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Śaiva Portrayals In 17th-Century Sanskrit Prose And Poetry: A Study Of The Nīlakaṇṭhavijayacampū


The Nīlakaṇṭhavijayacampū, internally dated to 1638 CE, is eponymous both with respect to its author Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, a minister to Madurai’s Nāyaka rulers continuing the Vijayanagara legacy, and its protagonist Śiva, appearing as the blue-throated Nīlakaṇṭha during his rescue of all of creation from the poison Hālāhala or Kālakūṭa.

The Nīlakaṇṭhavijayacampū (hereafter referred to simply as the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya) occurs at an evolutionary juncture of Sanskrit literature, where the composite prose-poetry Campū had matured as a genre and was often a vehicle for promoting authors’ religious persuasions. Composed in early 17th-century Madurai, it is the product of a time of literary confluence and religious ferment, and the product of a place that was home to some of the most thriving Śaiva traditions of all time.

The literary merits of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya have earned it longstanding scholarly approbation not just from aestheticians but also grammarians, like from the commentator Mahādeva Sūrī who honours it as a canonical text of correct grammatical usage. While most modern and contemporary attention to the text is focussed on aesthetics, this study treats the text as a literary resource on Śaiva doctrine and praxis. The object of this study is to examine the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya’s Śaiva portrayals in three senses: depictions of the deity Śiva, descriptions of Śaiva devotional practices, and representations of Śaiva doctrine.


The edition of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya that constituted the primary reference for this study is the one released in 1964 as part of the Chowkhamba Vidyabhawan Sanskrit Granthamala, with the Hindi translation-commentary titled Prakāśa by Ācārya Rāmacandra Miśra. The format adopted here for parenthetic references to specific verses and prose segments is as follows. Verses, which occur with numeric labels in the edition, are referred to by chapter and verse number (e.g., “4.36” refers to the verse labelled with number 36 occurring in the 4th chapter/āśvāsa.). Prose segments, which do not have numeric labels in the edition, are identified by the numbered verses which occur between (e.g.,“4.19-20” refers to the passage occurring between the 19th and 20th verses in the 4th āśvāsa).

The reading of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya for this study was with the intent of identifying representations of the deity Śiva, Śaiva devotion, and Śaiva doctrine. This reading was assisted by recordings of lectures on the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, namely, an 11-part series in Kannada covering the entire text by Śatāvadhānī R Ganesh delivered between 20th December, 2021 and 7th January, 2022 under the auspices of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, and a 29-part series in English covering the first two āśvāsa-s by Visalakshi Sankaran released in the “Lecture on Sanskrit texts” YouTube channel in 2019.

Pullela Ramachandra’s 1984 publication “Minor works of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita” served as a reference on the life and work of the author. Resources on the history of the Campū genre that provided a literary-historical context for the study are AB Keith’s “Classical Sanskrit Literature”, Gaurinath Sastri’s “A Concise History of Classical Sanskrit Literature” and TK Ramachandra Iyer’s “A Short History of Sanskrit Literature”.

Review Summary

Of the five chapters or āśvāsa-s that constitute the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, it is in the fourth āśvāsa that the pivotal event of Śiva swallowing Hālāhala occurs and the venerational descriptions of Śiva most prominently feature. It is not erroneous to say that every character in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya is a Śaiva character (be it Indra, Bali, Durvāsā, Brahmā, or Viṣṇu) and hence, Śaiva portrayals, in the sense of portrayals of Śaiva-s, occur in all āśvāsa-s.

(Figure 1:  Credit:  The Speaking Tree – Nīlakaṇṭha dīkṣita)

It is by the principles adopted in the Śivādvaita school of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, that the text interprets its Paurāṇika source material and simultaneously evaluates competing sects’ theological and soteriological assumptions. Thus, all the āśvāsa-s of Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya also affords glimpses of Śaiva doctrine as it relates to fundamental matters of Dharma and Mokṣa.

Portrayals of Śiva and Śaiva worship

The text’s most elaborate iconographic and panegyrical portrayals of Śiva, immediately precede and follow the miraculous scene of Śiva’s grace through his rescue of all of creation from the poison Hālāhala. All settings leading up to this miraculous scene and beyond (including Svargaloka, the mountain Mandara, Brahmā’s realm of Satyaloka and the milk-ocean Kṣīrasāgara) function as stages to portray varieties of Śaiva worship from exquisite pūjā to sublime dhyāna.

