Protective amulet depicting Skanda and the Seven Mothers. Silver, early 20th century, southern India. Photo credit: Kashgar
While Ganesh is a well know and loved figure in Hindu mythology, his younger brother Skanda has been almost completely forgotten.
Like many Hindu deities Skanda has several names, including Murukan, Karttikeya, Kumara and Subrahmaya. Once one of the most significant deities in the Hindu pantheon of gods, he is now worshipped only in areas with Tamil influence, principally South India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Skanda is traditionally venerated as the God of War and is also the patron deity of Tamil Nadu. However, war-like characteristics are not his best loved features. Rather, he is known for his graceful and handsome form and love of virtuous deeds. He represents the rising sun and the new year, "never hesitates to come to the aid of a devotee when called upon in piety or distress" and is regarded as a brave and valiant warrior capable of killing evil demons to save the innocent.
Skanda (Murugan) depicted on a coin coin of the Yaudheya. 1st century BCE, Punjab. British Museum.
At the height of his popularity around 1000 AD Skanda was adopted as the patron of the ruling classes of India, largely because their power base was centred in the military castes. Interestingly, around this time Skanda also gained notoriety as the patron deity of thieves, an association that arose from his skill in entering the domain of the evil demon Taraka and his brothers in order to kill them. However, Skanda's popularity receded from 1500 AD onwards and his worship is today virtually unknown, except in south India where he continues to be venerated by all castes and at all levels of society.
According to the Mahabharata, Skanda was born under mysterious circumstances as the son of Shiva and Parvati, but was raised in infancy by the Seven Mothers, also known as the Seven Sisters or Septa Matrikas. In one version of the story, Indra, king of the demi-gods, heard a prophesy which stated that Skanda, on coming into his powers as an adult, would defeat Indra and alter the course of the coming war between the gods. To avoid this he sought to kill Skanda while he was an infant and therefore vulnerable. Shiva and Pavarti sought to protect their son and engaged the Seven Mothers to raise and nurture him in secrecy, far from the the reach of Indra. However Indra made a counter offer to the Mothers, suggesting that they arrange a mortal accident for the boy. Initially accepting Indra's proposal, the Mothers underwent a change of heart upon seeing the beautiful boy. Their maternal instincts were evoked and instead they adopted him as their beloved son, protecting him from all harm.
The story of the Seven Mothers is fascinating in its own right. They are believed to personify the seven stars of the constellation Pleiades, and were considered indispensable in assisting the great goddess Shakta Devi in her ongoing battles against demons. From the 9th century onwards they became a standard feature of temples dedicated to goddess cults throughout India. They represent the power of the origin of the earth, the evolving soul and the destruction of everything opposed to cosmic law. They also came to play a protective role in later centuries, particularly towards pregnant women and young children.
Skanda's vehicle or mount is the peacock which sometimes clutches a snake in its talons. He is depicted as a handsome young man and is associated with the colour red. However, he is most often shown standing with his seven goddess foster mothers at his side, in a stylised form that dates directly back to the seals of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation which birthed him. Silver and gold amulet-plaques with this image are commonly worn today in India in order to protect the wearer from harm, even though the veneration of Skanda himself has long been abandoned.
Historical depiction of Skanda
References and Further Reading
Clothey, Fred W and Ramanujan, AK 1978. The Many Faces of Murukan: The History and Meaning of a South Indian God. Walter de Gruyter Publishers, Berlin New York
Sivananda, Sri Swami 1950. Lord Shanmukha and His Worship (reprinted 1996, World Wide Web Edition 2000). The Divine Life Society, India.
Fernando, Kishanie S 2001. A little bit of Scotland in Sri Lanka. Heritage Publication
Murugan Bhakti: The Skanda Kumara Website. Accessed May 2013.
Wikipedia 2008. Skanda.
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