It is difficult to find a more complex deity in the Brahmanical pantheon than Skanda-Karttikeya. His most well-known portfolio is that of the Commander-in-Chief of the celestials; but he also appears as a mahayogi and a patron of learning.
He is depicted, elsewhere, as a god worshipped by the thieves and robbers and a god of amorous love, a malignant god harassing children and new-born babes. Some other outlandish traits are also found in his character. In this chapter we will endeavour to make an exhaustive survey of his various characteristics.
Skanda as a god of war In the Upanisads and the Sutra literature Skanda does not appear as a war-god, although the name Mahasena, as has been noticed before, is not absent in the latest Vedic literature.
In the Great Epic, however, he is repeatedly described as the general of the gods. In the Rgveda both Indra and Agni are pictured as warrior-gods, as the gods leading the Aryans in their wars against the Dasas and the Dasyus.
Indra's well-known epithet 'Purandara' (destroyer of the Puras) can have only one meaning. Again the Fire-god, as we have previously remarked, was also conceived as a War-god. In the Great Epic, however, his son replaces him as the generalissimo of the gods.
From the Vanaparvan account it becomes clear that Skanda won this title only after humbling the pride of the mighty lord of the gods, Devaraja Indra. This event is narrated in chapter 227 of the Vanaparvan where Karttikeya's war with Indra and other celestials has been vividly described.
This event is also referred to in some other Puranas. He grew so powerful that he was requested by the Rsis and others to become 'Indra' of the three worlds; but as Skanda had no fancy for Indraship, he allowed Sakra to retain his title.
Karttikeya's greatest achievement as the generalissimo of the gods was his killing of the demons Mahisa and Taraka.
The killing of Mahisa is described in some details in the Vanaparvan account of Skanda's birth and exploits. This event is also referred to in the Salyaparvan, Visnudharmottara and Vamana Puranas. In the Brahmanda Purana also Skanda is described as Mahisasuranarinam nayananjana-taskaram. Now, as we all know, the famous Devi-Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana has described in great details Durga's war with Mahisa in which the latter was ultimately defeated and killed.
This event is also indirectly mentioned in the Matsya Purana. The Brahmanda Purana also supports the account or the Devi-Mahatmya. Some early sculptures, dating from the beginning of the Christian era, represent Durga as destroying Mahisasura. The earliest representation of Mahisasura-mardini, found so far, is probably a terracotta plaque from Nagar, Rajasthan, which has been assigned to the first century B.C.
Notwithstanding all these evidences, there is nothing to disprove that the story of Durga's killing of Mahisa was not borrowed from some earlier accounts. We have already pointed out that the Vanaparvan account, which narrates Skanda's war with Mahisa, was certainly composed before the Christian era. In the list of Skanda's names, found in the 232nd chapter of the Vanaparvan, we have the significant name Mahisardana.
It is also interesting to note that in the later accounts of Skanda's exploits, the killing of Mahisa is rarely referred to. There cannot be any doubt that in the later period the account of Karttikeya's killing of Mahisa was nearly forgotten and replaced by the Durga-Mahisasura story; yet the former account was not entirely thrown into oblivion as is proved by the references in the Brahmanda, Visnu-dharmottara and Vamana Puranas. It is reasonable, therefore, to infer that the story of Durga's killing of Mahisasura was borrowed from the source indicated above.
It should be noted in this connection that the epithet Mahisasuramardini is absent in the Durgastotra preserved in the Bhismaparvan (Ch. 23) of the Great Epic; in the hymn sung by Yudhisthira in the Virataparvan (Ch. 6) we, however, get the title 'Mahisasuranasini', but this stotra is not found in the Southern recension of the Mahabharata. It is not illogical, therefore, to conclude that the Great Epic, as a whole, contains no reference to Durga's Mahisasuramardini aspect. As a matter of fact, as R.G. Bhandarkar points out, both the Durga stotras are later intrusions into the Great Epic.
The story of Karttikeya's killing of Taraka is, of course, much better known. The earlier Vanaparvan account (chs. 222-32) is expressly silent on this point. It is, however, indicated in the Salya account and confirmed by the Anusana story of Karttikeya's birth and exploits. We will not be far wrong in believing that the Taraka episode is a later addition to the Karttikeya-mythology. The earliest sculpture of Tarakari Skanda cannot be dated before the sixth century A.D. (see also ch. VIII).
It should also be noted that the Great Epic nowhere gives any detailed account of Skanda's war with Taraka. The Visnu Purana does not mention him while the Vayu refers to his name only once. It is in the somewhat later Puranas like the Matsya, Padma, Skanda and others that we get a detailed account of Skanda's war with Taraka. In any case, we should be prepared to believe that the Taraka-episode is distinctly later than the Mahisa-episode. It must also be remembered, in this connection, that the name Tarakari is conspicious by its absence in both the Vanaparvan and Skanda Purana lists of Skanda's names.
Karttikeya's title Devasenapati has two meanings, viz. the general of the army of celestials and the husband of Devasena. The latter, according to the Vanaparvan (chapter 222), was a daughter of Prajapati, who was rescued by Indra from the clutch of a demon named Kesin and later given in marriage to Skanda.
As a warrior-god Skanda reminds us of the Greek Ares and the Roman Mars. Yet, as Goodwin points out, "there is an essential difference between the Indian conception of Skanda and that of the Classical mythology, especially in the absence of that heaviness, that brute force unrelieved by lighter and more vivacious qualities, which characterize the war-gods of the Greeks and Romans.
In Mars, we expect only prodigious strength, a mighty and crushing blow, not any exhibition of quick dexterity or mercurial cunning." The Indian War-god is not only powerful but his personal beauty is often alluded to. He rides on the peacock which is the most beautiful bird found anywhere in the world. As a war-god Skanda's most characteristic weapon is sakti or lance. This sakti, according to the Visnu and Markandeya, was fashioned by Visvakarman for Skanda from the solar energy.