Form of Śiva

Aclimactic revelation of the form of Śiva occurs in the fourth āśvāsa (4.19-20), after an invocation addressed by Viṣṇu, who has entered a state of samādhi, to the goddess who is the very self of Śiva, when the upsurge of Hālāhala renders the deva-s helpless. The response of Śiva to Viṣṇu’s invocation appears in three aspects:

(i) First as a disincarnate voice which calls upon Viṣṇu to look upon the light that will manifest as the light of his own self (4.18),

(ii) Then as a transcendent brilliance when Viṣṇu emerges from samādhi (4.19),

(iii) And finally, as a revelation of Śiva’s divine form with myriad glorious attributes.

The explication of this divine form, which begins with the crescent crest of Śiva and proceeds to the effulgence of his toenails in the conventional keśādipādānta (crest-to-toenail) order, is presented in outline below.

The crescent crest borne by Śiva during this manifestation is described as an embodiment of all sacred rivers (rather than Candra, who would grace this position only after emerging from the churning of Kṣīrasāgara that is yet to happen). The crest assumes a reddish tinge like that of pāṭala blossoms from the smoky glow of Śiva’s half-open third eye and from the rage of Gaṅgā entangled in his matted locks, which themselves envelop the crescent with a sunset glow. It is as though the crescent through its very shape signals the waxing of enlightenment. Being the very form of the highest knowledge, it is free of blemishes, even as it abides, with the inscrutability of a serpent’s tooth, amid the intricacy of matted locks.

The third eye on the forehead of Śiva, as that which had rendered the world free from Kāma, is venerable by all who seek to overcome desire. As even the sparks straying from the edges of its eyelid suffice to render the world a void, the third eye remains closed as no world remains to be seen outside. Resplendent like a ruby pendant of the three-stringed necklace that is the tripuṇḍra, it dispels the inward darkness of ignorance in all bhakta-s. The other two eyes are like endless rivers of mercy that diligently restrict themselves to within the banks that are Śiva’s serpent-adorned ears, like conduct which conscientiously adheres to the constraints of Śruti (which means both Veda and the organ of hearing).

The gentle smile of Śiva, which has the triumphant glow of his victory over Tripura and evokes the combined nectarine stream of Parā and Aparā Vidyā (knowledge of Vedānta, and the Veda and Vedāṅga-s), delights the mind of great Yogī-s.

In one hand, Śiva bears the Veda embodied as a stag, who gazes upon the crescent ornament, as if longing to climb upon it when it swells into a full lunar orb and grace it as its stag-shaped adornment. In another hand, Śiva brandishes an axe to shatter the adamantine rocks of ignorance. One hand is held aloft in a majestic abhayamudrā to bestow mokṣa, and as if embarrassed at its own redundance by this, another hand that bestows worldly boons seemingly droops in the form of a varadamudrā.

As if out of boredom over being clad in the patternless directions (as digambara), Śiva has donned a vividly patterned tiger-skin raiment. The luminous form of Śiva consists of nothing but the pure light of Consciousness. Yet, like a pure transparent crystal gem reflecting a hibiscus bloom, Śiva’s toenails emit the red glow of the hood-borne gems of the serpents adorning his feet. It is as though these luminous toe-nails are the purified minds of Yogī-s that dwell on the feet of Śiva, or that these luminous pentads on each foot represents the five letters of the mantra that leads to realization of Śiva. Illumination by these toenails is itself the adornment of the braids of Ādi-bhāratī, the divine embodiment of speech, who has prostrated with reverence at the feet of Śiva.

Śiva is seated above and beyond all tattva-s (levels of reality constituting the Universe in Śaiva cosmology), in the embrace of his consort, the embodiment of self-knowledge and the Mother of all the worlds, who is his equal in attributes and virtues.

Śiva appears white like a placid autumnal cloud, like camphor soaked in ambrosia, like a pellucid crystal mountain, like moonlight in aggregate, and like the elixir of immortality itself that has embodied.

This elaborate exposition in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya of Śiva’s embodiment, which follows a formless light which in turn follows an invisible voice, recapitulates the three-fold worship of Śiva through form, “formless form” and formlessness, as is ritually represented in the Cidambaram temple via the icon of Naṭarāja, the liṅga, and space itself.

