Symbolism of Ocean in Hinduism
For the ancient people the oceans seemed to represent the edge of the earth. They were too vast to be crossed or fathomed. Hence, they saw in them the power of God, mystery and infinity. For the Vedic people the ocean represented the universe as well as the source of all creation. Find here the archetypal meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of ocean (sagar) in Hinduism.
In Hinduism the presiding deity of oceans is Sagara or Samudra (different from king Sagara or Ikshvaku dynasty). He is the king of the oceans. References to him and his progeny are found in Hindu folklore and mythology. He does not usually appear, nor he is specifically worshipped in temples. However, when needed, gods propitiate him and seek his help. For example, Lord Rama prayed to him and sought his help to cross the ocean and reach Lanka.
Existence itself is compared to a huge ocean from which manifests all worlds, beings, and materiality. Life manifested upon earth when a giant, golden egg surfaced in the ocean. After a year it broke into two parts from which the earth and heaven were formed.
According to Hindu cosmology, the earth is surrounded by seven concentric oceans, each made up of a different substance. The rivers in the world have a deep connection with the ocean, as they all join him in the end. If the ocean is the Supreme Self, Brahman, the rivers are individual souls.
The ocean is also the source of life and immortality. It was from the ocean that gods and demons extracted the elixir of life (amrit, which made the gods immortal, but in the process created a bitter rivalry between them and the asuras. When they fight, the ocean often becomes their battle ground as well as refuge.
The ocean is an aspect of Nature (Prakriti) and subject to its modifications, which manifest as storms, tempests, waves, and deluges. It is also an aspect of Death (Kala). Hence, occasionally it swallows the earth as well as many cities and lives. In Hindu philosophy it is often compared to the phenomenal world, to denote impermanence, instability, and immensity, which humans have to cope and cross to reach the world of immortality. Since it is the source of all, It home to many subterranean worlds, living beings, celestial beings, and water spirits, and nymphs (sagara kanyas).
If life emerges from the ocean, it also ends in it. From time to time it submerges the earth and heralds the end of an epoch and the beginning of another. When it happens lord Vishnu descends upon earth and saves the world, as he did twice in the past, incarnating as a fish and a boar.
The ocean is the source of material abundance. Anything that is found in excess or abundance is compared to it. For example the ocean of knowledge (jnanasagar or vidyasagar), the ocean of sorror (sokasagar), the ocean of happiness (anandasagar), the ocean of compassion (karunasagar), the ocean of peace (shantisagar), and so on.
As the source of all, it represents the materiality of the world itself. Many mysteries are hidden in it. When the gods and demons churned it, many wonderful objects and deities emerged out of it. Goddess Lakshmi, the elephant Airavath, the jewel Kausthubham, many gems, horses, Apsaras or celestial beauties, and the divine cow Kamadhenu were among them.
The ocean is also home to Vaikuntha , the abode of Lord Vishnu. The Puranas described that Lord Vishnu rests in it on a couch formed by the coils of the great serpent, Adishesha, who inturn floats in the primordial ocean of milk. From there he keeps a watch upon the whole existence and ensures the order and regularity of the world.
Thus in Hindu scripture, literature, and mythology, the ocean symbolizes many things, Brahman, life, existence, worlds, deities, consciousness, impermanence, phenomenal world (samsara sagaram), the power of Nature, modifications, support, source, suffering (dukha sagaram), emotions, commotion, tranquility, obstacle, difficulty, sacrificial cup, Brahma (sagarbrahma), infinity (ananthasagar), and the resting place for the sun.
Suggestions for Further Reading
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