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Karttikeya: The Celibate Warrior

Article of the Month - Dec 2010

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.

Baby Karttikeya with His Six Mothers Out to Feed Him
Baby Karttikeya with His Six Mothers Out to Feed Him
Karttikeya, Shiva's elder son and the Commander-in-Chief of the army of Gods, born for eliminating Demon Taraka, is one of the strangest personalities of Indian myths. The day he was born he had the maturity of ages. When only seven days old, he led the army of gods against the mightiest of demons Taraka and killed him. He is known for observing complete celibacy so much so that the popular tradition in some parts of the country barred women from visiting his shrines for the same is believed to work desertion and destroy matrimonial life. Born of Shiva's seed fallen on the earth and hence named Skanda - fall, he was the son of many, the Earth's, on whose bosom the Shiva's seed fell, Agni's, who held it for some time, Ganga's, who bore it on her waters, Shara's, where Ganga deposited it and where it matured into a child, and Krittakasas', who found him first and fed from their breasts. Crying with hunger and for hands that took his charge the benevolent newborn was not without a sense of justice. He created six faces on his head - one face for one breast, for enabling all six Krittikasas to feed him simultaneously as they all strove to feed him first, and thus letting none be the second to any.

Karttikeya is lauded for destroying all sins and all that is inauspicious and evil, redeeming from detriments and from every bondage, and for being highly auspicious, protective and goods-delivering, though with his images radiating with such energies that even the most ardent of his devotees can not look straight into his eyes he is also a deity who does not allow easy access.

His benevolence is immense but these are rare austerities that alone lead to it. In north and central India most of his 'pithas' - the holy shrines dedicated to him, open for common masses just once a year mostly on the Karttika Purnima - the day of the full moon-night of Karttika, the eighth month of the Indian calendar and the month of Karttikeya's birth. It seems that the popular tradition has alternated Karttika Amavasya, the day of his birth, with Purnima, perhaps in consideration of the inauspicious nature of darkness and the auspicious nature of light for the birth of the Shiva's son could have only illumined the world and its entire darkness with its glow. Karttikeya is the only Indian divinity the month of whose birth, which is also the month of his exploits, has been named after him.



Not in natural course but by gods' manipulation Karttikeya was born for eliminating Tarakasura, a mighty demon with a boon of invincibility against all except one not older than seven days. Born of Varangi by Vajaranga, the son of Prajapati Kashyapa by his wife Danu, Tarakasura was in the line of Brahma. Kashyapa, Brahma's grandson, had twenty-one wives. All gods, called Adityas, were born of his first wife Aditi; and all demons, called Daityas, were born of his second wife Diti. Versions in texts widely vary in regard to his third wife Danu. The Mahabharata designates her as the demons' mother, while many texts, as that of the divine beings. This duality of textual sources suggests that Danu's sons comprised both aspects - being partly demon-like and partly like gods.

Vajaranga, one of Danu's sons, also had evil aspect but wished to give it up. With a determined mind he undertook long penance aiming at appeasing Brahma and shedding off this evil aspect by his boon. Though he successfully accomplished his penance, the course of events forced him to continue with his evil mind as before. When out of his penance, he found Varangi, his wife, missing. He ultimately found her but only miserably weeping and upset. She disclosed how Brahma had harassed her and Indra tried to frighten her first as monkey by throwing away her ritual vessels, second time, as lion, and third time, by biting her on her leg as snake. Infuriated by Indra's mischievous treatment of his wife Vajaranga, determined to avenge Indra for his mischief, re-entered into more rigorous penance, and when Brahma appeared, he won from him the boon for a son who surpassed all gods, even Indra, in prowess. Exactly after twelve months his wife Varangi bore a son they named Taraka.

When merely seven days old, Taraka began practising penance. Pleased with it, Brahma appeared and granted him the boon that he would not be killed by anyone exceeding the age of seven days, the same as Tarakasura had when he entered into penance. The boon made Tarakasura atrocious and arrogant. He soon invaded all three worlds and conquered them. Under the effect of a curse by Parvati gods could not breed children. Hence gods could not give birth to a child that defeated Tarakasura. Besides, Tarakasura killed wherever a child was born. For appeasing him village folk began worshipping him, a tradition still followed in rural India's many parts. In the month of Karttika village girls make cow-dung images of Tarakasura, decorate them with shells, cowries and beads, and worship them for nine days with songs, offerings and lights.



