August 01, 2012
text and photos © Pratapaditya Pal and image copyright holders
(click on the small image for full screen image with captions)
The Rise of Mahāsena: The Transformation of Skanda-Kārttikeya in North India from the Kuṣāṇa to Gupta Empires, by Richard T. Mann (Brill: Leiden. Boston 2012. pp. XIV and 282. Figs 43), is a study of the early history or development and decline of the god of war in the Brahmanical/ Hindu pantheon. Despite the chronological parameters indicated in the long subtitle, the book, in fact, is more ambitious. As the author explains in the Introduction (p.1) the study covers the period from the fourth century BCE to the 7th century CE, whereas the Kushan period or the Kushan Empire is dated from the first century CE to the end of the fourth century CE (p.1, n.1). Although Mann prefers to use the spatial expression "Kushan empire" rather than the temporal "period", the extent of the empire is nowhere defined, nor for that matter the Gupta Empire or period. While there is less certainty about the beginning of the Kushan Empire, at least the Gupta period is known to have begun in 320 CE. It is also known that the Kushan empire, by and large, extended from the present day western Uttar Pradesh to Afghanistan in the north expanding from north to south, the indigenous Gupta empire spread from the present day Bihar/Bengal in the east and at its height expanded across much of northern India to the Arabian Sea in the west.
In a brief Introduction Richard A. Mann who is a religious historian succinctly outlines his thesis as follows. Delving deeply into the early literature, the late Vedic texts and the epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, mostly he demonstrates that Skanda Kumāra began his career as the leader of a group of popular deities identified as graha (literally grasper or seizer), a term used to denote both planets and “a class of dangerous spirits that possessed pregnant women and young children,” generally infants. In due course these seizers were transformed by propitiation into protectors and assimilated into one conceptual deity with different names. Using both literary and material evidence he proposes that these protective spirits were transformed into the auspicious general of the gods and of the Brahamanical (later Hindu) pantheon and mythologized into the son of Shiva during the Kushan period. While there is nothing new in this proposition his arguments are the most detailed and his marshalling of the literary evidence is impressive for its depth and breadth.
He then argues that "the transformation is brought about by two forces, which, while they rarely openly acknowledge the existence of the other, intersect in a dynamic process that changes not just Skanda, but Hinduism as a whole." (p.1)
One of these forces he avers is primarily religious, the attempts by Brahmanical authorities to assimilate the presumably non-Brahmanical malevolent spirits into a mega-benevolent composite deity as narrated not only in the late Vedic texts and the epics but also in early Ayurvedic and astrological texts.
The second force that radically transformed the nature of this rising but assimilated cultive figure, Mann argues forcefully, is political to personify the exigencies and demands of an empire – that of the polyglot Kushan empire. Being intruders from beyond the Indian borders themselves, the Kushans had to exert authority over a complex society of indigenous and other foreign groups who had preceded them into the subcontinent. A new deity with a syncretic personality that incorporated both extraneous and indigenous concepts and traits became a desideratum. As Mann writes (p.2), "I argue that the Kushans and the cultural heterogeneity found in their realm create important changes in early Hinduism, changes that are encapsulated in the history of Kārttikeya during that reign."
Here again the thesis is not altogether novel but the learned author makes his case cogently with copious evidence both literary and materialistic. Where he does deviate from previous scholars is in his claim that having reached its peak in the Kushan period when the moniker Mahāsena or great general was preferred, the decline of the deity began in the following Gupta period. Undoubtedly, the conventional wisdom had been validated by the composition of the great poetic opus called Kumārasambhava or The Birth of Kumāra by the greatest Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa (c. 400 CE), the popularity of the names of the divinity with the Gupta emperors (witness Kumāragupta and Skandagupta) and the redaction of the voluminous Skandapurāṇa. While some scholars may not agree with Mann, there is no doubt that he presents his case diligently and persuasively in chapters 8 and 9 of the book using literature, epigraphy, numismatics as well as the plastic arts, as he does in his earlier chapters (5-7) for the Kushans and the Yaudheyas. Here also he differs from most scholars as to whether the Yaudheyas (who are known to have flourished in a large swath of land in today's Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE) formed one or more "tribal republics", preferring the terms "state" or "group", (I personally feel the expression "polity" is the most appropriate). In any event, the evidence for the popularity of the cult of Kumāra among the Yaudheyas is based primarily on numismatics and as I am not a numismatist the validity of Mann's arguments are best left to future scholars. What is clear, however, is that the six-headed form of Kumāra holding a spear indicating his martial aspect appears for the first time in the earliest Yaudheya coins characterized by the great numismatist John Allan (even though some scholars doubt his suggested dates) as class three coins. Yet again in Yaudheya coins we encounter still another moniker for the divinity in "Brahmaṇyadeva," clearly indicating Brahmanization of the deity, though a son of Shiva, probably by the Brahmanical priests of the Yaudheyas.
