Narratives around the birth of Kartikeya

The birth of Kartikeya is of a complex nature and in multiple narratives, Agni, Ganga, Krittikas and Shiva are variously attributed as his parents.

Published: 07th December 2021 12:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th December 2021 12:22 AM   |  A+A-

A birth narrative of Kartikeya, in which he is shown with Shashthi (associated with the six Krittikas) and Vishaka, in the Government Museum, Mathura.

The Odisha State Museum in Bhubaneswar has a unique sculpture depicting an event of the birth narrative of Kartikeya. The deityhood of Kartikeya was established during the Epic and Puranic periods as he is only vaguely referred to in the Vedic period. The birth of Kartikeya is of a complex nature and in multiple narratives, Agni, Ganga, Krittikas and Shiva are variously attributed as his parents.

The Mahabharata recounts the birth of Kartikeya at three different places. The first narrative in the Vana Parva mentions that once Agni gets enamoured with the wives of the Saptarishis (seven sages). Being aware of his improper desire, Agni retires to a forest. Svaha, a daughter of Daksha, is in love with Agni and impersonates the wives of the Saptarishis. In her seventh attempt, she fails to impersonate Arundhati, the latter being devoted to her husband. A six-headed boy, Skanda, is born. The six wives of the Saptarishis were blessed as his mothers and they were established as Krittikas (asterism Pleiades). The text then connects the parentage of Skanda with Shiva, equating Agni with Rudra and Rudra with Shiva. The narrative ends with Skanda defeating demon Mahisha.

The Shalya Parva mentions the birth of Kartikeya was to kill the demon Taraka. The retas (energy) of Shiva fell into Agni and the latter was not able to sustain it. Agni passed it to Ganga, however she also failed to sustain it and deposited it on the Himalayas. A child was produced from it and he was nursed by the six Krittikas, and thus called Kartikeya. Later, when the child approaches Shiva, Uma, Agni and Ganga, all wonder whom he would first greet. Kartikeya took three additional forms and greeted them all together. Therefore, he was taken as an offspring of all these deities.

The Anushasana Parva extends the narrative keeping the context of demon Taraka. It mentions once that all the Devatas were terrified about the prospect of the union of Shiva and Uma. It would be catastrophic for the three worlds to sustain its energy. They took a boon from Shiva that he would hold his retas and refrain from having a child. Shiva granted the boon, held his retas and came to be known as urdhvareta. Though Shiva held his retas, some fell to the Earth and into Agni. Agni passed it to Ganga and the latter casted it off in a divine forest of reeds. From it was born Kartikeya, who was later nursed by the Krittikas.

The Ramayana follows the Anushasana Parva except for making a direct connection between Shiva and Kartikeya. It says that the Devatas ask Brahma for a commander of their army and the latter asks Agni and Ganga to produce a child. Thus, Agni is taken as the main parent of Kartikeya in the Ramayana. Most of the Puranas take Agni as the main character in the birth of Kartikeya. The Vayu Purana mentions that Indra sent Agni to disturb the union of Shiva and Uma. Being disturbed, Uma cursed Agni to carry the fetus bearing Shiva’s retas. Agni was unable to carry it for long, so he passed it to Ganga. She deposited it in a forest on the mountain Himavan. From it was born Skanda. The Padma Purana adds that Agni approached Shiva and Uma in disguise as a parrot. As Shiva was obstructed, half of his retas went inside Uma and the rest was drunk by Agni as directed by Shiva. This retas inside Agni came out of his belly, forming a lake. Uma took bath in the lake and drinking its water made her pregnant. As a result, Kartikeya was born out of the right side of her body. The Skanda Purana says that Agni went asking for alms to disturb the divine union of Shiva and Uma. Shiva gave his retas in alms and Agni took it in his palms to consume it. Kalidasa in his Kumarasambhava mentions Agni went in disguise as a pigeon.

All the above indicate the multiple birth narratives of Kartikeya and their evolution. Agni participates as a primary character in most of the earlier versions, suggesting the Vedic influence when he held a prime position. However, in the later versions, Shiva takes a prominent position as the primary parent with Uma as Kartikeya’s mother.

The sculpture in Odisha is variously dated between the 11th and 13th century CE. It follows the story as narrated in the Skanda Purana. Shiva is shown seated in maharajalilasana with one hand in abhaya mudra. Agni, shown with his fire prabhamandala, appears twice in the panel. On the immediate left of Shiva, Agni is shown drinking Shiva’s retas through his palms. Further left we find Agni depicted a second time, having difficulties in sustaining the retas as evident from his facial expressions. The sculpture represents Shiva as the cause and Agni as the medium in the birth of Kartikeya.

Saurabh Saxena

Founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites




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