Hindu Deities: Imposed Imports By Kushan Warlords? (Part 2)

Hindu Deities: Imposed Imports By Kushan Warlords? (Part 2)

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Mar 9, 2023 07:41 PM +05:30 IST
Hindu Deities: Imposed Imports By Kushan Warlords? (Part 2)Lord Skanda. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The curious case of Skanda-Mahasena and an exchange of a rooster.

Anirudh Kanisetti extends the notion of the politically motivated, Kushana-imposed features of Hindu Deities to Skanda as well.

Skanda, a deity of unclear origins, appears in the Mahabharata texts as a fierce God associated with ‘the Matrs (“Mothers”) and Grahas (literally “Graspers”, ... figures were connected with childbirth and child-rearing, sometimes even killing or stealing infants’).

In Mahabharata, he also ‘gets linked to another spear-wielding young god called Visaka and this terrible god ‘when worshipped with Brahminical rituals, becomes a brilliant divine general.’

Skanda-Murugan Calendar art : Divine Child; Divine Commander of Devas; Divine Lover-husband
Skanda-Murugan Calendar art : Divine Child; Divine Commander of Devas; Divine Lover-husband

Yadeays of 2nd century CE presented Skanda on their coins ‘trying to appeal to the gods’ worshippers.’ Kushanas were more successful. They removed ‘the Matrs’ and highlighted ‘his martial aspect, known as Mahasena/Mahasenapati, the Great General’ and ‘Mahasena is also associated with the rooster, the bird of the Zoroastrian god Sraosha.’

Moral of the story of Skanda as Mahasena supposedly importing features from Sraosha is this:

The consequences of these ancient political calculations are still visible; many South Asian rulers would go on to claim his favour in later centuries, and it is as the general of the gods, the son of Shiva, that Skanda is best known to Hindus today.
Aniruddh Kanisetti, 'Shiva, Skanda: How Hindu gods absorbed Iranian, Greek ideas'

Kanisetti relies mainly on the work of art historian Richard D Mann - 'Rise of Mahasena: The Transformation of Skanda-Karttikeya in North India from the Kusana to Gupta Empires', (Brill, 2012).

Even here, an elaborate thesis by Dr Mann that takes into account, at least partially, the multiple dimensions in the evolution of the Deity, has been flattened and reduced to a unidimensional rhetoric.

As in the case of Shiva, here too there is brushing aside of a lot of facts.

I. Martial and Gnostic Skanda-Kumara in Early Texts

The Rig Veda itself speaks of Agni as Kumara. Scholars of Murugan studies Dr. Ramaseshan and Va.Ra.Krishnan in their work point out that in one of the hymns of Rig Veda (10-1-35), Kumara is also an independent Deity.

The Atharva Veda calls Kumara Agnibhuh – son of Agni – a title that is quite venerated even today by His devotees and retained in later Amarakosa.

The association of Skanda with timeless wisdom is quite revealed in the name ‘Sanatkumara’ of the Upanishads. Chandogya Upanishad identifies Sanatkumara with Skanda.

So, the associated identity of Skanda and Kumara goes back to Vedic-Upanishadic time and He is clearly associated with mystic wisdom.

The article depicts Skanda as a deity associated with child-birth and child protection as well as health. The Mahabharata actually shows Skanda as the leader of armies as well—that too made of garrisons of women.

Historian Ram Sharan Sharma (1919-2011) points out:

Although several gods had their own Parishadas who were lent to Skanda in the fight against the Daityas, generally speaking the Parishada was led by Siva or Skanda! There is a whole chapter in the Salya Parva dealing with the Parishadas under the leadership of Skanda. It informs us that, accompanied by them and the members of the matriarchal ganas, he proceeded for the destruction of Daityas.
Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidas, 1968, p.126p.126

Prof. R.S.Sharma was a Marxist historian and subscribed strongly to the Aryan-non-Aryan binary. Yet, the above passage establishes clearly the martial nature of Skanda along with His child-protecting ability in Mahabharata.

These martial exploits of Skanda and Shiva narrated in the epic according to Sharma belonged to ‘undoubtedly ... the tradition of earliest times.’ (p.129)

II. Skanda in Yaudheya Numismatic

The narrative that the Yaudheyas presented Skanda with mothers and the Kushanas highlighted the martial aspects, is too simplistic—but fits a particular motivated narrative.

There is a numismatic taxonomy of Yaudheya coins made by John Allan which consists of six classes.

Of these, the third and sixth classes show Skanda.