Mann has correctly interpreted the political significance of the warrior god Mahāsena for the Kushana rulers. The royal cult also seems to have had a brief revival during the Gupta period as it is clear from the names and coins of the Gupta emperors Kumāragupta and Skandagupta and the poet Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava, perhaps written to celebrate the birth of the terrestrial prince. If Mann is correct in his assertion that the cult of Skanda-Kumāra was already on the wane during the Gupta period, curiously, it continued to play a role in regal mythology, if not in the need to legitimization, among the Kadamba rulers of Vanavāsi (4th – 6th centuries) on the western Deccan and the Chalukyas of Badami who overthrew the Kadambas. Significantly the moniker Mahāsena remains popular in the royal inscriptions of both these dynasties which would corroborate its military significance for the Kushanas.
The magnificent and monumental reliefs of Skanda both at the sixth century Elephanta and later at Ellora do not entirely denote that his importance had substantially diminished during the Gupta period. In fact, his identity with the Tamil Murukan mentioned in the Sangam literature (ca. 4th C. BCE- 4th C. CE) must have been completed by this time, a subject to which our author is probably turning his attention even as we pen this review. In a footnote to his Introduction he states, “This current study limits itself to the northern Sanskrit tradition and does not engage the extensive Tamil tradition of Murukaṇ, a topic that I intend to treat elsewhere.” (pp. 2-3) We eagerly await the result of that engagement and treatment.
Notes on illustrations
Stylistically, the Mitawali Skanda-Mahāsena (fig. 4, Mann's fig. 27) may well be the earliest and most monumental lithic representation of the deity found to date in the subcontinent. It is certainly akin formally to the colossal statues of Yakshas from central India (cf. early B.C.E. freestanding examples from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in Sonya Quintanilla, History of Early Stone Scultpure at Mathura, c. 150 B.C.E.-100 C.E. [Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2007, for numerous examples]. It would seem therefore that the iconography for the deity was wellknown long before the appearance of the Kushans. Can the Mitawali figure be identified as Mahāsena?
Another noteworthy feature is that in both the Mathura reliefs (fig. 1, Mann's fig. 13) and the freestanding figure (fig. 2, Mann's fig. 14) Kumāra does not have the cock or rooster but only the spear, whereas both attributes appeared earlier in the Mitawali representation (fig. 4, Mann's fig. 27). Moreover, in both Mathura depictions he is a child, emphasized in the statue by his face and hairstyle, though the body is of an adult. In the Udaygiri representation (fig. 5, Mann's fig. 32) which follows the Mitawali figure for the attributes, the god is portrayed as a young adult with heroic proportions. In the Gandhāra relief (fig. 3, Mann's fig. 17), however, he is an older but young warrior which is emphasized further by the long coat of mail, a feature obviously rejected in the tradition further south, where he is more a prince than a soldier. His Indianess in the Gandhāra reliefs is emphasized by his unshod feet and the turban. Apart from demonstrating the iconographical fluidity in the early period, clearly some artists were conscious of the literary tradition that describes Kumāra's instant transformation into the divine general soon after his birth. It may further be noted that the artists of Nepal in the post-Gupta age remained more steadfast than their Indian counterparts in portraying him as a child god rather than even a young adult, as seen in a splendid stone image of the Licchavi period now in the Alsdorf collection in Chicago (fig. 6).