IN ancient India, no sage’s curse was more feared than the ill-tempered Durvasa’s, whose anger once nearly plunged the gods’ serene existence into chaos. The kings of the earth had gathered for a meeting and Durvasa was invited to be honoured with a flower garland. Durvasa went to heaven, having decided to give the garland to Indra, the king of the gods. Indra received the garland with a display of humility but the moment Durvasa left, he gave it to his pet elephant to play with. Unfortunately, Durvasa remembered something else he had to say, and returned to heaven to find the garland mangled by the elephant’s tusks. Outraged by this, Durvasa cursed Indra as well as the entire race of gods, condemning them to lose their godly power and become as puny as humans.
This was music to the asuras, a race of demons, who began preparing for a massive armed assault on the heavens. The gods were so alarmed that they approached Shiva for help. But Shiva sent them on to Vishnu. Vishnu pondered for a while and said if they could drink from the sea of milk that surrounded him, the gods could recover their former strength. But the problem was that the milk was too placid to be energised. ‘No ordinary churning stick will do; the whole Mandara mountain must be lifted and twirled. And the only beings who can manage this are the asuras themselves,’ he concluded.
Finally, the gods reached a truce with the asuras in return for their help in churning the milk. The asuras were delighted to oblige, seeing in this a chance to obtain immortality for themselves. Weak though the gods were, they caught Vasuki, a huge underworld serpent and coiled him around the mountain to use as a churning rope. When everthing was ready, Vishnu asked the gods to stand at the head of the snake, and the asuras at the tail. But the asuras suspected a trick where there was none, and plonked themselves at the head-end. With their combined strength, the mountain slowly began to revolve. The gods were invigorated with the fresh ambrosial breeze but the asuras, at the head-end, were forced to breathe the serpent’s poisonous breath, and they grew steadily weaker.