When elders insult him for taking into his fold a warrior with questionable origins, Duryodhan justified his steps by evoking a powerful deity. “Talent needs no proof of birth” said the haughty king “nobody knows the parents of the mysterious Lord Guha.” Known today as Kumar or Kartik, the scriptures point to a vast extended family for this elusive older son of Shiva. Mahabharata, especially, is very helpful in this regard since it traces the evolution of the stories regarding Kartik’s birth.
Most stories agree that Kumar was conceived when the gods needed someone to kill the asur Tarak and approached Shiva for a son. But they panicked when they realized that a child born from the union of Shiva and Parvati would be extraordinarily powerful. Hence they decided to disrupt the union of Shiva and Parvati. And here start the trouble.
The earliest version of the story has the “seed” fall into fire, or in other words, on God Agni. Unable to bear the energy of the seed, Agni immerses himself in the river
Ganga. This seed ends up
impregnating the six Krittikas (celestial damsels who reside in the sky as the
constellation Pleiades) bathing in the river. After they give birth, they join
their children (why?) to make one fused child with six heads. That is how he
comes by the name of Kartikeya (of Krittika). Alternately, in some stories, Ganga herself is impregnated with the seed, but is also
unable to bear its energy. She throws it upon reeds growing by the river, where
the child is seen by the six Krittikas. Each claims the child to be hers, and
the child nurses from all six mothers at the same time with his six faces. In
this story the child is also called Gangeya, from Ganga.
Later Puranas like Shiva Puran and Skanda Purana will give one or the other variation of this tale. But Mahabharata, known as the oldest Purana and thus the source of many stories in later Puranas, has bizarre versions to offer. It starts separately with the story of Agni, who, as the God of fire, is called to the homes of Saptarshis all the time for homa rituals. Agni becomes infatuated with the wives of the Saptarshis and pines for them in solitude. This is not unknown to Swaha, a celestial damsel in love with Agni. She decides to approach Agni disguised as the wife of a Saptarshi, and convinces him that she and all other wives of the Saptarshis reciprocate his love. Six times she approaches Agni, each time disguised as a different woman of his desire, and six times she receives Agni’s seed in her mouth. She takes the form of a bird (since she does not want the wives of Saptarshis to be seen as consorting with Agni), takes the seed away, and throws it amidst reeds. When finally she fuses them, she gives birth to a child with, again, six faces. (Incidentally, it was Kumar who united his mother with his father. Swaha, knowing that Agni had no great affection for her, asked Kumar to intervene. Kumar gave her the boon that if men wanted their homa offerings to reach their ancestors, they would have to utter the word “Swaha” as they flung it into fire. Thus would Agni and Swaha be always together.)
Swaha cannot impersonate Arundhati, the wife of sage Vashistha, because of the power of Arundhati’s purity. In a later version of the story, this characteristic of Arundhati becomes decisive. Some versions of the Swasthani have the wives of Saptarshis walk by a fire and stay behind to warm themselves by it. Since just a few lines ago, Agni is said to have found the seed of Shiva unbearably hot, we can make the educated guess that this fire is the God’s sexual energy. Again this is corroborated when Arundhati walks away, claiming that she will not “warm herself by someone else’s fire.” The wives of the six Rishis have no such compunctions, each of them conceive after their proximity to the “fire.” And there comes the six-faced child again. Their husbands abandon them, consequently. So when we see Saptarshis as stars (big dipper) in the sky, we do not see their wives. Only Arundhati is there besides her husband Vashistha, because she was the only faithful one.
It is interesting how Agni and Rudra were identified as the same person in the Vedas, and even up to the time of Mahabharata. But later, Rudra took on a new name, Shiva, which was used only a handful of times in the Mahabharata as compared to Rudra or Mahadeva which were used profusely. If we are to investigate his back story further, we will find that there were eleven Rudras in the Vedas, of which one was crowned the Mahadeva. With help from faithful devotees willing to sing his glory, Rudra went on to become one of the most revered gods of Hindudom while Agni languished as a demigod. Who is this person that we worship today as the father of Kumar? Just an illustration of the fact that gods rise and fall with the vagaries of fashion, and their personalities change with human fancies. Merely the final, most refined specimen of a long evolution. The story of Kumara is one of the few well known stories that link us to the “Maha”deva’s humble beginnings.
