Through Skandamata, we can tap into the adaptable nature of our expansive awareness to drive our life into the path of well-being.
Significance of Science and Consciousness
The study of consciousness has taken centre stage in today’s modern world, as the scientific community researches more on the science and spirituality connection. Let us enquire into the mystery of consciousness, to become a better version of ourselves each day as shown by our ancestors, based on and supported by a scientific and logical explanation. The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared by Dr. Roger Penrose for his seminal 1965 paper on the theoretical basis of black holes. He also has presented theories on the connections between human (or animal) consciousness and fundamental physics. Penrose believes that the answer to consciousness may lie in a deeper knowledge of quantum physics. Dr. Amit Goswami claims that “Consciousness is the ground of all beings.” In essence, the human mind is witnessing the most radical paradigm shift in its own history. The well-served and previously glorious materialistic and reductionist scientific worldview is yielding to a novel scientific conception of subjective consciousness and objective reality—and their unexpected intimate kinship.
Let us delve into this mystery and find synergy into this connection. Our Vedic Rishis explained salient features of practical living in symbolic languages and stories so that the common man can grasp them. Now in this century with the progress of scientific knowledge, we search our roots, based on scientific enquiry, to bring humanity in the path of the evolutionary progress of consciousness.
In Sri Aurobindo’s words, “Consciousness is a reality inherent in existence.” Since the creation started with the Absolute seeking full manifestation, this unveiling of consciousness takes place through an innate aspiration present in each form of matter, sometimes referred to as “the secret Will in nature.”.
Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation
According to Sri Aurobindo, in conformity with the oldest Indian scriptures, matter was created by the ultimate or supreme consciousness seeking manifestation. Sri Aurobindo calls this the process as Involution. In his major works The Synthesis of Yoga and The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo explained how, through an inner discipline of self-development and self-perfection, human beings can divinize all the aspects of human nature. This will take place through a process of transformation. He saw the evolving soul or psychic being as the intermediary and first instrument in the first stage of this transformation. A divine life on earth leads us to the possibility, rather the necessity, of integrating spirituality in every detail in our daily life. This development can be summarized with two of his famous phrases: “All Life is Yoga.” and “Yoga is nothing but practical psychology.”
Importance of Devi Mahatmyam
Among the many texts of Hinduism, Devi Mahatmyam is a rich text which delves into our evolutionary transformation. The Gods, Devis and Devatas are significant symbols pointing to a greater understanding of this concept. In other words, Devi/Shakti worship is nothing but worshipping the inherent Power of the Supreme Divine. According to a particular view prevalent among both scientists as well as spiritualists, everything in the universe is a manifestation of imperishable energy. The Devi in Devi Mahtmyam manifests in nine forms. Devi Mahatmyam is the story of the Divine Mother who is the destroyer of the grand illusion and allow us to gain total freedom and joy. Total freedom comes when we are released from our ingrained subconscious habits of the mind. The nature of the mind is fluid and has the tendency to fluctuate based on the input from the sense organs and the internal circuitry.
During Navarathri we celebrate the nine aspects of Devi Shakti, amongst them, one of the aspects is Skandamata. We will emphasize and discover the symbolism behind the fifth form of the Goddess, Skandamata, the mother of Kartikeya. It is really interesting to find interpretations as to why in the Devi Mahatmyam only Kartikeya has been mentioned. No other Gods and Goddesses are mentioned in the nine forms of the Devi. We think that there is some connection and significance in the form and quality of Kartikeya that is associated with this transformation as a whole. Let us delve into the matter and bring out some interpretations of the symbolism in the depiction of Devi sitting with her warlord son on her lap.
Possible Interpretations of Skandamata
There are three probable interpretations.
The first interpretation is the significance of the forward-facing divine energy representing awareness. This represents the capacity to focus and resist distraction. In some ways, it could include the ability to know from moment to moment what our mind is doing which can allow us to make conscious choices. The divine energy is the witness consciousness which acts as the observer, the witness to all phenomena and happenings from moment to moment and make us realize the power of the present moment, the power of awareness and the power of now.
