Brahma the forgotten creator god of India

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The story of Brahma is one of the most puzzling aspects of Indian religious evolution, for a god who had bid fair for supreme status, and seemed poised to achieve it, suddenly fell in the regard of men and has almost no worshippers today. He has not suffered oblivion like the other Vedic gods who were his contemporaries. He has just shrunk into insignificance, the god who was once great and is now living off past glories. Brahma is the god who used to be. His place in the myths of India is pan-Indian, he is a constant presence in all of them but almost always he is merely the opening act for the cosmic crisis that will follow. It is for other gods to perform heroics and save the universe; other gods bring meaning and value to the lives of the faithful, not Brahma. Not any more at least.

This was not always the case. Brahma is perhaps unique in all the gods of India for never losing his primary function as the God of Creation. Every other god has evolved, changed, been assigned a different cosmic role but Brahma in all his various aspects has always been a God of Creation. This is an unchanged belief system for at least five thousand years in India now; India has never looked to any other god to bring forth creation. Other gods and goddesses may be nominally superior to him, but their part in Genesis stops once they produce Brahma. The real business of ordering and structuring the universe is always and forever Brahma’s. I believe this to be a unique myth structure in the entire world. No other Godly-function myth has endured so strongly with almost no change at all thus.

340px-Brahma_Statue_in_Prambanan In the Veda he is known as Prajapati, the All-Father, which is what Odin was called in Norse mythology too. He comes to our notice when he begins to people the universe with life forms engendered by an act of cosmic incest he is committing with his daughter. They take many animal and organic shapes and all the offspring take on the shape of the moment of copulation. Which is how a barren universe fills up with vegetable and animal life. This myth is not shocking by the standards of ancient cultures, many of which had as a Primal Cause an act of incest. However the other Vedic deities are not entirely comfortable with this action, but they are powerless to punish the All-Father. It is then that Brahma is overcome by the foe that will pursue him throughout the ages and will finally vanquish him – Rudra-Shiva, the dark outsider god, peculiar, outside the ambit of Vedic ritual, fearfully respected because grimly powerful. Rudra shoots his irresistible arrow at the Prajapati and wounds him into weakness, a punishment that reduces his stature. In this primary myth is already encapsulated Brahma’s fall from grace into an object of derision and the replacement of his values by the wilder and freer norms of Shiva.

By the time the Upanishads and the Brahmanas were being written, Prajapati was having trouble controlling his offspring who did not want any part of his mission to create, and instead chose to remain immersed in meditation. These were the Dakshas as well as the divine sage Narada, mind-born son of Brahma. In a fit of frustration Brahma curses Narada to fall and undergo the travails of human existence, for refusing to get married and raise a new race of humans. But Narada is a god too, as well as a great rishi, and he retaliates by cursing Brahma to lose his worshipers for this entire Cycle of Creation. It is only in the next Yuga that Brahma will again be worshiped. In this myth is given the first explanation for the loss of Brahma’s status, a matter that has lurked as an unacknowledged trauma in the Indian Psyche, for there are many stories which seek to explain away this totally unthinkable fact. He was the God of Creation, the All-Father and if he could fall, then what certainty was there in the universe. The second noteworthy aspect of this myth is the first acknowledgement in Indian thought that celibacy is superior to the expression of sexuality. With retrospective effect this notion served to tinge the original act of incest that Prajapati committed in even darker hues.

brahma-narada5 There was a time when Brahma seemed to have climbed out of this downward spiral. This was the time between the 3rd century to the 10th century. He was even part of the Buddhist pantheon at the time, as great as Indra, and the god who persuaded the Enlightened One to risk teaching what the Buddha regarded as a difficult doctrine that might confuse people. There were many temples built to him and I am reasonably certain there were some lost Puranas too. But once his decline was certain there was no incentive to preserve the texts and they died out. The Brahma Purana that survives today is named after him but it does not in any sense indicate his supremacy as a god. The only halfhearted exceptions are the Padma Purana and the Markandeya Purana. It was at this time that a key template in the perception of Brahma was created. This is the standard Brahma myth after stories of creation. There is a bellicose demon who performs great austerities and gains many boons from Brahma. Puffed up with this divine strength he assaults all creation and ascends to a temporary position of supreme dominance. The gods are cast out of heaven and hell is let loose on earth. At this stage one of the other gods – Shiva, Vishnu, the Great Goddess or any of their many variants take a hand and after some gory adventuring they destroy the demon. So typical had this become that Ravana, Hinduism’s Uber-villain, is actually the grandson of Brahma and always in good standing with him.

