With a voice as majestic as that of clouds, Skanda spoke in praise of his father, in praise of the greater progenitor of the trinity, Shiva. And the Sage wondered at the fervour of the spotless boy's devotion, recalling the mystery of his miraculous birth. For Skanda, as Karttikeya is often known, did not make his appearance in the three worlds through a mother's womb but issued from his illustrious father's seed in a remarkably circuitous manner. The circumstance precipitating his birth was the activity of Taraka, a daitya whose austerities had resulted in formidable powers threatening to the gods themselves. The gods sought to interrupt Lord Shiva in his unbroken but continent fusion with his consort Parvati to cause him to drop a seed capable of producing a champion who could rid them of this menace. In this they finally succeeded, though it was only Agni, the mouth of offering to the gods, who was able to receive it.
The burning seed scorched all it touched. It could be borne only by fire itself, and yet even Agni found it unbearable. After swallowing it he sought to relieve his pain near the cooling waters of a lake. There, in the month of Magha, he found six of the Krittikas, the wives of the Sapta Rishis, taking an early morning bath. They were chilly, and seeing the warming blaze at hand, they approached Agni, who was able to pass the semen into them through the pores of their skin and hair. The poor Krittikas were subsequently cast out by their scandalized husbands and, seething with discomfort, rushed to the top of Himavat to rid themselves of the torment. The great snow-covered peak burnt with the deposit and heaved it, in its foetal stage, into the rushing Ganga, who quickly rolled it up onto a forest of shara grass (arrow grass), where it emerged as a fine-featured, handsome boy, full of glory and splendour.
As soon as the Krittikas discovered him there, they all desired to nurse him and fell into argument over which of the six should have the privilege. To accommodate them simultaneously, the obliging Karttikeya produced six heads and flourished beauteously in their loving care. Meanwhile, Parvati came to know of his birth. She asked her Lord where his semen had gone and said to him, "O Lord, infallible is your semen, how can it be fruitless? Or has it developed into a child somewhere?" She came in the company of Shiva himself, and Karttikeya was brought to Kailas in triumph to be crowned among the gods. Shiva never tired of drinking in the nectar of his facial beauty. The boy was so powerful that he cowed even Indra in battle. Karttikeya said of himself, "Although I am a boy, I am invincible", and crushed the demon Taraka where all the other gods had failed. When he reached manhood, Shiva and Parvati thought to arrange marriages for him and his brother Ganesha. They posed a contest to see whose wedding would occur first, taxing them to circumambulate the worlds, giving invitations to all the gods. The clever Ganesha did this by merely circling his parents, claiming that all the gods and worlds resided in them, and was happily wed in Skanda's absence. Toiling about the universe, Skanda was nearing home when the Sage Narada stopped him to tell him of the trick. Narada convinced him that he had been badly let down by his parents, and Skanda approached them in great anger and indignation. He refused their request to stay with them and removed himself to Krauncha Mountain, south of Mount Kailas and Manasasarova Lake, where he remained as a celibate deity, visited by his father only in linga form during the new moon and by his mother when the moon waxed full.
The Seven Rishis (or Bears), the sons of Brahmā, are the seven Logoi who refused to create. In taking on the role of creator, Shiva opposed them and caused their wives to receive the seed of generation through the fiery attraction of Agni radiating in the waters of space. Whether Lord Shiva was in full control of this process, and whether he dropped his seed for the sake of the gods or because of desire for the only woman capable of making him shed it, can be readily addressed, for the mahayogin's seed is eternally fertile in itself and needs no female agency for its germination. To Parvati, Shiva said, "I will beget a son by your creative power and by my own, for I have no offspring as ordinary beings do, born through the force of lust." The seed is burning because the union of a tapasvin and a tapasvini produces an excess of tejas. It is said that if Shiva and Parvati had a 'natural' child, it would be so powerful that there could be nothing else in the universe. Thus Skanda is produced without the intervention of woman and is, instead, Agnibhu ('fire-born') and Gangaja (born of the water of the Ganges), "a boy as bright as the sun and beautiful as the moon". He is also Sharabhu, born in the thicket of shara grass, and Karttikeya, the charge of the six Krittikas who nursed him. As Skanda, he is the 'Jumper' or 'Spurt of Sperm', the leap', 'drop' or 'fall' of spirit which is 'spilt' or 'emitted'. He is the virgin youth who manifests many of the traits of his father. When Narada persuaded Skanda of his parents' seeming partiality, he suggested that they even drove him away, but this did not prevent Skanda from exemplifying the fierce passion and unorthodox behaviour of Shiva or his beatific and powerfully potential immanence.