Themselves disabled by Parvati's curse gods looked to Shiva who alone could breed a child that would kill Tarakasura. To convince Shiva for it was, however, far more difficult. After his marriage, he was engaged in love with Parvati and even after a hundred (the Shiva Mahapurana puts it as 'thousand') 'divya' years - two-third of Brahma's total life-span, he had not come out of it. Though afraid of annoying Shiva, the gods reached him and prayed for stopping his act of love and beget a child who would kill Tarakasura for by his atrocities their very existence was in peril. In the hundred years long union in love his seed had already matured. Shiva agreed but wanted to know who would hold his seed when it discharged. After all options were rejected gods suggested Shiva to let it fall on the Earth. The Shiva Mahapurana acclaims that it matured and fell and it was only after it that Vishnu asked Brahma to think how the Shiva's seed could be used for fulfilling the objective of gods. In any case, when Shiva's seed fell, its heat scorched her and to redeem herself of it she prayed Agni to take its charge.

Agni - The God of Fire
Agni - The God of Fire

Now the legend takes two lines. According to one, Shiva's seed, consumed and burnt by Agni when he took it from Earth and held it for five thousand years, turned into ashes taking the form of a white hill, and then, a forest. The legend ends abruptly; however, the forest of white ashes corresponds to Sharavana - the forest of white grass of the myth's other version. As this other version has it, by the power of Shiva's seed that he had consumed Agni began losing his glow. He made protest to gods as it was on their solicitation that he had taken its charge. Gods directed Agni to seek Brahma's guidance. When on his way to Brahma Agni met Ganga. He expressed to Ganga his inability to bear Shiva's seed any more but could not give it up fearing that it would burn the entire cosmos. Agni hence prayed Ganga for taking over its charge assuring her that she would have a noble son by it. Ganga, perhaps not knowing its power, asked Agni to throw it into her waters which Agni instantly did. By holding it for five thousand years Agni's flesh, blood, skin, hair, eyes, all had assumed the gold-like colour giving Agni the Hiranyaretas - gold-hued, epithet.

Ganga held Shiva's seed for another five thousand years but with its burden becoming unbearable wished to get rid of it. She approached Brahma and sought from him solution to her problem. She narrated to him the whole incidence and also that despite being unbearable she had been holding it for five thousand years. Hearing her story Brahma advised her to go to the mountain Udaya, meaning 'rise' as it was from behind it that the sun rose. There is around it a Sharavana, a forest of Sharas - white reeds, as large as a hundred crore of 'yojanas' - a measurement of length, one 'yojana' being about ninety-six miles. He advised her to deposit Shiva's seed into it. He prophesied that after ten thousand years a male child would be born of it. As directed, Ganga deposited the foetus at Sharavana through her mouth. Lustre of Shiva's seed transmitted into all things, trees, animals, birds, and even rocks and soil with the result that the entire forest dyed in gold.

The Shiva Mahapurana has a slightly different version of the legend's this part. When Shiva's seed fell on Earth Agni consumed it taking a pigeon's form. As in all that Agni consumed gods had their share a part of Shiva's seed too passed into the bodies of gods and they began parching with its heat. They rushed to Shiva, prayed him for redeeming them of its heat, and as he advised, vomited it out. The seed so vomited gathered and turned into a huge mountain rising to Heaven's height. Gods were thus redeemed of it but Agni was not. Instead, Agni was commanded to install it in some virtuous woman.

While wandering with it Agni encountered the wives of Seven Sages. The lustre of Shiva's seed that Agni contained fascinated them all except Arundhati, one of the wives of the Seven Sages. All six wished that they had the seed into their wombs and instantly through their body-hair it entered into their bodies. After their husbands learnt that their wives had in their wombs the seed of someone other than them, they abandoned them. The seed no sooner than it entered their wombs began burning them with its heat. In great distress they gave it up on the Himalayas. However, with its heat it soon began destroying Himalayas and hence the great Mountain too discarded it into Ganga. Not able to bear it for long Ganga deposited it into the grove of Sharavana where after ten thousand years it matured into a child that was no other than Karttikeya.

