Neelakantha Chaturdhara (Sanskrit: नीलकण्ठ चतुर्धर, IAST: Nīlakaṇṭha Caturdhara) was a scholar who lived in Varanasi (Banaras) in the later half of the 17th century, famous for his commentary on the Mahabharata.
In the recent past, he "has been maligned without warrant" by modern scholars, but his "understandings underlie more than a little of what is in the English language renderings of the epic."
The first English-language translation of the Mahabharata, by the scholarly Kisari Mohan Ganguli, acknowledges the influence of Nilakantha's commentary. The Clay Sanskrit Library's project of translating the Mahabharata used the version known to Nilakantha rather than the critical edition.
As with most scholars of pre-modern India, little is known of his life. He was from a Marathi-speaking Brahmin family that had been established in a town on the banks of the river Godavari. He moved to Varanasi, where he studied Veda and Vedanga, Mimamsa, Srauta, Yoga, Saiva texts, Tarka, and Advaita Vedanta from several teachers, before beginning his literary career.
- Minkowski, Nīlakaṇṭha and the Vedāntic ‘Scene’ in Banaras,
Nīlakaṇṭha Caturdhara, the best known commentator on the Mahābhārata, lived in Banaras in the second half of the seventeenth century. At that time Banaras had become the great sub-continental hub in an early modern network of śāstric learning. To know this is not incidental to understanding Nīlakaṇṭha’s work. To the annoyance of many modern readers, his epic commentary was informed by the philosophical standpoint of Advaita Vedānta. Nīlakaṇṭha wrote several independent works on Advaita as well, but what sort of an Advaitin was he? This can be known with some specificity by considering a) his Banaras-based teachers and mentors, most notably Nārāyaṇa Tīrtha and the guru he calls ‘Lakṣmaṇārya;’ b) the principal literary influences in his Vedāntic writings: Madhusūdana Sarasvati, Nṛsiṃhāśrama, and Appayya Dīkṣita; and c) the Vedāntic ‘scene’ in Banaras in the seventeenth century,
in which dasnāmī sannyāsīs played a central role. Advaita Vedānta was not the only viewpoint on offer in the period, and there were fierce polemical contests with representatives of other philosophical-social movements. Special attention will be paid in this regard to Appayya Dīkṣita’s impact on the city, since Nīlakaṇṭha took Appayya’s works as the basis for his own independent treatises.
- Minkowski 2010:
"The entire commentary has been in print since the mid-19th century, and it remains the only Sanskrit commentary on the whole of the Mahābhārata that is available in its entirety in published form."
- Christopher Minkowski, "On the Success of Nilakantha's Commentary". Abstract:
Nilakantha Caturdhara, who flourished in Banaras in the second half of the 17th Century, produced the only commentary on the Mahabharata that is widely used in Sanskrit studies today. Yet, when attention turns to the content of his commentary Nilakantha is often found by modern scholars to be a disappointment or an annoyance, on account of his "fanciful interpretations," and his "Vedantic allegorizing." Why then has his commentary appeared regularly with the Mahabharata since the early days of its publication? Is it safe to suppose that Nilakantha represents the "traditional" understanding of the text?
It is an achronism to expect Nilakantha to share our particular type of historical consciousness of texts. And yet it is anachronism of another kind to find in his commentary the expression of an "orthodox Hindu consciousness." Nilakantha tells us that he proposes to read the Mahabharata in a way that no previous commentator has done, in order to reveal its hidden sense. Perhaps it is exactly this "mystical allegorizing" that distinguished Nilakantha's work, found favor in his own day, and accounted for the wide dissemination of his work. On this view, his commentary attained prominence exactly for the features that Indologists have most deplored, features that were his innovations by design, though they appear commonplace to us today. Can we further suppose that the times in which Nilakantha lived called this new commentary forth, and that the revelation of a previously undiscovered inner sense formed the terms in which innovation was valued in early-modern Banaras?"
- James L. Fitzgerald, Bibliography:
The Northern Indian Popular Sanskrit Text with the Main Popular Commentary: SrimanMahābhāratam with the Bhāratabhāvadīpa of Nīlakaṇṭha, 8 vols. (including the Harivaṃśa), (Pune: Citrashala Press, 1929-1936). One of the handiest published version of the vulgate text with Nīlakaṇṭha's sometimes copious, sometimes sparse commentary. Though his explanations are at times formulaic or deductive and at other times tendentious or even inconsistent, Nīlakaṇṭha was a learned scholar who has been maligned without warrant in the past and whose understandings underlie more than a little of what is in the English language renderings of the epic.
- Translator's Preface:
I cannot lay claim to infallibility. There are verses in the Mahabharata that are exceedingly difficult to construe. I have derived much aid from the great commentator Nilakantha. I know that Nilakantha's authority is not incapable of being challenged. But when it is remembered that the interpretations given by Nilakantha came down to him from preceptors of olden days, one should think twice before rejecting Nilakantha as a guide.
- Clay Sanskrit Library FAQ:
While the critical edition is a remarkable feat of scholarship, some scholars find it unsatisfying, in that it differs a good deal from all extant versions. Some of the best known quotations from the Mahābhārata are actually not in the critical edition at all!
We chose as our basic text the version used by the most famous commentator on the text, Nīlakaṇṭha. Even this version, which has been printed several times, contains many variants.
- Nilakantha Caturdhara's Mantrakasikhanda, Christopher Minkowski
WE (1) ALL USE NILAKANTHA CATURDHARA'S commentary on the Mahabharata, but what do we know about him? Who was he and when did he live, and where? What was going on in the intellectual world he inhabited, and in the larger world?
We know that he was a Marathi-speaking Brahmin who flourished in the second half of the seventeenth century; (2) that his family had been established in a town on the banks of the Godavari; that Nilakantha moved to Banaras, where he undertook the study of Veda and Vedanga, Mimamsa, Srauta, Yoga, Saiva texts, Tarka, and especially Advaita Vedanta, with a variety of teachers. (3) In Banaras Nilakantha found many long-established families of eminent sastris from the Deccan, and it was in this Banaras in the era of Aurangzeb that Nilakantha pursued his literary career.
In addition to his commentary on the Mahabharata, Nilakantha wrote about fifteen other works, mostly in the form of commentaries on Puranic and Vedantic texts. Nilakantha specified the date in two of these works, one in 1680, and one in 1693.(4) The work of 1680 was a commentary on the Sivatandavatantra, books 12-14, written at the request of Anupasimha, Maharaja of Bikaner from 1669-1698, a noted bibliophile and sometime general in the service of Aurangzeb. (5)
- Nilakantha’s Mahābhārata by Christopher Minkowski, India Seminar No. 608 (April 2010).