Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
The birth-less Lord is born time and again in this world of ours, due to His infinite compassion and mercy, in an effort to lift us up from the mundane morass. In this endeavour, He is not averse to taking any form, however lowly, as long as it serves the avowed purpose. Sri Nammazhwar is so taken up with this trait of the Lord that he cries out, melting down at the Lord’s soulabhyam “uyiralippaan en nindra yoniyumaai pirandaai Imayor Talaiva!”. It is quite a come down for the Supreme Being to be born in our midst as a human being”what then to say about His assuming forms as low as a fish, a tortoise, a boar and so on” Unlike some of us, He is not bothered about His “image”, and is prepared for descent to any level, if only it would serve to liberate even a single soul.
Some of the non-human avataras the Lord has taken have an element of glamour or afford scope for displaying His boundless beauty, like those of a Swan (Hamsaavataaram) or a half-lion. Even His assuming the form of a giant fish appeals to our imagination. However, the least glamorous of all His avataras, (but for the Varaaha avataara), is definitely that as a Tortoise. The Tortoise is not a very prepossessing creature and can by no stretch of imagination be called beautiful. Still, the Lord”s purpose in assuming the form was strictly functional, with absolutely no thought as to looks.
To briefly recap the purpose of the avatara”Devas and Asuras were always battle-ready against each other “Devaasuraa: samyattaa aasan” is a frequent refrain of the Shruti. However, for once, the two sides forgot their enmity and joined together in an endeavour for extracting Nectar from the milky ocean, which was capable of conferring immortality. Several problems posed themselves in this monumental task of churning the ocean”what was to be used as the churning rod and even if one could be found, how was it to be turned this way and that in a churning motion?
As per the Lord’s directions, the Devas and Asuras decided upon the Manthara Parvatham, the largest and tallest of all mountains, as the churning rod, placing it in the ocean with the help of Garuda. And the Serpent King Vaasuki was persuaded to be the rope to be tied around the mountain. The Devas took the tail part of the serpent and the Asuras the head side and started to pull the snaky rope on either side in a corkscrew motion. The Lord joined the enterprise since neither side was strong enough to carry it out. However, the mountain, which was heavy beyond measure, just sank when churning started. Dejected, Devas and Asuras again appealed to the Lord, who took the form of a giant turtle, with a back extending over an area of a hundred thousand “Yojanaas”, planted Himself firmly in the ocean bed and bore the entire weight of the Manthara Parvatam on His back. The Manthara Parvatham was reputed to be one of the biggest and heaviest of mountains and you can imagine the strength and size of any base which had to support it.
Now the stirring of the ocean could be undertaken, with the mountain placed on a sound footing. The circular movement of the mountain on His back was as if His back was being scratched, says Srimad Bhagavathamc”Bibhrat tat aavartanam Aadi Kacchapo mene anga kandooyam aprameya:”, which Swami Desikan reproduces faithfully in his Dasaavataara Stotram.
The Koormaavataram was indeed unique and unparalleled, even in divine history. It was the first time that the Lord manifested Himself in several forms simultaneously
1) He was holding the churning rope and pulling on it, along with the Devas on the tail side,
2) He was supporting the Manthara Parvatham from below as the bedrock, in the form of a giant turtle,
3) He was also standing atop the mountain, holding it steady with a thousand arms.
4) And when the Nectar emerged ultimately, it was He who materialized from the ocean in the form of Dhanvantari, holding the pot of immortality in His hands
5) He took the form of a Divine Damsel, the Mohini, to ensure that Asuras did not benefit from Ambrosia.
And the whole exercise was extremely fruitful, with the Milky Ocean yielding not only Nectar, but also Sri Mahalakshmi, the Moon, Iraavatham the magnificent elephant, Ucchaishravas the best of horses, Kaamadhenu the divine cow which grants whatever is sought, the Koustubha Ratnam which adorns Emperuman’s broad chest, the Paarijaata Tree with its beautiful flowers and gorgeous Mermaids. Incidentally, because Sri Mahalakshmi emerged from the ocean, we should not construe Her to be subject to births and deaths like other deities or mortals”it was an avataram for Her, as it was for Emperuman.
