28-31 December 1998|
The First International Conference on Skanda-Murukan
Review by T. Wignesan
Even if the Hindu gods Skanda and Murukan remain distinct for academic purposes, they have a great many mythological traits in common. And to argue about these popular Saivite gods, about twenty European and North Indian scholars joined over a hundred Tamil academics and devotees, both from Tamil Nadu and the diaspora, to accept the open-armed hospitality of the Institute of Asian Studies (IAS).
Cultural programmes of Carnatic music, popular dramas, featuring Lord Murukan in his Casanova-role with his spouses Valli and Teivanai, and the free sumptuous feeding of participants, together with the grandiose opening ceremony soon turned the conference into a typical Tamil religious festival. If anything, the festive atmosphere took precedence over the more serious business of the discussion during which the participants quite often burst into tevarams (hymns) in honour of Murukan.
No other people maintains a more intimate relationship with Murukan than the Tamils. To understand the influence Murukan wields in Tamil society, it is necessary to examine some imaginative claims. Even if the over sixty-million Tamils spread out over the world today find a common cause in Murukan, albeit an ethnico-political cause, the iconoclastic anticlerical followers of Periyar E.V.S. Ramasamy and the atheistic ajivika(s) would earnestly beg to differ.
To the visionary founder-director of the IAS, Dr G. John Samuel, a Methodist from Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, the conference was intended to bring Tamils closer together at a time when they sought permanent attachments elsewhere. "Murukan serves as a unifying symbol, for he is a cultural hero of the Tamils. The newly founded International Association for the Study of Skanda-Murukan augurs well for Tamil unity," he felt.
Who is Murukan? Or indeed Skanda? Both 'deities' have several names. Murukan, the Dravidian god: Sanmukam, Arumukam, Velan; Skanda, the Aryan counterpart: Karttikeya, Subramanya, Kumara, and so on. P. Marudhanayagam recounted the myth of Murukan being reincarnated as the saintly Tamil mediaeval poet, Nanacampantar, and Skanda as the eighth-century anti-Buddhist, Kumarila Bhatta.
In Hindu mythology, Murukan is the second son of the destroyer-creator Siva who, together with the creator, Brahma, and the preserver, Vishnu, forms the Hindu Trinity of supreme gods. In the course of Tamil imaginative development, Murukan usurps his father's place in the cultus, and Saivism, the principal Tamil religion, advocates enraptured worship of Murukan. To make this ontologically possible, Murukan is first 'humanized'. Early in classical Tamil cankam literature, he features as a handsome hunter-warrior and lover.
At the same time, the Murukan myths spun themselves into puranam(s), the repository of Hindu Olympian sagas. In a dramatic episode, the sulking child Murukan is depicted as having forsaken his parents, Siva and Parvati, out of resentment of the latters' preferential treatment of his elder brother, Ganesha, and he went to reside all alone at Palani Hill, one of the six pilgrimage centres or Murukan houses.
At the conference serious scholars made sincere attempts to explain the myth and cult of Murukan, while starry-eyed devotees, among them swamis, sadhus, and acharyas, sang the praises of their Lord whom they even deigned to address as lovers. Skanda and Murukan, however, are portrayed as a 'human' with six pairs of arms and six faces. The diaspora Tamils mainly described the celebration of Taipusam in their countries when devotees publicly performed kavati, the carrying of wooden arches supported by steel spikes driven into bare bodies, and other feats like walking barefoot on beds of smouldering embers, or undertaking long treks to centres of Murukan worship.
The bulk of the papers sought to define and elucidate the Murukan cultus by attributing thamaturgic powers to the god. Murukan temples built in mediaeval times came under special scrutiny, their history, architecture, and sculpture in particular. Raju Kalidos detailed the Skanda-Murukan iconography. Attempts were also made to trace Murukan's prehistoric origins and his role in classical literature. In short, the propagation of the myth and cult reinforced the deification process throughout the ages. The foremost authority on the subject, Fred W. Clothey, however, was not present.
I. Mahadevan, Raju Ponnudurai, and Poorna Chandrajeeva made much of the deciphering of the Indus script and seals to proclaim the ancestry of the Tamil Murukan tradition. Their papers validated the views held by the first excavating archaeologists John Marshall and Ernest MacKay insofar as the phallic lingam symbol of the Indus Valley Civilization could be associated with a seated (lotus asana) destroyer deity, the later Siva.
R. Champakalakshmi averred that the universalization of the Murukan cult made the tribal heroic warrior deity of the cankam classics into a transcendental god. Since the motherless Skanda, as legend has it, was begot only through Siva's sperm, S. Krishnaraja extrapolated the Skanda myth in terms of a mythological description of the victory of patriarchal authority of the deva(s) (Aryans) over the matriarchal system of the asura(s) (Dravidians).
In Kundalini yoga, the seventh cakra called sahasrara is the region of Siva or pure consciousness where the devotee merges with the Infinite in samadhi by uniting the self with the Supreme Self, which is the ultimate goal of yogis. In the same vein, the Tamils who have forfeited their glorious past, have, it would seem, recreated Tamil glory through making their land the abode of Murukan; that is, by reconquering a mythic territory in the six-temple abodes of Murukan.
A medical doctor and from Mumbai emerged at the conference to proclaim that the Lord Murukan appeared to him in person and asked him to build the seventh house in the vicinity of Palani Hill. He avowed that in an earlier life he was Murukan's 'betrothal colleague' during the god's wedding to Teivanai, and as a recompense, Murukan had elected to reside with him in the seventh house forever. According to the good doctor, D. Rajaram, construction at Rangaswamy Karadu had already begun, some six months after Murukan took him to the spot in the jungle on December 22, 1997. The next Murukan conference is expected to be convened in Sri Lanka.
Dr T. Wignesan (Wignesh@aol.com) served with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and taught courses at the Sorbonne.