Kārttikeya worship in Bengal
Dr. Seethalakshmi Viswanath
Kārttikeya in Bengal is considered as a fertility god associated with the harvest festival. Probably he is the same puranic god who is rememebered as commander-in-chief of the devas fighting the demon Tarakasura. However, though both share the same name, the legends and history associated with the two are markedly different. Kārttikeya, the god associated with the harvest festival, is worshipped on the last day of the month of Karttik, when the harvest is yet to be done.
Like all predominantly agricultural states, Bengal too celebrates its harvest festival immediately after the harvest, in the month of Paush which coincides with the English months of December-January. This is considered a time of great celebration with melas and fain organised in various parts of the state. These are limited to covering a handful of newly harvested rice and keeping it carefully in a corner of a room, and having the women of the household offer worship to the leading gods of the harvest festival on Paush Sankranti which falls on 14th or 15th of January annually. The first harvest in Bengal, as in other parts of India, is always considered sacred and auspicious. Apart from these ritualistic associations, there is hardly anything ritualistic in the celebrations which center more around the preparation of various savouries and distributing them among children.
The rituals associated with Kārttikeya worship centre around young girls and elderly women. Girls well trained in rituals associated with this worship alone are permitted to observe these rituals under the guidance and supervision of older women. The austerity inherent in the worship is such that its observance has to be performed life-long, until the woman breathes her last.
The ritual in itself remains a prayer to ensure a safer and prosperous harvest, and the element of austerity has a note of fear and anxiety hidden in it. The ritual begins with every worshipper decorating a mudpot with alpanas made from rice paste. On the day of worship, every worshipper first takes paddy in her pot; to this she adds a few cowrie shells, a few ears of corn, the vegetables available in that season, the tender stalk of a cane plant, dry betel nuts and some fruits available in that season.
The worshipper then keeps the decorated pots before the clay idol of Lord Kārttikeya, who resembles the puranic Kārttikeya. A lamp fed with ghee burns the whole night before this idol. An arm twig is also planted right behind the idol and various kinds of fruits, betelnut, egg, bananas and a particular variety of lemon are all bound to the twig. The priest invited for this special occasion performs the main worship which is completed by evening. However the fasting women associated with this worship stay awake the whole night before the idol.
These worshippers come mainly from the agricultural community, and the worship, accompanied by fasting, continues the whole night with the singing of various folk songs. Here is an example of one such folk song.
Pakeere āre re bābūi re
The song has for its theme the idea of driving away those animals and birds which come to eat/steal the grains in the field. Sometimes these fasting women singing songs also take bow and arrow in their hands to shue away those children who try to take away the fruits and vegetables tied to the arum twig. Towards the end of the night, just before dawn, the fasting women mime out actions like sowing seeds, reaping the crop and harvesting it. The songs go on continuously. As soon as it is dawn, the women take their respective pots from the place of worship and go home. The objects kept inside the pot are cooked and distributed among family members. In connection with these festivities, alpanes made out from rice paste arre also made on the floor.
The idol of this harvest god, Kārttikeya, is not taken for immersion in the river. It is kept either in the garden belonging to the house or in a corn field. Perhaps it is kept there to protect the crops.
Life in any agricultural community is very closely related to nature. To ensure harmony ecologically man has to learn to live with nature and not do anything that is anti-nature. Kārttikeya worship during the harvest festival comes as man's way of praying to the Lord for a prosperous and rich harvest. Hidden in this prayer is the fear that the harvested crop might be stolen by such predators like snakes and mice while Kārttikeya's vāhanā, the peacock, brings man the assurance that these unfriendly predators will be overcome. The peacock together with the rooster symbolises continuation of prosperity and the natural order of things while Kārttikeya the harvest god stands for fertility and growth. The peacock and the rooster, according to ornithologists belong to the same family and help in restoring order and equilibrium in society. They are supposed to possess four qualities, viz:
These qualities remain symbolic of the qualities associated with Lord Kārttikeya Himself, viz:
In addition the peacock remains a symbol of beauty. As an extension of this symbolism, Lord Kārttikeya is also seen as a symbol of youth, fertility and beauty. Hence unmarried girls worship Kārttikeya praying for young, handsome bridegrooms. Married women, those who are barren, and those without children worship Lord Kārttikeya seeking ferility. It is for the same reason perhaps that the Lord is worshipped by prostitutes and thieves as well, as they pray for beauty and prosperity respectively.
It is therefore possible to see qualities of the puranic Kārttikeya getting superimposed upon Kārttikeya the harvest God. It is also believed that Kārttikeya worship as a community puja was prevalent at one time, probably until the 18th and 19th centuries. Today Kārttikeya the pauranic god is not worshipped separately. He is worshipped along with Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganapati as the son of Parvati, the Supreme Mother. Most Bengalis are of the opinion that Kārttikeya is a bachelor. However there is no second opinion that the pauranik Kārttikeya has a wife called Devasenā. He marries her after slaying Tarakāsura and he also begets a son called Visakha. Devī Purana recounts these in detail. According to this purana, it is Devasenā who comes as Sashti Devi and blesses her devotees. Brahma Baibharta Purāņa makes reference to Visakha, son of Kārttikeya.
The sanctity and austerity associated with the worship of the pauranik Kārttikeya has today, the traditionalists claim, degenerated to a lower level such that most people see him as god of prostitutes. As has been pointed earlier, association of fertility, youth and prosperity could very well have been the reason for this so called degeneration while the pauranic god stood for valour, victory and chivalry, the harvest god stood for fertility, youth and beauty. He has also stepped down from the normal pedestal or throne occupied by the traditional gods and goddesses. Hence he is known to Bengalis as Babu Kārttikeya.
Thus it is interesting to note that while the pauranic god worshipped along with goddesses Durga remains associated with community worship and is taken for immersion. Kārttikeya the harvest god, standing for fertility and prosperity, is the more practically wanted one, as he is much sought after by women in want of children. He has become a more familiar personal deity, worshipped when the need arises but he does not anymore enjoy a regular separate traditional worship. It would be fitting to conclude with a few lines offered as meditative verses to Lord Kārttikeya.
Kārttikeyaŋ mahābhāgaŋ mayūropari sansthitam
Om kāŋ Kārttikeyāya namah
This paper was presented at the First International Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan, December 1998