2021

Orion and Kartikeya

Of all the constellations that embellish the night sky, it is Orion which is probably the most conspicuous and easily recognizable one. Since the Orion constellation lies on the celestial equator, just south of the ecliptic, it can be seen from any part of the world. 

Kartikeya Slays Mahishasura

A Harappa molded tablet (H95-2486) shows a person thrusting a spear into the shoulder of a water buffalo. He is pressing down the water buffalo’s head down with his foot, while holding the tip of a horn with his left hand. A yogic figures seated in mulabandhasana posture, and wearing a horned headdress with a central leafy branch, is looking on. What is the significance of this image?

Harappan Molded tablet H95-2486 depicting an individual spearing a buffalo
Figure 1: Harappan Molded tablet H95-2486 depicting an individual spearing a buffalo. Source: harappa.com

I had initially thought that this might depict a buffalo sacrifice as part of a funerary rite, which is a common practice amongst some tribal cultures of the Indian subcontinent. However, the horned yogic figure would look out of place in a funerary scene. Besides, even in tribal cultures, buffaloes are never speared by holding their horns. This is a dangerous undertaking, and is likely to be the work of some heroic figure.

Then I came across an explanation in the book The Soviet Decipherment of the Indus Valley Script: Translation and Critique, which seemed to make sense. The authors Zide and Zvelebil wrote,

“An evident parallel to this scene is found in an episode from the late mythology of the killing of the demon-buffalo Mahisa. This motif has many variants in the ancient Sanskrit monuments. The feat of killing Mahisa is ascribed to several deities, Skanda among them. According to the myth related in the Mahabharata, Skanda appeared in this world in order to head the army of the gods in their struggle against various demons. Among other demons slain by Skanda one finds Mahisa…He (Skanda) may hold various attributes in his hands, one of which – a spear – being obligatory for any representation of Skanda. The spear may assume different forms.  The Sanskrit names of Skanda Saktyayudha, Saktidhara describes him as a spear-bearer.”[1]  

Like most Indians, I was under the impression that it was the goddess Durga who had killed the buffalo-demon Mahisha. I was not aware that the Mahabharata had attributed this famous feat to Kartikeya, the son of Shiva. I looked up the Markandeya-Samasya Parva in Book 3: Vana Parva of the Mahabharata where a detailed description of Skanda’s birth and his subsequent battle against Mahisha has been given. 

Skanda is here said to be a son of the Fire-god Agni (because of which he is also called Agneya). He is also called the “son of Rudra”; and when Skanda talks to his father, he addresses him as Mahadeva or Maheshwara, both of which are names of Shiva. As I have discussed in an earlier article titled, “The Symbolism of the Meditating Yogi on Indus Seals”[2], Agni-Rudra is a cognate deity in the Rig Veda, and identical to Lord Shiva of later-day Hinduism.

As per the Mahabharata, during Kartikeya’s battle with Mahisha, Rudra-Shiva was present on the battlefield. But Rudra desisted from killing Mahisha, so that Skanda could fulfill the purpose of his birth:

“And Mahisha was greatly enraged at this, and he quickly advanced towards the chariot of Rudra; and reaching near, he seized its pole with his hands…And although that adorable god (Rudra) was in that plight, yet he did not think it worthwhile to kill Mahisha in battle; he remembered that Skanda would deal the deathblow to that evil-minded Asura. And the fiery Mahisha, contemplating with satisfaction the prize (the chariot of Rudra) which he had secured, sounded his war-cry, to the great alarm of the gods and the joy of the Daityas.
And when the gods were in that fearful predicament, the mighty Mahasena (Skanda), burning with anger, and looking grand like the Sun advanced to their rescue. And that lordly being was clad in blazing red and decked with a wreath of red flowers. And cased in armour of gold he rode in a gold-coloured chariot bright as the Sun and drawn by chestnut horses. And at his sight the army of the daityas was suddenly dispirited on the field of battle. And, O great king, the mighty Mahasena discharged a bright Sakti for the destruction of Mahisha. That missile cut off the head of Mahisha, and he fell upon the ground and died. And his head massive as a hillock, falling on the ground, barred the entrance to the country of the Northern Kurus, extending in length for sixteen Yojanas though at present the people of that country pass easily by that gate. It was observed both by the gods and the Danavas that Skanda hurled his sakti again and again on the field of battle, and that it returned to his hands, after killing thousands of the enemy's forces…
And when the enemy was completely defeated by Skanda and when Maheswara (Shiva) left the battle-field, Purandara (Indra) embraced Mahasena and said to him, 'This Mahisha, who was made invincible by the favour of Brahma hath been killed by thee. O best of warriors, the gods were like grass to him. O strong-limbed hero, thou hast removed a thorn of the celestials. Thou hast killed in battle hundreds of Danavas equal in valour to Mahisha who were all hostile to us, and who used to harass us before. And thy followers too have devoured them by hundreds. Thou art, O mighty being, invincible in battle like Uma's lord; and this victory shall be celebrated as thy first achievement, and thy fame shall be undying in the three worlds. And, O strong-armed god, all the gods will yield their allegiance to thee.”[3]

