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Gangavatarana – Sanskrit Poem

Gangavatarana is a Sanskrit poem in eight cantos with 597 verses. The author of the poem is Nilakantha Dikshita. He was the son of Narayana and Bhumidevi and grandson of Accha Dikshita, younger brother of the famous Vedantist, Appayya Dishita. Nilakantha lived under Tirumala Nayaka of Madurai in the 17th century (1576 – 1655 CE).

Gangavatarana deals with the well known story in Hinduism of the descent of Ganga through the austerities of Bhagiratha, as narrated in Vamana Purana. At the outset, Nilakantha introduces himself and his family and expresses his ideas on genuine and spurious poetry. He disliked labored compositions displaying skill in verbal tricks of repeated syllables, known as yamaka or alliteration, and follows the illustrious example of poetry of Kalidasa.

There was an ideal king of the Ikshvaku dynasty by name Bhagiratha. He learnt that his ancestors, i.e. sons of Sagara, who had been reduced to the ashes by Sage Kapila in the patala region, had been denied water-libations, due to the dead, over the years. (It was believed that they would not attain salvation until the water libations were offered.) No successor was able to offer the final ablution. Sage Vasishta advised him to bring down the Ganga River from the celestial region to earth for the moksha of his ancestors.

King Bhagiratha practiced severe penance on the shore of the southern sea, even in the dreadful season of summer. Brahma appeared before him with Goddess Ganga in human form. After much appeasement Ganga was willing to descend, but asked Bhagiratha to find someone to shoulder the terrific force at the time of her descent on Earth.

King Bhagiratha again went to the Himalayas to perform penance, even in winter, to obtain favor of Mahadev Shiva – who alone could bear the force of the descent of Ganga. Mahadev Shiva, pleased with his severe austerities, agreed to do what was needed. Ganga came down with terrific force and disappeared in the mass of twisted hair of Shiva.

Again, when prayed to by Bhagiratha, Shiva set Ganga free, but Ganga, in her arrogance, submerged the place of the sacrificial grounds of Sage Jahnu. Jahnu drank all the flowing water of Ganga but, responding to prayer, set Ganga free through his ear. Thus Ganga is also called Jahnavi, the daughter of Jahnu. Then following the chariot of King Bhagiratha, she entered the patala region via Kashi and ran over the ashes of the ancestors of Bhagiratha to make their final emancipation possible.

It is a story of human effort unparalleled in world history. This story in Puranas is retold in Gangavatarana with warmth and color. The poetic powers of Nilakantha Dikshita are best revealed in his characterization of Ganga, Brahma and Bhagiratha. A fine example of Nilakantha’s charming fancy and gentle humor is found in the dialogue between Ganga and Bhagiratha. The poem is a fine example of poetic composition in the famous Vaidarbhi style.




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