By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Brahma is one of three gods in the Hindu triumvirate. Known as the Creator, it was his role to create the universe as well as all the creatures living within it. He is also considered to be the god of knowledge and of the ancient Hindu texts, called Vedas. These roles and responsibilities mean that Brahma himself symbolises pure life and ancient knowledge.
Brahma is a very distinctive deity due to his four heads and hands. These have varying origin stories, meaning there is some debate as to what the existence of these body parts truly represents. One of the main explanations for this depiction is that the four heads represent the four Vedas - Rk, Sama, Yajuh, and Atharva. Others suggest that these four heads are symbolic of the four varnas, perhaps better known as the caste system. Another different angle altogether (and a much less flattering one) suggests that the four heads were sprouted in order to have a permanent view of his womanly creation, Shatarupa, who went significantly out of her way to avoid his immovable gaze. In fact, she turned into every animal on earth, only for Brahma to do the same. Brahma’s faces also have a meaning, separate from his four heads. Each of his faces point in one of the cardinal directions but are also said to reflect the different aspects of the mind: ego, self-confidence, and intellect.
As well as four heads and faces, Brahma also has four arms in which he often holds symbolic objects. The first of these is a book, which is perhaps unsurprising given his status as the god of knowledge. Another item he is regularly seen holding is prayer beads, to represent all the ingredients in the creation of the universe.
Brahma is also often depicted alongside or sporting other objects, all of which carry meaning. He is often seen sat upon a swan, symbolising grace and his creation, or upon a lotus flower, which again represents the power of natural creation and is a common symbol within Hinduism. His head is sometimes topped with a crown to reflect his power over creation, also seen through his gold complexion. Sometimes he is seen with his consort and wife, Saraswati, who represents both creative energies and knowledge.
The many variations of Brahma are fitting with the evolution of his characteristics over time. Throughout many centuries, interpretations of Brahma have come and gone, some which highly enshrine him, and others which diminish him as a lesser god of Hinduism.