The child that emerged from Sharavana after ten thousand years, finding no one around, cried piercing the sky with his thunderous voice, perhaps, out of hunger or for someone to take him. The child's cry drew the attention of six Krittikas passing across. They rushed to the child. Though his presence in a lone forest astonished them, an impulse of love moved them and their breasts began oozing with milk. Each longed to feed him first. The child looked at them one after the other and each time there grew on his head a new face. Thus, he had six faces and all six Krittikas fed him with their breasts simultaneously, all six being first in feeding him.



By calculation of time Brahma learnt that the child whose birth the gods had long awaited was born. The Shiva Mahapurana acclaims that after Parvati learnt that the child by Shiva's seed was born she summoned all gods and asked each one about the child's whereabouts. All except Vayu, Moon and Twilight expressed ignorance. Vayu, the first to reach Sharavana where the child was born, informed that Shiva's seed had transformed into a handsome child; Moon revealed the child was taken to Badrikashrama by six Krittikas; and, Twilight added that Krittikas had named the child Karttikeya after their name. Parvati immediately proceeded to Badrikashrama.

The Brahma-context of the myth has wider acceptance. Brahma told Agni about the child's birth. Taking a fast goat - his mount, Agni proceeded to Sharavana where Krittikas had the child. On way Agni met Ganga who knew from him about the child's birth. She countered Agni's claim for the child for he had discarded the seed into her waters and it was her who catered it. Hence the child belonged to her, not to Agni. While this heated argument was going on, Vishnu happened to pass that way. He heard both sides and advised them to go to Shiva as he alone could settle it. Agni and Ganga went to Shiva and represented to him their cases. Hearing about the birth, Shiva, overwhelmed with joy, called Parvati and told her all about it. Parvati laid her claim over the child. Born of Shiva's seed matured in his union with Parvati the child belonged as much to them.

Descent of Lord Shiva and Family from Kailash
Descent of Lord Shiva and Family from Kailash

All claims appeared to be alike genuine. Hence when Agni and Ganga asked him as to whom the child belonged, Shiva declared that the claims could be settled only after he saw the child. Hence, Shiva, Parvati, Agni and Ganga proceeded to Sharavana where they saw the child in the Krittikas' lap. Shiva then instructed all to await and see whom the child first saw but the child read their minds and to delude them assumed by his 'yogic' powers four bodies to look at them all simultaneously. The tradition identifies these four forms of the child as Kumara who looked at Shiva, Vishakha who looked at Parvati, Shakha who looked at Ganga, and Naigameya who looked at Agni. Each of Shiva, Parvati, Agni and Ganga felt that the child looked only at him or her and felt sure of obtaining him. Krittikas alone were unhappy for they were sure to lose the child they had fed from their breasts. Not in a position to argue, they only asked Shiva if Sanmukha - the child having six faces, was his son. Shiva quietly answered : 'with Karttikeya as his name the child was their (Krittikas') son; as Kumara, Ganga's; as Skanda, Parvati's; as Guha, his own; as Mahasena, Agni's; and, as Sharavana, Sharavana's'. Shiva declared that with rare 'yogic' powers he would be a great 'yogi', and as he had six faces, the world would know him also as Sanmukha.

Around then Brahma, Vishnu and other gods also reached Sharavana. Delighted they saw the child and expressed their gratitude to Shiva for making Agni his instrument for serving the purpose of gods. Overwhelmed with joy Shiva told gods to ask for whatever they desired. Gods prayed him to let the child kill Tarakasura. They informed him that a ceremony to crown Sanmukha as the Commander-in-chief of the army of gods was held at Aujasa tirtha at the banks of Saraswati in Kurukshetra and prayed him to bless it with his presence. In a grand ceremony at Kurukshetra the child was designated as the gods' Army Chief. According to some texts the ceremony was held at Baikuntha. The ceremony was held on the fifth day of Karttika-Shukla - the bright fortnight of Karttika. Born on Amavasya on the fifth day of Karttika-Shukla he was six days old. Correspondingly, next day when he killed Tarakasura he was seven days old. Consecration rites were performed by Shiva and Vishnu with waters of seven holy seas. The Mahabharata acclaims that sage Vishvamitra was presiding priest for consecration rituals to include his 'yajnopavit' ceremony. After his consecration Parvati was the only one to have the child in her lap and kiss him. Now their Chief other divine powers, even Shiva, Agni, Ganga and all, maintained a respectful distance.



