The Hermaphrodite: A Symbol of Compassion and Self-Realization

By exploring the symbolic motif of the hermaphrodite in relation to compassion, self-compassion, self-realization, and spiritual awakening, we uncover profound insights into our own inner landscapes and the interconnectedness of all beings. As we embrace the hermaphrodite within, we unlock the transformative power of compassion and embark on a journey toward wholeness, unity, and a more compassionate world.

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Samudra Manthan Myth and Meaning

The image above is a painting of the Samudra Manthan, meaning ‘the Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. In the painting, Vishnu is perched on Mount Mandara in the form of a pole or axis mundi. The snake Vasuki is wrapped around the pole and is being pulled by the deities on one side and the demons (Danavas) on the other. Because of this churning all sorts of things have washed up on the shore of the ocean, including: Laksmi, Varuni, a conch, an elephant mount of Brahma, Airavata, Surabhi the wish-fulfilling cow and the vessel holding amrita (the elixir of immortality). [1]

From an archetypal perspective, Vishnu is an image of the Self.  The central pole may be seen as the axis mundi or the state of non-duality. The axis mundi is the world pole which offers a connection between the three worlds or three states of consciousness. The snake is wrapped around the pole, an image of the instincts– both lower and higher. The gods and demons churn the great sea of milk by pulling on either ends of the snake. This image may be seen as representing the synthesis of Self, and thus of psychic wholeness.

To live is to struggle. Whether we are rich or poor, beautiful or plain, famous or more humble, we will struggle. The struggle arises from within. It is a struggle of the mind. Yet it is this very struggle that brings forth the potential for growth and Self-realization. It is our ability to be with the struggle, to work with the tensions of life, that offers the potential for integration and synthesis.

In the image, the struggle of duality is represented by the deities and demons. Both the demons and the deities are necessary for the emergence of elixir of immortality. It is the struggle that churns the ocean of milk; the churn brings forth the elixir. At the same time and on another level, we see Vishnu as an image of the supreme Self, representing the non-dual nature of consciousness.

In the Indian tradition, we are said to exist within Maya, the world of duality: good and bad, dark and light, sun and moon, day and night, up and down, inside and outside. In Vedanta, Maya is related to avidyā. Avidyā is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘ignorance’ and ‘delusion.’ This word is opposed to Vidya, meaning ‘correct knowledge.’ Avidyā is represented in images of the demons. Avidyā is said to be the ignorance which prevents an understanding of the true nature of the Self, as cosmic or universal Self.

In modern Western culture, I often hear people speaking of instantaneous enlightenment. One moment you are a depressed, lifeless human being and the next you are enlightened. Such enlightenment would be a realization of the state of Vishnu on the Mount, the state of nonduality. This is a state of consciousness beyond struggle of duality, as represented by the struggle of the demons and the asuras. Jung understood that such polarities reflect the polarities of our own inner world. Jung says:

“How else could it have occurred to man to divide the cosmos, on the analogy of day and night, summer and winter, into a bright day-world and a dark night-world peopled with fabulous monsters, unless he had the prototype of such a division in himself, in the polarity between the conscious and the invisible and unknowable unconscious?” (Carl Jung, CW 91, para. 187)

In Western psychology and philosophy, we see an integrative process that is much more gradual and humble. Enlightenment is not freedom from duality, but the capacity to be with (be mindful of) the tensions of duality. Carl Jung called this the synthesis of Self. Jung’s writings encourage us to work with the conflicts and dualities inherent in consciousness. The ability to tolerate such inner conflict leads towards wholeness and integration. In The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious, Jung writes, “I have called this wholeness that transcends consciousness the ‘self.’ The goal of the individuation process is the synthesis of the self.” (Carl Jung CW 9i, para. 278) The synthesis of Self includes the unification of the conscious and unconscious poles of the psyche.

The work of GWF Hegel is an example from Western philosophy. Hegel’s work is a dialectical philosophy about the dialectics of being. He speaks of duality using terms such terms as ‘contradiction’ and ‘dialectic.’ For example, Hegel says: “Everything is inherently contradictory.” (Science of Logic, 1816) And also: “Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of the dialectic.” (Encyclopedia, 1817)

For Hegel, the dialectic is neither right nor wrong. Instead, a dialectical tension drives spirit in its forward movement and development. Hegel is clear on this point: “contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality.” (Science of Logic, 1816) Through struggling with the dialectical tensions of being, we come into greater and greater awareness: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

We are neither gods nor demons. But within us, the archetypal potentials of the gods and demons play out a divine play. Insofar as we are capable of struggling to learn and grow, we churn the milky sea of consciousness. From this churning, creativity emerges, producing all sorts of beautiful, good, intoxicating things, including Soma the archetypal image non-duality.

What follows is the story of the Samudra Manthana from the Vishnu Purana. The story was written before the third century CE. The struggle is between Avidyā and Vidya, as illustrated by the demons and the deities.