The second interpretation is based on the quality of compassion, empathy, wisdom and equanimity as signified in the mother-child relationship. There is a sense of safety that is connected to our interpersonal relationship which is characterized by kindness and empathy.
The third interpretation is based on the process of gaining self-knowledge. The process of gaining self-knowledge can release us from the bondage of fixed, unhealthy, static state of being.
Capacity of expansive Awareness
The first interpretation represents the expansive awareness that has the capacity to focus and resist distraction is symbolically represented in the birth of Kartikeya as described in Skanda Purana. Skanda Purana is among the major Puranas that Rishi Ved Vyasa composed. It is his second major work outside of the Mahabharata. It is the largest of all the Puranas with the longest text of more than eighty-one thousand shlokas.
When Dakshyani, Shiva’s wife and Daksha‘s daughter died in the sacrificial fires, Shiva was full of misery and immersed himself in deep meditation. Demons started ravaging the worlds and two of the demons namely Surapadma and Tarakasura were invincible. Both of them pleased Brahma through their sadhana and asked for a boon. The boon was to be invincible. Since Brahma could not grant them the boon of invincibility, Surapadma and Tarakasura asked for a boon to vanquish a young child of Shiva. Surapadma and Tarakasura felt that Shiva will not be out of his despondency for a long time, leave alone get married and have a child.
It is in this scenario, the Gods appealed to Mount Himalaya and Menaka to have a baby and Dakshayani would be re-born as their daughter. The young baby was named Uma or Parvati. At a very young age, Parvati started to visit the place where Shiva was meditating and subjected herself to difficult tapasya or sadhana to win Shiva as her husband. She reminded Shiva of her previous birth as Dakshayani and the boon given to Asura Surapadma and Tarakasura. She also reminded Shiva of the ravages that these Asuras were causing in the worlds. Shiva and Parvati got married and settled down in Mount Gandhamdama. This could be an indication that when we are immersed in sorrow, we forget our duty and responsibility towards our family, our environment and also our infinite potential, just like Shiva, who became dormant with sorrow. Then Shakti or energy of The Mother Goddess or our Expansive Consciousness i.e. awareness is required to make us remember our duties, responsibilities and our inherent potential.
With this background, Skanda’s birth was deemed necessary for the protection of the worlds from the demon Surapadma and Tarakasura. The events that led to the birth of Skanda include the many elements such as Agni, Vayu, Jal and Prithvi. Agni carried the seed of Shiva and Parvati, but could not hold on to the energy and had to pass on the energy to Ganga who at some point needed to cool off and asked Vayu to help her. Vayu had to mingle the energy along the reed grass on the banks of the river. A six-headed boy was born from this scattered energy to the six wives of the Saptarishis who were getting ready for the morning prayers near the river. These six wives became the Krittikas and these are identified as the Pleiades constellation known as the seven sisters constellation in the sky along with Arundhathi. The name Kartikeya comes from the fact that the six Krittikas had borne the child for some period. The name Shanmuga means six faces – the name comes from the six Krittikas who held the energy for some time. The name Skanda comes from the name Skanna – meaning scattered energy. When we look closely at the birth of Skanda — all the elements played a role and the energy travelled from Agni to various other elements and carried with it the scattered energy of each of the elements to finally form one child who happens to be the son of Parvati( Skandamata).
We can also look at this concept of Skanda’s birth as a ray emitting from Shiva’s consciousness with the energy of Devi Parvati that entered the pores of the six Rishipatnis, in turn, was projected using the elements of Fire – Agni, Ganga – Water, Vayu – Wind and Earth – Reed Grass. Quantum physics emphasizes that the Universe is a “singularity” comprised of only energy, with the notion of matter as a separate realm being an illusion. Einstein said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”
The simple fact is every “thing” in the Universe is made out of energy and all energies are entangled and interconnected. In this regard it is relevant to again cite Einstein: “The field is the soul governing agency of the particle.” Our human body is also made up from the aggregation of this scattered energy of five elements, which are present in our body of which we are made.
