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Old March 20th, 2010, 09:21 PM
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As per the legend, Maharshi Durvasa cursed Indra that he would lose his powers. So Brahma told Indra to perform the Samudhra Manthan in order to retrieve amrit. The asuras and devas churned the ocean using a snake called Vasuki and a mountain called Mandara. At first, a poison called Halahala emerged. Shiva drank that poison which stuck in his throat and that is why he is called Neelkantha. Then, Vishnu intervened, in the form of a Kurma or turtle, and sat below the mountain in order to facilitate the churning. The churning was successful and things started to emerge - Kamadhenu (cow), Ucchaisrava (the white horse), Airavata (elephant), Kalpavriksha (wish-granting tree), Ratnas (gems), Kaustabha Mani (the most precious diamond). Finally, Dhanvantari emerged, holding a golden kumbh filled with amrit. The devas and the asuras fought to get possession of the amrit. During their battle, drops of amrit fell at four places: Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Kumbh Mela is observed at these four locations, every four years.

One may think that these are mythological stories and are not relevant to the present times, but that would be belittling the intelligence of our ancestors.

In my opinion, the "Samudhra Manthan" is an artistic depiction of extremely significant events in the history of civilization.

Just imagine, prior to the Vedic era, humans lived a nomadic and tribal life as hunters and gatherers. They lived in small communities like a herd. Their religious practices were probably animistic.

Then came the true seers - Rishis and Munis - like Maharshi Atre and the saptarishi who tried to organize society by creating divisions of labor. They create four castes, based on four important activities. Segregation of duties is an exceptionally important function from an anthrological/sociological point. Now farmers could be farmers and warriors could be warriors. We take this for granted now, but in those times, it would have been a historic event. The caste system would have transformed a nomadic/tribal civilization into a thriving, prosperous kingdom and unleashed a wave of growth and prosperity across the world.

The common perception is that the Samudhra Manthan was some kind of celestial event…something spiritual! Bullshit. It was an economic model. To understand the Samudhra manthan, you have to travel back in time, a time when trade was done only in the form of barter. Barter means give and take - you give me tomatoes and I will give you potatoes.

This system may have worked in a local economy, but one cannot conduct inter-kingdom trade using a barter system. This was the time when the ship had just been invented. The traders wanted to sell their goods and wares to partners across the oceans – the Asuras.

By the way, the Asuras were NOT demons. They were the Persians or Zoroastrians. You see, the Zoroastrians had a tendency to pronounce the s as h. They called themselves as Ahuras, and named their religious text as Ahura Mazda. Their nemesis were the ‘daevas’.

The fact is, the word Hindu is also a Persian term to define the collection of religions practiced on the eastern side of the river Sindhu. None of our ancient texts ever use the word ‘Hindu’ anywhere!

It's possible that the the Indian king (Indra was probably a designation rather than a person) gathered Indian traders and the Persian traders together to negotiate terms of trade – not a celestial event but definitely a major milestone in the history of humanity. The world needed a common monetary unit that could be a store of value. These discussions were probably extremely confrontational and ended in wars.

So, they engaged a neutral arbitrator, Kurma, to facilitate the negotiations. He started the first workable monetary system – the system of using ‘cows’. The ‘Satapatha Brahmana’ is replete with shlokas on how to price goods in terms of number of cows. This system was a huge success. It provided a common platform to trade. Cows are very unique animals. They are easy to domesticate, prduce valuable milk from grass and chaff, provide manure and fuel, and provide leather. Bulls help with farming. Basically, a household that has a herd of cows and a farmland can be completely self-sufficient. Cows, because they were money, became sacred. Even today, it is considered blasphemous to kill a cow. It is like destroying money!

Over time, other parallel systems started to emerge based on domestic conditions. The Persians started trading in Horses. Other kingdoms started trading in elephants and tree trunks. Some kingdoms started trading women as money, calling them Apsaras! Apsaras, although considered to be beautiful women, are not revered.

It is easy to see why trading in livestock could become a disaster after a while. It is difficult to trade in large quantities and the wealthier you get, the more problems you have in maintaining the livestock.

Then, Kurma, with the help of the Brahmins, came up with a system to trade in precious stones. This proved to be a much better monetary system than livestock. Diamonds and rubies were easier to carry and a lot easier to store. Wealth could be passed on from generation to generation. However, there were other problems with this system. The grades of stones could vary dramatically and it was easy to get duped.

Finally, Kurma came up with a monetary system that was based on a gold standard. Gold, an inert and noble metal, was easy to carry and store. Gold could be easily validated with the king’s royal seal. Gold coins could be of varied denominations. Above all, women love gold.

This was it – an immortal monetary standard was created. Trade flourished and everyone got immensely wealthy. That was the symbol. Emerging from the ocean, carrying the golden pot full of Amrit, was the divine DHANVANTARI (the possessor of wealth). Even today, Dhanteras is celebrated by traders all over India. This was the day the gold standard was established.

The Brahmins organized a trade fair once every four years, the Kumbh mela, at strategic locations to allow for traders to come in from all directions. The purpose was for the traders from across the world to display their goods and wares and learn about new products and techniques from the Brahmins, just like any modern day fair!

As a token of appreciation, the traders donated gold to the Brahmins, symbolized by the drop of amrit at the Kumbh mela.
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