Each step of the evolution of this story contain elements that are forgotten today. The number six forms the core of the story, and perhaps was a major part of the identity of the real Karitkeya (if there was ever one), or at least, the core of the original legend, which has survived. This is the reason the child is called Shanmukh (six faces). Since Agni and Rudra were identified as a single person, that establishes the paternity of the child in all versions. In some versions of the story, the child is entirely Agni’s. When the gods disrupted Shiva and Pravati’s union, Parvati cursed them to be childless. Since Agni was missing from the scene, the curse did not affect him. And so the gods sought him out to bear a child strong enough to crush Tarakasur. But the mothers of this child are variously Ganga (today the only famous Gangaputra is Bhishma, but once there was another), Krittikas (which leads to the child being called Shadananda—child of six), the wives of Saptarshis (some recent versions equate the Krittikas with the wives of Saptarshis, perhaps in an effort to reconcile the wildly differing versions), and Swaha (his hidden birth among the reeds led to the name Guha—from secret—a name that is largely lost today). Today, the ubiquitous family portrait of Kumar simpering beside Parvati has taken over all versions, when Parvati was, in every version of the story, disappears from the scene after the initial wrangle with the gods.
Incidentally, the story of a god who was born and then fused together to be reborn seems to be an important one in many cultures. The Greek god Dionysus, god of wine among other things, is often identified with Shiva or Indra for his proclivity to intoxication, and for being an outlaw that doesn’t really fit in the pantheon. But on closer inspection, Dionysus seems to make an even closer parallel with Kumar.
Both Dionysus and Kumar were born long after the pantheon had taken a full shape. Semele, the mother of Dionysus, asks her lover Zeus to show his real form. When she sees Zeus in all his divine glory, she cannot bear the energy and bursts into flames. This is very reminiscent of Ganga who could not bear the blazing seed inside her and threw it away. Like Agni who was standing ready to rescue the seed from Shiva, Hermes rescues the baby in Semele’s womb and sews it into Zeus’s thigh. In this way, Dionysus’ father had a more important role in his conception and delivery than his mother, just like Kumar, who in some versions of the story is discovered by Krittikas only after he is born—apparently without a mother. But most importantly, Dionysus was torn apart by Hera after he was born, and sewn back together by his grandmother Rhea. The theme of six children fused to form one runs strongly through most versions of Kumar’s story. Do different cultures come up with the same stories? Or do stories travel from one place to another? Or are they the same group of people who moved in the opposite directions and continued to hold the same stories dear? These are questions that this parallel raises.
It is also interesting how sexuality takes centre-stage in every version of the story, giving us a window into the sexual mores of bygone days. Agni’s infatuation with the wives of Saptarshi did not involve the ladies themselves. But a later version of the story is used to condemn them for the same. Their desertion by their husbands tells us how extra marital affairs were viewed then, and the same effect is achieved by the exaltation of Arundhati, the pure one. Besides, Agni does not face punishment for his part in the extra marital affair in any version of the story.
Kumar’s other name Skanda, from which the name of Skanda Puran derives, itself means “spurting,” “fallen,” or many other ways in which the seed of Shiva came out. This is perhaps an indication of how freely sexuality was discussed in the times when these treatises were written. What happens next is always shrouded in language of utmost reverence: Agni could not bear to see the seed of the great lord Shiva go to waste. The world would be destroyed if the blazing seed was let go waste. Etc. But there is no denying how the story proceeds: Agni took the “seed” of Shiva into his mouth. And to me, this is as graphic a representation of a homosexual act as it can get. No matter the amount of devotional language and motivations used to cover it up, this is the story that is told in living rooms, out loud, over the month of Magh. In later versions, for example in Swasthani, the person of Agni was changed to a bird, perhaps to make the scene less shocking and in-your-face. But still, this scene leaves the question of whether or not homosexuality was a part of “Hindu culture” open to the reader.