Skanda is created by the emitted energy of all elements, this diffused emitted energy embodies the character and the exploits of Kartikeya. Lord Krishna says in the Gita — SenaninamAharnSkandah. “Of the Generals, I am Skanda”. In elaborating the nature of Skanda’s energy, we must look into the metamorphosis of a young boy becoming a war general. There are three major war exploits of Skanda. The first one focuses on him defeating Lord Indra and becoming the General of the Gods. The second is based on the killing of Asura Tarakasura and Pralamba. The third most important one is the defeat of Asura Surapadma.
As soon as Skanda was born, he had the capacity to pick up the bow which Shiva had used to kill Tripurasura. He rained arrows on the demons. When the Gods did not know who Skanda was, they goaded Indra, the King of the Devas, to attack the boy Skanda with his Vajra. Vajra is an instrument that is indestructible and has a thunderbolt like effect. As soon as the Vajra was hurled on the boy, from Skanda’s body emitted 2 fiery individuals named Shakha and Vishaka. In the night sky, one can see the Vishaka stars in the constellation of Libra. They form a forked branch. With this symbolism, the Vishaka star represents a sense of purpose fueled with determination with courageous warrior energy with a combination of the energies of Agni and Indra. Skanda defeated King Indra in the battle and was placed as the General of the Gods.
Demon Tarakasura was powerful enough to even slay Virabhadra — Shiva’s attendant. He scorned at the Gods for sending a young boy to fight him. Skanda killed the demon by piercing his chest with a spear. Demon Pralamba ran away from the battlefield where Tarakasura and Skanda were fighting. He took refuge in the underworld and began to kill the nagas(snakes). Shesha Naga took refuge in Skanda and asked him for protection from Pralamba’s oppression. Skanda used the spear to kill Demon Pralamba and bring peace to the nagas. In images of Skanda as a warrior, we will see a snake being held in control by Lord Karthikeya.
Demon Surapadma was an asura who was the son of Rishi Vajranaga and princess Varangi. He was also the grandson of Sage Kashyapa. He had two brothers, and one of them was the famous Tarakasura. Asura Surapadma did rigorous penance and was granted the boon of “conditional immortality”. He could only die at the hands of Shiva’s son. His capital was near the sea near the town of Tiruchendur. Although Kartikeya defeated the brothers of Surapadma and killed all in his army, Asura Surapadma would not surrender. Kartikeya had to march to his capital city and fight Surapadma who decided to fight alone. He had supernatural powers so he continued to use them to change forms from a tree to a peacock to a rooster. Skanda continued to charge and at some point, Surapadma felt complete remorse and surrendered. The eventual defeat of Asura Surapadma is called Surasamharam. This event is celebrated in South India, especially in the city of Tiruchendur – located in the southern tip of India. The six elements of his birth are the six faces of AruMuga – which in Tamil means six-faceted. His head is turned everywhere (Visvatomukha) as he represents the all expansive awareness.
In our life also, we have to face the various asuras of ignorance and stubbornness which we can defeat when we arouse the expansive awareness of focus and attention. When we are in the state of expansive consciousness & awareness, we develop the power of discrimination and power to annihilate the demons from our lives.
Compassion, Empathy and Neuroplasticity
The second interpretation of Skandamata is as a symbol of compassion and empathy. The mother-child relationship signifies the Mother Divine quality such as wisdom and equanimity. We can see glimpses of this quality in Skanda’s life and also in the perspective of neuroscience. Some of the examples of the compassion demonstrated by Kartikeya as explained in Skanda Purana are:
- a) The wives of the sages were deserted by their husbands, the wives felt betrayed and disappointed. In an act of compassion, Skanda placed the wives of the sages such as Krittika as a star in the constellation as a reminder of their role in the birth of Kartikeya.
