Nilakantha Dikshita is one among the fine Sanskrit poets in whom we find a happy blend of erudition and creativity. He lived during a time when natural expression of the language was chained to a heavy boulder of exhibitionism, and originality suffered under its weight. Only a few poets could use this to their advantage. Kshemendra, Bhallata and Venkatadhvari barely managed to liberate themselves from this fetter and let their words flower freely. But this freedom too, was limited in their case.
Nilakantha Dikshita had a ready wit and was astonishingly perceptive. He knew the ways of the world like the back of his hand. With a natural gift for satire, he criticized the prevalent ills of his society. His literary style, marked by a chaste, classical diction, delightful turns of phrases, and ever-fresh imageries, helps us to understand his mind: he was probably a charming conversationalist who could strike a conversation even with a rock. Such was his power with words. The wonderful sense of humour he possessed make us want him for a best friend. Dullness, the ultimate deterrent in poetry, found no place in him. We should also note that these features were cautiously guarded by a proportionate levelheadedness. A champion of vairagya, Nilakantha Dikshita never indulged in any activity inappropriately.
He could wield his pen equally well in prose as he did with verse. Idiomatic expressions were his forte. It can be argued that no other poet has enriched the language better in this regard. Kalidasa, Bhallata, Shudraka and Shyamilaka give him a tough competition. He never compromised with content for form; but at the same time, his words were rarely unembellished. This mix was enhanced by his impeccable scholarship. The sheer sweep of his erudition is extraordinary – his works on shastras bear testimony to this. All these abilities have turned Nilakantha Dikshita into a peerless giant among Sanskrit poets.
He lived in the first half of the 17th century C.E., in the Madhurai province of Tamil Nadu. He was under the patronage of Tirumala Nayaka, the ruler of Madhurai. By internal evidences found in his works and other pieces of information gleaned from the works of his contemporaries, it can be established that he was born in the year 1613. His parents were Narayana Dikshita and Bhumidevi. They were Shaiva Brahmanas. Nilakantha Dikshita was born into a family of scholars well-versed in grammar, epistemology and philosophy. He was fond of his family and proud of its scholarly heritage. He has mentioned many of his ancestors in his works. Among them, the foremost is Appayya Dikshita, the prodigious scholar who authored more than a hundred works and was a champion of many shastras: Grammar, Aesthetics, Shrauta, Nyaya and Advaita Vedanta, to name a few. Of him, Nilakantha Dikshita wrote:
यं विद्म इति यद्ग्रन्थानभ्यस्यामोऽखिलानिति ।
यस्य शिष्यास्म इति च श्लाघन्ते स्म विपश्चितः ॥ (Gangavataranam, 1.45)
“I know him!”
“I’ve studied all his books!”
“I’m his direct disciple.”
In terms of him, scholars prided themselves thus.
Rajachudamani Dikshita, Samarapungava Dikshita, the author of Yatraprabandha, one of the few travelogues in Sanskrit, and Venkatadhvari, the author of the famed Vishvagunadarsha-champu are well known among his peers.
A list of Nilakantha Dikshita’s works is given below:
- शिवलीलार्णवः 2. गङ्गावतरणम्
- कलिविडम्बनम् 6. सभारञ्जनशतकम् 7. वैराग्यशतकम् 8. अन्यापदेशशतकम् 9. आनन्दसागरस्तवः 10. शिवोत्कर्षमञ्जरी 11. शान्तिविलासः
- शिवतत्त्वरहस्यम् 13. कैयटव्याख्यानम् 14. मुकुन्दविलासः 15. गुरुतत्त्वमालिका 16. सौभाग्यचन्द्रातपा 17. रघुवीरस्तवः 18. चण्डीरहस्यम्
We can now briefly examine a summary of his works.
It is an epic-poem spread over twenty-two cantos, having more than two-thousand verses. Based on Sanskrit and Tamil sources – Tiruvileyadal-puranam, Halasya-puranam and Periya-puranam – it describes the glories of Sundareshvara, the residing deity at Madhurai, along with meenakshi kalyanam. The narration is lucid and bears the stamp of Nilakantha Dikshita’s characteristic style. It is considered his magnum opus.
It is an epic-poem consisting around six-hundred verses. Its subject is the famed tale of Ganga’s descent on the earth upon the bidding of Bhagiratha.
This is a work that tells us Nilakantha Dikshita was not blinded by religion. Though he was a staunch devotee of Shiva, he wrote this epic-poem glorifying Vishnu. Only three cantos of this work are extant.
This is one among the five cardinal champu works of Sanskrit (Bhoja’s Champu-ramayanam, Anantabhatta’s Champu-bharatam, Somadeva’s Yashastilaka-champu, and Venkatadhvari’s Vishvagunadarsha-champu are the other four.) Its subject is based on a puranic story that describes the churning of the milk-ocean by the gods and demons, and Shiva’s gallant act of drinking the poison, which emerged during this churning, to save the world. This is regarded as Nilakantha Dikshita’s first significant literary work.