Just as Shiva had found in Karttikeya the cause of great enjoyment, so too the son praised his father at every turn, furthering his potency in the world and teaching seekers about his mysteries. When Ganesha won a happy marriage at his expense, Skanda held no grudge against him as he went his separate way. Much has been made of a competition between the brothers, but most of it rests in the minds of their respective devotees rather than in the actual stories concerning their relationship. Nevertheless, Skanda can be likened somewhat to Apollo and Ganesha to Hermes, who tricks the former, often taking advantage of his less subtle knowledge of truth. Skanda's actions are much more direct and energetic than his cerebral sibling's. He exemplifies the heroic act, cutting through, more than unravelling, the Gordian knot. Thus when Krauncha Mountain unfairly settled a dispute Skanda had with Indra, Skanda buried his spear at the massif, creating a cleft opening to the south. Like Shiva, Skanda is at times associated with generation. Despite the fact that he is celibate, he is worshipped in Bengal by women seeking fertility and in Tamil Nadu as Murugan, a deity going back to neolithic times and invoked in ecstatic rites such as those intended to heal young women 'possessed' and in love with unsuitable men.
As Murugan, Karttikeya is said to be wed to the ancient Dravidian goddess Valli, while at the same time being thought of as a chaste boy, a condition of celibacy more fully emphasized in the non-orgiastic worship of the god as Subrahmanya. In northern India, Skanda is said to be married to Sena, the name of the army which he leads. He is also widely known as Kumara, head of the Kumaras and Rudras – "the personified sacred Fires of the most occult powers of Nature", the Divine Rebels who preferred the curse of incarnation rather than to witness the misery of the shadows evolved by others of their kind. Just as the name Kumara indicates a condition of eternally virginal youth, so too the name Skanda signifies the potency inherent in this condition: "The power of the virile seed, preserved through penance and complete chastity, is called Skanda or Kumara."
As the slayer of Taraka, Skanda is Tarakajit, vanquisher of demons and gods of war. Born in a thicket of shara reeds (Sharabhava), he is the wielder of the spear and the arrow made from its shaft. He is Lohita the Red, the god of bloodshed. In this guise he is seen as equivalent to the Roman deity Mars, who is also associated with generative powers. But the idea of bloodshed in war is secondary to the notion that the original shedding of blood refers to first conception. Thus, for example, the story of Cain's killing of Abel harkens back to the loss of virginal spirituality on the part of Adam and Eve. Considering this, one may wonder whether, if men were conceived by spiritually virginal parents, they would themselves be more virtuous and shed less of one another's blood. The demon Taraka won great yogic powers and divine knowledge which he revealed to men. Like the serpent in the garden, he precipitated the fall of spirit into matter, and in vanquishing him Karttikeya took control of this enterprise and became the prototype for the heroic dragon-slayers such as St. Michael and St. George. But the war in which Skanda is champion is not merely against a foe of the gods. It takes place in the whole of heaven itself as mirrored in the breast of man, and its nature includes elements of yoga and initiation as well as mastery over weapons.
This merging of spiritual and martial elements is cleverly illustrated in the story of Vishvamitra, who, though born a Kshatriya, became a powerful Sage. Upon seeing the beautiful god-boy, Vishvamitra was delighted and realized his immense power. Skanda then told him he had been brought before him by the will of Shiva, who requested him to perform Skanda's purificatory rites, becoming his priest. Vishvamitra responded immediately, telling him that he was not a Brahmin but a servant of Brahmins, whereupon Skanda made him a Brahminical sage who would henceforth perform his rites in great secrecy. An interesting reflection of this commingling of elements took place historically in India with the importance given to Skanda as the tutelary deity of many military tribes in the north as well as the namesake of many of the great rulers during the Gupta period. His popularity flourished from at least 500 B.C.E. to around 600 C.E., when the worship of his younger brother began to supplant him. Not long after this he rose in importance in the south as Subrahmanya, not as a war god but as an initiator into the Mysteries and preceptor of Lord Shiva. His main centre of worship arose in Tamil Nadu at Swamimalai, where, on a sacred hill of the same name, he is known as Swaminathan. There, as in Karnataka, devotees honour him by fasting and dedicating themselves to spiritual vows in his name.
