Vishnu, the Lord of the Universe, first descended in the form of Matsya, the fish. In the next stage of evolution, a gradual condensation takes place in the deep, nebulous waters of the unconscious. This represents the development of the subconscious level through which all created beings are first experienced in their subtle form. This stage of evolution is represented by the advent of Vishnu as Kurma, the tortoise, an amphibious creature that dwells both in water and on land. This myth tells of the churning of the ocean to retrieve certain divine treasures lost in the flood.
After the flood, when the gods and asuras, or demonic beings, descended to churn the cosmic ocean, there was nothing for them to stand on. Vishnu then took the shape of a gigantic tortoise in order that they might all stand on his back. The tortoise here represents the fundament upon which the earth rests, the centre of the world, the base or pivot of Mandara Mountain. So, with the gods on one side and the asuras on the other, pulling on the serpent Vasuki, wound around the Mandara Mountain, which was used as a churning stick, they churned the ocean and retrieved the desired objects.
The ocean of milk before the churning represents the earliest state of primordial matter. Being white, it is in its purest, most sattwic form. The churning represents the nebulous state of matter when it begins to condense. The Milky Way, which appears like a sea of milk, is nebular matter in the process of condensation, when it will eventually become dense heavenly bodies. So from out of the milky or nebulous ocean is churned the gross matter comprised of atoms, which will become the new creation. At this stage, two kinds of vibrations or motion had to exist before the condensation of matter could take place. First, within the vast ocean with its eddies and currents, a longitudinal major axis forming a dam had to cut across the current in order to generate the material condition. In the myth, this major longitudinal axis of motion is formed by the Mandara Mountain, supported by the Lord in the form of Kurma, the tortoise. The second vibration is a transverse motion formed by a minor horizontal axis. The serpent Vasuki, representing the principle of Time, forms the horizontal axis. When these two vibrational fields came into existence, the churning took place.
Thus the whole universe had this kind of motion, which produced Brahmanda and Pindanda, the macrocosmic and microcosmic egg, the universal and individual source of creation. Hence the manifest condition of the universe arose. A similar process takes place in the second stage of the developing embryo, which is known as the milky stage, when the sperm and ovum fuse into each other. At this point a bifurcation takes place with the centrosome in the middle, which represents the vertebral column and with chromosomes at both sides. The chromosomes divide into two on both sides due to a rotary motion produced in the central axis when the two chromosomes diverge from the centre, being connected with one another. The string connecting the two chromosomes is a pranic cord, which the myth describes as Vasuki.
In the myth, the devas and asuras, representing the positive and negative aspects of nature, are pulling at either end and thus bring about the churning motion through which fourteen material objects are created or brought up. The emerging of these treasures represents the evolution of the different categories of beings. The first objects to emerge from the ocean of milk were amrita and vish, the nectar and the poison, representing life and death, light and darkness. Next Ganga emerged, representing the pranic current which is the substratum of life. Then came Kaustubha, the wish-fulfilling gem, representing the mineral kingdom. Next, arose the lotus and parijata (wish-fulfilling) tree, representing the vegetable kingdom. Then came Surabhi, the cow of plenty and mother of all cows; Uchchaisravas, the divine white horse with seven heads; and Airavata, the winged elephant, mount of Indra all three representing the animal kingdom. Next arose the gandharvas, heavenly musicians, and apsaras, divine nymphs, representing sound and form, nada and bindu. Then arose Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, and Varuni, goddess of adversity, one representing the upliftment and the other the degradation of humanity. Last to emerge was Dhanvantari, the divine physician, who is the prototype of humanity, representing knowledge of medicinal lore.
Hence the different kingdoms and species of creation arose due to the churning of the ocean, which was facilitated by the Lord in the form of a tortoise. Within the primal depths of the unconscious there is no stability and nothing to stand upon. So the tortoise, representing the subconscious, formed a base to stabilise the Mandara Mountain and for the gods and asuras to stand upon while they churned the ocean of the unconscious. Here, Vishnu as tortoise, who is at home both in the watery depths as well as on land, represents the development of the subconscious, a transitional state between the unconscious or unmanifest dimension and the conscious or manifest dimension. At the subconscious level all beings are perceived in their subtle form before emerging into the manifest dimension or dissolving into the unmanifest.
So, in this incarnation Vishnu as tortoise helps both the gods and asuras to regain the nectar of immortality as well as all the other objects from which the new creation will be formed.
Continued in the next issue