BRAHMĀ is the creator in Hindu mythology; sometimes he is said to form a trinity with Viṣṇu as preserver and Śiva as destroyer. Yet Brahmā does not have the importance that creator gods usually have in mythology, nor is his status equal to that of Śiva or Viṣṇu. Though Brahmā appears in more myths than almost any other Hindu god, as the central figure in quite a few, and as a bit player in many more, he was seldom worshiped in India; at least one important version of the myth in which Śiva appears before Brahmā and Viṣṇu in the form of a flaming phallus explicitly states that Brahmā will never again be worshiped in India (to punish him for having wrongly sworn that he saw the tip of the infinite pillar). Brahmā's ability to create is little more than an expertise or a technical skill that he employs at the behest of the greater gods; he is called upon whenever anyone is needed to create something, or even to create a pregnant situation—to give power to a potential villain so that the action of the conflict can unfold. But if one were to create a functional trinity of gods who wield actual power in Hindu mythology, one would have to replace Brahmā with the Goddess.
Brahmā's mythology is derived largely from that of the god Prajāpati in the Brahmāṇas. Unlike Brahmā, Prajāpati is regarded as the supreme deity, and he creates in a variety of ways: he casts his seed into the fire in place of the usual liquid oblation; he separates a female from his androgynous form and creates with her through incestuous intercourse; or he practices asceticism in order to generate heat, from which his children are born. In this way he creates first fire, wind, sun, moon; then all the gods and demons (the deva s and asura s, who are his younger and older sons); then men and animals; and then all the rest of creation. In the epics and Purāṇas, when Brahmā takes over the task of creation he still uses these methods from time to time, but his usual method is to create mentally: he thinks of something and it comes into existence. While he is under the influence of the element of darkness (tamas ) he creates the demons; under the influence of goodness (sattva ) he creates the gods. Or he may dismember himself, like the Ṛgvedic cosmic man (Puruṣa), and create sheep from his breast, cows from his stomach, horses from his feet, and grasses from his hairs. Paradoxically (or perversely), he usually employs less abstract methods (such as copulation) to produce the more abstract elements of creation (such as the hours and minutes, or the principles of logic and music).
Brahmā's name is clearly related both to brahman, the neuter term for the godhead (or, in earlier texts, for the principle of religious reality), and to the word for the priest, the brahmāṇa. In later Hinduism Brahmā is committed to the strand of Hinduism associated with pravṛtti ("active creation, worldly involvement") and indifferent, or even opposed, to nivṛtti ("withdrawal from the world, renunciation"). He therefore comes into frequent conflict with Śiva when Śiva is in his ascetic phase, and competes with Śiva when Śiva is in his phallic phase. Brahmā's unilateral attachment to pravṛtti may also explain why he alone among the gods is able to grant the boon of immortality, often to demon ascetics: he deals only in life, never in death. This habit unfortunately causes the gods serious problems in dealing with demons, who are usually overcome somehow by Śiva or Viṣṇu. Immortality (or release from death) is what Brahmā bestows in place of the mokṣa (release from rebirth and redeath) that Śiva and Viṣṇu may grant, for these two gods, unlike Brahmā, are involved in both pravṛtti and nivṛtti. This one-sidedness of Brahmā may, finally, explain why he failed to capture the imagination of the Hindu worshiper: the god who is to take responsibility for one's whole life must, in the Hindu view, acknowledge not only the desire to create but the desire to renounce creation.
The best study of Brahmā is Greg Bailey's The Mythology of Brahmā (Oxford, 1983), which also contains an extensive bibliography of the secondary literature. Many of the relevant texts are translated in my Hindu Myths (Baltimore, 1975), pp. 25–55, and interpreted in my Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic (Oxford, 1981), pp. 68–77 and 111–140.
Mishra, Rajani. Brahma-Worship, Tradition and Iconography. Delhi, 1989.
Nagar, Shanti Lal. The Image of Brahma in India and Abroad. Delhi, 1992.
Wendy Doniger (1987)
The Puranas, the Brahma-Sam ita
Born from the navel of Vishnu
In Hindu mythology, Brahma was the first god in the sacred Hindu trinity, or Trimurti. The other gods were Vishnu , the Preserver, and Shiva , the Destroyer. Brahma was the creator god, but his role was not as great as that of creator gods in other mythologies. Brahma's ability to create is a skill he uses at the request of greater gods when something needs to be created; typically, he creates by thinking something into being. When Brahma comes under the influence of darkness, he creates demons; under the influence of goodness, he creates gods. He can also grant immortality, and his tendency to grant immortality to demons causes significant problems for Vishnu and Shiva, who must overcome them. Brahma is not involved in matters concerning death.
There are many different accounts of the origin of Brahma. According to one story, the creator made the cosmic waters and put a seed in them. The seed turned into a golden egg. After one thousand years, the creator himself emerged from the egg as a younger Brahma. He then made the universe and all things in it. Another legend says that Brahma was born in a lotus flower that sprouted from Vishnu's navel. He went on to create the fathers of humankind, as well as all other things in the universe.
According to legend, Brahma had four faces that came into being from his desire to gaze at a beautiful goddess he created. Brahma originally had five heads, but the god Shiva destroyed one of them when Brahma spoke to him disrespectfully.
Brahma in Context
In the early literature of Hinduism, Brahma was one of the major gods. However, he plays little part in the modern Hindu religion. Over time, Vishnu and Shiva became more important than Brahma and are more widely worshipped today. While Shiva and Vishnu are each worshipped at thousands of sites throughout India, Brahma alone is worshipped at only a handful of temples. Various legends suggest that Brahma was cursed by either Shiva or a high priest, the curse being that no person would ever worship him. Some scholars believe that Brahma's one-sided focus on the act of creation is why he is not as important as the other gods, who deal with both creation and with death; worshippers seek to follow a god who is responsible for every aspect of their lives—both life and death.
Key Themes and Symbols
In works of art, Brahma is usually portrayed with four faces and four arms. The four faces symbolize the four Vedas, the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism. Brahma is often shown wearing white robes and holding a scepter, an alms bowl, a bow, and other items. Brahma is also associated with the swan, a bird that signifies justice and the ability to separate good from bad.
Brahma in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Because Brahma does not have nearly as many dedicated temples as other principal Hindu gods, there are fewer instances of his appearance in art. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled “Brahma” in 1856, though some academics suggest that Emerson's poem refers not to Brahma but to the idea of “brahman,” the Hindu belief that the divine is present in all things in the universe.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the Thai god known as Phra Phrom. How is this god similar to Brahma? Are there any differences between the two?
Brahma (brä´mə), a god often identified, with Vishnu and Shiva, as one of the three supreme gods in Hinduism. In the late Vedic period he was called Prajapati, the primeval man whose sacrifice permitted the original act of creation. His popularity has declined since the Gupta era (AD 320–550), and today only one temple near modern Ajmer is devoted to him. He is regarded as the creator and is periodically reborn in a lotus that grows from the navel of the sleeping Vishnu. His consort Sarasvati is the patroness of art, music, and letters, and the traditional inventor of the Sanskrit language. The kalpa or "day of Brahma," equal to 4,320,000,000 earthly years, is a basic unit in Hindu chronology. The neuter form of the masculine name Brahma is Brahman.