This is a drama that deals with the popular theme of Nala, the emperor of Nishadha, and his wife Damayanti. It has about 165 verses and a good number of prose passages. Unfortunately, this work is truncated at the beginning of the sixth act and is not available in full.
The tradition of grammar in India is one to cherish. Over the centuries, there has been a continuous flow of texts that have kept this tradition alive. Among these texts, Patanjali’s Mahabhashyam is the foremost. Kaiyata, hailing from Kashmir, wrote a gloss on this, called Pradipa. Nilakantha Dikshita’s Kaiyata-vyakhyanam is a commentary on Pradipa. The manuscript of this work is found in the manuscript library in Chennai. It is not published.
This work is written as a commentary on the 108 divine names of Shiva given in the Shankara-samhita section of Skanda-puranam. Quoting from numerous sources, Nilakantha Dikshita argues, in this work, for Shiva’s supremacy among the gods.
This belongs to the class of works on shakta-tantra school of philosophy. It mainly deals with the methods of worship of goddess Tripurasundari. It is truncated at the end of the second chapter.
This work contains fifty-two verses and is the product of Nilakantha Dikshita’s unalloyed, single-minded devotion to Shiva. Every verse ends with the refrain “स स्वामी मम दैवतं तदितरो नाम्नापि नाम्नायते” |
This work is in praise of goddess Lalita manifested as Meenakshi, the presiding deity of Madhurai. Having devotion as its major sentiment, it is well known for its lucid diction and apt imageries. It has over a hundred verses.
It is a stotra kavya comprising twenty-eight verses. Nilakantha Dikshita wrote this in praise of his guru Sri Girvanendra Saraswati, who initiated him into the nuances of Advaita Vedanta. This work is unpublished.
It attempts to narrate, concisely, the story of Ramayana in thirty-three verses. Each verse here is addressed to Rama himself. This work is valued for its wonderful grammatical constructions and employment of many figures of speech.
It describes the divine beauty of goddess Lalita, from head to toe, in thirty-six verses. Its lucid diction has won it critical acclaim from many connoisseurs.
This is a unique work dealing with nirveda (indifference, despondency). It describes the happiness resulting from conquering desires and contemplation, in fifty-one verses. It can be treated as a sequel to the same author’s Vairagya Shatakam.
It is a collection of allegorical verses. Having more than a hundred verses, this work is a good example of Nilakantha Dikshita’s power of observation and shrewdness. It also gives us an idea of the nature of the society during his times. Nilakantha Dikshita’s mastery over metres is evident from this poem, which has carved for him a special niche among other writers of allegorical verses like Bhallata, Jagannatha and Venkatanatha.
This is a brilliant work of 102 verses, all composed in the Anushtup metre. As the name suggests, it mocks the many ills of kali yuga in a satirical tone. Its uniqueness is best understood by comparing it with, say, the ‘kalimahima’ section of Subhashita-ratna-bhandagara, an anthology of subhashitas, or the ‘kalidharma-vipaka’ portion found in many puranas. Nilakantha Dikshita was an adroit social commentator, and Kalividambanam stands out because of its amazing insights about society, presented with lively humour. It pokes fun at traditional scholars, teachers, doctors, and astrologers – basically everyone whose conduct was unacceptably corrupt. A veritable classic, it became a model for future writers in this genre.
It has 105 Anushtup verses and is a work that belongs to the genre of neeti-kavyas, which describe moral values and the virtues of proper conduct. Unlike other works on neeti that are dry and unappealing, this poem laces humour with morals and brings us closer to life. Only a poet like Nilakantha Dikshita, an ardent seeker of knowledge, who had a rich experience of life, could have authored such a work that extols knowledge. It lists the elements of eloquence and suggests that it is not everyone’s cup of tea. In short, it is about the power of expression.
It has 105 verses set in the Arya metre, dealing with vairagya (detachment). It beautifully describes the travails of a person attempting to be detached from the world, thus becoming a useful manual for people with similar interests. It is not a product of mere speculation, but of intense experience. In this work, the poet has announced his singular devotion to Shiva and firm conviction in the nature of truth portrayed in the Advaita school of philosophy. It has many rare usages typical of Nilakantha Dikshita, and is quite difficult to understand without a commentary.
Now we can look at a few verses. About poets, he says:
यानेव चार्थान्वयमुल्लिखामः ।
सम्मोहयन्ते कवयो जगन्ति ॥(Shivalilarnavah, 1.13)
Poets use the same words as we, ordinary people, do.
They don’t have any special meanings.
Only the way they use them is different –
They dress them up ornately,
And that allures us like nothing else.
