Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Monumental canvases chronicling deeds of gallant men on horses and elephants rarely capture my imagination. In other words, I am not a painter of heroic paintings. So it was a self-imposed challenge to embark on painting the Samudra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean), a well known episode described in Srimad Bhāgvatam (Story of the Fortunate One). While I had danced the episode on stage many times, painting it was another matter. It took me over one year to finish the painting, which also allowed time to ponder its meaning.
The Devas (gods) and the Asuras (demons) both want the nectar of immortality (Amrita), that they know lies buried deep inside the ocean (Kshirasāgara). Retrieving it requires that they churn the ocean until the reward surfaces, somewhat like butter does when milk is churned. The scene is set with the Mandāra mountain acting as the 'churning pole' and the serpent Vasuki as the 'rope'. As the action begins, the mountain starts to sink in the seabed, and so is held in place by the mighty Kūrma (Tortoise) avatār of Vishnu.
Contrary to popular belief, the two teams comprising the gods and the demons are not competing, but cooperating for a shared goal. It is this cooperation that makes manthan/ churning possible. When the demons pull one end of the serpent, the gods release their grip on the other end, and so on. This gargantuan drill, however, releases more than just the 'nectar of immortality', and includes the Halāhal (poison), Lakshmi (Goddess of prosperity), Airāvat (a multi-tusked white elephant), Kalpavriksha (a wish-fulfilling tree), and so on. Altogether 14 'jewels'/ratna are born out of the ocean.
Why does it matter?
On the surface it seems to be a fairy tale episode from the world of gods, celestial creatures and demons, with little relevance to our lives; a reverie of sort. However its symbolism is not only profound, but highly relevant.
If one were to realize the meaning behind every participant in the story, then something compelling comes to fore:
The Mountain = Mind
Ocean = Thoughts and Emotions
Serpent Vasuki= Desire
Tortoise (Kūrma)= Withdrawal of all 5 senses (as the four feet and the head of the tortoise are withdrawn in its shell)
Gods and demons= the affirmative and negative forces within oneself
A more legible interpretation:
One can reap the rewards of effort, as long as both the affirmative and negative aspects within oneself harmonize, and can harness the desire to succeed with a focused (still) mind, coupled with total control (withdrawal) of all five senses, even when one's thoughts and emotions threaten to overpower.
In contemporary parlance, what we have before us is a recipe for success. Whether one wants to gain in the material sense (business, career, financial success etc.) or in a more abstract/spiritual sense of self-actualization, the rules are the same. But beware. Any disciplined path will first yield Halāhal (poison), i.e. discomfort, alienation, loneliness, self-doubt, frustration, even anger. Eventually the path clears, and gradually the rewards are let out. This requires clarity of vision and repetitious action over extended time. The path to success is non-linear and onerous. This manthan is daily occurrence for those steeped in any sādhanā/single-minded fidelity towards the work, for those who are driven, passionate and unrelenting.
It's almost banal to state that we live in a constant feed of information and entertainment. Ability to multitask,, scanning and skimming are our professional and social currency. Can one digest the idea of "manthan" today, when gratification is on demand NOW, or even yesterday? We need to ask those who reach the pinnacle of achievement with hard work and grit. The great artists, scholars, visionaries, statesmen/women, entrepreneurs, scientists etc; was their path to success cushy and comfortable? Or was it ridden with daily "manthan"?
Of serpents and seas in Art
The images of Samudra Manthan are no more fantastical than those from Greek mythology. For example the famous 2nd century B.C.E. sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons (below) chronicles the punishment inflicted on them by Apollo for defiling his sanctuary. Laocoön is about to offer sacrifices to Poseidon, the god of the seas, when two sea serpents sent by Apollo attack the father and his two sons. The contorted torso of Laocoön and the horrific bite of the slithering serpent on his pelvis articulate his painful state in cold marble.
Another unforgettable image is the engraving titled Battle of the Sea Gods (left half) by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna (below). The subject is an allegory of the destructive forces of human envy, imagined through a battle between some human and some half-human, half-animal beings, all wielding supernatural powers.
Among many who admired the above engraving by Mantegna was the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, who in 1494 produced a drawing of this print that led to the creation of his exquisite Sea Monster (below).
Either way the struggle of the Greek gods is finite. They are punished and banished, often cursed to metamorphose into animals, plants, flowers or birds. In art, emotional impediments such as envy, wrath etc. find glorification in exquisitely drawn human forms wielding divine powers. It's a stunning exposé of the gods going about their day. Therein lies the contrast with Samudra Manthan. The progression of events seems linear in the activities of the Greek gods. Laocoön and his sons do not return to re-confront the sea-serpents, nor do the Sea Gods return to battle with envy. Poseidon, the impetuous, lustful and stormy god of the seas stands witness to these episodes unfolding. Consequences of mistakes are fatal, even for the gods. Their actions make them immutably benevolent or malevolent. As contrasting as these stories are to the one from the Bhāgvatam, they all present profound understanding of the human condition, the struggles and means of resolution with poetic allegories. Perhaps that's why humankind created stories and embellished them with characters whose raison d'être can often befuddle logic or rationality. Artists do this instinctively, even unapologetically.
Sometimes one has to live with a story for a long time before it reveals its purpose. In the meantime one can choose to go ahead and paint it!
Above: Mesma in her studio
In addition to being a dancer, Mesma Belsaré is a trained visual artist.
Her preferred medium is oil. She also paints in watercolors, ink and the digital medium.
Belsaré studied visual arts at the Delhi College of Art, New Delhi, India and at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston, U.S. She has exhibited in Toronto, New Delhi, New York City and Boston.
Belsaré currently lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.