Filled with fresh hopes only the other day gods challenged demons for war. Accepting the challenge 'asuras' - demons, under the leadership of mighty warriors like Tarakasura, Mahishasura, Banasura among others, entered the battle-field and a fierce battle ensued. Initially, the army of gods moved under the leadership of Indra and then Virabhadra and even Vishnu entered the fray but the mighty Tarakasura and other demon chiefs had not to exert much in defeating and disabling them. Finally, riding a majestic chariot Karttikeya emerged and took the charge of the battle on the gods' side.

The Battle Between Lord Karttikeya and Tadaka
The Battle Between Lord Karttikeya and Tadaka

Seeing a child in the battle-field the arrogant Tarakasura laughed and ridiculed him and also the gods. The conceited demon even tried to frighten Karttikeya by a fresh offensive meditating that a mere child he would just flee for life. It was however contrary. The calm and composed Karttikeya raised his bow, fixed an arrow on it and shot. In his attempt at defending himself from the volley of arrows that his bow showered Tarakasura's attack was completely foiled. With his arrows Karttikeya pierced every part of Tarakasura's body and killed him.




Karttikeya with His Two Consorts
Karttikeya with His Two Consorts

Except that she has been sometimes seen as a symbolic name of gods' army that he commanded, Devasena, a term meaning 'army of gods', is the unanimously accepted name of Karttikeya's wife. He had by her three sons : Shakha, Vishakha and Naigameya, though in some texts they have been alluded to as his mere manifestations. The Mahabharata alludes to Vishakha as emerging out of the wound that Indra caused by hitting him at his back with his thunderbolt. In variation from this scriptural position, in the South Indian tradition of popular art Karttikeya as Murugan is often represented as having two consorts named Valli and Devayani. On the pattern of Riddhi and Siddhi, the consorts of his younger brother Ganesh, Valli and Devayani too represent riches, prosperity and worldly accomplishment. In scriptural tradition Devayani has been alluded to as the wife of Yayati and the daughter of Sukracharya, the preceptor of demons.


As the Mahabharata has it, Devasena was one of the two daughters of Daksha Prajapati, the other being Daityasena. One day, when outing around Mount Manas, sometimes referred to as Manas Sara - pond, Keshi, a demon, saw them and craved for their love. Daityasena agreed to become his wife but Devasena refused. When Keshi tried to obtain her by force, she cried for help drawing Indra's attention who came to her rescue. After a bitter fight Keshi fled with Daityasena. When asked, Devasena introduced her as the daughter of Daksha and thus Indra's cousin. She desired to have a husband who defeated gods, demons and Gandharvas. Unable to find such one in the whole world, Indra consulted Brahma who prophesied that a son born to Agni would befit Devasena as her husband. Hence, when Karttikeya was born and had accomplished his primary objective, gods prayed Shiva to let Skanda be the Devasena's husband.



Scriptures are replete with tales of the prowess and benevolence of Karttikeya. Once Indra received reports of the birth of a child who was as effulgent as the rising sun emerged in all likeliness for dislodging him from his position. In consultation with other gods he decided to remove the child from his way. Though a mere child, he engaged Indra into a pitched battle forcing him to hurl on him his mightiest weapon 'vajra' - thunderbolt. It hit him on his back but instead of doing him any harm there emerged from where it hit him a youth endowed with rare lustre. Texts name him as Vishakha. Clad in the armour of gold and with a number of weapons held in his hands he charged at Indra. (According to some texts, Indra hit Karttikeya thrice, on his left, right, and chest, and each time there emerged a warrior. These three warriors are mentioned as Shakha, Vishakha and Naigameya.) Frightened Indra fled for life. However, the child pardoned him for his arrogance. Encouraged by his benevolence Indra with other gods submitted to him and solicited for taking over as king of gods. However, Karttikeya declined and assured to serve the gods' cause remaining under him. Gods, however, persuaded him to be the Commander-in-Chief of their army.