Karttikeya rides upon a peacock whose brilliant tail feathers spread out, twelve in number, representing the zodiacal cycle. The great bird's name, Paravani, refers to the year, and the banner carried by its Lord bears a cock, signifying solar energy, the source of seasons and cyclic time. To further this symbolism, Skanda often carries a living cock in one hand while holding his reed spear in another. He is crowned with a six-pointed, jewelled diadem marked with the double triangle of a six-rayed star. The twelve signs of the zodiac are hidden on his body. He is called Dvadashakara, twelve-handed, and Dvadashaksha, twelve-eyed. An occult interpretation of the myth of his birth and deeds as well as his attributes weaves these symbols of time together with elements of generation, descent and resurrection that are as mysterious as they are revealing. One can see Shiva in part as divine pranic energy marshalling the five elements and integrating them together in forms. As the leader of Shiva's marshalling forces, Skanda personifies the springs of life, the mystery of the life-force called the Supreme Secret, Guhya, one of Skanda's names. Though a brahmacharin, he can be said to be married to Devasena or Kaumari in the sense that the central life-force (Kumara) in each individual rules over and controls all the life-forces operating within the body. This tremendous power is suggested by the allusions to the potency of the Skanda seed, related to the sacred soma juice said in the Upanishads to be matter associated with moisture, capable of producing life under the action of heat.
Agni is the 'mouth' of all the gods. Unto him is given the oblation to the gods and through his action life is given back into the world. Skanda is the boy born of fire and water in an archetypal manner, a forerunner of this divine process. Following the myth, this is synthesized in the symbol of the circle of fire around a pool of water into which the seed is dropped. The seed falls in the centre and marks the beginning of a cycle of time associated with Karttikeya, the cycle of Naros. This mysterious cycle is linked to the phoenix (symbol of secret cycles and initiations) that lives for one thousand years, resurrecting itself seven times seven times over. This refers to the forty-nine Fires as well as to the seven Rounds and the seven times seven human cycles in each Round. It also refers to the pralayas at the end of each cycle brought on by the alternating destruction by fire and water. The phoenix is very like the simorgh-anke, which witnessed the birth and close of twelve cycles of thousands of years. As with Skanda's peacock, the simorgh was the vahan of a mythical deity of ancient Persia who marked cycles of initiation attuned to the turning of the macrocosmic wheel. The cycle of Naros is apocalyptic and highly occult. It is related to the appearance of Skanda with his six heads (the visible Krittikas or Pleiades), each one said to represent a 'century' (one hundred years of the gods as well as one hundred mortal years) of the Naros cycle. The Sapta Rishis are in line with Agni, who thus presides over their wives. Though the Sapta Rishis do not participate directly in creation themselves, their wives do so by joyfully nursing their charge, not as causal agents, but as ayahs clothing the life-force in time and form.
Though mythically cast as errant ladies of the bath, the Krittikas are actually models of chastity, whose 'guilt' seems to be bound up with the necessarily shakti-like state they embody relative to their husbands. In such a subtly 'fallen' condition they are spoken of as "those who are heated every month", suggesting their involvement in the lunar cycles of manifest existence. This may also refer to the particular lunar cycle marking the ancient birth of the new year, which occurred during the new moon of the spring equinox. Or it may refer to the much greater cycle marked by the sun's (Agni's) passage through the lunar mansion of Krittika (first in the series of twenty-eight nakshatras), as was recorded during the third millennium B.C.E. period of the Indus Valley civilization. It is significant that the old Roman calendar also began its new year in the month dedicated to Mars, lending the quality of a cyclic rebirth of life-energy to that otherwise martial deity. One suspects that training in the arts named after Mars ('martial'), which reached their most sophisticated and potent expression in the Far East under many other names, has drawn heavily upon a knowledge of the ebb and flow of subtle energy-currents in and around the body.
