In the pantheon of gods celebrated in India, Kumara catches the queer eye in any number of ways. Also known as Skanda and Karrtikeya, Kumara is the six-armed Hindu god of war. As a praise name, Kumara literally references his status as a male youth or an unmarried young man. In the most widely told stories, Kumara is said to be the son of Shiva, and brother to the elephant-headed Ganesha. The handsome god of war is believed to represent the perfection of young manhood. In the region surrounding Bombay in Western India, Kumara is also thought to be a woman-hating bachelor.
Kumara represents an intriguing intersection of hyper masculinity, exclusively male domains, homo-erotic imagery and transgender reverence.
Kumara’s Birth Without Women
Kumara’s origins are variously accounted for. One of the two most common accounts describes the rise of the demon, Taraka, who none of the gods could overcome. It was prophesized that only a child of Shiva could grow up to defeat the demon. But Shiva was deep in meditation and could not be roused to procreate. When Kama, god of lust, tried to distract him, he was burned to a cinder by a single glance. Finally, it was only seeing the goddess Parvati that caused him to ejaculate.
Nothing could contain Shiva’s fiery skanda or “spurt of semen.” In an interesting bit of imagery, Shiva’s seed fell into the mouth of Agni, the divine personification of fire. But Shiva’s seed only served to feed Agni’s flame. His seed was then received by the river Ganges. From there, Shiva’s skanda jumped into the Himalayan Mountains. Finally, presumably cooled, it fell into a field of kasa grass, called Saravana, “the forest of reeds.”
It was at Saravana that Shiva’s seed became the infant Kumara, all without the benefit of a mother’s womb. In a somewhat cryptic passage in the Mahabharata, it is said that at the moment of Kumara’s birth “there was a reversal of male and female and similarly of all the pairs of opposites,” a development which gave the great sages pause. At this juncture, it is worth noting that Saravana was also where the maiden Ila was transformed into a man. Clearly, Kumara’s legend is linked with gender nonconformity, for reasons which will become clearer.
Kumara’s Other Associations with Fire
From the forest of reeds, the six Pleiades or Krttikas found the infant and took him into their care. The Krttikas were benevolent deities of fire, associated with the six subtle centers of energy in the human body. It is in these centers Kumara was said to develop. In the language of legend, he developed six heads in order to nurse from each of his foster mothers, and developed six pair of arms as well.
In the practice of yoga, Kumara represents the power of chastity. While Skanda means “spurt of semen,” it is only through complete control or abstinence that the power of “the virile seed” is believed to rise up to the “mouth of fire,” where it is consumed. It is then that Skanda is born, and the adept is said to become the image of Shiva.
There is considerable homoerotic imagery here. The adept metaphorically eats semen and becomes the image of godhood. Remember, Kumara was conceived without the involvement of a woman and Shiva’s seed fell into Agni’s mouth, whose flame is strengthened by the experience. One source I came across suggested that oral sex can be viewed as a potential form of sexual magic by some practitioners of Tantric principles, able to confer “fiery” powers to the practitioner. The Agni legend serves as its prototype.
Kumara is associated with the fire of the sun, the positive empowering aspects of masculinity. He could turn poison into ambrosia and grant his followers immunity to pain. His banner was red, a gift from Agni. Yet Kumara’s fiery nature also had a negative aspect. Among Kumara’s attendants were disease demons that could make any human “burn up” with fever. Other attendants of Kumara include war-imps, nightmares, and tree-spirits that serve as nurses.
Other Versions of Kumara’s Womanless Birth
A second version of Kumara’s conception also has it that the god was born without the benefit of an actual woman. In this legend, Kumara is sired by two male gods, Shiva and Vishnu. Vishnu had adopted the seductive and womanly form of Mohini to fool some demons. But Shiva saw Vishnu in his female form and was quite taken by “her.” Shiva visited Mohini-Vishnu seven times, and each time Mohini gave birth to another son.
Shiva’s wife, Parvati, wanted to go see his newborn offspring, as she was unable to have children of her own. She hugged the six youngest boys a little too hard and they were pressed into a single boy with six heads and twelve arms. Only Shiva’s eldest son, Harihara, escaped this fate. Parvati would prove to be a rather careless adoptive mother on another occasion as well. As a baby, when Kumara sought to suckle at Parvati’s breast, the goddess deserted him to go and practice the ascetic life.
A third variant of the story is that the gods Mithras and Varuna saw the goddess Urvashi naked and ejaculated. They then placed their ejaculate in a jar from which the infant Skanda (Kumara) emerged. As such, Kumara’s origin have much in common with the story of Drona and his father Bharadvaja, who conceived of his son in a similar fashion. That two variants suggest that the Kumara was the child of two fathers is suggestive though it’s worth noting that the orgasms nonetheless occurred in a heterosexual context.
The Meaning of a Wombless Child
In all of these versions, Kumara is identified as an ayonija, a child who didn’t come from a yoni, that is, didn’t result from sexual intercourse with a woman, nor in nurtured in a womb. Devdutt Pattanaik, in his excellent exploration of these themes in Hindu myth, explains that ayonija are typically men and were believed to have special gifts. Pattanaik notes that the ayonija is “not subject to the transformations of samsara (the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth). Unlike womb-born mortals, death does not affect him, change does not frighten him. He possesses enough spiritual wisdom and serenity to not be overwhelmed by material events.”
Kumara grew to maturity in a matter of days, soon stronger than any of the other gods. Once, as a boy, he plunged his spear into the earth and challenged anyone to pull it out. Prahlanda tried and fainted from exhaustion. Even Vishnu was only able to shake it, causing earthquakes in the process.
