Lord Skanda-Murugan

Skanda Kumāra in ancient North India

Lord Karttikeya
Lord Kārttikeya

R.K. Seth

The vast literary references to Skanda or Murukan or Subrahmanya throughout the history of Sanskrit and Tamil literature alike prove his importance as a pan-Indian deity. The poets of Paripātal are familiar with the Skanda mythology. Murukan of Tamil, the 'Red-god', bears the 'gem-like' peacock flag and rides a peacock or an elephant and is the commander of the hosts of heaven. In Tirumurukārruppatai he is the child of the daughter of Himavat, born down to the earth by Agni and nursed by six Krittikā devis and the vanquisher of the demons.

Arunagirināthar with 'sublimity of thought and depth of mystic feelings', Kumāra Guru Para with his devotional hymns and many others including Saint Ramalinga have sung the glory of this 'embodiment of grace', and unfailing compassion of the Lord. By the time of Tirumurukārruppatai, Murukan worship was prevalent throughout South India. For Brahmāns he was personification of the sacrifice; for warrior chieftains he was known for his valour, for rishis he was the object of 'meditation and austerity' and also as a source of wisdom and integration. Murukan had become the source of 'eternal youthfulness' as well as 'release and liberation'.

Skanda in the Upanisads, Brahmanas and Sutras

The Chandogya Upanisad (ca. 7th Century B.C.) identifies Skanda with the Vedic sage Skandakumāra: 'tam Skanda ityacaksyate' (7.26.2). Skanda was regarded as a separate deity, but not as a war-god by the time of Chandogya Upanisad. Rather, the early Skanda was regarded as a 'religious teacher'. His identification with Sanatkumāra has been explained by M. Mukhopadhyaya: "Ksastriyas had influence in the formulation of upanisadic doctrines and the brahmanic policy of drawing Ksatriya sympathy attributed the teaching of secret knowledge to Ksatriya chiefs. And in this background it may not be improbable that Sanatkumāra was identified with the divine army chief.1

stone icon of Karttikeya from ancient North India, 7th century AD
Stone icon of Kārttikeya from ancient North India. Sandstone, 7th Century AD. Chicago Museum of Art
stone Karttikeya icon: Vardhana, 7th cent. AD, North India
Kārttikeya: Vardhana, 7th cent. AD, North India Ht. 47 cm. Sandstone
Kārttikeya: 7th cent. AD, North India. Sandstone, Chicago Museum of Art

S.S Rana feels that the common parentage -- Skanda described as the son of Brahmā, Sanatkumāra also being son of Brahmā -- and the similar functions of both led to the identification of Skanda and Sanatkumāra in Chandogyopanisad.2 In the Śatpatha Brahmāna Kumāra appears as one of the aspects of the Rg Vedic god of war, Agni. By the time the Skandayāga text of Pariśistas of the Atharvaveda came into being, his association with the peacock was known.3 His description includes bells and banners4 and is having mothers around him.5 Śiva, Agni and the Krittikās are described as his parents.6

The mixing up of various motifs is such that Skanda is associated with Agni, Krittikās, Pashupati and Rudra. However the rsi says 'whoever you are I pray to you!7 In Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra, Sanmukha, Jayant, Vishakha, and Mahāsena are some of the names of Skanda. The offerings of oblations for these and his parsadas and parsadis suggest his being recognised as a war-god.8 This process of rituals and oblations for Skanda are described in Kathākagrhyasūtra and Agnivesya Grhyasūtra, etc. Various other references in sūtra literature suggest that the myth of Skanda - Kumāra existed by this time and that he was a popular god by the time sūtras were written.

Explaining Panini's sūtra 99, Patañjali mentioned the images of Śiva, Skanda and Viśakha. The expression samratipugartha indicates the worship of these gods. Images of these gods were sold by the Maurya kings for replenishing their royal coffers (A.K. Chatterjee p. 29).9 From Patañjali we come to know the separate identity of Skanda and that Viśakha came out of the right side of Skanda when Indra struck him with his vajra.

