Category Archives: Saiva Deities

Skanda (The God of War)

Skanda (Karttikeya), 5th century, Gupta Period (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)
Skanda (Karttikeya), 5th century, Gupta Period (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)

Also known as Kumara, Subrahmanya, and Murukan, Skanda “has been hunter, warrior, philosopher… He is teacher… He is the eternal child as old as time itself” (Clothey 2005b:1). Obeyesekere writes that Skanda is viewed as possessed of having six faces, twelve arms, and riding a peacock (382). Throughout Skanda’s history, he has been worshipped for several different reasons. He has been worshipped “as a god of hill and hunt… and avenger of ananku and cur, malevolent spirits of the hills” (Clothey 2005a:6240). During the Cankami period of Tamil India “Murukan was known … as the lord of the hunt” (Clothey 2005b:36). According to Clothey, he has also been worshiped in South India as the son of Siva (Clothey 2005a:6240). Through this several other deities related to vegetation and hunting embodied the name Murukan (Clothey 2005b:36). Clothey also writes that the name Murukan has become commercialized with an array of different industries using his name, for songs and films (Clothey 2005b:1).

Kartikeya

Skanda’s origin comes from several different epics, most prominently from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The story of Skanda in the Mahabharata is quite long and can be summarized as follows. Indra, god of lightning and thunder and general of the devas, rescued a damsel named Devasena, who wanted a husband that could protect her. Indra felt the Agni, god of fire, had the ability to generate a son suitable to be Devasena’s husband. Agni went to Brahma, the creator god, for his help. While with Brahma and through the aid of seven rsis, seers, thought to compose the Vedas, Agni fell in love with the rsis wives. Svaha, a nymph, loved Agni. She tricked him by assuming the form of six of the rsis wives. After each session of intercourse with Agni, Svaha turned into a garuda bird and carried his semen to Mt. Sveta, where she deposited it into a golden pot, in a place covered with sara reeds. Kumara (Skanda) was born and was strong enough for battle within six days. The gods fearing Kumara would become more powerful than Indra, enticed Indra to slay him. Indra, trying to slay Kumara with his vajra [thunderbolt], managed to only cut off a portion of Kumara’s right side. Through this side of Kumara, Visakha was born bearing a sakti [lance], which causes Indra to surrender. The gods are pleased with how fearless Kumara was. Through the same piece of Kumara that Visakha was born, several more children were then born coming forth to serve Skanda’s army (Clothey 2005b:51-53).

Clothey writes that “Skanda thus comes to be known as a father, and persons wishing children are exhorted to worship him” (Clothey 2005b:52). The story continues with Skanda declaring Svaha to be his mother, and with Brahma’s advice, identifies Rudra “the howler” as his father. Rudra along with Indra, Varuna, the god of the heavens and water, and Yama, the god of death, come to welcome Kumara in a procession. As Kumara is leaving a Deva – Asura, god and demon, battle begins. Mahisa, the chief of the Asuras was causing the Devas to flee, and is about to crush Rudra’s chariot when Kumara comes to his aid and kills Mahisa with his sakti. This story also shows events in a span of Skanda’s life. He is conceived on the first day, visible on the second day, takes form of a child on third day, grows limbs and becomes the general of the army on the fourth day. He bears Siva’s bow, and is regarded by the devas as the one to save their cosmos on the fourth day, and he takes his emblems of war on the sixth day (Clothey 2005b:51-53). This is one account of the origin of Skanda. The author Vyasa, is represented to be the composer of the Mahabharata.

Another foundation of Skanda’s beginning comes from Valmiki’s Ramayana. Valmiki tells the story to Rama and Laksmana, two young princes. His telling of the story encourages the young princes to heroic aspirations (Clothey 2005b:53). The summary of the story is as follows. Rudra marries Uma, daughter of Mt. Himavat. One hundred years pass and no son is born to them. The devas like it this way, and fearing that a son born to Rudra would be more powerful then them, they plead with Rudra to not have a son. Rudra’s seed however remains on the ground. Dhara, the earth, can bear his sons. Because of this, the devas ask Agni and Vayu, the wind god, to enter Rudra’s seed. Through Rudra’s seed Mt. Sveta is created, and on Mt. Sveta, in the forest, Kumara is born (Clothey 2005b:53-54).

