The traditional story of the samudra-manthan describes how the asuras and gods once worked together to churn the great ocean under the guidance of God. This churning may have preceded the birth of human beings and may have occurred when only lower life forms were present on Earth. The asuras and gods were basically looking for ambrosia and celestial riches as they churned the primordial ocean. But soon after the churning began, the ocean first gave out poison in amounts that was unbearable for the world and even the gods.
Filled with fear, the gods and seers went to Brahma for help. On Brahma’s suggestion, the gods went to Shiva, as the Srimad Bhagavata Purana tells us, and requested, “In this universe, only you have the potential to bind and liberate every soul. The world is now in great trouble because of the poison that has emanated from the ocean. We take your refuge. Please protect the world from this suffering.”
Out of his eternal compassion on all beings, Shiva, the Supreme Soul, collected the immeasurable poison on his palm and drank it. The poison changed the color of Shiva’s throat, as a result of which Shiva is now also known as neelkantha — the blue-throated Lord.
Traditional stories from the Puranas show us that there exists a difference in the approach that the asuras take in their prayers to God as compared to the approach that the gods take when they pray to God. The asuras are generally said to act in the mode of ignorance, whereas the gods, blessed by divine properties, are said to act in the mode of goodness. (Of course, this is not a rule, and exceptions may exist.) In their prayers to God, the asuras make mistakes — they specify what they want; they even specify what God should do to solve their problem, if they have one. In contrast, when the gods pray to God, they only tell God what their problem is and leave the solution entirely to God.
In the story of churning the great ocean, prayers to Shiva appear to have been made under the mode of goodness or beyond and were in line with guidelines of devotional spirituality, which focuses on sattvic worship to begin with and then culminates towards selfless love and surrender. Because the seers and gods had taken Shiva’s refuge, Shiva blessed the world with a solution that was beyond description. Shiva, the source of benevolence, drank the entire poison as if he were accepting prasadam from his devotees.
This story teaches us that God listens to everyone — he listens to lower life forms, human beings, sages, asuras, and gods. In times of sorrow, calling God for help is a step that should not be forgotten. Because God is antaryami — the one who dwells in every heart — he understands our problems even before we utter them in our prayers. When conveyed to God with love, prayers can remove all suffering from our lives. In our prayers, if we ask God for something, we should remember that God may give us what is good for us, not what we desire or ask for. When we pray, we should try to leave it all to God. Coupled with a childlike disposition, prayers have the potency to transfer us from sorrow to happiness and from inside the universe to God’s abode.