A.K. Chatterjee has given some references to prove that Skanda was worshipped as a god, probably even in the lifetime of Buddha (6th Cent. B.).10 Kautilya has referred to Skanda as Senāpati, the Generalissimo of the celestials.11 It is known that temples of Kārttikeya existed during the time of Kautilya.

Skanda-Kārttikeya in Mahābhāratā

Chapter Sixteen in Mahābhārata describe in detail Skanda-Kārttikeya. Ten chapters of Vanaparva, three in the Salya Parva and three in Anusasana Parva provide details regarding the birth and exploits of Skanda. The development of the Skanda-myth in Mahābhārata is quite evident. In Vanaparva Skanda is the son of Agni and Svaha. Agni is, of course, identified with surya. In Vanaparva when Kārttikeya displayed his enormous capabilities the devas instigated Indra who after initial hesitation declared war against Kārttikeya. Indra was completely defeated. The thunderbolt hurled by him at Skanda pierced him on the right side. A new god Viśakhā came out from the right side of Skanda.

When Indra accepted the superior capabilities of Kārttikeya and requested him to become the king of devas he politely refused and instead agreed to become the Chief Commander of the Devasena ('army of devas'). The growing power and prestige of Skanda is quite apparent in this episode. Skanda achieved a very prestigious place as a deity and only next to Visnu and Śiva in importance. The śalyaparva refers to his intimate relationship with mothers. A.K. Chatterjee correlates this with the 'mother worship in vogue in the days of Mohenjadaro'. There are references where Skanda is termed as Yogīśvara or Mahāyogi. This idea was later on developed in the Purānas.

In Mahābhārata, Rudra, Uma, Agni and Ganga request Brahmā to perform the rites of making child Kumāra the generalissimo of the army of celestials which is done on the banks of river Sarasvatī. Here Skanda assumes four forms - Sakha, Visakha, Naigameya and Skanda. Sakha goes to Ganga, Naigameya to Agni, Vishakha to Parvati and Skanda to Rudra. All the four claiming to be the parents of Kumāra achieve satisfaction.

A large number of gifts are presented to Skanda after which he kills all the demons. Taraka, the chief and Mahisa his aide are destroyed. Daitya Bana hides in Krauñca Mountain that is pierced by Skanda and the demon is killed. He is praised for his victory. Some call him son of Mahesvara others associate him with Agni, Ganga, Pārvati or Krittikas.

Skanda-Kārttikeya in Rāmāyana

The Balakanda of the Ramayana provides a direct role of Agni in the birth story of Skanda. Although in one version Skanda is described as the son of Śiva but the role of Agni is also mentioned. As he is named Kārttikeya the relationship of Krittikas was known. When Rama is proceeding to the forest Kausalya invokes the blessings of Bhagavan Skanda for the welfare of Rama during the exile.12 In the Agastya hermitage a shrine of Kārttikeya and other gods is mentioned.13 Various other references about Skanda e.g. a great warrior, Mahāsena, śakti as his weapon and peacock as his vahana, his name Guha, his piercing the Kraunca mountain etc. are available in Valmiki Ramayana.

Skanda-Kārttikeya in Purānas

The description of the birth and other aspects of Skanda-Kārttikeya occūrs at various places in a number of purānas. Vayu Purāna (generally placed between 350 BC and 550 AD) describes the birth and exploits of Skanda which is similar to Ramayana. It confirms the account of Mahābhārata-Vanaparva by describing Skanda as the son of Agni by Svāhā (1.8.11). The account of Brahmānda Purāna, one of the earliest but later than Vayu Purāna, tallies with that of Vayu.

The Matsya Purāna (Chapters 158-160) Provides a 'romantic elucidation' of the story of Skanda as given in Ramāyāna and Mahābhārata (Salyaparva). Here the Krittikas provide drinking water to Parvatī, who was taking bath in the golden lake created by the semen of Śiva which Agni and other gods were forced to swallow, and which burst out of their bodies after sometime. The condition of Krittikas was that on drinking the water the son who would be born to her right side, the three lokas were filled with the bright golden rays emanating from his body.

