Viewpoint: Waking to Spring Lilacs

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So wrote T. S. Eliot in the opening lines of his seminal poem The Waste Land (1922), which characterized the mood of an era. The lines are, of course, ironic. In our winter sleep, a time of deadness and dullness, we are like the Fisher King of the Grail legend. We have suffered the wound of mortality and have accepted the status quo of our somnolence as the norm of existence.

Then comes April, the beginning of spring, with its warm rains that stir life, awaken us from our amnesia, and sprout the lilacs. Being used to our winter torpor, we find the call to new life, to renewal, to resurrection, and to transformation a cruel intrusion. So we do not welcome April or its lilacs. We are like the little man in a William Steig cartoon from the New Yorker magazine many years ago: he is huddled in a cramped fetal position with a scowl on his face within a constricting crate, with no room to move—the title of the cartoon is "People are no damn good." As with Eliot’s lines, there is irony in the cartoon, for the cramped fetal position is a prelude to inevitable birth and new life. However much we cling to our crate and scorn lilacs, spring and new birth will come.

Lilacs are interesting flowers, and even the word lilac is notable. We borrowed the name of the flower from French, which borrowed it from Arabic, which borrowed it from Persian, which borrowed it from Sanskrit. So the word lilac is another of those links that bind East and West and show a perpetual process of renewal and rebirth. But lilac is interesting for another reason too. The Sanskrit word that it comes from is nila, meaning "dark blue." And thereby hangs a tale.

Hindu myth tells that once a great flood covered the whole earth, in whose waters all things were lost, including the Elixir of Immortality. The Gods decided that they would have to churn the ocean to bring up all of the things hidden in its depths, including the precious Elixir. But how could they churn an entire ocean?

One of the Gods, Vishnu, incarnated as a turtle and dived into the ocean, while the other Gods rooted up a great mountain, which they set upon the turtle’s back to use as a huge paddle to churn the waters. But the mountain-paddle was so large that the Gods could not turn it alone. So they had to call on the Demons for help. Around the mountain-paddle they coiled an enormous serpent. The Gods then took hold of one end of the serpent, and the Demons took hold of the other, and they alternately pulled its body, twisting the mountain back and forth on the shell of the turtle. And thus they churned the ocean.

Very soon things began to be churned out of the waters—all the things that had been lost in the great flood. And one of those things was a poison so virulent that it could kill all living beings. When it appeared, most of the Gods and Demons were aghast, but the God Shiva leapt forward and swallowed the poison to protect all the others. As he did so, the poison dyed his throat a dark blue, and so he came to be called "Nilakantha," meaning "blue-throated." So Shiva was the God of the Lilac Throat. And because of his action, all beings eventually got the Elixir of Immortality that they sought.

The myth of the Churning of the Ocean is a spring parable. If we want to recover our lost immortality, we have to stir up the stagnant waters of our being. And to do that, we need the assistance of both the Gods and the Demons within us. When we begin to work at finding the Elixir, we have to be prepared to encounter first the poison of mortality and to swallow it. The path to immortality is through death, the way to spring is through winter, and their passage is marked by lilacs and a blue throat.

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