 

In the Pauranic period, Brahma, as befits a God of Creation, was granted Saraswati the goddess of learning as his wife. (See our section in Saraswati.) Brahma survived as an object of some respect by being aligned to Vishnu, albeit with a distinctively inferior status. He is supposed to perform his manifold tasks of creation while sitting on a lotus that grows out of Vishnu’s navel. This is a great degradation from his formal status as one of the Great Trinity, but Hinduism being an instinctual faith rather than an intellectual one, nobody seems to have realized what has happened. The conflict with the Shiva cult remained and Shiva is constantly visiting punishment upon the creator. Once he cuts off the fifth head of Brahma for his disrespectful and lustful behavior. In another version he acts just in time to prevent Brahma from acquiring supreme status. At one time Brahma did become the Supreme God. His fifth head began to glow with a luster that proved unbearably scorching for all the Worlds of Gods and men because it was shining with the light of understanding of the Vedas that it had heard from the other four heads of Brahma. Shiva therefore, to save the universe as well as to check such presumption, cut off this glowing head. Shiva is supposed to have pronounced the final curse that caused Brahma to fall forever from worship, an indication of the total triumph of the Shiva faction over the votaries of Brahma.

 

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The story is that Vishnu and Brahma were debating which if them was superior when Shiva manifested himself as a great pillar of fire with no end in either heaven or the nether world. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed down for countless ages to seek the source of this strange fiery pillar. He failed to do so and recognized that Shiva was not only the pillar, He was superior to him. He gave up the quest therefore. Brahma however, flew up as a swan and came back many aeons later with the report that he had seen the summit. An angry Shiva curses him for claiming credit for achievements not his own. He is cursed with perpetual old age and the total desertion of all worshippers. That explains why Brahma is always depicted nowadays as a senile old man who is so decrepit you wonder if he is not going to expire instantaneously. But as our illustrations show that was not always the case with Indian art.

 

The furious Shiva is popularly supposed to have relented and allowed Brahma one spot on all the earth where he has a temple dedicated solely to his worship. This is the famous Pushkar temple situated in the middle of a lake and an unusually serene spot. However the common perception of there being only one temple to Brahma is untrue. There are at least four major temples to him still in use today. They are Pushkar in Ajmer, Rajasthan; Dudhai in the state of Madhya Pradesh; Khed Brahma at Idar, also in Madhya Pradesh and Kodakkal in the Malabar region of Kerala-Karnataka. Remember you heard it here first! I would not be in the least surprised if more temples came to light tucked away in remote and obscure spots. Brahma worshippers are not desirous of the limelight. In vindication of this hunch just recently, July 2004, I came to know of a fifth Brahma temple in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This temple is part of a group of predominantly Shiva shrines at Kaleshwaram, 130 kilometers from Karimnagar, and is in the middle of nowhere in particular, so that explains its anonymity. I am certain more temples exist to Brahma and will be discovered in due time.

 

Here is the complete list of brahma temples courtesy of Wikipedia as on September 16 2013.