By the time of Vamana Purāna Kārttikeya's birth was from 'Agni' but mother became Kutila - another daughter of Himalaya but this idea does not appear in any other Purana. We have a philosophical interpretation regarding the birth of Skanda in Varaha Purāna. The poet is aware of the variations about the origin of Skanda in previous ages.14

From the union of Prakrti (Uma) and Purusa (Śiva) is born Ahamkara the highest tattva or param tattva (Varah 25.1-5)

In Brahmāvaivarta Purāna Skanda is identified with Visnu. In Bhagavata Purāna and Visnudharmottara Purana. (III.71.7) Kumāra-Kārttikeya is the manifestation of Visnu for leading the devasena in battle against the demons.15 It was perhaps an effort of reconciliation of different sectarian cults. Later on Maya of Visnu is identified with Parvatī (Brahmāvaivarta Purāna III. 15.34), who is accepted as mother of Kārttikeya.

Skanda, an instructor god, identified with Sanatkumāra in Chandogya Upanisad is endowed with the epithet 'best among the knowers of Dharma' (Matsya Purāna 184.2-4). He provides the secret of Mahādeva to the rsis. The knowledge of Skanda acquires such dimensions that in Skanda Purāna even Śiva acknowledges his superiority.16 In Mahābhārata (IX.46.14) Kārttikeya is described as Yogīśvara.

This aspect is continuously remembered. Skanda as a yogi is the subject matter of various puranic references. Brahmāvaivarta Purāna mentions the foster-mothers Krittikas as yoginis and kalas of Prakrti (III.15.36). The reason of Skanda being depicted as a 'yogi' or 'preceptor of the yogis' is his being the son of Śiva, the great yogi. An allegorical meaning is also available whereby the energy of Śiva (transcendent Divine Being) and Parvatī (female energy) descends to the level of matter (ejected semen) taken by Agni (Susumna). The River Ganga is the left cord. In the words of V.S. Agarvala, 'from there it was thrown in grove of reeds, which is the body itself or more properly Sahasrara, the centre of thousand spokes in which each spoke is compared either with a reed or to a petal of Infinite Mind, that inheres in the highest centre.17

Kārttikeya is quite often compared to the Sun. In the earliest Vedic literature Sun god is connected with Agni; Surya is another aspect of Agni. From very early period Skanda and Agni are associated, hence the relation of Skanda with Surya is quite natural. In Vāyu Purana Skanda is 'Adityasatasankaso mahatejah pratapvān.' In Brahmānda Purāna the epithet used is Dvādas'arkapratapavan. Various other puranas reveal his association with the Sun-god.18

The motifs of Son, Sun and Warrior

The motifs of son, sun and warrior have been analysed in detail (Clothey: "Sonship is not necessarily related to physical generation; the role of the son is "as a manifestation or realisation of that being or idea which is called . . . father." In Brhadāranayaka Upanisad the son is explicitly understood as a manifestation and fulfillment of the idea represented by father, and the father is said to be poured forth in manifestation in the son.

Similarly the warrior motif is related to Vedic Indra, Agni and Rudra. Warrior is the preserver of Dharma. Warrior destroys the enemies and is the savior of the cosmic order, hence he is a creator who preserves the old order and initiates the new order. The motifs of son-sun-and warrior coalesce in Skanda. The chronology of the development of these cosmological and mythological aspects are encased in obscūrity but the fact is that 'Skanda mythology embraces motifs that had already developed in earlier Vedic mythology'. The son, warrior and sun attributes had been associated earlier with Indra, Agni and Rudra. Incidentally all the three have association with Skanda.

It has been argued that the admittance of Skanda in the Aryan pantheon (as distinct from the probable Skanda cult in the Indus Valley culture) and his subsequent association with Rudra-Śiva necessitated the merging of Skanda myth with the Śiva-Pārvati myth, though his early association with Agni was not contradicted (Rana S.S.).19 This is in line with the development of Son-Sun-Warrior myth noted herewith.

