It represents seeking self-realization through the focus of the mind, and the control of the senses and desires and practice of self-discipline.
The gods and demons represent the positives and negatives of the personality. The involvement of both the gods and the demons signifies that integration and balance of the positives and negatives is necessary when seeking bliss through spiritual practice. Both the energies must be put to work for the common goal.
The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is like an ocean while the thoughts and emotions are the waves in the ocean.
Mandhara, the mountain symbolizes concentration. The word Mandhara is made up of two words Mana (mind) and Dhara (a single line) which means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only by concentration.
The snake used as a rope for churning, symbolizes desire. The snake used in the churning of the ocean denotes that the gods and the demons held desire-even though it was a desire to seek immortality, it was a desire non-the-less – as a rope and churned the mind with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. Desire, if not controlled will overpower and destroy an individual.
The poison symbolizes suffering and pain which is a counter-reaction of the mind and body, that one undergoes at the beginning of spiritual practice. When the mind is subjected to intense concentration, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. These must be resolved otherwise further progress is not possible.
Lord Shiva symbolizes the ascetic principle. His role in this story as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment, compassion, pure love and asceticism.
Like a Bollywood movie, this story has many subplots. This just scratches the surface. I’ll explore further and keep you posted with the findings.