You are here:
  1. » Home
  2. » Areas
  3. » Mythology
  4. » Asia
  5. » Hindu mythology
  6. » Karttikeya
Cite/print/rate article
Send comment    References

Karttikeya

by Sumanta Sanyal
The principal god of war of the Hindus is Karttikeya.He is also known as Skanda. He replaces both Indra and Agni who, in the early stages of Hinduism, were considered to be gods of battles. In his role as defender of the gods Karttikeya is more single-minded than any of his predecessors. Hindu myths profess that he is interested in nothing but battles and warlike adventures. He is reputed to be not even interested in women, being somewhat of a misogynist. This is almost singular, as all other Hindu gods are associated with one or more women, be they goddesses or otherwise.

Nevertheless, some texts allow him a wife named Kaumari or Devasena ('army of the gods'). There is a very interesting tale associated with Devasena which also tells of how Karttikeya was conceived and why. Karttikeya is also known as Kumar, as this word means 'one who is a bachelor'. In South India Karttikeya is worshipped as Subramanya.

Karttikeya is popularly conceived of as riding a peacock with his battle armor on. He always carries with him his bow and arrows, neatly tucked in a quiver hanging down his back. He is usually dressed simply in white clothes without any other embellishments, as befits an austere warrior. There is some confusion on how many heads and appendages he has but the popular notion is that, for sure, he has six heads. It is supposed that he also has six hands and legs but this is rather uncertain.

According to the most popular version, Karttikeya is the eldest son of Shiva and Parvati. The story behind his conception is quite enthralling and is narrated hereafter.

Once an asura (demon) named Taraka performed a great number of austerities for a great number of years and thereby attracted the attention of Brahma. When Brahma asked him what he wanted as reward for his exceptional piety the asura asked for the boon of absolute invulnerability. At this request Brahma was dismayed because Taraka was an asura and not to be trusted with such tremendous power. So the wily god tricked Taraka into accepting a modified boon whereby the asura got absolute invulnerability from every creation in the universe except a son of Shiva. Thus, as a result, nothing and no-one could kill Taraka or overcome him in battle except a son of Shiva. Taraka was overjoyed at even this modified boon as Shiva had no sons and had just lost his wife Sati who had jumped into her father Daksha's funeral fire and been immolated. Shiva was mad with grief and had taken refuge in the forests intent on leading a life of absolute austerity. Taraka thought he had nothing to fear and began what he had initially set out to do, hold absolute sway over all creations in the universe.

So, protected by Brahma's boon, Taraka started extending his domains and not only conquered all creatures on earth but also started making inroads into heaven. He defeated the gods one by one and forced them to pay him tribute. Indra was forced to part with his wonderful white horse, Uchchaisravas, which was one of the fourteen precious things that had turned up at the Churning of the Ocean at the beginning of creation. Jamadagni, the great sage, had to give up his celestial cow Kamdhenu, a creature which could fulfill all desires. Kubera, the god of wealth, had to pay tribute to Taraka in the form of a thousand precious sea-horses and Vayu had to obey all of the wicked asura's commands. Even the sun and the moon were in terror of Taraka and while the sun could not give out any heat the moon was forced to shine all the time. The gods were forced out of their respective heavens and wander about in forests.

One day, in the forests, all the gods gathered in a clearing to discuss how they could overcome Taraka but no way could be found till one of the gods fortunately remembered the lacuna in Brahma's boon to the asura. Taraka was invincible against all except a son of Shiva's. This gave the gods some hope but Shiva was still mourning Sati and living a life of complete celibacy in a forest by Mount Kailash, his usual abode. So the gods began to hatch a plan to persuade Shiva to marry and beget a son. They decided that Sati would be reborn as Parvati, daughter of Himalaya, the mountain. Then they would somehow contrive to marry her off to the still grief-stricken god. So Parvati was born, exceedingly beautiful and worthy of a potent god like Shiva. When she came of age she was made to understand her mission in life and she herself began to perform many austerities in the hope of attracting Shiva's attention but that god was still in grief and impervious to all her best efforts. After the passage of many years without any result Indra began to despair of Parvati's success without some assistance.

So he appointed Kama, the god of love and desire, to go to Mount Kailash and somehow make Shiva break his self-imposed celibacy. That flighty god fearfully went to Kailash and found Shiva deep in meditation, impervious to all around him. Even the birds and animals in that holy place made no noise. Even the leaves on the trees stayed still and made no sound. Kama dared not proceed with what he had been sent to do and hung about the place wondering what he could do.

So Kama dithered about the place quite uncertain as to how to rouse Shiva's desire to wed with Parvati. This uncertain situation went on for many days till, one day, suddenly, Kama saw Parvati approach gently and quietly and start picking flowers to offer to her desired lord, Shiva. Kama immediately saw his opportunity and, setting aside his fear of the hot-tempered god, fitted an arrow to his famed bow and aimed at Shiva and let fly. The arrow flew true to its mark, Shiva's breast. Shiva was rudely shaken out of his meditative trance and his eyes flew open. The first person he saw was the lovely Parvati charmingly picking the colorful flowers. He immediately felt a warm surge of desire for her course through his body. Then he saw Kama and he instantly understood the reason for his unforeseen desire. He flew into a rage at what he thought of as Kama's imprudence and, turning his terrible third eye on that hapless god, reduced him to ashes.

Though now under the influence of physical need for a woman, Shiva was still determined to stick to his life of absolute asceticism. He receded farther into the forests and, ignoring his physical urges, continued with his meditations. Perceiving this, Parvati began anew her austerities in the hope of moving Shiva into noticing her. So this went on for several more years. The gods, exiled to the wildernesses by Taraka's tyranny, yearned for their comfortable heavens but could do nothing in the face of Shiva's obstinacy. At last though, since the potency of one of Kama's arrows never diminishes, Shiva was forced to acknowledge his physical needs and consented to marry Parvati.

The gods were overjoyed at this new development and envisaged that they would soon be able to go back to their old, sybaritic life-styles. Shiva and Parvati wedded amid great pomp and glory and a sumptuous feast to which everyone who was someone was invited was organized to commemorate the auspicious occasion. Yet things were not as they should have been. Many years passed and yet Shiva and Parvati had no issue. The gods fell into consultation again and this time it was decided that Agni, the god of fire, should go to Kailash and find out what was wrong. When Agni reached there, it is fortunate that he perceived Shiva just leaving his wife Parvati. Agni transformed himself into a dove and flew around the place where the two had just been together, he was lucky in finding a seed of Shiva's. He picked this up and made for the place where the other gods waited patiently for his return.

But Agni is a lesser god and he was unable to carry Shiva's seed for long. Soon he grew tired and dropped the seed. It fell on a bank of the river Ganges. There, upon the bank of the great river, arose a child who was beautiful as the moon and brilliant as the sun. As he lay there crying on the bank the six Pleiades, being the daughters of six powerful kings in Hindu myth, came to that very banks to bathe. Seeing the pretty baby lying there without anyone in attendance they were all overcome with motherly love and each offered him her breast. Thus Karttikeya, who was this beautiful child, was suckled simultaneously by six surrogate mothers without much difficulty as, being the son of a god and a god himself, he had six heads and could suckle six breasts all at once.

So Karttikeya grew up in the care of the loving Pleiades and later fulfilled his mission in life, that of killing the tyrannous asura Taraka. Thus the universe was again brought back to the control of the gods who could go back to their heavens and pursue their usual lives of complete leisurely pleasure.


Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Skanda
    Muruhan
    Subramanya
    Kartikeya

Page tools: