The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Markandeya Samasya Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Pandavas continue to live in the forest of Dwaita. After a short while, Sage Markandeya comes to visit them.
What follows is a lengthy conversation between Markandeya and the Pandavas. Among the many things they discuss, these are the more prominent topics:
- The history of Vaivaswata Manu, the first of men, and how a child on the Banyan – who is Narayana in disguise – guides Vaivaswata in the act of saving the world.
- The histories of great kings such as Sibi, Yayati and Indradyumna.
- The stories of Angirasa, Madhu-Kaitabha, Dhundhumara, and how a Brahmin learned of the importance of ethics and morality from a fowler.
- The history of Skanda – his birth, rise to prominence, his fight with Indra, and his eventual victory against the Asuras.
Over the rest of this post, we will cover the story of Skanda in detail.
The story of Skanda begins a few years before his birth, when the gods are locked in a long series of losing battles with the Asuras. This demoralizes Indra enough to make him repair to the Manasa Mountain, so that he might think in peace.
We need a new commander for our forces, he tells himself, but none of the current celestials are fit for the job. Nor are they keen to continue fighting after such a prolonged war.
While he is walking among the forests and meadows of Manasa, he hears the frightened cry of a woman. When he follows the voice he comes upon a little clearing in the woods, where an Asura named Kesin is holding a lady that Indra does not recognize.
‘Leave the woman alone,’ says Indra, stepping forward and reaching for his thunderbolt. ‘Know that I am Indra, lord of the celestials. I have the Vajrayudha at my disposal.
‘If you insist on fighting me for the possession of this maiden, I assure you, O Asura, that you will meet your death.’
Kesin tries to fight, but when the first few rocks he hurls at Indra are easily destroyed, he understands that he is no match and flees, leaving the woman alone.
Indra approaches her gently and asks, ‘Who are you, fair maiden? And what has brought you here?’
Indra Rejects Devasena
‘My name is Devasena,’ she replies. ‘I am the daughter of the Prajapati. My sister, Daityasena, has already been ravished by this wicked Asura.
‘The both of us had come to this charming place to sport at leisure, but Kesin spotted us and began to appear wherever we went. You saved me from him, O Lord. I wish that you should select for me an invincible husband like unto yourself.’
This is a thinly-veiled marriage proposal, but Indra rejects it. ‘You are a cousin of mine, Devasena. Your mother is a sister of my mother, Dakshayani.
‘So I cannot marry you. But if you tell me what kind of man you would like for a husband, I shall see if I cannot find someone willing among those of our race.’
‘My husband will be able to conquer the gods,’ says Devasena, ‘the Asuras, the Yakshas, the Kinnaras, the Uragas, the Rakshasas, and the Daityas. He will subdue the three worlds with his power.’
Surya and Soma
This plunges Indra into further grief, because he knows that such a man does not exist among the gods, struggling as they are to stave off advances from the Asuras.
But then, right at that moment, he looks up at the sun, rising beyond the hill called Udaya on which the gods and the Asuras are fighting. The new moon hangs low to the side.
The morning light has smudged the sky red. Even the abode of Varuna, always pleasant to look at, now bears the appearance of thick, roiling blood. It seems to Indra that the Sun and the Moon, at that moment, are about to unite with each other.
Perhaps that is what will give birth to a man that Devasena wishes for, he muses. And perhaps it is that man who will take charge of the celestial forces and lead them to battle – to victory!
Thinking thus, he goes to the Saptarishis and requests them to immediately begin a ceremony that will honour this union of Surya and Soma.
We stopped the previous story at the point where Indra has assembled the Saptarishis to conduct the sacrifice that would bring about the union of Surya and Soma.
During this ceremony, they summon Adbhuta, one of the many forms of Agni, and during one lonely night at the hermitage, while taking a walk amid the sleeping women, he sees the wives of the seven sages and is smitten by lust.
For a wild moment he considers offering himself to them, but then remembers that all these women are chaste, virtuous and devoted to their husbands.