A variation to the story above, also in the Ramayana, begins with Rudra retiring as the general of the army. With no one left to lead, Brahma asks Agni to give his seed, along with the waters of the Ganga River to Uma to bear a son. Unable to contain the power of the waters a flood of golden seed escapes from Uma. This golden flood turns everything in its path into gold. In a golden forest Kumara is born (Clothey 2005b:53-54).

The Ramayana epic also tells how those who worship Skanda will “attain long life, happiness in the family, and ultimate union with the god” (Clothey 2005b:54). How Skanda received some of his names is also recorded in this epic. One of his names Gangeya was given to him because he came from the Ganges water. He gets the name Karttikeya because he was raised by the Krttikas (Clothey 2005b:54).

One of the books of the Mahabharata depicts who Skanda would embrace as a father. Vyasa writes that Rudra, Parvati, she of the mountain, Agni, and Ganga each claim to be Skanda’s parent. In order to embrace all these gods Skanda assumes four forms: Sakha, Visakha, Naigamaya and Skanda. Sakha embraces Ganga, Naigamaya to Agni, Visakha to Parvati, and Skanda to Rudra. The devas give Skanda gifts. He receives a dart and banner from Indra, an army of 30,000 warriors from Siva, a cloth from Uma, a garland from Visnu, along with several other gifts from other gods (Clothey 2005b:55). These accounts of Skanda in the epics are but a few of the rich and varied myths telling of Skanda origins.

The worshipers of Skanda in Tamil India celebrate a festival in October or November called Skanda-Sasti. It is celebrated for seven days reenacting the six day cycle of the gods vocation. Sasti is the sixth day of the lunar cycle, representing the sixth day of the god. Sasti is also important because according to the myth of Skanda, he is born on the night of a new moon. Sasti is also the name of Skanda’s wife. She is known “as the giver of lingering (yapya) disease” (Clothey 2005a:242). Clothey writes that the event takes place through “rhythmical patterns” (Clothey 2005a:242). Some of these patterns are repeated daily. Priests preside over each ritual on each day of worship. One such ritual is the lighting of oil lamps. These lamps represents the “the emergence of the god and the cosmos from primordial darkness” (Clothey 2005a:244). Another daily ritual is the reciting of Skanda’s 1,008 different names. Reciting his names reenacts the words that were uttered at the beginning, thus bringing the divinity of Skanda into current time. One of the high points in the festival is the ornamenting the sacred symbol of Skanda. This is known as vastram. The next step is adorning the symbol. This can be done through offerings of song, holy ash or vermillion. These rhythmical steps occur once to twice a day during the Skanda-Sasti festival.

Skanda is the most popular deity in Tamil Nadu , a state in South India. “Three of the six busiest and wealthiest temples in Tamil Nadu are dedicated to Murukan” (Clothey 2005b:1). Gananath Obeyesekere conducted research in Tamil Nadu which shows that the Skanda deity is the most popular in that area. He found that a total of 1,956 of 2,670 worshipers went to the Skanda shrines over the next three most popular shrines (Obeyesekere 379). Obeyesekere’s research also shows that “for every one person visiting the Visnu and Pattini shrines there are five and six persons respectively, visiting the Skanda shrine” in Tamil India (Obeyesekere 379). His research shows that the popularity of Skanda has been on the rise, and continues to rise.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Clothey, Fred (1969) Skanda-Sasti: a Festival in Tamil India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath (1977) Social Change and the Deities: Rise of the Kataragama Cult in Modern Sri Lanka. London: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Clothey, Fred (1987 and 2005a) Murukan. Detroit, Macmillan Reference USA

Clothey, Fred (2005b) The Many Faces of Murukan. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Related Research topics for Further Investigation

Agni

Mahisa

Skanda-Sasti

Indra

Uma

Rudra

Mahabharata

Ramayana

Varuna

Vayu

Yama

Websites Related to the Topic

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murukan

http://www.murugan.org/

http://www.highgatehillmurugan.org/

http://www.dlshq.org/download/shanmukha.htm

http://kataragama.org/

http://www.kaumaram.com/contents.html

http://www.palanitemples.com/

Written by Matt Marchesin (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ganesa (Myths on his Elephant Head)