The lesser currents are all governed by the central life-force, which finds its archetype in Skanda. Like a mantle, the body is woven by time and space and clothes the life-flame, giving a visible lining to the invisible life-force. The mantle is like a skin, a fine covering which itself participates in the flame, nurtured by it and reflective of its inner glow. The Krittikas supplied Skanda with this mantle, their very name (meaning 'hide' or 'skin') denoting especially the skin worn by Lord Shiva and Parvati. In giving him such a vesture, the Krittikas supplied what the gods could not, and the godchild came into the world of limits. He experienced karta, the 'separation' of existence, the kart, or 'cutting off from the relative oneness of his parents' domain. The Krittikas themselves are viewed astrologically as resembling a short-handled cutting instrument which serves to usher the omnipotent seed of Shiva into the realm of cycles and conditioned life. Thus their midnight culmination on November 17 in the month of Karttika was celebrated in ancient Egypt as the Feast of Isis, the time for new sowing. Eternal and omnipresent abundance had become channelled into pulsating currents of dark and light, having and having not.
The six mothers as well as the six heads of Karttikeya correspond to the five elements plus the psychic energy of the brain. The infant god became leader of all these powers (siddhisena) by being nursed from one of their centres (chakras) to the next in a rising order until, at the sixth, he manifested in the full splendour of his crowning. The chakras are loci of power but are also wheels or cycles participating in and making time. They appear to follow one another, to have to be entered into sequentially in manifestation, though the simultaneous suckling of Skanda's six heads would belie the reality of this illusion. But in the realm of time the Sapta Rishis mark the stages and duration of the septenary human cycle. In the myth it is only at Himavat's summit, where the Krittikas flee, that the six come together and the chakras unite. After this the foetus is buried into Ganga's depths, only to be tossed up and born in a forest of shara grass, a reed grass called kasha (from kash, 'to be visible', 'to appear') which is shining white, giving its name to the holy city of Kashi (Varanasi). Called Sharaganman, 'born among the reeds', Karttikeya emerges surrounded by his weapons (reed spear and arrows) in the month of Karttika in Sharatkala (the autumn season). To Tarakasura he became Shara (destroyer), to his disciples he showed the way to become an arrow (sharaya), to aim at and hit (sharavya) the target of spiritual revelation. Shara, or Kashi, is the name designating the summit of the head where wisdom dwells, the thousand-petalled lotus which is Kashipuri, the resplendent city. It is said that this hidden Kashi lies at the point where the three subtle arteries of the body unite, forming the trident of Lord Shiva.
Channelling these energies through the chakras to their union at the lotus-summit is the narthex reed in which Karttikeya was born. The Puranic tale reveals that when the Krittikas released the seed on Himavat, the six parts came together and fell as a foetus into the Ganges encased in 'bamboo', a jointed narthex similar to that in which Prometheus secreted the fire of the gods, which he stole on behalf of a shrouded humanity. When Agni disturbed Shiva and Parvati and swallowed the great god's seed, he was acting like the bird described in the Rig Veda who stole the soma, the firebird who brings fire from heaven in a hollow reed. Agni thus is the sacrificial fire into which the seed is offered, and as a bird he carries it into generation in a hollow reed, at least to be transmitted in one. One recalls the stories of Kama, born as the offspring of the sun amongst the reeds at the river's edge, or of Moses, born and set afloat amongst the bulrushes. In the Vedas the body itself is a golden reed handled by a pair of ashvins, deities of prana and apana (the electrical charge vitalizing the body). The joints of the reed are Vishakha, one of the names of Skanda, whose mighty arm wields the connecting shaft as an invincible weapon whose penetration nothing can withstand. The reed is a seven-jointed link between heaven and earth, an ontologically descending spinal cord whose sections telescope, reducing the unlimited horizon of the celestial world to the three-dimensional condition of its concretized material reflection. One can see the sections as chakras or even dvipas, the invisible companions of our earthly globe, which encircle the latter like subtle vestures, platforms of more etherealized perception, one of which is named Krauncha.