I cannot bring myself to such debauchery, Adbhuta thinks. But I will find a way to ensure that I am forever in sight of these women, so that I may admire them without sinning.
And find a way he does. He sheds his resplendent form that very night and becomes the gentle household fire, which is kindled to life by the woman of every house at sunset, only to be extinguished at night when the time comes to sleep.
By doing this, he makes it so that he could look at the seven women every day for hours, and he experiences their touch, too, whenever they cover him against breeze and dust.
The Mischief of Swaha
This carries on for a while, as the sages are employed in performing the sacrifice commissioned by Indra. At this time, Swaha, who has been in love with Adbhuta (let’s call him Agni from now on) for years, notices his desire for the seven women.
So in order to win him over, she assumes first the form of Siva, the wife of Angirasa, and approaches him.
‘I have always desired you for a paramour, O Lord of fire,’ she tells him. ‘Please invite me into your bed.’
Agni is nonplussed by this. ‘How is it possible that you and the other wives of the Saptarishisknow of my feelings?’
‘We have always desired you, Lord,’ Siva says. ‘But we were afraid of you. Now, having read your mind, they sent me to you. Be quick, though, O Agni, because the rest of the women are waiting for my return.’
Swaha thus manages to seduce Agni, and the semen he releases as a result of their union she takes and deposits into a golden lake beyond the mountains.
The Birth of Skanda
After this, she successively dons the form of each of the seven wives and unites with Agni. Each time, she takes his sperm and throws it into the same lake.
The only exception here is Arundhati, the wife of Vasishtha, whose form Swaha is unable to assume because of the former’s fervent vows of chastity.
The lake now contains Agni’s semen which he released while uniting (in his mind) with six of the Saptarishis’wives. Out of this emerges now a male child with six faces, twelve pairs of limbs, one neck and one stomach.
It grows to the size of a small child by the third day, and by the fifth, the boy is holding a bow and roaring at the clouds with enough ferocity to strike terror into the hearts of gods and Asuras alike.
Since he is born of a man’s fluid that had been ‘cast away’, he comes to be known by the name Skanda.
Swaha Claims Skanda
Some dwellers of the Chitraratha forest (where Agni and Swaha had their meetings) throw up a massive complaint at the terrible portents that appear with Skanda’s birth.
‘All this happened only because the lord of fire slept with six of the seven wives of the Saptarishis,’ they say to Brahma. But then, some other animals who live by the lake, who saw Swaha bring Agni’s semen on top of a bird, bear a different testimony.
‘All this evil has been wrought by that bird with golden feathers.’
Meanwhile, the wives of the seven sages are suitably outraged at their purity being questioned this way. They protest that they have never transgressed, not even in their minds, and when they tell their husbands of the matter, they are pushed to anger too.
Amid all this confusion, Swaha does the right thing and confesses. She goes to Agni and tells him that Skanda is her child, not the child of the six wives, though he may have imbibed some of their essence purely by the strength of Agni’s desire.
A Proposal to Kill
It is Vishwamitra who performs the natal ceremony and other auspicious rites of Skanda, and finally informs all concerned parties about the misunderstanding.
By this time, the boy has grown into a strong child in a matter of days, and he is now wielding a club as a weapon. He has also picked out an animal (a peacock) for himself to ride.
The gods are concerned that this might be another Asura to add to their existing troubles. They arrive at Indra’s door and exhort him to kill the boy.
‘But he is very powerful,’ says Indra, averring. ‘Maybe we can send the mothers of the universe to perform the deed, because they can absorb all his energy.’
This seems like a good idea, but the women (called Krittikas) who are sent to kill Skanda are consumed by matronly love upon seeing him.
‘O Mighty Being,’ they tell him, ‘we are full of affection for you and desire to give you milk from our breasts. Please accept us as your mothers.’
And they begin to nurse him by turn. When one mother gives him milk, the others guard the mountain on which they live. Even Agni, it is said, turns himself into a goat so as to keep watch on his son while he is feeding off the breasts of the goddesses.