Grace of Śiva

(Figure 2: Credit: Pinterest – Samudramanthana in Swarga Loka)

The central act of grace of Śiva, which is also the central heroic feat in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, is Śiva’s rescue of all of creation from a cataclysm unexpectedly occurring during the churning of the milk-ocean by deva-s and asura-s in their quest for the nectar of immortality. When the churning commences in right earnest assisted by Viṣṇu (4.4), its immediate and catastrophic result is the sudden enveloping of all worlds in darkness, with the teetering of all terrestrial and celestial bodies, and the scorching of entire oceans and forests in typhoons of noxious fumes (4.4-5, 4.5, 4.5-6). This onslaught leaves the deva-s along with Brahmā and Viṣṇu barely able to even protect themselves (4.8, 4.11), and leaves even Brahmā and Viṣṇu unable to even identify its cause (4.9-10, 4.13-14, 4.27). Arriving in response to Viṣṇu’s penance and smiling beatifically in response to Viṣṇu’s entreaty to identify the plague, Śiva only says “See!” and stretches his right hand with merely the thought of recognition of Hālāhala (4.28-29). This itself suffices for instantaneous relief of the world from the poison with which it had been overcast (4.29), along with the descending of the calming light from Śiva’s crest upon the world, and the restoration of life to creation (4.30). The poison is entirely contained in a red handful by Śiva (4.31-32), who is in the auspicious embrace of his consort hailed as Sarvamaṅgalā and who, before the assembled hosts can stop him, swallows the poison as if he were Kṛṣṇa swallowing butter (4.32-33). The anxious and loving touch of his consort makes the fiery poison settle like calming autumnal moonlight in his person (4.33), in time giving his throat the hue of a blue lotus (4.35). When the assembled hosts offer Śiva an outpouring of gratitude, he responds saying that he has only helped his own family and feels embarrassed at being thanked for it (4.41).

Praise of Śiva

After their deliverance from Hālāhala, the hosts of deva-s, dānava-s and brahmaṛṣi-s offer effusive praise to Śiva (4.38-39). This is a single sentence with the purport of “Śiva, may you ever be victorious!”, where Śiva is called not by one name, but by 120 names in what is the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya’s longest string of epithets in the vocative case. This list of epithets evokes multiple themes including the exploits of Śiva (e.g. conquest of Tripura, destruction of Dakṣa yajña, humbling of the tapasvī-s of Dārukavāna, defeat of Yama, slaying of Andhaka, incineration of Kāma and his eventual resurrection, humbling of Rāvaṇa by the toe, gracing of the child Upamanyu with milk), the awe-inspiring splendours of different manifestations of Śiva (e.g. Bhairava, Śarabha, Bhikṣāṭana, Naṭarāja, Harihara, astride Dharma in the form of a bull, as the Liṅga itself, and as pure consciousness), spots rendered sacred by the association of Śiva (e.g. Kāśī, Cidambaram, Rāmeśvaram, Kālahasti, Śrīśailam, Kāñcī), and the experience of Śiva in the hearts of those who seek him. As is fitting for an emotional outpouring, this torrent of glorious epithets is free of any suggestion of any deliberate thematic organization. The names occur in elegant samāsa constructions, and are arranged in 60 externally rhyming pairs, thus lending themselves to euphonic recitation.

Preceding the narrative portion itself, the customary benedictory verses of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya are themselves verses of praise offered to Śiva. The very first verse of salutation contains in itself an admission of inability to identify the object of the salutation, given the impossibility of positing Śiva and Śakti as either only one or truly two (1.1). If Pullela Ramachandra’s reckoning of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya as Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s first major composition is accepted, then the opening verse of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya is effectively also the benedictory verse for the entire body of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s work, throughout which scholarly prowess along with a spirit of inquiry are both seen ultimately dedicated to Śiva. The second verse of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya is a declaration that of all celestials, praise will be offered only to Śiva, who came bearing a message to shed fear when all others were struck immobile by the upsurge of poison, and when all others had been but a burden on the world as they squabbled over the milk-ocean-born bounties (1.2). The second verse virtually contains the entire work in miniature, and the work itself is an elaboration of the verse’s proclamation of Nīlakaṇthavijaya, the glorious victory of Śiva as Nīlakaṇṭha.

