|A giant statue depicting Kurma at the churning|
At the Bangkok International Airport
Kurma Jayanti is the day Kurma, the nameless Turtle, manifested Vishnu. It happened during the churning of the oceans. On Kurma Jayanti, the nature of all those supernatural beings present at that moment can be reflected upon: they are merely other beings, and though very powerful, intelligent and beautiful, and worthy of respect, neither require nor deserve our worship - any more than someone who is less powerful, less intelligent, or less beautiful should be denied our respect. We are all (even those mighty devas) imperfect beings, in an imperfect world. We all share this world, and must work together as best we can, by helping out when we notice help is needed - as Kurma the turtle did.
Kurma was a giant turtle. Apart from his size, he was an ordinary turtle. At the time, all the beings were helping in the churning of the ocean of milk (the translation is poor, but "ocean" is used to convey the image of a vast amorphis mass which holds things dissolved within it, like the ocean holds salt, or "milk" holds fat in suspension). The nagas (snake people) gave their very bodies as ropes as the strong gods and demons pulled them back and forth to churn the ocean with the earth, which had given its mountains as the churning rod. Every being helped - to the extent they were able to.
Out of the churning came many wholesome and poisonous things. The poison threatened every world (in Hinduism, the multiverse is understood in terms of coexisting worlds intersecting each other at the same time, space or action). To protect the worlds, Shiva was manifested in all his avatars and vehicles, and swallowed the poison. In the same spirit, Kurma noticed the mountains slipping from the grasp of the snakes, and steadied the mountains - so that the mountains would not slip. This act of unhesitatingly providing help when needed at the moment it was noticed manifested Vishnu, and permitted the successful churning of the oceans.
But many good things came from the churning too.
The force of the churning, the "shakti," was none other than Laxmi (fortune and wealth) who was able to take form for the first time through the waves in the increasingly solid ocean. The first thing she saw upon taking form was Vishnu, and already in love with Vishnu, became his eternal consort: this is but a fancy way of saying that fortune and wealth are the manifestation of the force of cooperation, of living and working together in harmony: in Hinduism, stories are used as tools for understanding complex concepts symbolically.
Also out of the churning came the Apsaras (selfs, beings, spirits) - these were also able to take form, and helped with the churning. Varuni, a kind of wisdom, took form too, and began to argue and struggle with the Asuras - and has followed them around ever since (who hasn't struggled with their prior foolishness in regret upon gaining wisdom?). Numerous supernatural animals appeared, and fled this way and that. Among them came Kamadhenu, the condition of sacrifice (presented in the form of a lactating cow, who sacrifices her strength to nurture a calf). And there were several elephants, including Airavata. Indra wanted Airavata as his own vehicle, and left the churning to chase down and tame it. When the Uchhaishravas (a seven-headed horse) took form, it was caught by the Devas, and given as a gift to the Asuras as a sign of goodwill and friendship, and their patience with Indra as he chased down Airavata.
Numerous valuables emerged, including Kaustubha, the form of discerning valuation (which Vishnu was given, in honor of his love of Laxmi). And the Parijat, a flowering tree that never fades or wilts, was presented in friendship to the Devas by the Asuras. Sharanga, the powerful bow, was a weapon that suited the belligerence of the Asuras. Chandra, the moon, became worn by Shiva.
But now Kurma Vishnu strained. In his strain, he broke apart. It was at this moment Dhanvantari manifested Vishnu: he was a physician whose medical skill Vishnu required - and now cared for Kurma, and all those who were weakening, sickening, and injured in the churning. At this moment, too, Shankha, Vishnu's conch, manifested when Vishnu could no longer pronounce "Om." This tool permitted the sound to be made, even though Vishnu was unable, manifesting the very last desire of Kurma Vishnu. And with it came music.
Laxmi, too, strained, and broke. She had begun to worry for Vishnu, and doubt his strength, and this worry and doubt manifested Jyestha, misfortune (an opposite of Laxmi's fortune).
The oceans grew warm from all the exertion, so Varuna pulled from the ocean an umbrella to shade the ocean from the heat of the sun. All beings united in the single desire that the churning would be finished, and this manifested the Kalpavriksha plant.
All the beings grew weary, and could barely move any more - as they fell from exhaustion, they manifested Nidra. And then, at the moment of utter exhaustion, Amrita took form from the ocean of milk! Amrita was success, immortality, victory - and was now to be stolen by the Asuras, who broke their promise to share with the Devas whatever emerged. They mustered what strength they had left and viciously attacked the Devas. But fortunately, Vishnu had anticipated this treachery, so no one got too hurt - and afterward Vishnu (manifested in female form as Mohini, irresistible persuasion and seduction) stole back the Amrita. So things worked out...but that is not part of Kurma's story, and is part of another story.
Yet the Devas, upon sharing in the Amrita, forgot to thank Vishnu for his help, though Vishnu had stolen back the Amrita, doctored all the beings who were exerting themselves, protected the Devas of the vicious attack and betrayal of the Asuras, and steadied the churning rod - nearly destroying himself in the process. Shiva was outraged on behalf of his brother's insult and approached the gods in the form of a yaksha (yakshas embody the nature of things or places or times or actions, almost like a soul or nymph). He complained that the Asuras gave better credit to Vishnu than the Devas did, because the Asuras at least blamed Vishnu for stealing back the Amrita - and then showed the Devas that as strong as they were, they could not have achieved success without every other being helping them. It is this lesson which is repeated by custom today.