As I reflected on this passage, I realized that it perfectly explains the imagery on the Harappan tablet under discussion. It shows Skanda killing the buffalo-demon Mahisha with his favourite weapon, the spear, which is also called his sakti. The yogi with the horned headdress is the same entity on the Pashupati seal i.e. Rudra-Shiva, who was present on the battlefield to witness the slaying of Mahisha by Skanda. The Mahabharata states that this was Skanda’s first great achievement, because of which one of his epithets was Mahishardana (The slayer of Mahisha).

Skanda-Kartikeya seated on a peacock holding a spear. Kannauj, North India, 8th century CE.
Figure 2: Skanda-Kartikeya seated on a peacock holding a spear. Kannauj, North India, 8th century CE. Credit: Zippymarmalade CC BY-SA 3.0

Some of the earliest depictions of Kartikeya in the historical period are seen on the coins issued by the Yaudheya rulers of Northwestern India – a confederacy of Kshatriya or military tribes who ruled in the land between the Indus and Ganges Rivers from c. 5th century BCE till 4th century CE. On these coins, Kartikeya holds a filleted spear, which looks very similar to the spear on the Harappan tablet. Kartikeya has his hair tied up in a bun above his head, while on the Harappan tablet his hair is tied up in a bun behind his head. 

Kartikeya depicted on a Yaudheya coin, 1st century BCE, Punjab, on display at the British Museum
Figure 3: Kartikeya depicted on a Yaudheya coin, 1st century BCE, Punjab, on display at the British Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
The Harappan tablet also depicts a gharial i.e. a fish-eating crocodile, just above the buffalo. The gharial is depicted on a number of Indus seals. It used to abound in the rivers of the Indus water system, but is now extinct in that region. The depiction of the gharial seems to indicate that the slaying of Mahisha took place near a river. This is exactly as per the Shalya Parva (Book 9, Section 46)  of the Mahabharata, which tells us that the battle between Kartikeya and Mahisha took place on the banks of the Sarasvati River.

The Shalya Parva informs us that Kartikeya had slain various daityas including Taraka, Mahisha, Tripada, Hradodara and others. It also states that this famous battle between the gods and the daityas, danavas and rakshasas took place near a sacred tirtha called Taijasa, on the banks of the Sarasvati river. This is where Kartikeya was installed by the gods as the commander of their forces. The text states, “In that tirtha is a gigantic Aswattha tree. Under its shade, Kartikeya, otherwise called Kumara, always resides in person.”  

This explanation leads us to an intriguing question. How did the monumental feat of killing Mahisha get transferred from Kartikeya to goddess Durga? I wondered if the story of Kartikeya killing the Mahisha demon has been preserved in any rural or tribal folklore, and if that could shed some more light on this matter. My research led me to Lord Ayyappan, who is very popular in the southern state of Kerala and whose shrine at Sabarimala draws millions of pilgrims every year. 

There is little doubt in my mind that Ayyappan is simply another name of Kartikeya. Like Kartikeya, Ayyappan is a warrior deity, a military genius and a son of Shiva. Both Ayyappan and Kartikeya are celibate (brahmacharin), teacher (shasta, dharma shasta, or brahma shasta), handsome (kanta), lord of the universe (bhuvaneshwara), epitome of dharma (dharmatman), and destroyer of evil. Ayyappan wears a bell around his neck, and so does Kartikeya, for this bell was given to him by Indra, who took it from his elephant mount Airavata. 

Most interestingly, as per the Hindu tradition popular in the Western Ghats of India, Ayyappan was born with the purpose of killing the evil buffalo demoness Mahishi, who had been committing atrocities on the gods, thanks to a boon granted by Brahma.[4]

Ayyappa Idol at Mridngasaileswari temple, Muzhakkunnu, Kannur, Kerala
Figure 4: Ayyappa Idol at Mridngasaileswari temple, Muzhakkunnu, Kannur, Kerala. Credit: Vinayaraj CC BY-SA 3.0

So, we do have a regional tradition of a warrior-son of Shiva killing the buffalo-demon Mahisha (or Mahishi in this case). This means that the story of Kartikeya killing Mahisha, as recounted in the Mahabharata, may have been a part of more widespread tradition at one time. But later, for some mysterious reason, this ancient legend was changed. What could have led to this? When did goddess Durga become associated with the slaying of Mahishasura?
 