Varieties of Śaiva worship

(Figure 3: Credit: Hinducosmos – Śiva pūjā)

The Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya in its first āśvāsa itself contains two distinct images of Śaiva devotion, in the form of Indra, the gṛhastha worshipper and Durvāsā, the ascetic. Indra is shown performing a Śiva-pūjā which is an idealization of the classic Ṣoḍaśopacārapūjā (including 16 ceremonial elements) offered to a Śiva-liṅga (1.21-22). In this celestial Śiva-pūjā, the liṅga bearing a crescent mark is fashioned of the wish-fulfilling gem Cintāmaṇi, the abhiṣeka is by the water of the celestial Gaṅgā, the anointment is of musk-infused sandal paste, the flowers offered are lotuses bloomed in the Gaṅgā, the incense is fragrant ghee from Kāmadhenu, the lamp is a naturally luminous gem and the naivedya offering is the elixir of life drawn from the moon. In a striking contrast with the description of the opulence of Indra as a devout royal Śaiva, is that of the loin-cloth-clad, ash-smeared Durvāsā as a fierce wandering Śaiva (1.23-24). His white body entirely smeared with sacred ash and crowned with ruddy matted locks give Durvāsā the appearance of a white autumn cloud under a red-hot lightning flash. Bearing Śaiva marks like the ash tripuṇḍra on his forehead, rudrākṣa beads around his neck, and sphaṭika beads as ear-studs, Durvāsā forever inwardly immersed in the thought of Śiva acts as though intoxicated, indifferent to the ways of the world and terrifying onlookers with what looks like insanity.

Dhyāna as a central modality in Śaiva worship is illustrated via multiple exemplars throughout the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya. The liṅga in Indra’s grand Śivapūja is itself said to be but a representative of the liṅga worshipped within the devotee’s heart, and Indra is shown contemplating upon the eternal self at the culmination of his formal worship (1.21-22). Durvāsā is said to be in unabated contemplation of Śiva sporting in the lotus of the heart (1.23-24) regardless of what actions he is outwardly engaged in, and when he appears for a second time in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya at Satyaloka, it is as an apotheosis of the virtues of self-control that in Vedānta are considered pre-requisites for deeper contemplation (2.14-15). When in exile from svarga in the slopes of Mount Mandara that is described a tapo-vana or site of forest penance (2.2-3), Indra without the paraphernalia of pūjā is shown relying on dhyāna as his means of worship of Śiva (3.18). Viṣṇu in Vaikuṇṭha, after sending away the deva-s on the mission of churning the Kṣīrasāgara, is shown immersing into deep contemplation of Śiva within his own heart (2.28).

An aspirational ideal as well as a practical template of Śaiva worship, is that Śiva is truly worshipped only through the worshipper verily becoming Śiva. In the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, the exiled deva-s on Mandara are shown worshipping Śiva through the complete surrender of their very identities to Śiva in form and conduct and spirit: in form by anointing themselves with sacred ash and wearing matted locks, in conduct by chanting the names and praising the feats of Śiva, and in spirit by witnessing their own selves as Śiva (3.26-27). The unabated contemplation of Śiva by Durvāsā, who in the scene of his entry is described as himself an incarnation of Śiva and as bearing the signs of Śiva, is an earlier illustration of the principle that in the ultimate sense, it is only Śiva who worships Śiva (1.23-24). After the upsurge of Hālāhala, the penance of Viṣṇu to invoke Śiva is fulfilled only after he follows the instruction in Śiva’s voice to witness his own self as the light of Śiva (4.18).

Multiple allusions placing the veneration of Śiva in the context of Veda and Yajña occur in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya. The first response of Viṣṇu after the manifestation of Śiva is to offer a series of hymns from the Sāmaveda (including the Vairāja, Śākvara, Rathantara, Vāmadevya, Kāleya, Rājana, Gavaṃvrata and Rauhiṇa) as homage to Śiva, along with hymns from the Yajurveda and Ṛgveda (4.21). In the paean of the deva-s following Śiva’s miracle of grace, references to Veda-affiliated texts proclaiming the glory of Śiva occur, such as the Śvetāśvatara and Atharvaśikhā Upaniṣad-s (4.38-39). The claim of Śiva over Yajña offerings is a topic of varied Purāṇa accounts advanced in explanation of the apparent absence of Śruti injunctions explicitly assigning specific Yajña offerings to Śiva, and the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya presents its own distinctive account of this topic. The deva-s while offering gratitude to Śiva say that without Śiva consuming Hālāhala, none of them, who are the ordained recipients of Yajña offerings, would have remained fit to consume offerings such as Caru and Puroḍāśa (4.39). The moon, identified with Soma, which arises from the ocean in the course of churning (5.10), is shown being acquired by Nandī (5.10-11) as a rightful and fitting offering to Śiva as his ornament (5.12-13). This can be read as a simultaneous allegory of the intimate pairing of Soma and Agni in the Vaidika conception of Yajña, along with the Vaidika accounts of Agni and Rudra that show many shared attributes of the two.

