And so it came to pass that once upon a time that both the Gods and their archrivals, the demons, desired amrita, the nectar of immortality. Having learned that the nectar of immortality lay at the bottom of the cosmic ocean, they decided to team up and extract the nectar together. For this purpose, Vishnu took the form of a tortoise (Kurma) and supported the mighty Mount Mandara on His back, which in turn they used a churning stick. As a rope, they tied the king of serpents, Vasuki, around the mountain. Holding on to opposite ends of Vasuki, the Gods and demons churned away at the cosmic ocean.
As they churned the ocean of existence, twelve wondrous gems were extracted from the cosmic ocean and claimed by the Gods. But before the nectar of immortality could be extracted, a thirteenth substance emerged. This was a most dark and deadly poison called halahala-kalakuta. So deadly was the poison that it threatened to engulf the whole of the universe and destroy everything in its path. It even turned Vishnu a dark shade of blue.
Sensing the imminent danger to all of creation, Brahma prayed to Shiva, the Lord of all: "Save us, O Shiva, save us! For there is none other than Thee who can contain this terrible poison which threatens all of creation thus."
Hearing the prayer of Brahma, Shiva, the Benefactor of all existence, emerged there in a magnificent form. Smiling ever so charmingly, He gathered up the deadly poison and consumed it. As an eternal reminder of His munificence, He held the deadly poison in His throat, which caused His throat (kantha) to radiate a shade of deep blue (nila).
Since that day, Shiva, the Savior of Gods and demons and the Lord of the universe is called Nilakantha, blue-throated One.
[Legend adapted from the Vayu Purana]
About the Meaning
The story of Nilakantha is a very ancient one and is found within a larger legend called the Churning of the Ocean. The Churning of the Ocean is arguably one of the most important Indian legends and has been the subject of much artwork, sculpture, literature and grand festivals like the Kumbha Mela. Much has also been written about the meaning of this legend. Here, our focus is only on Shiva as Nilakantha. What is the poison described that arises from the ocean of existence? What does it mean for Shiva to drink the poison and hold it in His throat?
In Shaiva theology, the deadly poison is the poison of worldliness. By poison of worldliness we mean the subjective experience of transience, limitedness, endless desires, and the illusion of separation from the Divine that exists as part of our normal, everyday life. All these feelings exist in everyday experience, according to Shaivism, because of the triad impurities known as anava, karma and maya (see: Triad Impurites), which collectively represent the deadly poison of the legend. When the ocean of the mind is churned to obtain amrita (immortality: release from cycles of samsara), one must first overcome the deadly poison which engulfs all of existence.
At some level, our intellectual mind (known as mahat-buddhi, represented by Brahma in the legend) realizes that we are overcome by the deadly poison, and asks the Lord to intervene on our behalf. It is in this capacity then that the Lord comes to our aid, so to speak. At the appropriate time, the Lord appears to consume the deadly poison -- meaning that His Revealing Grace (Anugraha Shakti) descends upon the aspirant, and the aspirant is able to work through the deadly poison to attain amrita.
All the while, we are never to forget that creation is never separate or separable from the personified Creator. Both the poison of worldly existence and release from it are contained within Him. All of manifest existence is classically described as a fraction of the Lord’s Being, which in truth is indivisible (see: Purusha Sukta). So, all of manifestation is represented here as contained in His throat (kantha) from where it has been vocalized into existence. The color blue (nila) represents manifest reality because of the predominant color of our earth (the blue planet). Theologically speaking, therefore, Nilakanta is One from whom manifest existence has been vocalized into being, in whom it is entirely contained, and in whom it is dissolved. And most certainly it is Nilakantha Maheshvara alone who shall drink the poison of worldliness which binds us so.
namaste astu bhagavan viśveśvarāya mahādevāya tryambakāya
tripurāntakāya trikāgni-kālāya kālāgni rudrāya nīlakāṇṭhāya mṛtyuñjayāya
sarveśvarāya sadāśivāya śrīmanmahādevāya namaḥ ||
Salutations be to Thee, O Lord!
To the Lord of the universe, the great Lord,
The three-eyed One, the Destroyer of the triad cities,
Who is the very Time of the three fires,
Who is Rudra, the Fire of dissolution,
The blue-throated One, the Conqueror of death,
The Lord of All, the ever-auspicious One,
To the celebrated, great God obeisance be.
[Traditional Yajurvedic Prayer]
Aum Nilakanthaya Namah.