- a) Svaha the wife of Agni was devasted that she was not part of Agni’s life in the birth of Karthikeya. She wanted to be with Agni all her life. Skanda, in an act of compassion, altered the chants that would be pronounced during sacrificial fires. As with every sacrificial fire, the chant of Agnaye Svaha is pronounced to ensure the constant companionship of Agni and Svaha. b) While defeating Surapadma Asura who was wounded and at the final hour, Lord Subrahmanya felt compassion for this mighty demon who was lying low. Surapadma had done many good deeds in his previous births, the Lord revealed Himself in his Divine Glory and the delusion of the Asura rolled away and he bowed down to Lord Subrahmanya and craved mercy and forgiveness. Surapadma had the ability to assume many forms during the fights with Lord Subrahmanya so the peacock and rooster would be used as an emblem for Lord Subrahmanya as evidence of the great fight and forgiveness deemed on the mighty asura. This fight ends on the sixth day after Deepavali — Shashti day after the Amavasya.
- a) When we look at Lord Subrahmanya’s pictures we see him riding the peacock and in one hand he holds the spear – Vel given by Lord Shiva and the other hand holds the flag with an insignia of the rooster. A tribute to the Asura Surapadma. When Asura Surapadma was genuinely seeking the protection of the Divine with true remorse, Lord Subramanya in his magnanimous space of compassion blessed him to be immortal by riding on his flagstaff as a rooster and be his vehicle peacock.
- a) The significance of the rooster symbol on the flag is also to remind us that the crowing of the rooster is a wakeup call from the slumber of ignorance and arrogance that we are all trapped in called Maya. Just as the rooster wakes us up in the morning to start our day — It is an alarm for us to wake up and carry on our duties in an equanimous way.
Neuroscience shows that compassion is an emotion which has a highly developed cognitive component. There are different levels of compassion. The first level is empathy and in this case, one can imagine how one would feel if they were in someone else’s shoes.
The second level is giving attention to the feeling and in this case, we put some action behind the inspiration so it would mean that we create some time and space to put into action.
The third level is practice with reason, in this case, we are interweaving our perseverance with wisdom and reflecting and modifying our path without being discouraged.
Through sadhana and meditative practices, it is possible to alter the brain at a structural and functional level, affecting our behaviours in many distinctive ways. The article by Mathew Ricard on the mind of the meditator describes this process as neuroplasticity. It is defined as the brain’s ability to respond to life and change itself by forging new neural pathways and circuits while pruning away old ones as needed. These physical and behavioural changes that are observed by neuroscientists are there to stay and eventually become traits and second nature. That is the nature of inner transformation.
Sara Lazar’s important studies in neuroscience show that there is an increase in the amount of grey matter in some specific cortical areas, such as the Insula, thought to be essential for the capacity of self-awareness and the ability to process emotions such as compassion.
Recently, Richard Davidson and his team of researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds, have mapped the brain of long-term meditating practitioners which showed that as soon as they shifted to the meditative mode on compassion, there was a burst of gamma waves that lasted the entire minute of the compassion meditation, oscillating across the brain in very rhythmic, coherent and synchronized patterns. Although it diminished when the meditators shifted into resting mode, it didn’t disappear completely, remaining clearly visible and measurable. This suggests that the neural circuit is corresponding to an extraordinary level of consciousness and this response has an impact on the biological process which is critical for well-being.
The ongoing open state of awareness that is experienced by the meditators when they are able to meditate on compassion, which is a spacious and wide, opened the cognitive faculty of our brain’s circuitry. This ongoing experience allows us to be prepared for whatever may come in terms of either threat or love. The exhibition of the neural plasticity is possible when we embody and practice and become aware of our intrinsic compassionate nature which is a highly evolved cognitive component of our brain circuitry. As we continue our practices, it is possible that the new state of being that is created can become part of our being, and eventually our traits. The book Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson suggests that these heightened states one may experience at times during these meditative sessions, together with the ability to approach life with presence, openness and non-judgmentally, could eventually linger and stay to become traits.