(There are those who say in a lighter vein that the Lord went through all the trouble of churning the milky ocean and bearing the weight of the immensely heavy Manthara Parvatham, solely for the sake of regaining Sri Mahalakshmi, who had to endure a separation due to the curse of Durvaasa Maharshi. Thus, the reunion with Sri was the principal objective of the endeavour, the other accomplishments being incidental.)
All the aforesaid are what the Bhaagavata Puranam has to say about the Koormavataram.
The Shruti has quite a different tale to tell, with reference to the Lord as a tortoise. The Satapatha Braahmanam of the Shukla Yajur Vedam tells us that the very name “Koormam”(ordinarily taken to mean a turtle) is derived from the Lord’s function of creating beings “Sa yat Koormo naama” Etat vai roopam kritvaa Prajaapati: praja asrujata “yat asrujata, akarot tat” yat akarot tasmaat Koorma:”. Thus the Vedas tell us that it was the form of a turtle that the Lord assumed, for the purpose of bringing forth Creation, in all its myriad variety. This must have been one of the innumerable episodes of creation that Emperuman periodically carries out.
The Shruti has more to say about the Koorma Moorti as the Creator. In the 23rd anuvaakam of the Aruna Prasnam of the Taittireeya Aaranyakam, (beginning with the mantra, “Aapo vaa idam aasan salilam eva”) we find quite a detailed account of the divine tortoise.
There were no created beings once, when everything was just an unending sheet of water. Then the Lord created the four-headed Brahma, on a lotus arising out of His navel. Due to the Lord”s will, there arose a desire in Brahma”s mind to create. He meditated upon the Lord, to derive the powers of creation. During the process, he shook his body and the pieces of flesh which fell there from became Rishis named Arunas and Kethus, with emaciated bodies. From his nails emerged other Rishis known as Vaikhaanasas, while his hairs gave rise to Vaalakhilyas.
Brahma espied a giant turtle swimming about in the vast sheet of water and took it to be another product of his own flesh (“Antarata: Koormam bhootam sarpantam”). When he enquired with the turtle, it told him that it had been there even before Brahma came into being, from which Brahma understood it to be none other than the Paramapurusha. Because of its primordial nature, it came to be called “Purusha”, which is the sobriquet the Shruti reserves for the Supreme Being.
Showing Brahma its true proportions, the turtle turned into a colossus, with a thousand (read “infinite”) heads, eyes and feet. Humbled by the appearance of this Viraat Purusha, Brahma prayed to Him for guidance in the process of creation. The Purusha took a palmful of water and poured the same in front of Him”from that was created the Sun. The direction in which the water fell became the East. Similarly, by pouring handfuls of water in different directions, the Purusha created Agni, Vaayu, Indra, Poosha, human beings, Devas, Pitru devatas, Gandharvas, Mermaids, et al.
The small drops of water which escaped from the Lord’s palms while being poured in different directions created Asuras, Raakshasas, Pisaachas and similar demoniac beings.
Well, what a wonderful animal should the turtle be, that the Lord has chosen its species for descending to the earth? And how great should it be, if the process of Creation too has been initiated in the same form? That the turtle is one of Emperuman’s favourites among species, is borne out also by His reference to it in the Gita. At the slightest threatening external stimuli, the turtle withdraws its limbs inside its shell, making it practically invincible. So too should we withdraw our faculties (Indiryas) into ourselves, preventing them from running riot and leading us astray, says the Gitacharya
“Yadaa samharate cha ayam Koorma: angaani iva sarvasa:
Indriyaani indriyaartthebhya: tasya pragya pratishtitaa”
One who is successful in imitating the turtle in controlling his senses, is hailed by the Lord to be a “Stthita Pragya”, a master of his faculties.
We now know why the tortoise won the race, despite being apparently much slower than the hare. And we now have something much more flattering to remember the amphibian by, apart from its proverbial lack of speed.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore