kartikeya

God of War

Indian Mythology 3 Comments

 

Published in Sunday Midday 14 September, 2008

Animals fight for food and territory and mates. Humans fight over the same thing. It is the animal side of us – that side which seeks domination. Sometimes, however, war is noble – fought to defend independence, to defend honor. Greed or need, there is no escape from war. That is why every culture has need for a god of war.

In Hinduism, Kartikeya was the god of war. And to be god of war, he had to be virile, hyper-virile in fact. That is why scriptures describe him as having one father but many mothers.

In the earliest stories, his father was Agni, the fire-god, and his mother was Swaha, the consort of Agni, who took the form of the six wives (stars of the Pleiades constellation) of the seven sages (stars of the Great Bear constellation) to satisfy the lust of her husband who was contemplating seducing the wives of the sages.

In later stories, Shiva is described as his father. Being a hermit, he refused to produce any children and so his semen, unshed for eons, became highly potent. The sky-gods or Devas were desperate for a leader to defeat their enemies, the Asuras, who were being led by Taraka, a demon who had the boon by which he could only be killed by a six-day old warrior. Where would they find a child who would be man enough to fight in the seventh day of his life? They were directed to Shiva. Shiva, lost in meditation, was indifferent to the pleas of the Devas. The many attempts of the gods to get Shiva married and produce a child became the subject of Kalidasa’s song Kumarasambhava or the conception of Kartikeya also known as Kumara, the eternal boy. When the love-god Kama tried to arouse his senses, Shiva opened his third eye and reduced him to ashes. Finally, the Devas got the mother-goddess Shakti to force Shiva to become her husband by demonstrating her will and her devotion.

Persuaded by Shakti, Shiva let the Devas have his seed but it was so potent that no single womb was good enough for it. It burned like fire and could not be cooled by the wind. It boiled the waters of the Ganga. It set afire a forest of reeds and finally was transformed into six children. These children were nursed by the Krittikas or the stars of the Pleiades constellation. Shakti then merged the six children into one child with six heads (hence the name Shanmukha) and gave him a spear. Shiva’s son thus had several `mothers – the fire-god (hence named Agneya), the wind-god, the river-goddess, the goddess of the reed-forest (hence named Sarvana), Krittikas (hence called Kartikeya) and finally Shakti.

He was so strong that on the seventh day of his life when he was six days old, he led the Devas in battle against the Asuras and killed Taraka. He rode a peacock, symbol of male pride and beauty. His banner is that of a rooster, symbol of masculinity and pecking order.

In astrology, Kartikeya came to be associated with Mangal, the planet Mars, and was represented as a lion. Mangal was associated with aggression and domination and killer instinct. If this planet dominates one’s astrological chart, one fears that one’s spouse will not live long.

Tuesday is the day associated with Mangal. The word Tuesday owes its origin to Tyr, the Viking god of war who was so brave that he allowed his arm to be chewed by a gigantic wolf that threatened to destroy the world.

In Greek mythology, Kartikeya’s equivalent was Ares. His sister’s name was Eris; she was the goddess of discord. Ares had no wife but he did have an affair with Aphrodite, goddess of love and lust. She was the wife of Vulcan, the god of smiths, who – on being told by the sun of his wife’s whereabouts – was so furious that he made a special net to trap his wife and her lover while they were in bed. Vulcan invited all the gods to see his wife and her paramour trapped in a passionate embrace. Following this event, a humiliated Ares did not take any wife. Ares then created the rooster that would announce the arrival of the sun, forewarning all secret lovers of the imminent arrival of the solar spy.

Much revered as the divine warlord in the days of the Mauryan and Gupta kings, Kartikeya was seen as an unmarried god in the northern half of India because marriage was supposed to tame a man. But in South India, where his worship became very popular, he became known as Murugan and came to have two wives: Indra’s daughter, Devasena and a local tribal girl called Valli. Some say that these are not women but embodiments of his army and his spear. In temples, where Kartikeya was not shown with his wives, he was presented as a young boy, a child, who contained within him the spirit of his father, Shiva and his mother, Shakti. This taming of Kartikeya as a boy-warrior and/or romantic husband is believed to have been the result of a waning martial culture and a rising monastic and devotional culture in the South. But the truth, as in all things mythological, will never be known.

  • Very enlightening artcile!
    There is a widespread argument down south that ‘Muruga’ worshiped by the tamils is different from the vedic deity Kartikeya. ‘Muruga’ the son of Goddess ‘Kotravai’ is claimed as an indigenous deity of the south (Many reearch works of scholar Kamil Zvelebil seem to reaffirm this) and the deities got merged into one during later times when the religions blended. Your esteemed views on this?

    On the topic of his wives, As you rightly said Devasena can mean a lady or even symbolic of the army of gods. In tamil she is referred to as ‘Deivayaanai’ (Elephant of gods or godly elephant). Today the name is interchangeably used with the word ‘dEvyAnI’ and i see this name quite popular in the north too. Are these names synonymous?
    Intrigued was i, when i came across the composition of carnatic composer Dikshitar who addresses Kartikeya as ‘gajAmbA nAyakO’, Gajamba here referring to same wife, being a literal translation of the tamil word. Is the elephant metaphorical of the army then?

    And coming to second wife, ‘Valli’ being a word of tamil origin, is there any reference to the goddess in the sanskrit scriptures?

    My last question – is the spear of Kartikeya, called ‘Vel’ in tamil, different from what is called ‘shaktyAtudha’ in sanskrit ? Again the same composer uses both words in the same composition (‘Velayudha’ being a tamil word is coined as a proper noun in sanskrit) , leading me to think that they may be different.

    Sorry for troubling with too many questions. Thanks once again for the wonderful article.

    • Sanskrit scriptures do not refer to any wife of Kartikeya….he is single and shuns women….so all reference to wife have roots in the south….and the wives are associated with tools of warfare (elephant, as I learn from you, and spear)…..interesting….

  • Ganesh .V

    Dear Devdutt G.,

    I want to share with you something that i known The lord of war Karthiyea with is two wifes and a spear the two wives are representation of itcha-shakthi(willingness) and kriya-shakthi(creativeness) and the spear represent the knowledge. It denotes that a pursh had to hold his willingness & creativeness along with knowledge to win.

    I am your one of fans