According to John Mann, the class three 'are either pre-Kuṣāṇa issues, or they are issued in the immediate aftermath of the Kuṣāṇa invasion of north India.'

According to Allan they belonged to later second century CE. The coins show six headed Skanda on the coins and on the other side a Goddess.

Yaudheya coins showing six headed Skanda and in the reverse the Goddess also declares Him as 'Brahmanyadevasya Kumarasya'
Yaudheya coins showing six headed Skanda and in the reverse the Goddess also declares Him as 'Brahmanyadevasya Kumarasya'

'Brahmanyadevasya' relates to the another name, Subrahmanya.

Nityananda Misra, a brilliant Sanskrit scholar of our times, has brought out the multi-dimensional meaning of this Vedic term.

He further points out that as per the commentary of Sayana on Rigveda-Samhita, the neuter word 'Subrahmanya' means 'magnificent brilliance of Brahman.' As a masculine word, therefore, 'Subrahmanya' can also mean 'he with the magnificent brilliance of Brahman (askesis or truth).'

Leaving aside the political turmoil and hardships the Yaudheya clan faced, the continuity and integration of Vedic Skanda with deeper spiritual meanings in the general culture should have led to the legend and the six heads of the Deity.

While Mann makes much of the six heads becoming one in the later coins (class 6), the fact is such one-face Kartikeya coins were already present. And more importantly in the later iconography of Skanda, the six faces do make a strong presence and there is no break.

III Skanda-Murugan in Tamil Tradition: Martial Warrior and Lover

A major lacunae in the book of Mann as he himself agrees, is that it ‘limits itself to the northern Sanskrit tradition and does not engage the extensive Tamil tradition of Murukaṉ’ (p.3).

That in itself is not a flaw in that specific study but if one tries to build the narrative of the evolution of present iconography of Skanda only from this study, then that is problematic.

Thirumurukattrupadai of southern India (2nd to 3rd century CE) describes each of the six faces of Murugan-Skanda and then describes the beneficial function each renders, which also includes the acceptance of Yajna, properly conducted by learned Brahmins with perfect utterances of Mantra and giving the fruits of the Yajna.

In other words the assimilation that happened even long before the Kushanas, happened in the setting made possible by both the material culture as well as the already ancient sacred literature. And then this imagery was explicitly used by the Yaudheyas.

Sangam literature (third century BCE to third-fourth century CE) contains a lot of information on Murugan. As usual it has been fashionable to say that Skanda and Murugan come from two separate, even conflicting cultures, the former Aryan and the latter non-Aryan and got merged (and in some narratives as part of an Aryan conspiracy).

Purananuru speaks of ‘Skanda of strong lance’ (380:12). While the article claims that comparison of the martial qualities of kings with that of Skanda as a post-Kushana phenomenon, in deep south just prior to and contemporaneous with the Kushana period, the Tamil kings and chieftains got compared with Skanda-Murugan for those very martial aspects.

At the same time, Murugan also shows Mahabharata Skanda’s relation with ailment – here not of children but more of virgin women. If Murugan is called Velan – one who wields the lance (‘Vel’) – His shamanic priests were called Velans.

They used to be called by parents of the virgins. Lest Murugan had taken possession of the girl, the shaman Velan would perform a fierce dance in an altered state with the sacrifice of rooster or goat and offer rice mixed in blood of the animal sacrifice and Murugan satisfied with the offerings would leave the girl. Usually the girl would be suffering more from love sickness. Murugan becomes the divine presence in the pain for the lover.

Thirumurukattrupadai also shows how the same Deity is worshipped in different ways by different groups - the Brahmins, the ascetics, the lay devotees, musicians playing instruments, youthful maidens and shamans including women.

The grains are mixed with blood of rooster or goat and offered. This diversity of worship to the same Deity is a characteristic Indian feature.

Sangham literature shows a clear integration of all aspects of Skanda-Muruga.
Sangham literature shows a clear integration of all aspects of Skanda-Muruga.

The larger point though is that Murugan manifested in ancient Tamil literature both the attributes of Skanda shown in Mahabharata. Even in pre-Kushana period, the martial valour of kings had been associated with Skanda-Murugan.

IV Rooster of Sroshad?

So in all these what we see is that when the attributes of Murugan-Skanda had been syncretised by the Kushanas with the Bactrian deity Sroshard, who also holds a rooster, it is doubtful if the rooster was really transferred from one Deity to another.

The possibility is that both the Deities could have evolved the shared feature independently. But the feature did help in synchronizing them both. But there is a crucial difference here.