When Skanda emerges in full splendour in the sixth chakra, he is then 'discovered' by his true parents and returns to Kailas with them in majestic recognition for his full crowning. From one point of view, he has now entered into the world (his birth having occurred just before his discovery), but from another perspective he has gained eternal victory over the bhutas and finds his place above the vibrations of matter. The Krittikas, who have lovingly nursed him, weep and tear their hair to see him go. They are the elements he must control. They fall down in senseless grief until he arouses them and instructs them with divine teaching. Here Skanda acts as the initiator. His enormous warrior-power cuts through the enemy of ignorance and obscuration that clouds the minds of his nurses. Those who have served him he will not abandon, but will assist them in their struggle to slay the dragon of their personified passions. As Kumara, he acts as chief of the Sons of Fire, called Minds, who refuse to create the physical man, preferring to act as progenitors of the true spiritual Self by lighting up the consciousness of those who have existed as mere shadow-puppets on the stage of becoming. They perceived that if man's uses of the life-force should be to render it self-consciously human rather than angelic or animalistic, they would have to take up their abode on earth for the entire manvantaric cycle. Exchanging the bliss of sidereal existence for the curse of terrestrial life, these are the rebel angels of scripture who were buried down from heaven to hell.
Shiva is the deity of Mind who has his seat above the higher brain, where he controls all the nervous centres in man, the mechanical, vital and psychic functions. His son is the instantiation of this, leading the divine forces which, in the microcosm of man, are released through the chakras. From below to the above, the forces work through the muladhara (the earth and place of elimination where the kundalini shakti is grounded) to the svadhishthana (the sacral seat of generation, the place of water or condensed soma), and on to the manipura chakra, the lumbar to navel region, where the fiery gastric juices of digestion and food processing lay the foundation of the life-force. This is the abode of Skanda, the Son of Fire, who, having seen to this ordering and refinement, marshals his forces through the anahata chakra (where cycles of expansion and contraction characterize the circulatory system) to the vishuddhi chakra (the bridging joint in the narthex, where sound becomes the Voice of the Silence and the antaskaranic bridge to the Higher is crossed). Nursed through the chakras, Skanda enters the ajna realm of the higher mind, the place of the Third Eye, where all is united. He enters through the spinal reed at a bend leading to the foramen magnum, which is called kraunchadvara, the 'curved door'. From the point of view of his origin, it can be said that when all is united in the union of Shiva and Parvati in this, their thousand-petalled lotus seat, then Skanda is produced. In human terms this means that until complete control (chastity) over the life-forces is attained, Kumara is not born. The mind continues to be coloured by desires and the gods continue to be defeated by demons. Only when his seed rises through the sushumna nadi – through the chakra centres to the vahnimukha, the 'mouth of fire' or the sixth, where it is consumed – is the yogin rendered complete master of his instincts.
Shiva visits Skanda at Krauncha during the time of the new moon in his linga form because it is at this time that a fresh impulse of the life-force is transmitted to the cosmos and to man. Parvati visits him at the full moon, heralding the completion of the process while longing for the merging of her son's cycle of descents and resurrections into a state of oneness with herself and her Lord. But if Krauncha is the door to the higher mind, it is also the cleft cut by Skanda's own spear which opens the way from the sanctity of Kailas and Manasasarova to the south, leading into the world. The fiery seed of Skanda, preserved through penance and chastity, rises to its conscious crowning in man only after being brought down into the world through the Swan's Gate, the cleft enabling the swans of Manasasarova Lake (the Lake of the Manasaputra, the Kumaras who are the Minds finally identified with human Egos) to descend to earth.
The soma seed of Shiva is the Secret Wisdom. It is Guhya, the mysterious Initiator. He who drinks it reaches the plateau of divine perception and is initiated into the Resplendent Thousand-Petalled City. Guhya connects the irrational astral soul with the inner highest spirit through the cyclic impulse of the sacrifice he represents. Ushered into manifestation through the Krittikas, who provide a central point around which our universe of stars revolves, he is the focus from which and into which the Divine Breath (Motion) works incessantly during the manvantara. The Krittikas in their lake of space provide the circle surrounded by fire in whose centre the seed emerges. Heated by Agni's warmth, the seed will become the seven-pointed narthex, the cross of sacrifice in the circle of time, the cycle of Naros reflected again and again in man. Everywhere one can see it: in the courage of cutting through, the willingness to do the spirit's bidding, the joy of those who forget themselves in the beauty and nobility of others. With each such impulse the powerful seed takes wing, flooding the myriad networks through which the human vestures are informed. Such fearless ones worship Shiva through his guhya, worship the golden crown of their own spiritual Self in all men as in his radiant son. Unafraid, they take up the weapon of their own sevenfold nature and pierce the mountain wall of ignorance and delusion separating them from the enlightening fire of mahat.