Who am I?” “Why was I born?” “What is my name?” A child with six heads, twelve arms and one torso ending in two legs, wonders. Was he an aberration, an object of fear and ridicule that he was abandoned by his parents, left alone on the mountains where pischachas and bhoots flashed through the air with devilish hoots!
The child, Kartikeya, son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, struggling with the mysteries of life, in fact, provides a link to the mundane and spiritual world. His questions, his self-doubts, his trauma, his insecurities and above all, his ignorance about his own hidden strengths, are all reflective of ordinary human life — but with a divine touch.
The story revolves around two characters — Kartikeya and Surapadma. Kartikeya is also known as Murugan, Skanda, Kumara, Subrahmanya and these multiple names symbolise his many manifestations. If his brother, Ganesha, is the main deity in Maharashtra, then Kartikeya is extremely popular not only in India but in Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia as well.
One of Kartikeya’s names, Skanda, solves the mystery of his birth. The word “Skanda” is derived from skandr which means to “spill”. The legend has it that Shiva and Parvati were disturbed while making love and Shiva spilled his semen on the ground which was later, born as baby Kartikeya. Kartikeya also means, “of the Krittikas”, six of the seven highest stars clustered in the night sky. It is believed that these six mothers wanted to nurse baby Kartikeya who, in order to end the argument, grew five more heads so that six mothers can nurse six heads.
But, the question still remains, why was Kartikeya abandoned by his parents? Why did he have to struggle alone when his parents were the greatest of gods? Even the child laments, “I have no name, no parents, no one who can tell me why I was discarded on a mountain side” (page 38). Kartikeya, in fact, was born to fulfill a divine mission-to save the devas and the universe as well, more so, to kill the asura Surapadma, the soul-stealer who was granted a boon by none other than Kartikeya’s father Shiva that no one except for Shiva’s offspring, born without Shiva’s union with a female, could either kill or defeat him.
In the background of this tale is Surapadma who is so powerful that Indra, king of all the devas, holds his spittoon, Surya and Soma hold the royal umbrella over his head, and Vayu fans him like a slave girl. Surapadma, known as Andhakaara or darkness and Bhayanaka, the terrible one, also steals souls of the living, leaving them behind gibbering in terror, waiting for death to come (page 17).
Not surprisingly, Surapadma, in a fierce battle, was defeated by Murugan (Kartikeya) but when he asked for forgiveness, Surapadma was granted the honour of becoming Kartikeya’s vahana, the peacock, a symbol of joy, rains and liberation from fear.
The author, Usha Narayana, undoubtedly, has the ability to weave a story, replete with some wonderful expressions. The description of nature and the activities of the animals never fail to touch your heart. Kartikeya is the God of compassion and his feelings for the animals are portrayed beautifully. Kartikeya advises not to sacrifice animals during the yagnas since the scriptures never prescribe violence of any kind. He also questions the relevance of war. He wonders, “Is war the only way to conquer evil? …so many souls sacrificed in the quest for power!” (page 107). Kartikeya is rightly crowned as “Deva Senapati” and the “Flame of righteousness”.
But the apsaras, gandharvis and even the wives of the devas had another name for Kartikeya — “stealer of hearts”. The apsaras sang his praises, “O Kartikeya! Dark monsoon clouds shed pearly tear drops, abashed by your glossy locks. The fish go into hiding among the pearls in the water, unable to compete with the beauty of your eyes. We women desire neither the pearls of the water nor the sky. All we seek is a kiss from your coral lips” (page 85). Muruga’s devotees recite the Kamasukta, the hymn of love, for he is regarded as a virile god who can bless them with a loving wife and children. The portions depicting Muruga and Valli’s romantic tales take the readers to a more humane world and provide a good break from the repetitive battle scenes and the acts of scheming gods and goddesses.
Kartikeya is also a storehouse of wisdom. He explained the meaning of “OM” to Lord Shiva. It is the mantra that helps human beings cross the ocean of life, but our ego stands in the way of our enlightenment and is the hardest thing to conquer. Kartikeya, in the form of the light of our inner self, guides us in the path of realisation. He says the power of truth reveals itself in just two words — “Summu Iru” — Be Silent.
The author has successfully presented the complex character of Kartikeya with a gripping introduction. The book offers every emotion — love, anger, compassion, jealousy and competition but one cannot help questioning the conduct of the gods and goddesses who are always plotting and planning. Even after doing penance for 1,000 years and then for 10,000 years, Diti, the grandmother of Kartikeya, thirsted for revenge, and Indra, in order to save his throne,”‘tore an embryo apart, first into seven pieces, and when the child did not die, each part into seven again” (page 2).
The story, it seems, covers only Kartikeya and the “Soul-Stealer” remains in the background. The last chapters literally test your patience and sometimes the multiple characters and to-and-fro flow of the stories tire you. But, still, a must read for all those hooked to mythology.
After reading this tale, I had a strong feeling that Kipling’s character Mowgli was inspired by Kartikeya and I am still wondering, “who will kill the present-day asuras and soul-stealers?” “Who is the next Kartikeya?”
Kulbir Kaur teaches sociology at Shyama Prasad Mukherji College, Delhi University