In the norther depictions, Mahasena-Sroshard carries the rooster in his hands. In southern India, invariably, the rooster is inscribed in the banner – which in itself is the sign of kinghood.

Regarding the depiction of rooster, Sushma Jansari, Tabor Foundation Curator: South Asia at the British Museum, points out that the first appearance of cockerel in the region comes on Sophytes coins (circa 300 BCE), which are Greek-style coins with an Indian name inscribed in Greek
characters. The coins come in two types : one with Athena and another with a helmeted male face. In both the coins on the reverse side a cockerel is shown.

Cockerel on the reverse of Sophtes coin (around 300 BCE) - influence of Skanda from Indian culture?
Cockerel on the reverse of Sophtes coin (around 300 BCE) - influence of Skanda from Indian culture?

In her view 'the helmeted figure may represent one of the deities which incorporated Indian and Iranian traditions and which were later assimilated into the cult of Skanda.'

While pointing out that Mann had suggested a strong Parthian influence on the iconography, she reasons that 'Skanda’s mythology, which includes the cockerel, is considerably older than the Yaudheya coins and Gandhara sculpture and can be found in texts such as the Mahābhārata (e.g., 3.214.22–4).'

And she concludes:

A well-known phenomenon, widely accepted by art historians, is that images change in meaning before their manifestation in material culture. There is, therefore, a long-standing connection between the cockerel and Skanda in both early mythology and artistic representations in the material culture of South Asia. On the basis of this link, I suggest that the combination of the martial male figure and cockerel found on the Sophytes coins may represent one of the deities who was later assimilated into Skanda’s cult.
Two Sides of the Coin: From Sophyes to Skanda-Kartikeya, in 'The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World' (Ed. Rachel Mairs),Routledge 2021, p.492

The above conjecture may or may not be 100 per cent correct. But it should be noted that the transfer of cockerel either way was not that simple a linear process and could have had followed its own stochastic pathways. But in literature and worship, the rooster was associated with Skanda-Muruga, centuries before Kushanas set foot in India.

V. Depiction and Continuation of the Mother Images with Skanda

Kanisetti claims that in Kushana centres of power, Gandhara and Madhura, 'Mahasena was increasingly depicted alone, without any accompanying Matrs' and that in 'the coins of the Kushana emperor Huvishka, he is shown with a bird banner, a Zoroastrian emblem of kingship'.

This is demonstrably wrong.

There is for example the famous Cleveland Museum piece of Kushana Gandhara sculpture (second to third century CE) - well after Kanishka. It shows Sashti with Skanda as His mother/sister. The six heads can be seen. Then inside the 'portable shrine' one can see again Skanda - the scaly armour is gone but He holds a rooster.

Gandhara style shrine : Sashti and Skanda (also perhaps Devasena and Skanda)
Gandhara style shrine : Sashti and Skanda (also perhaps Devasena and Skanda)

Though Indologist R.C.Agrawal in his paper thinks that the two different sides seating of the female deities may be because of Greek and Indian styles getting mixed, the truth may be different.

Hindu tradition clearly delineates the left side of a man to his wife and the right side to mother or daughter. So except when a God is shown simultaneously with two consorts the female figure seated in the right is either mother or daughter.

The reversal of female deity in the right above and left below shows that the former was not a wife and later a wife. So the claim that under Kushanas the association of Matru Devatas with Skanda declined is wrong.

Now let us come to question of unifying the multiple Deities into one with prominence of Martial persona of Mahasena by Kushanas for political reason.

Even in the Kushana coins we see Skanda and Vishaka shown in two separate forms. Whereas when Skanda is shown as one with six heads in Yaudheya coins, the unifying of multiple characteristics of the Deity into one singular form had received a framework.

So contrary to what Dr. Mann claims the unification is a more archaic and a holistic process that belongs to the Hindu psyche. Kushanas too, when they got Hinduized absorbed this quality and reflected it in their inscriptions. They might have or have not had political reasons for that. That they had was only a remote possibility.

Consistently in Hindu tradition the six faces of the Deity represent six aspects of Skanda: One is playful, another imparts wisdom to Shiva, another removes the obstacles of the devotees, another destroys the mountain of illusions, another destroys the Asuras, another in love with his consort.

As a clinching evidence for dissociating political ambitions of the ruler and the development of Divine iconography let us take another Gandhara style depiction of the Holy family of Shiva obtained from Dargai in the Malakand region in Pakistan.

