Skanda Legends in the Puranas
by N. Gangadharan
The purānas in Sanskrit are important source books for understanding Hindu culture, since the purānas have assimilated much material on diverse topics in the course of the past several centuries. There are several legends relating to the three primary gods Brahmā, Visnu and Shiva and others associated with them. There is a general statement that the Vedas have to be amplified with the help of the itihāsas and Purānas. Though we can find the roots of some purānic legends in the Vedas, such as the Trivikrama form assumed by Lord Visnu, there are other legends in the pūrānas which are of independent origin. Though legends relating to Skanda in the pūranas appear to have developed independently, there is a Vedic basis for these legends. It is proposed here to examine the legends relating to Skanda in the Purānas in their historical development.
Birth of Skanda: general account
In general the Purānas describe Skanda as the son of Lord Shiva. The legend is almost the same in all the pūranas. When Lord Shiva and Pārvatī were having coitus, the celestials were disturbed by the might of the demon Tāraka and deputed Agni to Lord Shiva to seek protection. When Lord Shiva was disturbed in his privacy, his semen fell on the ground. Lord Shiva directed Agni to swallow it. Agni did as directed but he could not retain it and released it into the river Gangā. She got impregnated and later cast the child onto the bank. Then the asterism known as Krttikā assumed human form as the Krttikā nymphs and nursed the child. Hence he got the name Kārttikeya. There are certain minor variations in the above legend in the different Purānas. The Mārkandeya Purāna, Nārada Purāna and Kūmara Purāna have no reference to the origin of Skanda.
Various legends about his origin
There is a brief reference to the birth of Kumāra as the son of Agni in the forest of reeds in the Visnu Purāna1 and Vāyu Purāna.2 The Matsya Purāna describes elaborately the oppression of the celestials by the demon Tāraka,3 the marriage of Shiva and Pārvatī4 and briefly the birth of Kumāra.5
According to the Matsya Purāna the seed of Shiva was first taken by Pārvatī and then ejected and received by Agni, through whom it entered the belly of all the gods, but it could not be digested and burst out to become a pool of fresh water. Then the six Krttikā maidens drank it and offered it to Pārvatī who conceived. But the babe came out of her right side.6 He was born as a wonderful boy, illuminating all the worlds, having six heads and wielding the weapon shakti. Since he was destined to kill Mārā, the evil ku asuras, he came to be known as kumāra. The six Krttikās had united into a single Sākhā and hence Kumāra as their son was known as Kārttikeya and Visākha.8 Visākha and Kārttikeya were joined together by Indra and anointed as Lord Guha by all the gods headed by Brahma, Indra and Visnu on the sixth day.9 Indra offered him his daughter Devasena.10 Tvasta gave him a toy kukkuta, capable of assuming any form.11 Visnu endowed him with different weapons. Agni blessed him with splendour. Vāyu gave him a vehicle. He was extolled by all the gods. Skanda killed Tāraka. Elsewhere in the Matsya Purāna12 the popular version is described. Agni dropped Shiva's semen in the Gangā, who cast it off in the reeds. The child Guha was born from it and killed the demon Tāraka.
Describing the creation of Daksa and the creation made by him, the Garuda Purāna13 makes a brief reference to the birth of Kumāra as son of Agni born among the reeds. Sākha, Visākha and Naigameya were also born to Agni. Since Kumāra was the child of Krttikās, he was known as Kārttikeya. The Bhāgavata Purāna14 mentions Skanda as son of Agni and the Krttikās and as the father of Nisākha and others.
From the Skanda Purāna15 we know details about the formation of different parts of the body of Skanda on different lunar days as he was born from the reeds. He was cast on the reeds on the first day of the waxing moon in the month of Caitra. On the second day his body was collected together. It attained a definite shape on the third day. All the limbs including his six faces and twelve eyes became prominent on the fourth day. He was decorated by the gods on the fifth day. He rose up on the sixth day. All the sacraments (samskāras) were performed for him by Brahmā. But according to the Shiva Purāna these were done by sage Visvāmitra.16 Shiva conferred on him the shakti (spear), Gaurī the peacock as his vehicle, and Agni presented the goat. Differing from the Matsya Purāna, it is stated that the ocean gave him the cock.17 According to the Brahmānda Purāna 18 further gifts were made by others: Visnu gave him the peacock and the cock, Vāyu a banner, Sarasvatī the lute, Brahmā the goat and Shiva the ram. We find the same details in the Vayu Purāna19 also. The Shiva Purāna20 states that the semen of Shiva that fell on the reeds developed into a child on the sixth day of the waxing moon in the month of Mārgasīrsa (December). It describes in detail the marriage of Shiva and Pārvatī, the birth of Kumāra and the killing of Tāraka.21
The Padma Purāna22 gives a slightly different version of his origin. When Shiva and Pārvatī were in sexual union, Agni came there as a parrot. The disturbed Shiva released the semen outside and made Agni to drink it. But a lake was created out of a portion of the semen that fell on the ground. Pārvatī bathed in this lake. Then she met the six Krttikās there. They offered her water to sip from a lotus-leaf.
