Murugan is the second son to Shiva and Uma after Ganesha and the most masculine and fierce of the Hindu pantheon (note 1). Murugan is often referred to as God of the Tamils and is arguably the most popular deity in south India (note 2). As revered general of Shiva’s armies, Murugan is the beautiful and eternally youthful bestower of blessings.
Murugan’s origins are probably a composite of the north Indian warrior god, Skanda, and an ancient Tamil hero, Subrahmanya. His mythology is told in the Skanda Purana which tells mostly of his birth and youth. The following is one of many legends of his conception;
“Once married, Shiva and Uma honeymoon at Shiva’s home atop Mount Kailash. Their lovemaking shakes the cosmos, and the gods become fearful, wondering what a child born of two such powerful deities will be like. Led by Vishnu, the entourage travels to Kailash and wait patiently for the newlyweds to emerge. Many years pass yet Shiva and Uma continue as before. Agni (God of Fire) disguises himself as a dove and enters the bedchamber. Uma reacts. Shiva withdraws. A drop of his semen falls to the floor. Agni eats the drop. Uma is enraged at the interruption and curses the gods so that all their wives would be barren. Agni, meanwhile, is unable to bear the heat of Shiva’s fiery seed and flies to the banks of the Ganges to cool off. This particular location happens to be where wives of seven sages have come to bathe (note 3). They’re feeling cold and approach the heat. Agni drops the seed, and it enters the wives, who become pregnant. When the sages find out they scold their wives, who place the embryo on a Himalayan peak. Thus is born Murugan. Shiva and Uma are delighted. Murugan’s six mothers are smitten by the newborn baby god and argue amongst themselves over who is to breastfeed him. Murugan solves the problem by creating five additional faces, one for each of his mothers.”
Murugan’s first wife is Devasena, daughter of Indra through an arranged marriage, and she represents heaven. His second wife, Valli, the gypsy huntress, he keeps hidden in the hills. She represents Earth and theirs was a love match. The characteristics of his wives complete Murugan as he spends his time equally on earth and in heaven.
In Murugan’s iconography, he is dressed as a warrior with 12 arms, each hand holding an attribute, most of them weapons, such as Vel, the lance given to him by his mother, Uma. His vehicle (vahana) is Paravani, a blue peacock, who often holds a serpent in its claws symbolizing the destruction of ego.
Note 1 – Murugan is also known in the south as Karthikeya, Subrahmanyan, Shanmughan and Swaminathan; in northern India, Skanda, Kumara, or Karttikeya.
Note 2 – Three of the six busiest and richest temples in south India are dedicated to him.
Note 3 – The seven wives are said to be the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster, also known as The Little Dipper.
When Vedic Hinduism reached south India around 2400 BP, the indigenous Tamil culture was fully established. Both traditions were rooted in common animist origins, and Vedic gods blended with their Tamil counterparts almost seamlessly. For example, the pastoral god Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock who is ever young and resplendent,” merged with the north Indian Skanda and retains a large following even today. Murugan’s mother, the fierce war goddess, Korravai, united with Kali. Mayon, a black rural divinity, shares many of the same characteristics as Krishna Gopala. Lalita, “Beautiful Goddess of The Three Cities,” is the Tamil equivalent of Lakshmi.
A thousand years later, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Cholas, dissatisfaction with Vedic tradition was feeding widespread frustration among ordinary worshippers. Deep within the temple’s inner sanctums, the priests and a select few of the royal elite would have direct contact with the gods while the lesser castes waited in the entrance hall. This worship by proxy left the population spiritually unsatisfied, but change was in the air. Seemingly out of nowhere came the Alvars and Nayanars, itinerant poet-saints, male and female, high caste and low, who wandered through south India singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. This new personal connection with God sparked a devotional revolution known as Bhakti. It’s ardent, unstructured emotional style of worship contrasted sharply with the old Vedic temple rituals and the Tamil people wholeheartedly embraced these poet-saints and this new devotional style (note 2). They rejected not only the idea of salvation through Brahmin controlled ritual but Vedic divisions of gender and caste. Bhakti spread beyond the Chola borders and into India and eventually throughout Asia, where it remains the dominant form of worship. As the movement spread, Bhakti freed not just Hindus but Buddhists and Jains to perform their devotions when, where, and how they chose. Their relationship with God was now personal and far more gratifying. Chola craftsmen, too, found inspiration in the hymns and poems of the saints, creating in bronze the vitality, grace and beauty the poets had created in words.
“Youth who shines as a ruby, In a cluster of emeralds! Being who enters my heart, Stirring memory! Come to me in my sleep, Be my friend, Give me refuge in your grace, O dweller in Avatuturai!”
As often occurred when orthodox Hinduism is confronted with a powerful new spiritual energy, it absorbed key practices into itself. And when the Chola kings also fell under the spell of Bhakti, Brahmin priests eased their restriction on access to the gods and royal craftsmen were directed to re-create the temple’s stone-carved deities in bronze, portable images which could be carried in procession about the temple within view of worshippers. Over time these bronze figures began to acquire the persona of both divine and earthly kingship. The deity would have a sacred bedroom, where it would be awoken, bathed, offered food and drink (puja), adorned in sumptuous silks, jewels and fragrances before being carried in procession. The deity would preside over daily rituals and ceremonies, and in the evening would be ritually ‘put to bed.’ For annual festivals, these processional bronzes (utsavamurti) are carried by bearers or atop wheeled vehicles, outside the temple grounds to great fanfare (note 2). Such processions continue today, and the sensory onslaught has to be experienced to be appreciated.
Note 1; Four thousand of these hymns, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, were collected from all over south India and within the four thousand, eleven hundred verses, the Tiruvaymoli, came to be known as the Tamil Vedas (note 2) and deemed every bit as authoritative as The Vedas from the north. The hymns were passed down orally through generations before being committed by scholars to pen and palm leaf.
Note 2; An extreme example may be the processional vehicles carrying Jagannath, an image of Krishna. A fresh one is constructed every year and is a massive 45 feet high and 35 feet wide and long.
Hinduism in The Chola EmpireTerry Curell2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00
It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.
He is the one, the one alone, in Him all deities become One alone.”
Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.
These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.
The Gods and Goddesses of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00