Temple worship is alluded to not just via mentions of assorted pilgrimage sites in the chief paean to Śiva (4.38-39), but also via the veritable enactment of a temple festival in the movement of Mount Mandara from its original site to the ocean of milk. Mandara in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya is a site comparable in status to Vārāṇasī (2.2-3) and is rendered sacred by Śiva (4.38-39) who frequents its sylvan slopes with his consort.

(Figure 4: Credit: BronzesofIndia – Gowri Sametha Sambha Śiva)

Śiva with his consort is present on Mandara when it is carried from its original site to Kṣīrasāgara by deva-s and dānava-s in unison (3.42-43), giving the divine couple the joy of a scenic palanquin ride (3.44-45) that evokes the ceremonial tour of processional images borne by members of diverse communities during festivals in Āgama-administered temples. Like chants accompanying temple processions, tapasvī-s watching the conveyance of Mandara offer their benedictions to the party by Abhayaṅkara and Amṛta-Mṛtyuñjaya recitations (3.44-45). When Mandara begins to sink into Kṣīrasāgara, this fortuitously occasions a kṣīrābhiṣeka (ritual milk-bath) of the Liṅga present in a cave on Mandara (3.53-54), and evokes overall the ritual of re-consecratory Kumbhābhiṣeka of an Āgamika temple. The customary āvāhana and visarjana procedures that book-end a ritual of any scale in the pūjā format are evoked in the permission sought reverentially from Śiva by the deva-s and dānava-s before they move Mandara (3.35, 3.36), and in the penitently humble leave-taking of the deva-s after reinstating it (5.59).

Worship of Śiva as envisioned in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya does not occur in isolation, and verses significantly placed at the culmination of the work accord a position comparable to pūjā of Śiva, to kīrtana of Hari and dhyāna of Śakti (5.54, 5.62).

Śaiva doctrine in literature and history

In the narrative course of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijayacampū via its traversal of the realms of pantheonic deities, the place accorded to these deities in Śivādvaita theology is recapitulated. The text is interspersed throughout with allusions to historical disputations of Śaiva proponents with stances of other āstika and nāstika sects, on topics such as the importance of ritual and the ultimate nature of liberation.

Śaiva theology and cosmology

The representation of deities in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, particularly that of Viṣṇu and Brahmā, is in keeping with a cosmology and theology shared widely across Śaiva schools. The Universe is categorized hierarchically into 36 tattva-s or levels of reality, of which the lowest are the five gross elements and the highest is Śiva as the Supreme Being, with deities corresponding to preceding levels. The penultimate tattva in this scheme is Śakti, or specifically Cit-śakti, understood to be the divine will of Śiva to manifest as the world and all beings in it, while always being fundamentally inseparable from Śiva.

In the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, it is the same deity that is simultaneously Nārāyaṇī (in the aspect of Śiva’s consort and Mother of the Universe called by such names as Bhavānī and Gaurī) and Nārāyaṇa (in the aspect of Viṣṇu pervading and sustaining the cosmos). This equivalence of Nārāyaṇī and Nārāyaṇa, and the inseparability of both from Śiva, is in keeping with how these three deities are characterized in the Pañcaratnastava, a work by Appaya Dīkṣita who was Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s predecessor as a proponent of Śivādvaita. Śiva in his address to Viṣṇu and the assembled deva-s after swallowing Hālāhala declares unambiguously that the lotus-eyed Viṣṇu is none other than the Mother of the Universe who is his beloved (4.42), and further declares that Viṣṇu and Bhavānī both share his own body (4.43). Earlier, Viṣṇu faced with imminent engulfment by Hālāhala (4.11), is shown able to ward it off his person by meditating upon the goddess Tārā or Amṛteśvarī, who abides in and showers the nectar of immortality, as his own self and simultaneously integral to Śiva (4.12, 4.13). To gain communion with Śiva, whom Viṣṇu then recognizes as the only one who can protect the rest of creation from the poison, Viṣṇu is shown making as the object of meditation his own self which he worships in a state of samādhi as Nārāyaṇī (4.13-14). The first statement of Śiva after his appearance, expressed in a verse addressed to Viṣṇu, is that of his two embodiments called Śivā and Ghorā mentioned in Śruti (specifically in the Rudrādhyāya), the alluring embodiment called Śivā is none other than Viṣṇu’s own (4.26).