The story begins as the deities pray to Vishnu (the supreme Self) for refuge:

“Spirit of all, have compassion upon us; defend us with thy mighty power.”

Vishnu (the Self) answers with a command:

“Cast all sorts of medicinal herbs into the Sea of Milk; and then taking the mountain Mandara for the churning-stick, the serpent Vásuki for the rope, churn the ocean together for ambrosia.”

In the story, the Sea of Milk is a sacred borderland lying between the temporal and the eternal, between the measurable and unmeasurable. It is a liminal realm, and from a Jungian perspective can be seen as representing the realm of imagination.

In the story, Vishnu requests that the deities work together with the demons. Working together represents both struggle and integration. They must churn the Ocean of Milk using the serpent Vásuki for the rope, and in their labor they will create the ambrosia. Vishnu says:

“You must be at peace with them [the demons], and engage to give them an equal portion of the fruit of your associated toil.”

The deities and demons work together to churn the Ocean of Milk:

“Being thus instructed by the god of gods, the divinities entered into alliance with the demons, and they jointly undertook the acquirement of the beverage of immortality. They collected various kinds of medicinal herbs, and cast them into the sea of milk, the waters of which were radiant as the thin and shining clouds of autumn. They then took the mountain Mandara for the staff; the serpent Vásuki for the cord; and commenced to churn the ocean for the Amrita. The assembled gods were stationed by Krishńa at the tail of the serpent; the Daityas and Dánavas at its head and neck.”

The deities and demons churn the sea of milk, and from this churning all sort of wondrous things arise:

“From the ocean, thus churned by the gods and Dánavas, first uprose the cow Surabhi, the fountain of milk and curds … Then, as the holy Siddhas in the sky wondered what this could be, appeared the goddess Váruní (the deity of wine), her eyes rolling with intoxication. Next, from the whirlpool of the deep, sprang the celestial Párijáta tree, the delight of the nymphs of heaven, perfuming the world with its blossoms. The troop of Ápsarasas, the nymphs of heaven, were then produced, of surprising loveliness, endowed with beauty and with taste. The cool-rayed moon next rose… “

As well as wondrous things, a poison emerges from the churning:

“A poison was engendered from the sea, of which the snake gods (Nágas) took possession.”

And then, a cup of Amrita [the elixir of immortality] came forth, along with the goddess Sri:

“Dhanwantari, robed in white, and bearing in his hand the cup of Amrita, next came forth…Then, seated on a full-blown lotus, and holding a water-lily in her hand, the goddess Śrí, radiant with beauty, rose from the waves. “

It is Sri, the mother of all beings that is the final product of the churning:

“she was produced from the sea, at the churning of the ocean by the demons and the gods, to obtain ambrosia.”

The archetypal elixir of immortality (Soma) is coincident with the emergence of the divine mother.  Indra bows to the mother of all beings:

“I bow down to Śrí, the mother of all beings… thou art ambrosia, the purifier of the universe: thou art evening, night, and dawn: thou art power, faith, intellect: thou art the goddess of letters. Thou, beautiful goddess, art knowledge of devotion, great knowledge, mystic knowledge, and spiritual knowledge; which confers eternal liberation.”

At the end of this story we are told that wherever there is God, the mother is as well.

“[For if] the lord of the world, the god of gods… descends amongst mankind (in various shapes), so does his coadjutrix Śrí. Thus when Hari was born as a dwarf, …Lakshmí appeared from a lotus; when he was born as Ráma, she was Dharańí; when he was Rághava, she was Sítá; and when he was Krishńa, she became Rukminí. In the other descents of Vishńu, she is his associate. If he takes a celestial form, she appears as divine; if a mortal, she becomes a mortal too, transforming her own person agreeably to whatever character it pleases Vishńu to put on.”

On a last note, it is a said to be a great blessing to hear this story:

“Whosoever hears this account of the birth of Lakshmí, whosoever reads it, shall never lose the goddess Fortune from his dwelling for three generations; and misfortune, the fountain of strife, shall never enter into those houses in which the hymns to Śrí are repeated.”


  1. description from British Museum
  2. The Vishnu Purana, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, (1840), at
  3. Science of Logic (1812 and 1816) by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
  4. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
  5. Symbols of Transformation(Collected Works of C. G. Jung Volume 5
  6. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)
  7. Samudra manthana, the Churning of the Ocean. 19th Century, India. at the British Museum of Art. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

Compassion and Coniunctio: Integrating Dualistic Self-States

In our explorations of the human psyche and the path to self-realization, we come across various themes and symbols that capture the essence of this journey. One such symbol, borrowed from Carl Jung’s analytical psychology, is the coniunctio – a Latin term that stands for union or conjunction. It represents the fusion or synthesis of dualities, opposing entities within ourselves. But how does this concept apply to our modern understanding of self-states, and where does compassion fit into this framework?

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