Did ancient Hindus really believe in a cosmic turtle?
I have mentioned it repeatedly that Hindu idols and mythological figures are symbolic representations of a deep philosophical value. These giant larger than life characters are not to be taken literally, but figuratively.
I will tell you where the “giant cosmic turtle” comes from.
One fine day, the entire world lost all its wealth. The Goddess of wealth and prosperity, Laxmi, was gone. All the worlds soon began losing their powers, as without Laxmi none of the powers count. Bad luck comes along at her absence.
To bring her back, all the deities of the heaven devised a plan. They decided to churn her out off the “ocean of milk”, her original residence. But the Gods alone couldn’t do it. So they took the help of the demons too. Thus both good and evil came together to churn out Laxmi.
They needed a strong support though. So they took a mountain, Mandhara. Goddess Laxmi’s husband, the chief Lord Vishnu, took the form of the giant cosmic turtle, and sat beneath the mountain as its base. The Gods and the demons then used a huge snake, the snake Vasuki who sits around Lord Shiva’s neck, as the rope for the churning.
When the ocean of milk was churned thus, there were several things that came out. Jewels, nymphs, magical creatures, the wish-fulfilling tree, and many more which were divided between the Gods and the demons equally.
Then came the toxic, Halahal, the deadly poison which was begining to spread in the ocean of milk, thus contaminating the entire universe. It had to be controlled. So Lord Shiva offered to drink it. He drank the poison while His wife, Goddess Parvati, held His neck so that the poison didn’t go to His stomach.
At last Laxmi came out off the churning, along with the healer-God Dhanavantari who held Amrita (elixir of immortality) in His hands.
The Gods and the demons were in a pact to share the elixir of immortality. So both the teams began fighting for the first chance.
But that’s a story for other time. Meanwhile, let me decode this story for you here.
“Laxmi is lost”, is simply a symbolism for the state of poverty. When a person loses his wealth, his knowledge, his prosperity is always subjected to ill fate, he needs to do some reflecting. And this “reflecting” or “churning of mind” is what is meant by the churning of the ocean of milk.
To attain wealth and proserity, you can’t always depend only on good thoughts. You need wicked, shrewd, clever thoughts as well. That’s what is meant by the gods and the demons. You need a perfect balance of good and evil. And you need strong self control, which is represented by the mountain.
But all this is futile if you don’t have the patience! The base of your “churning”, the giant cosmic turtle, is actually a symbolism for patience. And that’s why he is represented as a turtle, as turtles are slow and steady, and they always win the race.
At last you have used “time” to churn it out. Time here is represented by the giant snake, the one that acts as a rope for the churning.
So slowly and steadily, you attain one by one everything you need, be it basic requirements, or the things of leisure. You will have them one by one. But beware, you are also gonna end up with the toxin: of attachment, of greed. If you don’t accept it, it might pollute your mind and you internally would be intoxicated with it. If you do accept it, it would destroy everything you have. So you have to keep it in middle. Neither be too attached, nor be too detached. Neither greedy, nor too selfless, the perfect balance (even if it is too difficult). Drink the poison, but keep it to your throat.
At last you will be gifted with prosperity, along with true elixir of immortality: knowledge.
No wonder why all the successful people in the world will have the best things to say. They are filled with knowledge, as they have churned their success out.
Hope you now have your answer.
Did ancient Hindus believe in a giant cosmic turtle?
The enlightened ones did. And they still do!