A potter gently shapes a lump of clay upon her wheel. A carpenter hews and joins measured pieces of wood. Creation, we see, is often a process of reasoned thought and careful construction. And yet, just as often, creation arises in far more unpredictable circumstances—from chaos, transgression, and failure. This interplay of creation and chaos is a major theme in the stories of the Bhagavata Purana, one of India’s most beloved Sanskrit texts. A vivid example is the Churning of the Ocean, an ancient narrative that is retold in different forms across South and Southeast Asia.
The gods and demons declared a truce and decided to churn the ocean in order to extract the elixir of immortality that was latent deep within the sea. They uprooted the huge Mount Mandara to serve as the churning rod, while the divine serpent Vasuki became the rope. But the mountain kept sinking into the ocean and so Vishnu took the form of a turtle and supported it on his back. The gods held the serpent on one side and the demons held it on the other. As they churned, the ocean frothed, the mountains shook, and from that chaos emerged . . . not the elixir, but a dangerous poison that began spreading in all directions. Everyone panicked and called on Shiva for help, who drank the poison and thus saved the world. Once the dust had settled, the gods and demons continued churning and—rather anticlimactically—out came the elixir of immortality.
The churning of the ocean is recounted beautifully in the Bhagavata Purana, with a lot more detail and flourish. What was it about this story that made it so popular and powerful, among royalty and laity? Was it the image of cooperation among opposites, or the possibility of success despite all-consuming failure, or maybe the interplay of human effort and divine grace?
In their two forthcoming books for Columbia University Press, Ravi Gupta and Kenneth Valpey (Chinese University of Hong Kong) will translate the Churning of the Ocean and many more chapters from the Bhagavata Purana. The Bhagavata is a genre-busting piece of Sanskrit literature. Although primarily written as an ancient history (Purana), the Bhagavata is also a work of exquisite poetry, interwoven with dense philosophy and difficult vocabulary. The many layers of the text, including ways in which it has been performed in dance, drama, and music, will be the topic of Gupta and Valpey’s second book.