Not only was Kumara strong, but he was skilled in the arts of battle. A treatise on archery was attributed to him, and his magic spear never missed its mark, returning to his hand after every throw. The other gods, impressed by Kumara’s strength and prowess, made him general of their army. He led the army of the gods into battle and defeated Taraka, just as he was destined to do.
The Symbolism of Kumara’s Peacock Steed
Kumara rides atop a giant peacock named Paravani, or “year.” Paravani is also known as the killer of serpents. In Hindu imagery, the serpent represents the cycle of years. Kumara, in his association with a peacock steed, is able to help men towards enlightenment, and out of the cycle of time that binds them. In the land of the dead, those who fasted in life are carried about by geese and peacocks, suggesting Kumara’s steed may have some special powers as a psychopomp as well. The word for peacock, shikandin, is also the name of a woman who became a man to please her wife (as told in a collection of “queer” tales retold by Devdutt Patanaik. It is there Pattanaik also details how in later versions of the tail, Shikandi is portrayed variously as a eunuch, a man who dressed as a woman, or a man who was transformed into a woman. The literal image this evokes—a masculine Kumara riding a man in a woman’s dress, a man who becomes a woman—is intriguing. As we shall see, in Southern India, cross-dressing, homosexually-inclined men worship Kumara’s virile good looks.
Kumara’s Cult and the Exclusion of Women
In different parts of India, Kumara’s relationship with women, or lack thereof, is treated differently. In Northern India, the cult of the boy-god was once quite widespread but is now nearly extinct. In Eastern India, he is worshipped once a year by women of “doubtful reputation.”
In Tamil-speaking regions of Southern India, where Kumara is called Murugan, his worship and prominence continue to loom large. Kumara/Murugan boasts two wives and his courtship of one of them is often portrayed. His worship is characterized by offerings of flowers and “orgiastic dances” that evoke “violent sexual passion” in girls. Ironically, it is in the south, where Kumara/Murugan’s heterosexual credentials are the strongest, that he is worshipped and adored by a cult of cross-dressing Tamil men called alis. It is this adoration that apparently prompted Alain Danielou to write that the god is a favorite and patron of homosexuals.
Kumara/Kartikeya’s worship in the north and west is quite different, but also has homoerotic elements. In West India, according to P. Thomas, in the province of Maharashtra, Kumara is declared a misogynist. Others said he is married (if at all) to Sena, that is, the army. His worship is forbidden to women. Cross-dressing hijras are fond of quoting a legend from the Shiva Purana to explain his bitterness towards women.
Why Kumara was Bitter Towards Women
When Kumara and his brother, Ganesha, were old enough to marry, their parents decided to give each of them a wife. Before giving them their brides, Shiva and Parvati asked their sons for a gesture of thanksgiving. Kumara climbed up on his peacock at once, intent on circling the world to indicate his gratitude.
But the elephantine Ganesha, whose steed was a tiny mouse, only circled his parents. “You are my world,” he said. “I circle you instead.” Shiva and Parvati were so touched by Ganesha’s sentiment that they gave both of the women to him!
When Kumara returned home, tired from his long journey, there was no one left for him to wed. Thereafter, Kumara rejected the advances of women and never married. He went to live alone in the Mountain of the Heron. Only his adoptive mother Parvati was allowed entrance to his mountain retreat.
Similarly, according to P. Thomas, women were forbidden from entering into the temples of Kumara or participate in his worship. Women who disregarded this warning risked losing their husbands, and would be cursed to be a widow in her next seven rebirths.
Kumara and the Hijras
Homosexual acts were reportedly involved in the initiation rites of Kumara’s sect. These rituals may well have involved his hijra worshipers. It is useful to remember that at Kumara’s birth the polarities of male and female reversed and that his birthplace was associated with sexual transformation. This may be why some hijras honor Kumara, as they’ve undergone a similar change of sex.
It is also worth noting that the homoerotic imagery of oral sex, as described above, is consistent with the sexual practices of the hijra. The Kama Sutra devotes an entire chapter to the practice of oral sex between men and these male transvestites.
Alain Danielou sees significant parallels between Kumara and Dionysius, in his form as womanly adolescent. Both have similar praise names. Kumara is known as Fire-born, Son of the Pleiades and Born in the Reeds. Dionysus is also called Fire-born, Son of the Nymphs and Of the Marshes. Their differences, however, are also notable.
While his martial prowess is sometimes emphasized, Kumara is also known as Guha, the Mysterious One. He is called “the secret god, wielder of secret knowledge…him who knows the six ways and the six meanings of the texts.” Certainly a god as complex as Kumara has multiple meanings to his followers. His legend certainly suggests a special meaning to folks who identify as queer is justified.
Danielou, Alain (1985). Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism. New York: Inner Traditions International, pp. 297-300.
Danielou, Alain (1992). Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus. New York: Inner Traditions International, pp. 50, 91-97, 133;
Hopkins, E. Washburn (1969). Epic Mythology. New York: Biblo and Tannen, pp. 21, 227-31.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1975). Hindu Myths. London: Penguin Books, pp. 104-15, 357.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976). Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkely: University of California, pp. 336-38.
Pattanaik, Devdutt (2014). Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You. New Dehli: Zubaan, pp. 39-48.
Thomas, P. (1961). Epics, Myths and Legends of India, 12th Edition. Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala Sons & Co., pp. 45-46.
Walker, Benjamin (1968). The Hindu World. New York: Praeger, pp. 199-200, 531-33.