Armoured Skanda with Uma and Siva(after Bopearachchi, 2016) Infant Skanda with Uma and Siva - Imperial Chola bronze
Armoured Skanda with Uma and Siva(after Bopearachchi, 2016) Infant Skanda with Uma and Siva - Imperial Chola bronze

In the Gandhara style between Shiva and Uma one can see Skanda - made small but still in warrior style with scaly armour and lance. The image develops well in Hindu iconography.

This can be seen as a kind of early prototype for the celebrated Soma Skanda where Shiva and Parvati are seated and Skanda is in the middle. Under imperial Cholas this image became famous. Chola emperors had sponsored temples where Somaskanda is an important part.

If Kanisetti's speculation is true then with the martial prowess of Cholas the Skanda in between Uma and Siva should have become more martial and militant. But the Skanda we see has become a charming infant from being an armoured and armed Deity.

This should show the fundamental fallacy in considering political motives behind the evolution and acceptance of a form of Deity during a particular time in history.

VI. Preservation of Multi-Faceted Kartikeya in Hindu Culture

Our ‘public historian’ implies that this Mahasena imagery of Skanda alone had become prominent in subsequent Hindu image of Skanda. Actually the very name Karthik by which Muruga is famous in northern India, is associated with the astral maidens of Pleiades.

The Matrika connection is well preserved in Puranic as well as popular culture of Skanda.

Children's book on Kantha Puranam -early '1970s: Nurtured separately as six children by Pleiades, the six are united into one by Parvati.
Children's book on Kantha Puranam -early '1970s: Nurtured separately as six children by Pleiades, the six are united into one by Parvati.

In fact one feature of Yaudheya coins seems to have an amazing connection in the now prevalent southern Indian Murugan Puranas and iconography.

One group of Yaudheya coins depict Skanda with six heads on the one hand and a deer on the reverse. In one of the coins the word 'Dharma' could be seen. What is the association of deer with Skanda?

Yaudheya coin: six-headed Skanda and in the reverse a deer and with the legend 'Dharma...'
Yaudheya coin: six-headed Skanda and in the reverse a deer and with the legend 'Dharma...'

This connection comes out perhaps in the southern Indian tradition.

Valli, the tribal consort of Skanda-Muruga was born from a deer. Bhakti literature, classical iconography, calendar art, folk theatre and even non-devotional love ballads hail the romance between Valli and Murugan-Skanda. That Valli was the Goddess born of a deer clearly shows a connection to the association of deer to Kartikeya in Yaudheya coin.

South Indian Valli the consort of Skanda-Murugan was born from a deer.
South Indian Valli the consort of Skanda-Murugan was born from a deer.

One should note here this: Skanda as Mahasena or the General of the Deva Ganas is a feature well nourished in Tamil traditions of the south just as reflected in both Yaudeheya, Kushana and Gupta coins. Other features of Him as Subrahmanya as shown in Yaudeheya coins and the continuity of His relation to deer depicted in the coins have also continued and found their full expression in southern India.

These dimensions are not mutually exclusive. Nor do they emerge only for or primarily because of political reasons.

The original position of Skanda from the Vedas and Upanishads as the embodiment of eternal wisdom had been consistently nurtured and today Murugan-Skanda is more a General of the forces of light and hence wisdom. His spear is for a Hindu a symbol of that divine wisdom that destroys the darkness.

Neem Karoli Baba brought out the deeper archetypal connection between Skanda being a saviour of children and commander of armies.
Neem Karoli Baba brought out the deeper archetypal connection between Skanda being a saviour of children and commander of armies.

In the 1960s and '70s Neem Karoli Baba resurrected the healing nature of Skanda-Muruga also a warrior general -Mahasena- in an amazing way.

He blessed Larry Brilliant and gave him as his spiritual name Subrahmanya another popular name for Skanda-Muruga. Then he commanded him to fight small pox.

Larry Brilliant, a Jewish doctor from the United States, became an important force to accomplish small pox vaccination - a healing warrior against small pox.

When the last case of small pox was eradicated Brilliant made a pilgrimage to the temples of Subramanya in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps Neem Karoli Baba in an archetypal way renewed the deeper complementarity of Skanda-Muruga being the archetypal commander of war as well as healing saviour of children.

Perhaps in the wisdom and vision of Neem Karoli Baba there is a gentle hint of an immense lesson for the scholars of history as to how to understand the iconography and its timeless dynamism. Hindu iconography evolves and was not and never has been imposed.

The interconnected spiritual and social evolution has always been a co-evolution with external impulses assimilated and harmonised in the basic form envisioned by Hindu tradition.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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