokes him to keep the poison from spreading to the universe in his belly. To see the wisdom in this detail, we need to know more about Parvati. Parvati is the Mother Goddess in Hinduism and the embodiment of the energy force of the universe, Shakti. She is tied to the reality of the life and universe, both responsible for creation and the agent of all change. In the Samudra Manthan, and unlike Shiva, who is willing to sacrifice the universe for the cosmic ocean, Parvati does not make any distinctions between what life to save – actual or potential, deserving or undeserving; rather, she acts to save everything and, indeed, everything is saved.
Where is Parvati today? Where can we find Shakti, this divine and sacred power that nourishes, protects and saves all life? In its report, Oxfam appeals to governments, organizations, corporations and the influential individuals who have gathered in Davos for the World Economic Forum 2015 to build a “fairer economic and political system that values every citizen….to address the factors that have led to today’s inequality explosion and to implement policies that redistribute money and power from the few to the many.” The assumption is that these people and institutions will act with the blessings and inspiration of Shakti. This position, which is not unique to Oxfam but widely believed, is that those who are in power – or closest to it – are the most able and willing to change the status quo in the interests of all. With all the necessary resources at their disposal, it may be that appealing to their morality, responsibility, and even their economic interests could inspire a more just world.
Yet, as we see in the Samudra Manthan, it is not the forces that have unleashed catastrophe upon catastrophe into the world who end up saving the universe. Nor is it the well-intentioned savior whose actions actually threaten life by accepting the notion that some must be lost in order for some to survive. It is the force that is intimately tied to the reality of life – and the possibility of annihilation – that ends up saving all. And through her creativity and strength, that is through the power of Shakti, Parvati shows us what it means to truly love life.
Today, this life force is embodied in the social force made most vulnerable by the rampant inequality reported on by Oxfam: the poor and dispossessed who are fighting everyday for life, dignity and peace. These hundreds of millions of women, men and children know the myriad ways that life is compromised and threatened in this inhumane reality. And they know better than any other social force that all life is sacred and that no life may be sacrificed (or asked to lengthen those bootstraps, tighten that belt one more notch and wait a little bit longer for their basic human needs). Because they fight for us all, their fights are our fights. It is this force we need to show us, through its creativity, strength and leadership, what it means to fight for and love all life today.