Skanda in Kālīdāsa

Kumārasambhava represents a transition period from late Epic to early puranic times. Cantos 9 to 11 describe the "three stages of gestation of Śiva's emanation, Kumāra: first within Agni, the Divine Fire; second in Ganga's waters. One ought to remember that Ganga also born of Himalaya is Śiva's consort and regarded with intense jealousy by Gaurī; then taken in by Krittikās, the Pleiades into their wombs when they bathe in the holy waters of the river. Unable to bear the burning heat of the fetus, they throw it back into Ganga, who pushes it into a clump of reeds on the bank. Śiva's emanation Kumāra is born in this spot. Pārvatī chances upon the new born babe, 'blazing in splendor' and accept him as her own son..." Chandra Rajan explains that 'Kumāra, the son is self-begotten of Śiva. In the metaphysical terms it might be appropriate to regard Kumāra as the emanation of Śiva. In Meghadutam the idea is already incorporated:

Skanda has made that hill (Devagiri) his fixed
For his is the blazing energy, sun-surpassing
That the wearer of the crescent moon placed
In the Divine Fire's mouth to protect Indra's hosts.

In the next stanza the request to Meghadūtam continues -- spur the peacock the fire-born god rides to dance.20 In Kumārasambhavam the appointment of Kumāra as general of the gods and his conquest of Tāraka and other asuras has been described:

Śiva's son, his lotus face radiant with joy, released a missile that was like the Fire that consumed the universe at the end of time.

This results in the Lord of Titans being fatally struck and falls on the ground like a mountain peak hit' thus making devas led by Indra jubilant. (Canto 17-49,51)

The names of Skanda used by Kalidasa include Kumāra, Sadānana, Sanmukha, Sanmatura, Guha, Śaravanabhava, Śarajanma, Kārttikeya and Pavaki. Kalidasa provided a new splendor to the already brilliant myth of Kārttikeya. The poet was familiar with the Mahābhārata, Ramayana and Śiva Purana descriptions of the Skanda story.

Bana Bhatt, a contemporary of Harshavardhana, mentions the slaying of Tāraka and Krauñca. The śakti of Skanda and its immense capability is described; riding on a beautiful peacock, he carries a red cloth banner.

When Skanda myth was absorbed by Śiva-Parvatī concept various interpretations for the symbolism were provided. Śiva is Sat (Existence): Umā is Cit (Knowledge) and Skanda is ānanda (bliss). The three together constitute Brahmān who is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. Skanda as the form of Ananda is an aspect of the Supreme. Anado Brahmeti Vyajanat' (Taittirēya Upanisad III, 6)21 "The peacock -- his vehicle -- represents Vedas, his weapon Śakti is Brahmāvidya, i.e. Jñāna-Śakti (Power of Knowledge)... Vedas being the śabda or sound form of the universe and the peacock symbolizes the universe or the evolutionary trend of Maya. The cock on Skanda's banner stands for nivrtti or the path of wisdom leading to the Knowledge of the self".22

Swami Harshananda23 has associated Skanda with the 'spiritual perfection'. His six heads represent the five sense organs and the mind, which co-ordinates their activities. By the control, refinement and sublimation the concept of highest level of perfection is achieved. Another dimension of symbology is linked with yoga, the six centres of psychic energy, of consciousness in the human body. When a yogi is able to raise his psychic energy to the uppermost Sahasrāra Cakra, he achieves the vision of supreme knowledge, Śiva-Śakti. This supreme knowledge and perfected state of spiritual consciousness (Turiyatīta) is represented by Skanda-Kārttikeya.

By riding the peacock that kills the snake that stands for 'time', shows that he is 'beyond what is within time and outside it'. Snake represents lust and northern Indian Skanda is throughout a personification of celibacy. Peacock is creation in all its glory' hence the master of creation Skanda rides it. It may seem to be a devotional interpretation of a devotee but the inherent meanings and psychological interpretation of the concept of Skanda has an unusual charm surrounding it from the beginning.