Ganesa, also known as Ganapati, is the infamous elephant headed deity that is worshipped throughout the Hindu religion. The worship of Ganesa extends from outside of the temple into the household, where he is a substantial figure (see Chennakesavan 94). Along with his one tusked elephant head is his short, chubby, childlike body with four arms, which all add to his distinct and popular appearance. His life and character are established within the Puranas and are dated back as far as 300 C.E (Brown 2). Ganesa’s head is his most well known feature, with numerous stories on how it came to be, and what it represents. It is noted that Ganesa’s head represents atman and his body represents maya which signifies the existence of human beings (Canadian Press).There are Puranic stories that declare he was born with his elephant head.However, that would defeat the purpose of the many myths explaining how he obtained his head.Along with those myths are others on why an elephant head was chosen.It is the numerous possibilities that add to Ganesa’s maturing cult.The most famous stories of where his head came from deal with: birth, doorstep guarding, battle, laughter and gloating.

The most well known myth is a story from the Siva Purana.It begins with Parvati wanting a son, but Siva not wanting to have one with her because of his asceticism.So Parvati created herself a son by rubbing scented oil mixed with powder all over her body. Then Ganesa appeared.Once Ganesa was born, Parvati used him as a doorkeeper while she was bathing and instructed him not to let anyone in the house.When her husband Siva came home and saw a mysterious little boy guarding his house refusing to let him, he engaged Ganesa in a fight and decapitated him.When Parvati came outside after her bath and saw her son lying on the ground headless, she was furious with Siva. She then informed Siva that he was their son.After Siva had realized what he had done, he promised Parvati he would find a new head for Ganesa from the first thing that came by – which so happened to be an elephant.He then decapitated the elephant and attached the head to the lifeless body of their son and brought him back to life (Brown 76-77).The myth where Ganesa is decapitated by Siva is the most widely-told version of how he came to acquire his unique elephant head (Brown 3).

There are many myths of why an elephant head was chosen over many other possibilities. There is also speculation of which elephant head it was that was given to Siva and Parvati’s son. Some speculate that the head is from Indra’s elephant, Airavata. In other versions there was an elephant that had just finished copulating as well as an elephant that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (Brown 77).The elephant is viewed as a wise animal with a remarkable memory.They are also known to have loyal and trustworthy attributes (Chennakesavan 95).It is believed that by choosing the elephant head for Ganesa, he would be associated with such dignified traits. These qualities would add to his popularity.

Another myth closely related to the first one outlined, is Siva decapitating Ganesa in a battle.The difference in this myth from the previous one is that this time Ganesa is not guarding his mother’s doorstep.Instead, he is riding around on his elephant.After Siva has decapitated Ganesa and his elephant in a gruelling battle, Parvati comes outside and notices what just took place.She informs him that he has killed her son, and asks Siva to bring Ganesa back to life.Siva does so by placing the head of Ganesa’s elephant on his body (see Brown 77).Like the previous myth Siva is unaware that Ganesa is Parvati’s son because he was created without a husband – vinayaka (see Brown 75).

Contrary to Siva’s asceticism in the previous myths, Siva and Parvati found themselves making love to try to conceive a child of their own.Parvati wanted to have a son who would be the spitting image of Krsna.While the two were in the middle of intercourse, Visnu appears as a beggar, interrupts their moment and then vanishes.It is at this moment Siva spills his semen all over the bed, and it does not go inside Parvati.Then Visnu reappears and mixes himself amidst Siva’s sperm. He then becomes a baby boy – who turns out to be Ganesa (Brown 76).Ganesa was born with the head of a human, and although it is not stated in this myth how his head came to be, there are many more stories on how he may have obtained it.For instance, after Ganesa was born, Parvati may have taken him to other Gods to show him off.A God like Sani.

The most interesting myth is the story of Parvati wanting to show off her son to Sani.Parvati was unaware that Sani was cursed with a medusa-like stare.She insisted that he should take a look at her beautiful new baby boy.Sani’s curse consisted of reducing anything to ashes that he lays his eyes upon. Since he knew what would happen he tried to resist looking at Ganesa in order to protect the beautiful baby.After much encouragement from Parvati to look at the child, Sani did so timidly with one eye open in hopes of not harming the baby.Ganesa’s head was then reduced to ashes.As Parvati stood there in awe, Visnu flew off to the northwest mountains and found two elephants that had just finished copulating.He cut off the head of one of the elephants and brought it back to Parvati where it was placed it on Ganesa’s body (Grimes 70).