 

Temples devoted to Brahmā

 

 

  • Chaturmukha(Four Faces)BRAHMA temple at Bangalore, Karnataka, India

 

 406px-Brahma_on_hamsa

 

 

Brahma is depicted as a four or five-faced man with four hands. He is the epitome of Vedic learning and hence has the Vedas in one hand, prayer beads in another, the sacred water pot in the third hand and a ladle for the Vedic fire sacrifice in the fourth hand. In some versions he is depicted with a bow. This would be consistent with mythology as the supreme weapon is a missile called the Brahmastra, and it is a much sought after boon of Brahma. His vehicle is the swan, like that of Saraswati, and his complexion is supposed to be red. The Male Trinity too are a Red, Black and White (primary colors of spirituality) trio like the goddesses are. A day of Brahma is a span of creation and lasts for 2,160,000,000 human years! Creation is in abeyance during the night of Brahma, which lasts for the same length of time and then the Cycle is repeated. Brahma lives for a hundred years thus, and then he too dies and all creation is finally dissolved. Only Shiva, Vishnu or the Goddess, depending upon your cult affiliation are eternal and bring about the next Cycle of Creation. His various epithets represent his ancient creative role. Amongst them are Sanat, the Ancient One, Adi-kavi, the first poet and Srashtri, the creator.

 

 

Rohit Arya is an Author, Yogi and Polymath, being a writer, a corporate trainer, a mythologist and a vibrant speaker.  He has written the first book on Vaastu to be published in the West, {translated into five European languages} the first book on Tarot to be published in India, co-authored a book on fire sacrifice, and is the creator of The Sacred India Tarot {82 card deck and book}. He was the Editor of The Leadership Review, and on the advisory panel of Indiayogi.com, the first spiritual portal in the country. Currently he is the Director of Pro-Factor, a leadership and change facilitation corporate training outfit. He has been an arts critic and socio-cultural commentator for over two decades. Rohit is also a Lineage Master in the Eight Spiritual Breaths system of Yoga. He founded the Arya Yoga Sangha and leads multiple meditation circles each week. The videos of his talks on various subjects can be found here http://www.youtube.com/user/TheAryayogi

 

His blogs can be accessed here

 

https://aryayogi.wordpress.com/

 

http://actpersistintensify.wordpress.com/

 

http://creativeaye.wordpress.com/

 

http://zestandgrit.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Brahma the forgotten creator god of India

  1. Very interesting Rohit, and makes me think of the fate of any creativity which the world considers is too much – or when an artist becomes unbalanced. Brahma is always in peril of death or disablement. The poles of the universe must keep in balance. The archetype is a profound psychology pertaining to us all, with Lord Siva as a kind of policeman. But also there is a message that Indian culture does not recreate itself afresh – from the deep, which would be Brahma – but trawls over the forms and rituals of the old. At least, that springs to my mind. Can you email to me that photo of him at the beginning of your post? and the one of him on a swan? They are embedded.

  2. Very well written Rohit. It is even more interesting to note that Bramha might be a ceremonial role as conferred to the senior most of the vedic society (hence the old age). There may be parallels of Bramha in other cultures, one in particular, Abraham, also a pro creator, the eternal forefather (hence prajapati). His role was building a society, perhaps something to do with agriculture, old fashioned values, not popular as more operational Gods like Indra and Varun. The no role change is a very very interesting observation, a rare feat for a vedic God. He was perhaps a God of one of the earliest Aryan (vedic) sects, lost importance due to assimilation with newer cultures, whose Gods had more charm and current utility (kartickein, ganesh, kali).

    His particular loss of honour in the hands of Shiva (as depicted time and again) could be a reference to some historical event (long drawn event as supremacy of one culture on another). Please note, Shiva had also beheaded Daksha, Bramha’s eldest son. His association with Saraswati is of great importance, as the river dried up, the Bramhanic group lost their supremacy, lost out to newer Gods ( of war and trade, rather than pantheistic Gods of nature.

    Bramha was a God of rishis, he himself looks like one, he is said to hold and narrate the vedas, he is characterised by the vedas. Ved Vyasa had regrouped the vedas in the current form (4 Vedas). Could that mean Bramha’s looks and features have been drawn up in the later vedic age (mahabharata times) when he was an old-school God. Bramha is the reminiscence of a forefather (God) of the older times, Rig Vedic times. He (his tribe) won over (allied) other cultures, their Gods were incorporated in the religious myths, Bramha (who had become less relevant to his own tribe) lost his pre-eminence. The locations of his temples are all far thrown from the crux of the ancient Hindu civilization. Not clustered around the heart land of Sindhu Valley, why?

    Looking forward to some further elucidation from you.

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