Much earlier, during the visit to Brahmaloka by the deva-s distraught after their loss of svarga, Brahmā declares to the deva-s that it is the same being who appears with feminine attributes as the left half of Śiva’s divine form, who also appears as Viṣṇu (2.20). Thus, forgiveness could to be sought from Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa for Indra’s lapse in disregarding the garland bestowed by Nārāyaṇī or Gaurī, which is what led to his loss of svarga in the first place (2.19-20). Accordingly, in the final āśvāsa, the deva-s are shown seeking forgiveness for this lapse first from Śrī, who is inseparable from Nārāyaṇa, after her emergence from the ocean during the churn (5.27), and then from Mohinī, who is an avatāra of Nārāyaṇa, during her distribution of amṛta (5.57). The deva-s, blessed with amṛta by Mohinī, offer in gratitude a three-fold praise to Nārāyaṇa, to the Śakti of Śiva, and to Śiva himself who showed the two as one (5.54). The narration of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya itself concludes with a description of how such three-fold worship is undertaken diligently by the deva-s reinstated in svarga, through pūjā of Śiva, kīrtana of Hari, and dhyāna of Śakti (5.62).

(Figure 5: Credit: Lotussculputure – Kaalsamhara Murthy)

The order of appearance of deities in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya and the literary grandeur with which the poet dignifies the initial appearance of each deity before the splendid description of Śiva’s own manifestation, is concordant with the due process specified in the Śaivāgama ritual canon for approaching Śiva. This due process entails meticulously adhering to the sequence of deities corresponding to progressively higher tattva-s, and according to utmost reverence to the deity of the currently realized tattva, undiminished by the notion that the current deity is theoretically a subordinate one in the ultimate sense. Accordingly, the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya in its description of each successively higher realm and its corresponding deity, gives the current deity and realm the dignity of ultimacy, be it the svarga ruled by Indra (1.10-11, 1.17-18), the Satya-loka of Brahmā (2.8-9, 2.10-11) or Vaikuṇṭha of Viṣṇu (2.22-23, 2.34-35). The ascent of the hosts of deva-s into Satya-loka, which started from bhū-loka where they were exiled and passed via the tapo-loka which is adjacent to  Satya-loka (2.4-5), is described as being accompanied by a chant of praṇava (2.7-8), as an allegory of the praṇava-accompanied ritual utterance of the seven vyāhṛti-s or loka-s from Bhuḥ to Satyam during the Smṛti-prescribed Sandhyā ritual. Once in Satya-loka, the deva-s do not take the liberty of initiating their address to the presiding deity Brahmā by themselves, but do so only via their appointed Guru Bṛhaspati (2.10-11). Likewise, once in Vaikuṇṭha, the deva-s do not take the liberty of initiating their address to the presiding deity Viṣṇu by themselves, but instead witness this being done by Brahmā (2.34-35) who is declared in this text itself as the master of all preceding tattva-s (2.10-11).

The Śaiva scheme of tattva-s is alluded to throughout the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya. Brahmā is declared during his first appearance in the text as the master of the 25 tattva-s (from Pṛthvī to Puruṣa) which constitute the lower echelons of the 36-tattva Śaiva scheme (2.10-11). Śiva during his first grand appearance in the text is described as seated on a throne situated above and beyond the tattva-s (4.19-20), and is addressed by the epithet Tattvārthagocara (“He who is attainable as the ultimate meaning of all tattva-s”) in the paean following his swallowing of Hālāhala (4.38-39). While Śakti and Śiva may be referred to for enumerative ease as the ‘penultimate’ and ‘ultimate’ tattva respectively, any distinction implied between them does not detract from the effective integrity of Śakti and Śiva (1.1). The first verses of praise shown offered by Viṣṇu when Śiva makes his appearance, are addressed to Śakti and Śiva who are simultaneously two and one (4.23), and declare the names “Om” and “Umā” (signifying Śiva and Śakti respectively) as names of the same reality when the cosmos is unmanifest and manifest respectively (4.24).

Śaiva positions relative to other sects

As both the ideological and literary heir to his grand-uncle Appaya Dīkṣita (1520-1593 CE), Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita throughout his literary corpus and particularly in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya is committed towards advancing the former’s composite legacy of:

  1. Championing the Śivādvaita doctrine and Śaiva devotion in a milieu of prominence of Vaiṣṇava doctrines, in a manner sympathetic to and compatible with Vaiṣṇava devotion
  2. Engaging in debate via the literary medium with other contemporary influential schools, notably the Dvaita school (whose polemicists relied intensively on Tarka-śāstra/Nyāya-śāstra)
  3. Upholding adherence to Śrauta-karma as prescribed in the Veda, rather than exclusive emphasis on the philosophy of Vedānta.