The Emergence of Durga
 
A tiger goddess was known to the Indus people, since a cylinder seal from Kalibangan shows a goddess figure wearing a horned headdress, and having the hind part of a tiger. She probably represents the tiger-riding goddess known to us today as Amba Mata or Durga (who was later shown on top of a lion). 
 
Two men standing near the goddess are holding the hand of a lady and pointing spears at each other. I had proposed in an earlier article [5] that this may represent a post-harvest folk dance like Dandiya, which is performed at the time of Navratri in honour of Amba Mata. During Dandiya Raas, the dancers hold sticks - representing the sword or spear of Amba Mata - and move in circles striking their own sticks and those of the dancers next to them, as if they are fighting each other. This symbolizes that Amba Mata is also a “goddess of war”.
Impression of Kalibangan Cylinder Seal K-65 shows a goddess wearing a horned head-dress and having the hind part of a tiger
Figure 5: Impression of Kalibangan Cylinder Seal K-65 shows a goddess wearing a horned head-dress and having the hind part of a tiger. Source: harappa.com
Some of earliest representation of the goddess Durga during the historical period can be seen on the terracotta plaques found at the archaeological site of Chadraketugarh in West Bengal, dating from the Shunga Period (c.200 – 100 BCE). The goddess has an array of weapons projecting from her hair – such as arrow, axe, spear, trident, ankush etc. - which indicates that she is a “goddess of war”. Her right hand is typically in a boon-bestowing posture (varada-mudra), and in one of the images she is pouring out coins from a purse, which implies that she is a “goddess of prosperity”. 
 
What is missing in these plaques, quite conspicuously, are the lion vahana of the goddess and the buffalo-demon Mahisha, both of which are an integral part of any representation of goddess Durga in India today.

Goddess with weapons in her hair, Chandraketugarh, West Bengal, 2nd - 1st century BCE
Figure 6: Goddess with weapons in her hair, Chandraketugarh, West Bengal, 2nd - 1st century BCE. Source: Ethnological Museum, Berlin.

Another bronze figurine of a goddess from Kausambhi (near Allahabad), dating to around the 2nd century BCE, has an array of weapons sticking out of her hair. This resembles the Chandraketugarh versions of the goddess Durga, which makes it quite probable that this is how Durga was represented in the early historical period of India.   

Bronze goddess with weapons in her hair from Kosambi, 2nd century BCE
Figure 7: Bronze goddess with weapons in her hair from Kosambi, 2nd century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain.

In fact, Durga in her form as Mahishasuramardini - holding weapons in her ten arms, riding a lion, and slaying the buffalo-demon Mahisha - appears much later. The earliest known representation of this form is from the Udaygiri caves in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, dating to the 5th century CE. This means that sometime in early centuries of the Christian era, the story of the slaying of the buffalo-demon Mahisha had become associated with Durga. 

The fact that Skanda had killed Mahisha with his spear – which was also called his sakti – may have played a role in this, since Shakti is a term used for the goddess Durga who personifies the primordial cosmic energy that flows through the universe and is the source of creation, sustenance and destruction. As per Tamil tradition, the divine spear or Vel was given to Murugan by goddess Durga.

Durga as Mahishasuramardini at Udayagiri Caves, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh
Figure 8: Durga as Mahishasuramardini at Udayagiri Caves, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Photo Dharma CC BY 2.0

During the early centuries of the Christian era the worship of the Matrikas or Sapta Matrikas (Seven Mothers) was on the ascendancy in Northern India. The Matrikas are the wives of the Seven Sages who had acted as foster mothers of the infant Kartikeya. Astronomically, they are identified with the seven stars of the Pleiades (Krittika nakshatra). The Sapta Matrikas used to be worshiped for the conception and protection of infants. It was believed that if the Matrikas were not pacified they would inflict children with diseases and other perils. The first stone carvings of the Matrikas appear during the Kushana Period (1st – 3rd century CE), and by the Gupta Period (3rd – 6th century CE) they start appearing on royal monuments.  

