This is one of the most complicated stories that I’ve come across so far in the Mahabharata. There are three elements that make Mahabharata stories complicated in my opinion. First is the fantasy aspect to them, which makes you do a double take.
Second is the violent contradiction between the Mahabharata and other books like the Puranas that have given birth to stories that may be more commonly known to us. Such contradiction makes you wonder if you understand what’s written correctly or not.
And finally, the use of different names for the same character, and being able to understand who is referred to from the context, which is nearly impossible for a normal person, so you have to rely on footnotes of the author, and that takes a lot of time. For example, in this story, a woman has been referred to as Manimata who was Garuda, but the woman assumed the form of Garudi earlier, so it must be inferred from the context that they are talking about Svaha who did this, and not a new character.
Having said that, all this makes you appreciate the book a lot more, and enjoy them a lot more once you spend the effort to understand them holistically. Now, to the birth of Skanda, or as more commonly known – Kartikeya.
Karitekeya is commonly known as the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, the Hindu god of war, and Commander in Chief of the devas’ (god’s) armies.
The story begins when Indra is worried about finding a commander for his armies as the asuras (bad demigods) are constantly defeating the devas, and he needs to find a solution to this. At this time he hears a woman’s lamentation on Mount Manasa and goes towards her.
The asura Keshi appears, and says that he’s going to abduct this woman. A battle ensues between Indra and Keshi in which Keshi is defeated and runs away. Indra asks the woman who she is, and she tells him that she is Devasana the daughter of Prajapati, and that through her father she has the boon that her husband will be strong and valorous, and will vanquish all devas and asuras along with Indra.
Indra was unhappy because he could not think of anyone who could be that powerful, and was left wondering who her husband could be. While he was contemplating this, Indra saw the moon enter the sun, and thought that if either of them beget a son, they could be Devasena’s husband. He goes to Brahma with that thought in mind, and asks him for a husband for Devasena. Brahma grants him his wish and says that she will find a husband who will lead Indra’s armies and together they will defeat everyone.
Indra then takes Devasena to the ashram of the Saptarishis who are engaged in performing a yajna and since the yajna is successful, according to what is prescribed, Agni appears there in the sacrificial fire.
When Lord Agni emerges, he sees the seven beautiful wives of the Saptarishis bathing in the hermitage and he is full of lust, and overcome with desire. He knows this to be wrong as they are married to the great sages so he leaves for the forest, and gives up his body.
Svaha was Daksha‘s (one of Brahma’s sons) daughter and had desired Agni for a long time. She decided to make the most of this opportunity.
Svaha changed her form into Shiva (not lord Shiva, but Shiva who was the sage Angiras’ wife, and Angiras was one of the seven Saptarishis), and went to Agni.
She told Agni that like Agni, the wives have also desired him, but they were afraid of Agni. Now that they know that Agni also desires them, they have decided to have sex with him. She tells him to have sex with him, and satisfy her desire or she will kill herself. Agni is happy at this prospect, and they have sex. Svaha catches Agni’s semen in her hands and decides that she needs to throw it away someplace far, so she becomes a garudi (bird), and flies to Mount Shveta, and throws the semen in a golden well.
She changes herself into another wife the next night, and the cycle repeats six times. She is not able to change her form to Arundhati (Vasistha’s wife) because of Arundhati’s austerities and her devotion to her husband.
On the first day of the lunar fortnight, the energy of the semen that had fallen down the well gave birth to a son and because the semen had fallen down he became Skanda. Skanda is another name for Kartikeya and is derived from Skanna which means fallen.
Skanda had six heads, twelve ears, twelve eyes, twelve arms, but one neck and torso. He was surrounded by red clouds filled with lightening, and looked like the sun rising on a gigantic red cloud. He held a huge bow in his hand which was kept there by Lord Shiva for the destruction of enemies.
Skanda uttered loud roars, and with his bow and spears caused much destruction to the animals living in the mountains, and the mountains themselves. He rent asunder Mount Krouncha who was the son of the Himalayas, and he cleft the peak of Mount Shveta. The mountains lamented terribly, and left the earth to go heavenwards. At this the earth was terribly pained, and was trembling on all sides, and in distress it sought refuge with Skanda who made it strong again, and then the mountains started worshipping him, and soon all beings on earth worshipped Skanda.