Skandamata may symbolically represent an example of neural plasticity while we meditate on compassion as a cognitive mental faculty. Skandamata symbolically represents in essence the very expression of compassion, of a mother-child relationship which is rather beautiful, seamless and automatic. The meditative practices on compassion and the act of compassion weaved with wisdom and reasoning are almost like our neural interconnectedness which is being stabilized in an equanimous loving awareness.
Kartikeya as an embodiment of the pursuit of Self Knowledge
The third interpretation is based on Kartikeya who represents the process of gaining self-knowledge. Once we are in the process of developing an expansive awareness and compassion, we are more likely to develop intuition and insight. Now we are on the path of self-knowledge. Skanda Purana also has many stories that reveal Kartikeya pursuing the knowledge of the Self. He was willing to walk the journey of exploring the transcendental truth.
Here is a story from the Skanda Purana illustrating the power of this true knowledge. Shiva placed the boy in his arms and decided to send him to get some education from Lord Brahma- the creator. Skanda went to Brahma for education and instead of the teacher asking a question, the student asked a question to the teacher. He asked Brahma – Please explain the meaning of OM in a succinct manner. Brahma explained what he knew but Kartikeya was not satisfied with the answer. He decided to go back to his father Shiva and asked him to explain the meaning of OM. Shiva explained the meaning of OM but Kartikeya was still not satisfied with the answer. Then Shiva said “ if you are not satisfied with these answers, why don’t you tell me what is the most succinct meaning of OM”
Interestingly, Kartikeya instead of jumping to share his knowledge asked Shiva to give him the position of a Swami and only then would he share his knowledge. Since the boy was very young, Shiva placed Kumara Skanda on his shoulders and asked him to whisper the meaning of OM in his ear. Kumara explained the essence of OM in a succinct manner to Shiva and on hearing this, Goddess Parvati named Skanda as Swaminatha. The Sanskrit root of the word Swami is “[he who is] one with his self” (swa stands for “self”) and Natha means husband. There are other stories in the Skanda Purana that support different theories as to why Shiva needed to hear the mantra because of some curse that had wiped out his understanding.
Examples of the intuition and insight can be visualized in the writings of Sri Adi Sankaracharya. In SubrahmanyaBhujangam, when Adi Sankaracharya meditated on Sri Subrahmanya, he became aware of the self-luminous light of knowledge in his heart. And out came the words in the bhujangametre. In the shloka he says:
“ chidekAshadAsyAhridhidhyothathe me, mukhAnissaranthegiraschApichitram”.
The meaning of this sentence in the shloka is:
In my heart, shines an effulgent light with six luminous faces, and because of that, from my mouth, amazing phrases with musical tone and meanings pour out in extempore.
Thus, from the symbolism of Skandamata, we can tap into the adaptable nature of our expansive awareness to drive our life into the path of well-being. Recent work in Richard Davidson’s laboratory has developed a unifying framework for well-being based on cognitive and affective neuroscience which relates to awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. These attributes can be cultivated through intentional mental training as part of the psychological well-being pathway. The ability to be consciously aware of our focused attention in an open non-judgmental manner while developing our innate compassionate cognitive faculty can be stepping stones in the process of acquiring the knowledge of the self. There is growing evidence to show that some practices for attention training affect the brain circuitry towards well-being. John Kabat-Zinn’s work defines mindfulness training as “paying attention in an accepting, open, non-judgmental way to whatever experience you are having in this moment”
Symbolic interpretations from Skandamata and Kartikeya’s life allows us to discriminate the various elements that are part of our subconscious belief systems and narratives. The asuras symbolize the emergence of the dominant self-limiting forces in our life. Devas symbolize the regenerating life forces that are also part of our expansive awareness. The dual symbol of Skandamata with Kartikeya in her lap represents that awareness or expansive consciousness, when directed with compassion and empathy can serve as a harbinger of acquiring the knowledge of the Self, thus transforming our lives.
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