The Sapta Matrikas Flanked by Shiva and Ganesha. Madhya Pradesh, 9th century
Figure 9: The Sapta Matrikas Flanked by Shiva and Ganesha. Madhya Pradesh, 9th century. Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Public Domain

By the 5th century CE, a well-developed Shakta tradition had emerged within Hinduism with the composition of the Devi Mahatyma, in which the goddess Durga was portrayed as the supreme power and creator of the universe, who led the heavenly forces in the battle against the demon Mahisha. She was said to be a manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi – the giver of wealth, fertility, beauty, and sovereignty. Incidentally, Sri-Lakshmi is an ancient deity, who has been described in the Sri-Sukta - an appendix to the Rig-Veda – as the bestower of fame, bounty, agrarian fertility, and abundance in the form of gold, cattle, horses and food. 
 
The Devi Mahatyma states that, in the battle against the demonic forces, Durga was assisted by the Sapta Matrikas, who had taken on the form of ferocious warriors, slaughtering the demon army. In some sections of the text, the Matrikas are said to be different forms of Durga. They appear out of the body of Durga and get absorbed inside her at will.

It seems, therefore, that by the 5th century CE, the act of slaying the buffalo-demon Mahisha had been assigned to Durga. Not surprisingly, soon afterwards there was a decline in the popularity of Skanda-Kartikeya all over Northern India. Till the time of the Gupta Empire, Kartikeya had been highly venerated; coins were issued with his image, and two of the Gupta emperors - Skandagupta and Kumaragupta - were named after him. But from the 6th century onwards the worship of Kartikeya was on a steep decline in Northern India. Whether this was solely due to the rise of the Shakta philosophy and the transference of Kartikeya's monumental feat to Durga, or whether other factors were also involved, is not known.

Conclusion

We can conclude that the imagery depicted on the Harappa tablet (H95-2486) is aligned with the theme from the Mahabharata of Kartikeya killing the buffalo-demon Mahisha, with Rudra-Shiva acting as a spectator on the battlefield. As we have noted, this belief is also rooted in the tradition of Lord Ayyappan in Kerala. The factors that led to the transference of this mythology from Kartikeya to Durga, sometime around the 5th century CE or earlier, is not very clear, but is probably related to the emergence of the Shakta cult of Hinduism which increased in importance over the succeeding centuries. Today, the imagery of Durga slaying Mahishasura has become so ubiquitous, and so deeply entrenched in our minds that, that for many people it may be difficult to accept that Kartikeya was originally the slayer of the buffalo-demon Mahisha, as shown on this Harappan tablet, and as described in the Mahabharata.


References

1. Arlene R. Zide, Kamil V. Zvelebil, The Soviet Decipherment of the Indus Valley Script: Translation and Critique (Walter de Gruyter, 1976) p.115-116
2. Bibhu Dev Misra, "The Symbolism of the Meditating Yogi on Indus Seals", Ancient Inquiries Jan 23 2016, https://www.bibhudevmisra.com/2016/01/shiva-as-bada-dev-gond-symbolisms-on_23.html
3. The Mahabharata, Book 3: Vana Parva: Markandeya-Samasya Parva, Section 230, tr. Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896, https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m03/m03230.htm
4. Ayyappan, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayyappa
5. Bibhu Dev Misra, "Navratri and Dandiya Raas in the Indus Valley?", Ancient Inquiries March 07, 2016, https://www.bibhudevmisra.com/2016/03/navratri-and-dandiya-raas-in-indus.html

 


The La Venta Museum in Villahermosa, Mexico, has an intriguing collection of Olmec sculptures, including three colossal Olmec stone heads. The artifacts had been moved there from the Olmec settlement of La Venta in western Tabasco, when petroleum exploration in the 1950s had threatened the safety of these rare objects.

Not many would have heard of the archaeological site of Chandraketugarh in India, located roughly 35 km from Kolkata in Eastern India. Chandraketugarh used to be a prosperous, coastal city engaging in international trade, with continuous habitation from c.400 BCE - 1250 CE. All that remains at the site today are the remnants of a brick-built Buddhist temple from the 10th century CE. 

 


The "Char Bangla" temples in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal were built by Queen Bhavani of Natore in 1755 CE. Each of the four terracotta temples were built in the style of the traditional village huts of Bengal with two sloping roofs, called "Do-Chala" or "Ek Bangla" temples.

Each of the temples have three arched openings and 3 Shiva-lingas. Their facades are ornamented with terracotta panels, depicting scenes from the daily life and and Puranic legends.  

When the temples were built nearly 250 years ago, the Ganges (Bhagirathi) used to flow nearly a kilometer away. But today the temple is barely 10 feet away from the river bank, and its boundary wall has already been damaged by the river.

Getting to the temples is half the fun. Since they are located in Baranagar, on the other bank of the Ganges from Murshidabad, we took a ride on a country boat from the Azimganj sadar ghat for a 25 mins trip upstream. A road journey would have taken considerably longer, and certainly less enjoyable.