Karttikeya is known for piercing the Mountain Krauncha. Krauncha, a demon, who tried to delude sage Agastya, was transformed into a mountain by his curse. The mountain became known as Krauncha. When appeased, sage Agastya provided that the demon would be redeemed of the curse when Skanda, the son of Shiva, cleft the mountain into parts. It is said that after his consecration as the gods' army chief Karttikeya shot at Mountain Krauncha the 'shakti' - a mighty arrow that Agni had given him for assessing its power. With a furious roar the Mountain broke into pieces and there emerged out of it a mighty demon. As another version of the legend has it, in the course of his battle against Tarakasura, one of the demon warriors Banasura, the son of Mahabali, fled from the battlefield and hid somewhere inside the Mountain Krauncha. For eliminating Banasura Karttikeya hurled his 'shakti' on the Mountain and crushed it. With whatever the immediate end Karttikeya liberated the demon Krauncha.

The legend of the Brahmin named Narada powerfully reveals Karttikeya's benevolence. Narada was performing a 'yajna' - sacrifice, but before the rites were complete someone stole away his sacrificial goat. Fearing the ire of gods invoked during the 'yajna' but not propitiated with offering the poor Brahmin was terribly upset. He rushed to Karttikeya for help in recovering his goat. Karttikeya consoled the Brahmin and deployed his trusted attendant Virabahu for searching it. Virabahu searched around the entire earth but the goat was not found. He however found that the goat was taken to Baikuntha. Karttikeya reached Baikuntha, caught hold of the goat, and when it defied he mounted it and brought it to the Brahmin. He handed him the goat but told that it was inappropriate for sacrifice and also that he should go home and his 'yajna' would be accomplished by his grace without sacrificing it.



After he killed Tarakasura gods' fear and Parvati's excessive love not only made him slightly arrogant but also much interested in women. When words reached Parvati's ears, for bringing him to the right path she infused herself in all women with the result that in every woman's face Karttikeya saw the face of his mother. Remorseful for his sins and misconduct he took the vow of celibacy and declared that then onwards he would treat every woman as his own mother. Completely alienated and detached from them for women his shrines were considered as inappropriate for they were believed to only cause alienation. In many parts womenfolk even today avoid visiting his shrines.



The Mahabharata, as also other texts, give a long list of his names and epithets. Most of them, such as Tarakari - destroyer of Taraka, Sanmukha, one with six faces, Vishakha, having many arms, Agneya, born of Agni, among others, are suggestive of some body feature, acts he performed, or the source of his origin. However, in northern and central India he is known primarily as Skanda, Kumara or Karttikeya, in Maharashtra, as Khandova, and in South, as Subrahmanya or Murugan also spelt as 'Murukan'.

Khandova is one of the main deities of Maharashtra. In South, Murugan has in the worship tradition a place second to none except Balaji, his own father. A Brahmin clan devoted to Subrahmanya got its Subramanian name after him. Besides that Murugan is worshipped as the benevolent protector, in South Indian socio-religious growth he is in the root of every cultural change. In north Karttikeya is not now as popular a deity as his brother Ganesh but, if his sculptures are indicative, he was one of the earliest and the most popular deities of Hindu pantheon right since the beginning of the Common Era for his votive sculptures begin pouring in on a massive scale right from Kushana period, that is, the first-second century of the Common Era. The early eleventh century Dulhadeva temple at Khajuraho was dedicated to Karttikeya.




Shiva Maha Purana

Brahmanda Purana

Skanda Purana

Padma Purana

Vayu Purana

Puranic Encyclopedia

Prachina Charitra Kosha

Shrimaddevi Bhagavatanka, 2008 and 2009, Gita Press Gorakhapura

Kalidasa : Kumara Sambhava

Vanamali : Lilas of the Sons of Shiva

Fred W. Clothey : The Many Faces of Murukan

Hank Heifrtz : The Origin of the Young God

S. K. Ramachandra Rao : Durga Kosha

Shakti M. Gupta : Karttikeya, the Son of Shiva

Shanti Lal Nagar : Skanda-Karttikeya

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