Skanda Worship and Iconography

Worship of Skanda was prevalent in north India quite early. Bilsad stone pillar inscription of the time of Kumāragupta (415-16 AD) and various other stone and bronze sculptures discovered from northern and eastern India are a testimony to the popularity of Skanda.

A red sandstone image of Skanda (2nd cent AD) at National Museum, New Delhi; sculptures of Skanda as 'instructor god' in the Gwalior Museum; image of Kumāra Kārttikeya at Baijnath, Almora (U.P) in the Pārvatī temple and a sculpture from Himachal Pradesh at National Museum, New Delhi are a testimony of the popularity and importance of Skanda. A large number of sculptures ranging from 7th century Ad onwards found in the eastern India, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and also from Chamba hills and Mandi area of Himachal Pradesh further establish the antiquity and prevalence of Skanda 'holding the portfolio of defense in the kingdom of heavens'. Yaudheyas, an ancient Indian military tribe, had adopted him as their spiritual and temporal ruler. Kumāra Gupta of Gupta dynasty, Devamitra of Ayodhyā (1st Cent. AD) and Vijaymitra are also known as devotees of Skanda.

Yaudheya coin
Yaudheya coinage of Punjab (300-340 AD): Kārttikeya standing facing, holding sceptre; peacock on right. In Brahmi: 'Yaudheya Ganasya Jaya' (Victory to the Yaudheya people). Reverse: Goddess standing with hand on hip, wearing transparent garment.

Rohtika -- now Rohtak in Harayana near Delhi --was historically a town of Yaudheyas. Mahābhārata description24 of this being a favorite city of Kārttikeya is confirmed by the discovery of several Kārttikeya type coins.

The famous text of northern Buddhism, Mahāmayūri (4th Cent. AD) mentions that Kumāra Kārttikeya was the well-known deity of Rohitaka.25 Although Skanda is no longer known in this area, his vahana the peacock is treated as sacred and its killing is a taboo (perhaps due to other reasons).

The discovery of 5th century AD six-armed image of Skanda in the ruins of Avantipura indicates that he was present in Kashmir. References from Nilamata Purāna of a 'Kumāraloka' indicates that Skanda had an important place as a deity. Mention is also available of 'Skandabhavana-Vihāra' in Kalhana as indicated by Stein in Rajatarangini, (Vol. II, p. 340). The name of the founder was Skandagupta. The available detailed information of copper coins of Devamitra, King of Ayodhya (1st Cent AD), the carved pillar shaft near Kānpur suggest the popularity of Skanda-Kārttikeya in U.P. areas.

Skanda sculptures traced at Mathura of Kanishka's time and of the later period inform us of Skanda worship. There is sufficient evidence to prove that Skanda was publicly worshipped in temples, specific instance being of Dasāvatāra temple at Devagarh in Jhansi area and the discovery of several Skanda sculptures from this area belonging to post-Gupta period. The popularity of Skanda worship in ancient times in Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa etc., is also a known fact. By providing information from various memoirs of Archaeological Survey of India and other research works Rana S.S. (pp. 96-106) has explained this in his work.

The image of Kārttikeya or Kumāra signifies the idea of youth and spirit. The very name Kumāra indicates strength. His vehicle the peacock and his attendants all symbolize energy and strength. The sculpturing of Kārttikeya as explained by D. D. Sukla26 and J.N. Banerjea27 provide he intricate details for the purpose. In this context also the emphasis is on representing his figure 'like the morning sun', clothed in red cloths and 'himself having a fiery red color.' His youthful form should be 'beautiful, auspicious and pleasing to look at'. His face is full of smile, splendor, grandeur and his 'head is adorned with variegated and beautiful crowns' etc.