By this act of being mothered by Krittikas, Skanda gets another name: Kartikeya.
Fight with Indra
With the ploy of the Krittikas misfiring, Indra reluctantly takes up arms and advances to the mountain on which Skanda is being nursed. But the boy has no trouble bearing the thunderbolt full on his body during the course of battle, and is unharmed by it.
But when he is struck on the side by the weapon, a number of children spring out of him, both male and female. These children are adopted by Bhadrasakha, Agni in the form of a mountain goat, in the presence of the Krittikas on top of the mountain.
Watching this, Indra realizes that Skanda is too powerful for the Vajrayudha, and accepts defeat. He remembers the wish of Devasena to have an all-conquering husband, and proposes that Skanda should marry her.
At the same time, he says to the boy, ‘We are being assaulted by Asuras every waking moment, O Hero. By virtue of being born to Agni, you are one of us. I wish that you would lead us in battle against our arch-enemies.
‘I have no doubt that you will be able to defeat them singlehandedly.’
Skanda Becomes General
Skanda agrees, and he is anointed on top of the mountain with all the sages and gods in attendance. The wreath on top of his head is placed by Shiva in the company of Parvati, and the first couple accept Skanda as their adopted son.
Since his birth and early infancy occurs by a combination of many factors (Swaha, Agni, the six wives, the Krittikas), he has come to be known as the son of Shiva, his adopted father.
On the very same day, in a ceremony closely following that which appoints him the commander of the gods’ armies, Skanda marries Devasena.
She is known by many names, some of them being Shashthi, Lakshmi, Asa, Sukhaprada, Sinivali, Kuhu, Saivritti, and Aparajita.
The day on which they get married is the fifth lunar day, and so is celebrated as the auspicious Sripanchami across the three worlds.
What remains now is Skanda taking over the leadership of the celestial army and defeating the Danavas. Before he does this, however, Swaha, his mother, approaches him and asks for a favour.
‘What is it that you desire from me, Mother?’ he says.
‘I am the favourite daughter of Daksha,’ Swaha replies, ‘and I have forever been in love with Agni. But the god of fire refuses to entertain my advances. By your grace, I wish to be united with the one I love.’
Skanda decrees right then that this shall be done. ‘From now on, during any sacrifice conducted by virtuous men, all offerings to Agni will be made coupled by the name of Swaha. You will always live with the fire-god, my father.’
After this, Skanda visits his foster father, Shiva. ‘You shall command the seventh battalion of Indra’s army,’ Mahadeva tells his son. ‘The Danava forces are rather strong in that part of the battlefield under the leadership of Mahisha. Go, Kartikeya, and lead us to victory.’
Skanda arrives at the place pointed out by Shiva just in time to see Indra’s forces suffer yet another setback at the hands of the Danavas. Their leader, Mahisha, leaps out into the clearing with a hillock balanced on his shoulders, and hurls it at the scattering gods.
With the celestial army fleeing, Mahisha approaches the chariot of Rudra and seizes it. This encourages the Daitya army into thinking that they had almost secured victory, and Earth trembles with fear.
Skanda Kills Mahisha
But just as the Danava is about to drag Rudra’s chariot away deep into his own ranks, Skanda waylays him with his weapon drawn, and challenges him to battle. He discharges a mighty Shakti missile at Mahisha, that cuts off his head and kills him.
The Shakti, which is a weapon that can normally only be used once, miraculously keeps returning to Skanda’s hands to be hurled again and again, thus wreaking massive destruction on the Asura army.
By and by, the gods return to the field of battle to rally behind their new commander. Varuna with his noose. Yama with his mace. Indra with his thunderbolt.
The combined strength of all the gods – rejuvenated now with Skanda’s prowess – combined with the death of their leader proves too much for the Asuras. In a short while they surrender, and the celestials recapture their lost lands.
On this happy note ends the Markandeya Samasya Parva.