The Campū genre in the 16th century CE, during the lifetime of Appaya Dīkṣita, was the medium of choice of poets affiliated to the recently established Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sect in Eastern India, for hailing the youthful exploits of their principal deity Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana, like in the Gopālacampū of Jīvagosvāmi and the Ānandavṛndāvanacampū of Kavikarṇapūra. It is as though this recent cultural-literary history is what prompted Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s verse in the prelude to the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya with a bemused observation that a surfeit of poets wrote of butter-thefts and romantic escapades and none, till then, wrote of the miracle of grace of Śiva which is his swallowing of the world-threatening poison (1.9).

(Figure 6: Credit: Wikipedia – Śiva drinking Hālāhala)

Against this background, it is particularly striking that Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita while describing the miraculous moment of Śiva swallowing Hālāhala, chooses to liken it to the infant Kṛṣṇa swallowing butter (4.32-33). Even as the poet casts the work as an overdue effort towards redressing what he reckons as ages of literary neglect of Śiva’s miracle of grace, his exposition of Śiva’s glory is such that it is cast in mutual reinforcement with Viṣṇu’s glory rather than as detracting from it (4.26, 5.54, 5.62). The poet’s devotion evident in his descriptions of Viṣṇu and his parivāra at Vaikuṇṭha (2.30, 2.31, 2.32, 2.33-34, 2.34), of the awe-inspiring Kūrmāvatāra (3.55-56, 3.56), or of the divine wedding of Viṣṇu and Śrī (5.24, 5.25, 5.25-26, 5.26), gives no impression of being different in spirit from the devotion seen in his descriptions of Śiva.

Among the references to Ṣaḍdarśana schools of philosophy occurring in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya (1.14, 2.8-9, 4.30), the school that is most at the receiving end of the author’s biting ridicule is Nyāya. The complicated terminology and rigidly formalized dialectical methodology of Nyāya, which were prominently harnessed towards polemical ends by schools like Dvaita Vedānta, appear reckoned by Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita merely as impediments to philosophical insight and spiritual experience (4.19-20, 4.30). The presence of Śiva is described as unattainable by the epistemological apparatus of Nyāya and attainable only through the primal revelation of the Veda (4.19-20). The enveloping darkness of Hālāhala, after dispelling which the world is seen brightly illumined, is likened to the commotion of Nyāya dialecticians after clearing which alone is the illumination of seer-poets’ expressions rendered possible (4.30).

(Figure 7: Credit: Pinterest – Brahmā and Viṣṇu worshiping Śaiva)

The schools of Yoga and Vedānta, despite both being āstika and accepting Īśvara, come in for criticism along with Nyāya, for pursuing a goal of mokṣa that apparently lacks the grandeur of the goal of svarga which the Veda itself extols (1.14, 1.20, 2.81). Coming in a line of accomplished Śrauta Yajña practitioners, Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita is critical not only of philosophical schools that fail to accord due importance to Veda-ordained karma-s, but even of Vaidika scholarship if it is indulged in without due performance of Vaidika rites (1.19). Ritual disciplines are shown to be blatantly flouted and Yajña-s travestied when Svarga has fallen to the asura-s (1.50). The critical attitude towards speculative philosophy and scholasticism indifferent to ritual disciplines, has historically been shared both by Śrauta Yajña practitioners and those committed to Āgama-based Śaiva schools where ritual discipline is central. Any disapproval of āstika schools on the part of Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita on the grounds of ritual discipline, however pales in comparison to the disapproval of nāstika schools which were historically vigorously opposed both by Vedānta schools (regardless of their position on monism) and theistic sects at large (regardless of their Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava proclivity). In the period of degeneration portrayed in the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, the schools said to thrive under an ungodly Asura dispensation are nāstika ones like those of the Jaina-s, Sautrāntika and Mādhyamika Bauddha-s, and Cārvāka-s (1.51).


Among Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s other major works, the Gaṅgāvataraṇa, which is an epic poem of 8 cantos on the descent of Gaṅgā by Śiva grace, begins with a benedictory verse very much like that of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya (1.1), alluding to the inseparability of Śiva and Śakti that is not reducible to such notions as unity or duality. Among Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s minor works, the Śivotkarṣamañjarī consisting of 52 verses of praise to Śiva, contains multiple verses hailing the miracle of deliverance from Hālāhala (14, 22, 28, 45), and of these, the fourteenth verse in particular is very similar in both form and spirit to the second benedictory verse of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya (1.2).

