Vishnu's incarnation as a giant tortoise (kurmavatar) is considered the second in chronological order. It is mentioned in the Samhitas, Upanishads, Aranyakas, and several Puranas. Initially, the incarnation was associated with the sage Kashyapa, and in some circles, with Prajapati. Some passages also make reference to its relationship with wind (Vayu).

The word Kurma is used symbolically in Vedic texts to denote the withdrawal of senses and the ignition of sacrificial fire through the churning of fire sticks.

The incarnation is primarily associated with gods and demons churning the oceans. Legend has it that after being cursed by a sage, Indra, the lord of the heavens, lost his glory and sought the assistance of Vishnu, who advised him to churn the ocean of milk by summoning the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) to extract the elixir of life. As a result, they churned the ocean with the serpent Vasuki as the rope and the mountain Meru or Mandhara as the rod, while Vishnu in the form of a giant tortoise provided support from below. Hindus and Buddhists continue to believe that the earth was created on the back of a massive tortoise. According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana, the earth stands on the head of Ananta, the giant serpent. From below, he is supported by Kurma, who in turn is supported by Vayu.

Durvasa was walking down the road one day when he noticed the king of the demigods, Indra, riding on the back of his white elephant. He smiled and offered the king a garland of marigolds from around his own neck. Indra, on the other hand, was overly proud of his wealth and power. He took the garland and placed it on the trunk of his elephant, with no regard for the sage. The creature slammed the garland to the ground. Durvasa cursed the king, his face red with rage, saying, "Because of your arrogance, you will lose all of your opulence."

Soon after, the demons launched a devastating attack on the heavenly kingdom. The demigods suffered greatly as a result of the curse. They feared complete defeat at the hands of their adversaries. In desperation, their generals sought the advice of Lord Vishnu, who resides on an island in the ocean of milk. They prayed to the Lord while standing on the jewelled shore of that ocean and received the following message: "My dear demigods, the demons have become too powerful for you." You must reach an agreement with them and offer to collaborate." Vishnu then explained his strategy.

Following this advice, King Indra approached the demon king. "My dear King Bali, I intend to make the most valuable medicine, the nectar of immortality." Anyone can live forever by drinking this." Bali was intrigued and agreed to assist. "Once we've helped produce the nectar, we demons can easily steal it from the weakened demigods," he reasoned. So he and Indra agreed to a truce.

The demigods and demons laboriously carried the golden mountain Mandara to the ocean to be used as a churning rod. They asked the giant serpent Vashuki to serve as a rope to turn the rod. Vashuki agreed reluctantly. Curling him around the mountain, the demons took control of his head, leaving the demigods in charge of his tail. The demigods first pulled, and the mountain turned one way. The demons then pulled, and the mountain shifted to the other side.

The mountain sank deep into the mud at the ocean's bottom after only three or four spins. It required a pivot to rest on. Both parties were irritated and frustrated. As they debated the issue, Lord Vishnu transformed into a massive turtle and lifted the golden mountain on his back. The churning of the demigods and demons resumed. This time, the mountain rolled over the turtle, who enjoyed having his back scratched. Initially, the churning created a lethal black poison that floated across the waves, threatening to pollute the entire universe. The demigods were terrified. They travelled to the Himalayas to seek the assistance of Lord Shiva, the greatest of the demigods. He agreed to assist and condensed all of the poison into the palm of his hand using magic. A few drops spilt as he drank it, and scorpions, snakes, and other poisonous creatures drank them. The poison turned Lord Shiva's neck blue, and he has been known as "Nilakanta" ever since.

The demigods and demons kept pulling on the massive snake, churning the milky waters. Magical animals, sparkling gems, fragrant flowers, and medicinal herbs rose from the sea. Finally, a lovely blackish figure emerged from the waves. He was dressed in yellow and adorned with red, green, and blue gems, and he carried a golden pot full of nectar.

The demons quickly grabbed the pot and fled. They started arguing amongst themselves, "Hey! Why should you consume it first? "And what about me?" The demigods were dissatisfied and turned to Lord Vishnu for assistance. The Lord took the form of Mohini, a stunningly beautiful woman. She wore a crimson sari and gold bangles and had a darkish complexion. Her gaze darted around the demons, restless.

Her feminine movements enchanted the Asuras. They asked her to settle their dispute by handing over the jug of nectar.

Mohini then sat them in a row and asked the demigods to do the same a little further away. "The demigods are very greedy to taste the nectar, so let me just give them a little," she said sweetly to the demons. You are all incredible heroes. I'm sure you won't mind waiting a little longer because you're so patient."

The demons were flattered but didn't dare to say anything. They remained silent as Mohini served the nectar to their adversaries - not just a small amount, but every last drop. Mohini then transformed back into Vishnu, her original form. The demons' mouths dropped open; they'd been duped! They had worked so hard but had accomplished nothing.

The demigods had also worked hard, but they relied on God. They were now free of the agonies of old age, disease, and death.

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