We should all be thankful to him for revealing this secret – there is nothing esoteric about poetry. Poets make a conscious effort to make their poetry beautiful. Though imagination, the best among the poet’s possessions, is not something that can be sipped through a straw or injected through a syringe, it can certainly be cultivated by reading the works of great poets, and developing a keen sense of observation. Great poets use simple subjects and transform them into something extraordinary.
Now about his ishta-devata Shiva:
दृष्ट्वा कौस्तुभमप्सरोगणमपि प्रक्रान्तवादा मिथो
गीर्वाणाः कति वा न सन्ति भुवने भारा दिवः केवलम् ।
निष्क्रान्ते गरले द्रुते सुरगणे निश्चेष्टिते विष्टपे
मा भैष्टेति गिराविरास धुरि यो देवस्तमेव स्तुमः ॥(Nilakanthavijaya-champu, 1.2)
Upon seeing the lustrous kaustubha gem and the beautiful apsaras,
Many gods lapsed into argument, claiming them as their own.
Those gods are useless; they are a burden to the heaven.
Up came the kaalakoota poison – these gods ran helter-skelter;
The whole universe was motionless. Then, with a reassuring voice,
He announced, “Don’t fear.” It was Shiva – I worship only him.
This verse is brilliant at so many levels: the irreverence while speaking of ordinary gods, the contemptuous tone at branding their lot as a burden to the heaven, the small, uncompounded words in the third line signifying the scattering of the gods when poison comes into the picture, and the booming words – मा भैष्ट, ‘have no fear’ – in the fourth line removing all doubts, and the last two words – देवस्तमेव स्तुमः – that signify total surrender to Shiva. If this is not real devotion then we don’t know, we don’t even want to know, what is.
Next, on the state of arguments and discussions:
न भेतव्यं न बोद्धव्यं
न श्राव्यं वादिनो वचः ।
सभासु विजिगीषुभिः ॥(Kalividambanam, 1)
One who wishes to win an argument,
Needn’t fear, needn’t try to comprehend,
Needn’t even bother to listen to the opponent.
He just has to retort immediately.
The scene is no different today: the one with the loudest voice wins. This fact becomes evident if we switch on the television and see some panel discussions. “News Hour” debates exemplify this. Today we have leadership trainers who tell us that it’s all about confidence. On that count, Nilakantha Dikshita was, probably, the world’s first inspirational speaker! However, this is not the proper way to get inspired.
र्वाच्यं मौहूर्तिकैर्जनैः ।
मृताः प्रक्ष्यन्ति कं पुनः ॥ (Kalividambanam, 16)
When people ask how long they will live,
Astrologers should predict a long life.
Those who actually live will admire them;
The dead can’t question anyway.
An appeal to the readers: please do not show this verse to any astrologer! The situation is pathetic without them knowing it already.
नातिभीतिश्च रोगिणि ।
नैराश्यादेव नान्तिमे ॥ (Kalividambanam, 24)
Never give your patients too much hope.
Make sure you don’t scare them too much either.
The former won’t cough up because they’re free from anxiety;
The latter won’t either, because they’ve lost all hope.
The next verse is on frauds:
पृच्छतां सिद्धमुत्तरम् ॥(Kalividambanam, 88)
Did you recite the mantra wrong? ‘No, it is our tradition.’
Was that a grammatical error? ‘No, it is a usage endorsed by our ancestors.’
Caught doing improper acts? ‘Oh no, it is our regional custom.’
These are ready answers to all nosy questions.
This observation is true even to this day; it will be true as long as people lie to live, or live to lie.
Some verses from Vairagyashatakam:
वेदज्ञा अपि भवन्ति शास्त्रज्ञाः ।
ब्रह्मज्ञा अपि लभ्याः
स्वाज्ञानज्ञानिनो विरलाः ॥(Vairagyashatakam, 26)
Scholars of religious codes of conduct, clairvoyants,
Pandits of the Vedas and scholars of shastras,
Why, even people who have realized brahman –
All these are easy to find. But,
A person who is aware of his own ignorance is very rare.
If we are oblivious to our own ignorance, there is absolutely no scope for growth, both at the level of intellect and emotions. It seems very obvious. This is what poetry does: it builds a context around the most obvious of things, which we take for granted, and makes us realize profound truths through them.
त्यक्तव्यो ममकारस्त्यक्तुं यदि शक्यते नासौ ।
कर्तव्यो ममकारः किन्तु स सर्वत्र कर्तव्यः ॥(Vairagyashatakam, 76)
Give up possessiveness completely.
If that’s not possible, be possessive – but everywhere, about everything.
This is probably the best advice we can ever get!
- Ganesh, ‘Shatavadhani’ R., ‘Nilakanthadikshitana Shatakatraya’. Bangalore: Abhijnana, 1997.
- V. Mohan’s article on Kalividambanam, published on Sadasvada: <https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/sadaswada/QR8vXVPqUco/KQ-AP1Xr9fYJ>