The forest dwellers said that because Agni had sex with the wives of the Saptarishis, this terrible calamity had befallen everyone and they blamed the wives and Agni. However, when Svaha heard that a son had been born she went to the sages, and to Skanda himself to tell them that she is the mother but they didn’t listen to her.
The Saptarishi Vishwamitra was the only one who knew what happened because he had pursued Agni into the forest without being seen, and had himself seen everything that unfolded. Vishwamitra performed all the birth rites of Skanda, spoke of his greatness, and came to be loved by Skanda.
Vishwamitra also told the other sages about what Svaha had done, and that their wives had committed no crime, but the sages left their wives anyway.
The sages of the earth went to Indra and asked him to kill Skanda without delay because the child was extremely powerful and capable of causing great destruction to the worlds, and even take Indra’s place.
They told him that “the mothers” (these are known as companions of Shiva or Skanda based on different texts) have the ability to kill Skanda so send them there.
The mothers did go to Skanda but when they saw him they too sought refuge with him instead of killing him. Then his father, Agni, himself appeared and they all started living in that mountain. One of the mothers who was the daughter of an ocean of blood, lived on blood herself, and was created out of anger started treating Skanda as her own son and protected him like his own son.
Now Indra ascended Airavata and along with the thirty gods and their armies decided to attack Skanda and kill him. However, during battle Skanda overpowered the armies and the thirty gods sought refuge with him. This angered Indra who hurled his vajra at Skanda and cleft open his right side. However, instead of causing damage, another being was born, and other companions were born out of that.
This scared Indra and he too sought refuge with Skanda who now became the refuge of all the devas, and all beings of earth. There is now a brief description of all the companions who were born out of Skanda and also that the sixth face of Skanda is that of a goat.
After this Indra and the other brahmans tell Skanda that since he has defeated Indra in battle, he should become Indra himself. Skanda however refuses this, and tells Indra that he alone should be Indra and Skanda will be happy to serve him.
Indra then makes him the commander of his armies, and thinking of Devasena decides that Brahma must have ordained Skanda to marry Devasena and asks Skanda to marry her. They marry in the presence of brahmans, gods, and Lord Shiva, Parvati, and Agni and oddly enough the text here describes how Agni is Rudra, which is contrary to what is commonly known (Shiva is Rudra). The text here gives this explanation for Skanda to be called Rudra Putra at times.
Now, the six wives who were deserted by their husbands come to Skanda, and tell him that he is under their debt since their husbands have left them for no fault of their own.
They ask him to reinstate them, and Skanda consults Indra on what to do, and Indra redirects him to Brahma who tells Skanda that at the opportune time, these six wives will become the Krittika nakshatra or the star cluster Pleiadas. This star cluster looks like a cart and is presided over by Lord Agni.
Svaha herself tells Skanda that she wishes to live with him forever, and Skanda grants her that wish. The story continues after this about different stars, and how they afflict humans, and about Skanda’s other mothers who say they want to devour the offsprings of other humans because they have been deprived of their own offspring, and he grants that but places several conditions.
After this, Svaha appears before Skanda and tells him that she loves Agni eternally and wishes that Agni should understand this, and that she should reside with Agni eternally.
Skanda grants her the boon that henceforth the recital of mantras will be concluded with the word “svaha” and in this way she will live with her Agni eternally.
Then Brahma told Skanda that go to your father Mahadeva, and this is really surprising because so far it was known that Agni was his father, but here Brahma is saying that Shiva is his father. Brahma tells Skanda that for the welfare of the worlds, Skanda is born invincible, and it was Shiva who entered Agni, and Uma who entered Svaha and caused his birth. The great-souled Rudra moistened Uma’s vagina with his semen. This was thrown on the mountain and created two beings – feminine and masculine, the remaining semen flowed in the red river, other parts in the rays of the sun, and others fell on the earth, still others went to the trees, and thus it went into five different directions.
Skanda goes to Shiva, and offers his respects, and Shiva tells him to always protect the Maruts. The army of asuras attack them at this point, and Indra tries to repel this attack but they are soon overpowered by the asuras.
The asura Mahisha who has a boon from Brahma then attacks Shiva’s chariot but Shiva restrains himself because he knows that it is Skanda’s destiny to kill Mahisha. Skanda then starts attacking the asuras and along with his followers kills the asuras and drink their blood.
This battle becomes the first famous deed of Skanda, and Shiva leaves for his abode after telling Skanda that the gods will be under your suzerainty, and to the gods that they must regard Skanda as they regard Shiva.