The details about Skanda-Kārttikeya sculptures indicate the interest shown in the god and his various aspects, especially as the commander of the army of gods. His general form, six headed, the five fold Skanda, multi-armed Skanda are described. The Uttarākamika Āgama, Ansumad Bhedāgama, Purakārnagama, Kumāratantra etc. provide unique, detailed attributes of the appropriate forms of the images of Skanda.28


  1. Banerjee, J.N. The Development of Hindu Iconography, 1956.

  2. Bhattacharyya, Haridas Ed., The Cultural Heritage of India Vol. IV The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1956.

  3. Chatterjee, Asim Kumar. The Cult of Skanda-Kārttikeya in Ancient India, Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, 1970.

  4. Clothey, Fred W. The Many Faces of Murukan, Mouton Publishers, New York, 1994.

  5. Harshananda, Swami, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Śrī Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1987

  6. Rajan, Chandra. The Complete Works of Kalidasa, Vol. I Sahity Akademi, Delhi, 1997.

  7. Rana, S.S. A study of Skanda cult, Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1995

  8. Shukla, D.N. Hindu Canons of Iconography and Painting, Vastu-Sastra Vol II, Vastu-Vanmaya-Prakasana-Sala, Lucknow, 1958.

  9. Sircar, D.C. Studies in the Religious Life of Ancient and Medieval India, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1971.

  10. Śivananda, Swami, Lord Shanmukha and His Worship, Divine Life Society, Śivananda Nagar U.P. 1996.

  11. Swami, Prabhupada, Bhagavad-Gīta As It Is, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Bombay, 1991.

  12. Wilkins, W.J. Hindu Mythology, Delhi Book Store, first Indian edition 1972.


  1. Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol VII (1931), p. 310
  2. A Study of Skanda Cult, p.12
  3. yam vahanti mayūrah: (2.3)
  4. Yam ghantā-patākini (2.5)
  5. Yasca mātrganairhityam sadā parivrte yuvā
  6. ibid 5.1
  7. ... Yo 'si' so si namo'stute (6.4)
  8. Baudhayana Dharmasūtra. Ii 5.7:
  9. Mauryair hiranyārthibhirarcāh prakalptiah
  10. The Cult of Skanda-Kārttikeya in Ancient India, p.30.
  11. Brahmāindra Yama Senāpatyānidvārāni (Kautilya, 2.4.19).
  12. Smrtirdhrtisca dharmasca pātu tvām sarvatah. Skandasca bhagavān devah Somasca sabrhaspatih.
  13. Kartttikeyasya ca sthānam dharmasthanam ca pasyati
  14. utpattistasya rajendra bahurupa vyavastita!
  15. Caturbhujo hi bhagavān Vasudevah sanātanah. Prādurbhutah kumārastu devasenāninisayā.
  16. Mattopi jñānayogena skandophyādhikabhāvabhūtā. Evam Jñātvā mahesopi yato jñānamahodayam.
  17. Agarwala, V.S. Vāmana Purāna - A study pp.109-110
  18. A.K. Chatterjee, The Cult of Skanda-Kārttikeya in Ancient India. p. 22.
  19. tr. Chandra Rajan: The Complete works of Kalidasa, Sahitya Akademi, 1997.
  20. The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol IV.
  21. ibid.
  22. Hindu Gods and Goddesses, pp.138-143.
  23. Mbh. 32.4
  24. Purānic and Tantrik Religion, p.149
  25. Hindu Canons of Iconography and Painting, Vastu Śāstra, Vol II.
  26. The Development of Hindu Iconography, Calcutta, 1956.
  27. D.N. Sukla, pp.293-298.

Dr. R.K. Seth, Reader in Hindi at the University of Delhi, writes in Hindi on Tamil cultural themes as well as translations from Tamil to Hindi. His books include a complete Hindi translation of Tirukkural.

Prof. R.K. Seth
Satya Śodh Sansthan
8-A/141, W.E.A. Karol Bagh
New Delhi - 110 005

See also these related research articles about the cult of Skanda-Kumāra in Sanskrit sources:

Index of research articles on Skanda-Murukan