There's irony in me writing about this subject today, because I got some kind of the gastrointestinal thing on my way back from Cambodia and believe me, the ocean has been churning in me for two days now.
Above is what may well be the most classic visual representation of this particular Hindu myth, as seen on the west side of Angkor Wat. What we see here is Vishnu, supervising a group of demons and gods who are arranged on either side of him in an epic tug-of-war, using a naga as the rope. What they are churning is not water, but an ocean made of milk--an ocean, in other words, of nourishment. According to legend, this activity creates the elixir of immortality.
If you go to the Wikipedia entry, you will see that this particular myth, which originally contained specific esoteric information about the energy within the body, has been polluted by a great deal of folklore and wishful thinking. Nonetheless, it's possible to extract some interesting information from the myth which relates to the recent post on nagas.
The activity, which is supervised by Vishnu, takes place on the back of the great turtle (an alternative incarnation of Vishnu) upon which the whole world rests. The turtle is a symbol of containment--its whole being is contained within its shell. In this particular interpretation, we may infer that containment is the foundation upon which the activity to create the elixir of immortality must be based. This is reminiscent, once again, of the understanding that the ascetic work of the sage is the support structure for all important work. The image of the sage is found on all four sides of every column supporting the roof of the Gallery this bas-relief is found in.
You will note that symbolically speaking, Vishnu is at both the top and the bottom of the activity, representing the note "do" in both positions. Like many other images in the Hindu iconography ( will try to get to that later) it represents the fractal nature of the universe, and the fact that everything is built on the Law of octaves.
From our earlier discussion of nagas, we can see that the snake itself represents a certain kind of energy, and the movement of that energy within the body. In this particular myth, elemental forces of a positive and negative nature, that is, demons and gods, work with each other to create this elixir. Vishnu stands in the center as the reconciling element.
In the earlier post, I also pointed out that the snake represents the spine. Energy traveling along the spine is what creates the "elixir of immortality," that is, higher energy that can be used for the development of the higher being bodies in man. Furthermore, we can infer from the myth that the elixir emerges from the balance of tensions between the two natures of man: a higher nature and the lower nature. This myth has an interesting aspect, because instead of depicting the two natures of men as being in struggle, it shows them cooperating in an activity where both are needed in order to create the elixir.
In the myth, the demons are the ones in charge of the head of the snake. This suggests that the work to connect with the higher nature in man springs from the effort and intelligence embodied in his lower nature. The gods in the myth end up holding the tail of the snake.
One other nifty little detail in this bas-relief is what happens underneath the area where the churning is taking place. The ocean of milk is filled with all kinds of verminous creatures: crocodiles, fish with big teeth, evil looking lions, and so on. They are being broken into bits by the activity. The work that is taking place is breaking up what Gurdjieff might call the malevolent "crystallized results" of the organ Kundabuffer. And, you may recall, that is exactly what Gurdjieff said would be necessary for men to grow: things that were crystallized in him would need to be smashed, so that something entirely new could take place.
We might infer that the churning that is spoken of in this mythology is allegorical.
More likely, however, is that the churning refers to more specific yogic experiences.
May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.