Prominent instances in the composite prose-poetry Campū genre in the run-up to and during the 17th century CE have tended to be either retellings of voluminous epics or entire purāṇa-s (e.g., Bhāratacampū and Bhāgavatacampū of Anantabhaṭṭa in the 14th century), romances culminating in a wedding of lovers (e.g. Draupadīpariṇaya of Cakrakavi and Varadāmbikāpariṇaya of Tirumalāmbā in the turn of the 17th century), or works of satire and polemic without heroic protagonists (e.g. Viśvaguṇādarśacampū of Veṅkaṭadhvarī in the 17th century). The Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya stands out in choosing as its material a relatively brief purāṇa account of redemption rather than romance, with no less a protagonist than Śiva in the heroic aspect of a saviour.

The Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya’s account of Śiva swallowing Hālāhala differs in ways that heighten the sense of awe over this feat, from those of Itihāsa-Purāṇa texts that have been rendered in the Campū form, namely, the Rāmāyaṇa (Bālakāṇḍa Sarga 45 in the Southern Recension), Mahābhārata (Ādiparva Āstīkaparva 18) and Bhāgavatam (8.7). Unlike the Rāmāyaṇa account where Viṣṇu expressly urges Rudra to accept Hālāhala citing Rudra’s right of first claim over the first product of the churning, the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya shows Viṣṇu only praying for a rescue (4.27, 4.28) upon which Śiva gathers up (4.29) and ingests the poison of his own accord without intimation either to his consort or other gods (4.32-33). Whereas the Rāmāyaṇa shows Śiva swallowing Hālāhala as if it were itself amṛta, Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita likens this instead to the infant Kṛṣṇa swallowing butter (4.32-33). The Rāmāyaṇa does not mention Śiva acquiring a blue throat by swallowing Hālāhala, like the Mahābhārata (which incidentally is the one source where Hālāhala is not the first product of the churn, but the last, emerging after even amṛta) and the Bhāgavatam do. In the Mahābhārata, Śiva is said to become blue-throated on account of containing the poison entirely in his throat, whereas in the Bhāgavatam, he becomes blue-throated as the poison stains his throat in the process of his swallowing it after duly informing his consort of his intent to do so. In the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, Śiva is said to verily have digested the poison (4.32-33) when his consort out of affectionate concern places healing, cooling hands on his neck (4.33, 4.34), and becomes blue-hued in the throat not during the swallowing itself but as a lingering after-effect of the digested rather than obstructed poison (4.35). The delayed revelation of the blue colour, says Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita, is like how noble intent that is laboriously restrained eventually cannot but reveal itself in the presence of the pure-hearted (4.35).

The Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya is not limited to the Itihāsa-Purāṇa corpus or even the classical kāvya corpus for sourcing its portraits and landscapes, which also bear the imprint of its own era. The image of Durvāsā, called a Vīra-māheśvara in the work (1.25), evokes the Vīraśaiva ideal of a jaṅgama, and can appear akin even to present-day real-life sights of Śaiva ascetics at pilgrimage sites. Mandara is treated as though it were Kailāsa where Śiva resides and which Rāvaṇa tried to uproot (3.33), with the sort of liberty that is taken in 12th century Hōysaḷa sculptural depictions of Rāvaṇānugrahamūrti where it is the celestial Meru that is in the position of Kailāsa. Among the sacred sites of Śiva that appear in the principal paean of the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, it is sites from Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s native southern India that are the most numerous (4.38-39).

Even as it bears the distinctive imprint of its own era, the Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya also bears unmistakable resemblances to earlier epochal works in the broader Kāvya tradition. In the reverence shown to the poet’s most favoured deity (4.19-20, 4.38-39) without detracting from reverence to other principal deities (2.8-9, 2.10-11, 2.22-23, 2.34-35), it is like Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava. In the references to multiple śāstra-s and darśana-s not limited to the author’s affiliated school, it is like the Naiṣadhīyacarita presenting its author Śrīharṣa’s preferred Advaita school vis-à-vis other schools.


The Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, whose acclaimed literary merits have rendered it a source of both instruction and inspiration to students of Sanskrit literature and aesthetics, has a claim to be similarly prized by students of Śaiva philosophy as well as devout practitioners on the Śaiva path.


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