In Hindu tradition, Karttikeya is the god of war and commander-in-chief of the army of the gods. He is also known as Skanda, the son of Shiva—and as Kumara, “the holy youth.” In the Chandogya Upanishad (7.26), Skanda is identified with the Vedic sage Sanat Kumara.
According to Yogic teachings, he represents the power of chastity. Margaret and James Stutley write in Harper’s Dictionary of Hinduism that he was born when Shiva, who, “having attained complete mastery of his instincts, applied his sexual energy to spiritual and intellectual ends.” This is illustrated in the many legends that tell of Karttikeya being born motherless and from the seed of Shiva that fell into the Ganges.
Veronica Ions writes in Hindu Mythology:
There on the banks of the river arose a child as beautiful as the moon and as brilliant as the sun. This was Karttikeya. As he appeared on the bank of the Ganges the six Pleiades, daughters of six rajas, came to that spot to bathe. Each of them claimed the beautiful boy, and each wished to give him the breast; so Karttikeya acquired six mouths and was suckled by all of his foster-mothers.
Vasudeva Śarana Agravala explains this myth:
The power of the virile seed, preserved through penance and complete chastity, is called Skanda or Kumara. So long as, in the practice of yoga, complete control is not attained, Kumara is not born, and the mind is ever put in check by desires, that is, the gods are defeated by the demons.
Legends say that Karttikeya was born specifically to slay the demon Taraka, who symbolizes the lower mind, or ignorance. Karttikeya is often depicted holding a spear (which represents illumination) and riding on a peacock (which represents the ego). Karttikeya slays ignorance with his spear of illumination. According to one story, a demon whom Karttikeya defeated cried, “Your weapon has shattered my ego!”
A. Parthasarathy writes in Symbolism in Hinduism that “the wielding of [his spear] of annihilation symbolizes the destruction of all negative tendencies which veil the Divine Self.”
In mystic tradition, Karttikeya is known as Guha (cave) because he lives in the cave of the heart.
Pearls of Wisdom, vol. 35, no. 42, October 11, 1992.
- Margaret and James Stutley, Harper’s Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, Philosophy, Literature, and History (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 282 n. 3.
- Veronica Ions, Indian Mythology (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1967), p. 88.
- Vasudeva Śarana Agravala, Kalyana, Śiva anka, 1937, p. 501, quoted in Alain Daniélou, The Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism (New York: Inner Traditions International, 1985), p. 299.
- A. Parthasarathy, “Subramanya-Karthikeya,” in R. S. Nathan, comp., Symbolism in Hinduism, 2d. ed. (Bombay: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 1989), p. 151.