What is the story behind Brahma?
By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Brahma is one of the three gods of the Hindu Trimurti, alongside Shiva and Vishnu. Known as the Creator and therefore tasked with the creation of the universe, Brahma has at times experienced great popularity. However, as time has passed, Brahma has been overshadowed by his Trimurti counterparts and is far less widely celebrated today.
Given his role as the creator of the universe, it is interesting to see the varying creation stories of Brahma himself. Early texts, such as the Brahmananda Purana, state that in the beginning there was nothing besides the endless ocean. From this ocean, the Hiranyagarbha arose – a large golden egg in which Brahma had created himself. It was from here that Brahma formed the rest of the universe, including the earth and all its inhabitants.
This Brahma-centric creation story has since been disputed by varying texts. In Vaishnavism, the sect which champions Vishnu, Brahma was born when he emerged from the navel of Vishnu on a lotus. In Shaivism, the sect which predominantly worships Shiva, it is said that Brahma was born of Shiva. And in Shaktism, in which worshippers focus on Shakti, the story goes that Devi created the universe, including Brahma. These texts indicate that Brahma is actually the secondary creator of the world, only working to support each higher god in their ultimate goals.
These stories are already an initial demonstration of Brahma’s decreasing popularity throughout time. By the 7th century, Brahma had lost his initial significance in Hinduism. As well as the rise of other sects, there are several tales in Hindu mythology which point towards why Brahma was set aside. One such story starts with a competition within the Trimurti, in which Brahma and Vishnu were determined to prove that each were superior to the other. Shiva attempted to end this feud by transforming himself into a pillar of fire. In order to prove their superiority, Vishnu and Brahma raced to each end of the pillar, but Brahma realised it was impossible and decided instead to lie to Shiva and claim he had achieved the feat. Appalled by his cheating, Shiva placed a curse on Brahma and ordered his fifth head to be cut off. This curse resigned Brahma to a fate of lesser worship.
Another story instead claims that Brahma sprouted his many heads in order to have a permanent view of Shatarupa, with whom he had become besotted despite it being his own daughter. Shatarupa did all in her power to avoid his immovable gaze, such as becoming every animal on earth, only for Brahma to do the same. Shiva became enraged upon learning about this, feeling that Brahma had a duty to protect his own daughter. Again, Shiva instructed that Brahma’s fifth head be struck off.
Both stories have contributed to why Brahma is not as intensely popular as his Trimurti counterparts despite his strong reverence in ancient texts. They also give reason for Brahma’s instantly recognisable appearance. Often depicted in gold or red, Brahma’s four heads and arms represent different aspects of Hindu life and cater towards his other responsibilities beyond the creation of the universe. His four faces are now said to reflect the Vedas or in some instances are said to represent the levels of the caste system in India. Each of his faces point in one of the cardinal directions but are also said to represent the different aspects of the mind: ego, self-confidence, and intellect.
In his hands, Brahma is often depicted holding a book, which points towards his role 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. Sometimes he is seen with his consort and wife, Saraswati, who symbolises both creative energies and knowledge.
Now rarely worshipped as one of the most important gods in Hinduism, the evolution of Brahma’s role is an interesting one to understand. There are few temples dedicated solely to his worship, though this isn’t to say there are none. The most famous of these temples is the Brahma Temple in Rajasthan, with others existing beyond India. That being said, it is undoubtable that Brahma no longer holds the position of importance that is claimed in the ancient texts of Hinduism.