Imagine producing all the energy the world could ever need: it's a simple idea – just churn the oceans. Find a very stout pole and place it on the ocean floor. It must be long enough to rest on the seabed and still protrude above the sea's surface; this will be the churning stick. Now loop a gigantic cable around the stick near its top. Having constructed two enormous, powerful machines, anchor them to the ocean floor and attach one end of the rope to each. The machines pull on the rope in turn, twisting the pole back and forth, churning the sea. The agitation of the water thus produced would provide an unlimited amount of energy. read more

Well, in India, once upon a time before human time, in a dimension beyond history, the ocean was churned, and it produced energy of a very special sort. The churning stick was a mountain placed in the sea by divine beings. Instead of a cable, they looped a gigantic serpent around the mountain, and to churn the sea, teams of super-human beings pulled on either end of the snake, twisting the mountain back and forth. In the end, a small quantity of liquid, just enough to fit in a medium size jar, rose to the surface. It was most precious energy, but not of a sort that would power inanimate things. Rather, it was life-energy, an energy that would allow beings to live forever, an elixir of immortality, called amrita in Sanskrit and ambrosia in Greece – the drink of the gods.

But the process of churning the sea didn't go quite as smoothly as I might have led you to believe. For one thing, the make-up of the teams of churners was unusual. Because it was such a vast undertaking, the gods could not accomplish it on their own; they had to enlist demons to help them. This was no easy matter, for the two groups — the divine and the demonic — are always and necessarily at odds, as the tendencies to order and chaos are always ranged against each other with an inescapable logic.

The gods needed that elixir. Like humans, the Indian gods had been created incomplete and mortal; and also like humans, it was up to them to complete themselves and attain their true nature. And what are gods if they are not immortal? So their essence, their very identity as gods, depended on their obtaining that elixir of immortal life. As compensation for their cooperation, the gods promised to share the elixir with the demon host.

Of course, the gods never meant to honor their commitment. How could they? After all, giving the demons immortality would elevate them to the rank of gods and upset the equilibrium between the forces of order and chaos. This divine false promise only goes to show that the realm of morality is too small and constraining an arena for the divine to operate in. But the demons, irresistibly tempted by the promise of immortality, were gullible enough to accept the gods' offer.

Still, things did not proceed smoothly. Once the churning began, the mountain began to sink into the soft ocean floor. And so the great god Vishnu – a protean force who periodically descends to earth in various guises to re-balance the cosmos when it threatens to slide into either utter chaos or total order – assumed the form of a great turtle. He dove to the bottom of the sea and wedged himself beneath the mountain where his carapace provided a solid foundation and balancing point for the churning stick; and so the churning continued.

It is not known exactly for how long — though it was many thousands of years to be sure — the churning went on before various wondrous products began to rise to the surface of the sea. But we do know that the eagerly sought-after elixir was not first among them. First, in fact, was poison, which had somehow to be removed before the elixir could be obtained. Worlds, both human and natural, must be purified, clutter must be removed, before anything constructive can be accomplished. It was Shiva, god of destruction, himself a creator of chaos and blurrer of clear distinctions, who volunteered to consume the poison and purify the water's surface; for being an absolutely logical god, Shiva impartially destroys everything, including the very sources of destruction. The poison was so virulent that it stuck in his craw so to speak, turning it blue; and forever after, the epithet “blue-throat” has belonged to this ambivalent god.

After the poison was skimmed off the sea and the churning continued, wondrous beings and things came to the surface: the goddess of prosperity, precious gems, a fragrant flowering tree, wine, the moon, a wish-fulfilling cow and sensual celestial dancers who bestow delight without remorse on all who encounter them. Then, finally, the elixir of immortality surfaced, like butter rising with the churning of milk (and in fact, in India butter is held to be the nectar of human foods).

Although the demons grabbed the nectar first, the gods, employing various deceitful stratagems, tricked them out of it, and to this day they remain the sole possessors of immortal life.

In India, the world's continued existence depends on maintaining equilibrium between order and chaos, between what is regular and predictable and anarchic and unmanageable. Total order is as unsupportable as chaos: cosmic existence requires both. The static and the dynamic, the predictable and the spontaneous, the routine and the rapturous are equally necessary for the universe to be what it is: a delicately poised realm of being and becoming, evolution and devolution, light and dark.

Both the gods and the demons have their parts to play in this cosmic dance. When the cosmos leans too much to the chaos side, the gods step in and inject a dose of order, perhaps destroying or disempowering a demon or two. When order reigns overarchingly and life becomes too static, the demons ratchet up their cosmic mischief-making.

Humans too are part of this universal equation. It is their ritual performances that help to keep the universe in balance and sustain cosmic continuity. Rituals recreate the activities of the gods by dramatizing them and so bring temporary perfection to an imperfect, unbalanced world.

Rituals range from the most mundane and simple, like sacrificing a few grains of rice to the gods before eating, to complex ceremonies marking family life's most important events, like birth, marriage and death, to the great public festivals that mark the Hindu calendar's cycle of religious observances. Of these, Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is the most widely and enthusiastically celebrated.

On the night of the New Moon at the end of the fall harvest season, another incarnation of Vishnu, the virtuous and just god-king Rama returns from fourteen years of exile to reclaim his kingdom, his right to the throne now unchallenged. It is a triumphal entry into his capital city, for he has rescued his wife Sita and destroyed the powerful demon who kidnapped her and threatened to loose unchecked the forces of disorder upon the world.

A glorious new era was to begin, and so the inhabitants of Rama's capital cleaned and painted their homes afresh, bathed and donned new clothes and prepared the finest sweets; and because the night sky was without a moon, they set their city “ablaze” with countless oil lamps to welcome their beloved sovereign in the clear, bright light of optimistic new beginnings.

Every year on Diwali, Rama is welcomed home again, as if for the first time. Houses are cleaned and decorated, people array themselves in new garments; vehicles and domestic animals are washed and bedecked with flowers; businesses close their accounts for the year and start afresh. The world is purified and life's clutter removed.

So each year, lighting Rama's way on this dark, moonless night, every city, town and village in India glows in the flickering light of innumerable oil lamps lining every ledge of every wall, the sill of every window, the edges of every road and lane. Cascading colored lights drape the walls of buildings. Along riverbanks, people set afloat small candle-lit leaf boats creating glittering pathways on the waters. By starting anew, continuity is maintained and the world is re-balanced for the start of another yearly cycle of existence.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006