PRAJĀPATI belongs to the powerful ritual center of Vedic traditions and their discourses known as the Brāhmaṇas, where he is the supreme being and father of the gods. He is the link between the ancient Puruṣa mythology that instituted sacrifice, on the one hand, and the late Vedic bifurcation into a metaphysics of the impersonal Absolute (brahman ) and the personal god Brahmā, on the other. In the religious history of South Asia, cosmogony, sacrifice, the soma cult, asceticism and self-mortification, the concept of salvation, the ritualization of procreation, and the advisory role of the grandfather of the gods are all dependent to a significant degree on the various guises of Prajāpati.
As lord (pati) of creatures (prajā), Prajāpati is best known in the tenth book of the Ṛgveda through speculations about the creation of the world. Identified there with several cosmogonic motifs, he is later associated in the Brāhmaṇas more precisely with Puruṣa, thereby assuring his preeminence in the sacrificial drama of creative transformations through self-sacrifice. Like Puruṣa projecting himself sacrificially into world being (Ṛgveda 10.90), Prajāpati is said in the Brāhmaṇas to have sacrificed himself in the exhausting fervor of ascetic and erotic heat (tapas ), the cosmic result being, first, brahman, the sacred verbal power, and then the various components of creation, including gods and humans (see, e.g., Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 22.214.171.124ff.). Elsewhere, he himself is regarded as the result of tapas. A constant theme in these discourses is the human necessity of repeating the exemplary primordial event by reintegrating all the space, time, and being that the Puruṣa-Prajāpati sacrificial victim, dispersed into manifestation, represents. The Vedic śrauta ritual known aa the Agnicayana became one of the major expressions of this Brahmanic doctrine of sacrifice: By identifying Agni as Prajāpati, the ceremonial installation of fire (agni) was advanced to a soteriology. A yearlong procedure systematically reconstituted the world as a five-layered altar, its fire-center-heart being the recovered ātman ("self") not only of Prajāpati but also of his human correspondent, the sacrificer (yajamāna ). Another great śrauta ritual was the Vājapeya, the "drink of strength," a soma ceremony in which the mystical totality of Prajāpati and the power of the number seventeen were realized. By entering such ritually produced correspondences as these, the sacrificer was able to avoid repeated death (punarmṛtyu ). This ideology prefigured the later Upaniṣadic notion of ātman-brahman equivalence and of spiritual liberation obtained not by ritual but by intuitive knowledge.
Prajāpati's control over human and animal reproductive energies assured him the same prominence in the domestic ritual, mythology, and folklore that he gained in the texts for the great cosmic ceremonies. Ṛgveda 10.121, a hymn of creation addressed to the "golden germ" (hiraṇyagarbha ), identified Prajāpati as the "fiery seed" within the cosmic waters. The images of seed, egg, embryo, and parturition continued into the Atharvaveda and the Grhyasutras that became manuals for such life-cycle rites (saṃskāra s) as marriage, impregnation, production of a male, safe delivery, first feeding, and first tonsure. Prajāpati was also included as one of certain male figures surrounded by four feminine powers in gestation symbolism.
Prajāpati has numerous zoomorphic expressions, some of them evidently archaic. The boar, Emūṣa, is identified with him in the mythology of the cosmic earth diver, the creature that descends to procure a fragment or prototype of earth-world, as are two creatures prominent in the Agnicayana, the bird and the tortoise (all three perpetuated in later Hindu Vaiṣṇava myths). The goat, bull, cow, horse, stag, ant, and other animals are also drawn into Prajāpati's orbit of symbols. Vedic deities linked with Prajāpati include Vāyu, Varuṇa, Dakṣa, Vāc, and, in an incestuous theme, his daughter Uṣas. In the post-Vedic texts, Brahmā absorbs his character as Hiraṇyagarbha, and the Prajāpatis are, variously, the ten or seven spiritual sons of Brahmā.
The clearest, most concise explication of Prajāpati in the myth-ritual speculation of the Brāhmaṇas is Mircea Eliade's A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1978), pp. 223–235. On Prajāpati in the Agnicayana ritual and theology, see Frits Staal's Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, vol. 1 (Berkeley, Calif., 1983), chapters 4 and 5, especially pages 65ff. (on Śāṇḍilya's teaching in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa ), 115ff., and 159ff. The popular (i.e., nonpriestly) traditions of Prajāpati outside the sacrificial cult are illuminated in Jan Gonda's "The Popular Prajāpati," History of Religions 22 (1982): 129–149. All three authors point to the archaic rather than the late Ṛgvedic character of Prajāpati; only Staal suggests an indigenous Indian origin.
Gonda, Jan. Prajāpati's Relations with Brahman, Brhaspati and Brahmā. Amsterdam and New York, 1989.
David M. Knipe (1987)