In another version, Siva creates his son Ganesa by his own uncontrollable laughter. After a while Siva becomes jealous of his son and is afraid that he might woo all the ladies. Siva is also worried that he might win Parvati’s heart as well. Once he sees that Parvati is falling in love with Ganesa, he places a curse on him (Grimes 70). Siva’s curse ensures that Ganesa would be unattractive to women, making it easier for Siva not to be jealous, and for Parvati’s heart to remain only to him. Ganesa then becomes elephant headed, grows a chubby belly and has to wear a necklace of disgusting serpents from his neck. It was not for long that Siva was able to prevent Ganesa from being near the ladies. When Ganesa grew older, he wound up marrying Prajapati’s daughters – Buddhi/Rddhi and Siddhi (see Brown 115-119).

Ganesa Statue (7-8th century), Cham Museum of Sculpture, Danang, Vietnam

Within the Skanda Purana there is a very unusual story on how Ganesa’s head was obtained. It begins by Ganesa’s embodiment of a headless child who is speaking with a sage, Narada. This conversation is from the book Ganapati: Song of the Self by John Grimes; it can be found on page seventy.

Narada begins by telling Ganesa “If you have taken this incarnation in order to reveal righteousness, then quickly reveal to all the head that destroys sorrow; and bring joy to the hearts of all Gods.” Ganesa replies to the sage by reminding him of a blessing that he had given to King Mahesa ‘Your liberation will come through birth in the womb of an elephant, accomplished by Siva’s hand’. Ganesa then goes on to say “all this has now come to pass and this one in the womb has a lovely head, honoured by Siva. And he is the one whose head will complete my incarnation”.

After this conversation had taken place, Ganesa informed Narada of how he became headless.He began by explaining when he was in Parvati’s womb the demon Sindura changed to the form of a breeze, entered her womb, and cut off his head.This event happened in the eight month of his natal life.Ganesa then carries on telling Narada that Mahesa has an elephant head and that he is going to kill him.It was when Mahesa was killed that Ganesa acquired his elephant head (see Grimes 70).

There are many stories on how Ganesa was born, how he lost his head and then where his new head came from.There is also much speculation on why an elephant was chosen over many other things in the world, including the head of another person. The uncertainty of one profound myth being the reason for his head adds to Ganesa’s character.It is these exciting stories that make Ganesa so popular with the Hindus.Ganesa will remain one of the most loved and worshipped household deities within the Hindu religion.

REFERENCES & RECOMMENDED READINGS

Brown, Robert L (1991) Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God. Albany: State University of New York

Bühnemann, A (2003) The Worship of Mahaganapati. Kant Publications

Canadian Press Newswire (2004) Hindus around the world are getting ready to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of the god of success. Canadian Press Toronto

<www.proquest.umi.com.darius.uleth.ca> ID# 701269181>

Chennakesavan, S (1980) A Critical Study of Hinduism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Courtright, Paul (1985) Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press

Dhavalikar, MK (1991) Ganesa: Myth and Reality. Albany: State University of New York Press

Getty Alice (1936) Ganesa: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Getty, Alice (1988) The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography. Dover Publications

Grimes, John (1995) Ganapati: Song of the Self. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Krishan, Yuvrai (1996) Is the Fight Between Siva and Ganesa an Episode of Oedipal Conflict? Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan

Pathak, A (1998) Ganesa Birth Story: Pain Led on Orissan Doors. New Delhi: Ramanand Vidva Rhawan

Related Topics


Airavata

Buddhi

Ganapati

Indra

Krsna

Mahesa

Narada

Parvati

Prakrti

Puranas

Rddhi

Sani

Siddhi

Siva

Siva Purana

Skanda Purana

Vijnesvara

Vinayaka

Visnu


Related Websites to this Topic

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/ganesha.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganesh

http://www.msu.edu/user/grimesj/ganesha.html

http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/aa083000a.htm

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/ganesha.htm

http://www.indiaprofile.com/religion-culture/ganesha.htm

Written by Jessica Thiedemann (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.