Soon after drinking the semen-mixed water she became pregnant and gave birth to a male child. The child came out tearing her right side and was known as Kumāra. Similarly an identical one called Vishakha burst out from the other side. These two were born on the fifteenth day of the waning moon in the month of Caitra. They were united into one on the fifth day of the waxing moon of that month. On the sixth day he was anointed as the chief of the army of the gods, and was called Guha. Tvastr presented him a cock as a toy.
The Brahma Purāna23 begins the description as in the Padma Purāna as above and makes a digression in order to explain the greatness of the sacred spots in the region around the river Gautamī. The description is same as in the Padma Purāna up to the birth of Kāttikeya. The Vāyu Purāna24 refers to the despatch of Agni by Indra to obstruct the union of Shiva and Pārvatī, Agni was cursed by the enraged Pārvatī that he would bear the foetus for having caused the obstruction. The foetus was later transferred by Agni to the river Gangā; the details are the same as in the general version. The narration explains the reason for the name Skanda as causing the destruction of the demons.
The Vāmana Purāna25 gives a different account of the birth of Skanda answering a query relating to the destruction of Krauñca. Agni is said to have dropped the semen of Shiva in the river Kutilā. The river proceded to the mountain Udayagiri and deposited the foetus in the reeds. The child was known as Sanmukha since he was nourished by the six Krttikā stars.
According to the Brahmavaivarta Purāna26 Kārttikeya was born from the semen of Shiva that fell in the reeds on the bank of the river Sanmukha. He had the peacock as vehicle. The Bhavisya Purāna27 dealing mainly with various austerities states that the sixth day of Mārgasīrsa is the day one when he killed the demon Tāraka.
The Linga Purāna28 describes the destruction of the god of love and mentions that Kumāra, born of the wedlock of Shiva and Pārvati, would kill the demon Tāraka.29 The Linga Purāna further describes the penance of Shiva and Pārvatī and their marriage, but the actual birth of Kumāra is not mentioned.30 We have a reference to the destruction of Tāraka by Kumāra in the chapter describing the destruction of Tripura.31 In the same chapter, Kumāra, referred to as Sanmukha, is described in his beautiful form as a sportive child adorned with ornaments.32 He is described as accompanying Shiva setting out for the destruction of Tripura in the next chapter.33
It is well-known that Skanda killed the demon Tāraka with the shakti. The Skanda Purāna34 gives some details relating to this legend. Shakti had fallen at Camatkārapura in the Hātaka region and extended support to the mountain Raktasrnga ('Red Summit'). The city was hence known as Skandapura. The greatness of the shakti is that if one rubs his back against the shakti, he does not contact any disease for a year.
Marriage of Skanda
The Brahmānda Purāna35 states that Skanda married Devasenā, the daughter of Indra. But the Skanda Purāna36 states that he married Senā, the daughter of Yama, the god of death. But according to the Varāhapurāna37 Shiva blessed him with all playthings and asked him to be the husband of Senā.38 Since the meaning of the words Devasenā and Senā denote the army of celestials, it is considered that they are symbolic representations of Kumāra made as the chief or leader of the celestials.
According to another version found in the Brahma Purāna39 describing the Kumāratīrtha, he never married. This purāna adduces the reason for the same. After killing the demon Tāraka, Pārvatī devised a plan and made every woman to appear to Skanda as his mother. This had the desired effect. Skanda beheld his mother in every woman and hence got detached from life and declared that all women were mothers for him and resolved to be a bachelor.
