If Gaṇapati is universally revered by almost all the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, and has even succeeded in going abroad to many countries of South East Asia, China, Japan and Afghanistan, Subrahmaṇya his brother, has somehow remained confined to South India. Historically speaking, he is a much older deity, being mentioned in stone inscriptions and shown on coins (1st cent. to 5th cent. A. D.), and was well-known in North India. The sixth day of a lunar month (ṣaṣṭhī) is considered sacred to him (as with serpent deities). He is said to have been married to a forest maid Vaḷḷiamma. The peacock is his carrier mount. His temples are usually found on hill-tops. All these factors may indicate that he was a sylvan deity connected with serpent worship and tree-worship, and hence was more popular among the people of lower strata in the society. Now, however, all sections of Hindus have accepted him and venerate him.
He is said to have been born of Śiva from Pārvatī, to destroy the demon Tārakāsura. Before conceiving him, even these Parents of the World had to perform severe tapas or austerities! This teaches the world, of the great need for tapas on the part of the parents desirous of excellence of offspring. He is stated to have been born in a forest of arrow-like grass (hence the name Śaravaṇabhava) and reared by the six divine mothers of the constellation Kṛttikā (Pleiades). Hence the names ‘Kārttikeya’ and ‘Ṣaṇmātura’. It seems he assumed six faces to suckle the milk of the six mothers and so got the appellation ‘Ṣaḍānana or Ṣaṇmukha’. He was appointed the commander-in-chief of the gods and thus became ‘Deva-senāpati’. With his matchless weapon, the Śakti or lance, shining brilliantly like fire, he easily destroyed Tārakāsura, thus becoming ‘Śaktidhara’ and ‘Tārakāri’. Being very young and virile he is ‘Kumāra’ or ‘Sanatkumāra.’ A forceful attacker in war, he is known as ‘Skanda’. ‘Skanda’ also means one who has accumulated the power of chastity. He likes holy people (brāhmaṇas) and is always good to them. Hence he is ‘Subrahmaṇya’. Once he broke down the Krauñcaparvata (a mountain), earning the name Krauñcabhettā. At another time he exposed Brahmā’s ignorance of the Vedas and hence got the name Brahma-Śāstā. His other names are Guha (the secret one), Gāṅgeya (son of Gaṅgā) and Svāminātha (the preceptor of his own father).
In icons, he is known as a boy either with one head and two arms or with six heads and twelve arms. His lance and his peacock are also prominently displayed. A fowl adorns his banner.
Subrahmaṇya, the son of Śiva and Śakti, represents the highest state to which a spiritual aspirant can evolve. Etymologically the word ‘Subrahmaṇya’ means ‘one who tends the spiritual growth of the aspirants’. It is only he who has reached the summit of spiritual perfection in this life, that is capable of tending the spiritual growth of others. Mythology describes him as the Son of God begotten to save the world from the tyranny of the fiend Tārakāsura. This is more true in the spiritual sense.
Subrahmaṇya, the Ṣaṇmukha, is depicted with six heads and twelve hands, all of them being attached to one trunk resting on two feet.
Of course, even a boy knows that biologically this is impossible even as an angel with wings is! But a concept like this can be conceded if it fits into useful philosophical postulations. His six heads represent the five sense organs and the mind, which co ordinates their activities. When these are controlled, refined and sublimated, man becomes a superman. This is the implication of the symbology.
According to Yoga psychology, there are six centres of psychic energy, of consciousness, in the human body, designated as Cakras. They are: Mūlādhāra (at the anus), Svādhiṣṭhāna (at the root of the sex organ), Maṇipūra (at the navel), Anāhata (at the region of the heart), Viśuddha (at the throat), Ājñā (between the eyebrows) and Sahasrāra at the top of the head which is the destination for this energy. When the yogi successfully raises his psychic energy to this topmost centre he has a vision of Śiva-Śakti.
Though it is the same energy that flows through all the six centres, in the case of an ordinary being it is concentrated in the three lowest centres. In a perfect being the flow is so refined and uniform, that practically all the centres have been elevated to the highest level. Subrahmaṇya represents this perfected state of spiritual consciousness.
Man has only two hands. But, his superior intellect has enabled him to invent so many tools and instruments through which he can accomplish many manual tasks, even simultaneously. Subrahmaṇya with his twelve hands, symbolically represents this power and capacity of man.
The combination of the six heads and twelve hands teaches us that the ideal of humanity is the perfected being who is not only a great Yogi but also a great worker!
Subrahmaṇya has two consorts: Vaḷḷi and Devasenā. The former is the daughter of a humble chieftain of a race given to agriculture and woodcraft. The latter is the daughter of Indra, the king of gods. This is just to show that God does not make any distinction between the humble folk and the elite. He loves both equally. Alternatively, this can also mean that the true leader of a society will espouse agriculture and industry on the one hand, and the armed forces on the other, in order to develop the society as also to protect it.
The lance of dazzling brightness is the weapon with which this Devasenāpati vanquished many an enemy. It actually stands for knowledge and wisdom with which all the ugly demons of ignorance can be destroyed.
The peacock is his mount. It is shown as belabouring a snake with one of its legs. The snake stands for time. The peacock that kills it stands for what is opposed to it. By riding the peacock he is showing that he is beyond what is within time and outside it. He is beyond all dualities.
If the snake represents lust, as it often does in the symbology of psychology, the peacock signifies the power of celibacy. As Skanda, he is the very personification of the powers of chastity and hence is shown as riding on the peacock.
Lastly, the peacock, with its beautiful plumage, represents creation in all its glory. Hence he that rides it is the Supreme Lord, the master of creation.
The udgātṛ, the third priest (from among the four) in a Soma sacrifice, has three assistants. Of these, subrahmaṇya is the last. One of his special duties is to recite a litany called ‘subrahmaṇyā,’ which is an āhvāna (call) to Indra, repeated thrice. Recitation of this litany is done on the second and subsequent days of the Agniṣṭoma sacrifice. This litany contains several adjectives of Indra.