The Shiva Purāna40 contains a different version furnishing the reason for Skanda remaining unmarried. According to this version when Skanda was going round the earth, he was informed by Nārada that the marriage of Ganesa, his brother, was performed by his parents in order to get rid of him. On hearing this Skanda was angry in spite of the entreaties made by his parents and proceed to the mountain Krauñca with the resolve not to marry any time. Hence Skanda was known to be Kumāra indicating that he was not married. It is to be noted that the traditional Tamil account holds that he set out to the Palani Hills protesting the favourtism shown by his parents in offering the fruit to his elder brother for having won the competition of going round the world first. Similarly the legend of Skanda marrying Vallī is unknown to the Sanskrit purānic tradition.
The significance of the Skanda legend in the Purānas
On this legend is the Matsya Purāna, V.S. Agarawal has stated41 that its purpose is to explain the ancient Kumāravidyā or the metaphysical doctrine of Agni as the miraculous Child.42 The Child is same as Kumāra Agni which is but another name of Rudra, as often identified in the Brāhmanas.43
Moreover the Brāhmana text propounds the theory of eight names of Shiva such as Rudra, Shiva, Pashupati, Ugra, Asani, Bhava, Mahādeva and Īsāna44, corresponding to the astamūrtis of Shiva. These eight cannot simply create life and when they unite they incarnate as Kumāra, which is stated here as the ninth creation. Thus Kumāra is the principle of life.45
Skanda represents the integral power of all the six cakras or six Krttikās and therefore is called Kārttikeya, each cakra representing a Krttikā nurse. In the legend in the Matsya Purāna, Vīraka (foremost attendant of Shiva), Skanda and Ganesa are all identified. It is stated that Pārvatī was attracted by the elephant-headed attendant of Shiva among a group of attendants frolicking on the mountains. She agreed with Shiva's suggestion that she may take him to be her son. Vināyaka was then addressed by Pārvatī as Vīraka. Though in later mythologies they are conceived as quite distinct, here they are stated to be created from the ablution of the body of Pārvatī. Hence Ganapati is Vīraka and Vīraka is Skanda46. The gift of a cock made by Tvastā to Skanda is the symbol of differentiated vowel sounds in their short, long and prolated sounds. Since Skanda is the son of Agni, his pet bird is the cock.47
The destruction of Krauñca
The legend associated with Skanda as piercing the Krauñca mountain is described in the Vāmana Purāna.48 After Skanda killed the demon Tāraka, the demon Mahisa entered the Krauñca mountain. Skanda was requested by Indra to kill him and also break the mountain. Skanda had his own reservation about Krauñca, since Krauñca was the grandson of Himālaya, the grandfather of Skanda. Indra was angry and there was an argument. It was hence agreed upon that whoever goes round the Krauñca mountain earlier than the other would be declared stronger. The mountain was requested to be the judge. After they completed their round, the mountain falsely declared Indra to be the winner. The infuriated Skanda smote the mountain along with the demon Mahisa. But according to the Shiva Purāna49 Skanda saved the Krauñca mountain from being afflicted by the demon Bāna on another occasion.
Other minor legends relating to Skanda
Skanda is stated to have been blessed to become a Brahmarsi by Visvāmitra according to the Skanda Purāna.50 When Indra hurled his thunderbolt at Skanda certain maidens known as the 'mothers of the children' were born, and assumed the practice of carrying away newborn babies. Their names are Kākī, Hilimā, Rudrā, Vrsabhā, Āyā, Palalā and Mitrā.51
The Shiva Purāna52 has a rather unique and interesting account about an exploit of Skanda. Nārada, a Brāhmana, once approached Skanda and requested him to find his sacrificial goat that had run away. Skanda entrusted the task to his attendants. They ultimately found the goat in the abode of Lord Visnu and brought it to Skanda. Skanda rode on the beast and went around the whole universe. When Skanda returned, the Brāhmana noticed him without the goat, and asked him to produce it. But Skanda advised him against the use of goat as a sacrificial item and added that he should feel satisfied since the sacrifice was completed already by his favour.
From the above description we understand the different stages of the development of the Skanda legends in the purānas. We find that the references to Vallī and the legend of the killing of Sūra are absent in the purānic tradition.
Dr. N. Gangadharan is retired Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Madras and ex-Director of the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, Bombay. He is now Joint Director of the Sree Sarada Education Society Research Centre, Chennai.
Prof. N. Gangadharan, Joint Director,
See also these related research articles about the cult of Skanda-Kumara in Sanskrit sources: