views updated Jun 11 2018


BRAHMĀ is the creator in Hindu mythology; sometimes he is said to form a trinity with Viu 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 Viu. 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 Viu 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 situationto 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 Brahmāas. 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 Purāas, 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 gvedic cosmic man (Purua), 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 brahmāa. In later Hinduism Brahmā is committed to the strand of Hinduism associated with pravtti ("active creation, worldly involvement") and indifferent, or even opposed, to nivtti ("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 pravtti 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 Viu. Immortality (or release from death) is what Brahmā bestows in place of the moka (release from rebirth and redeath) that Śiva and Viu may grant, for these two gods, unlike Brahmā, are involved in both pravtti and nivtti. 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.

See Also

Indian Religions, article on Mythic Themes; Prajāpati; Śiva.


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. 2555, and interpreted in my Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic (Oxford, 1981), pp. 6877 and 111140.

New Sources

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)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 08 2018






Alternate Names


Appears In

The Puranas, the Brahma-Sam ita


Born from the navel of Vishnu

Character Overview

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.

Major Myths

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?

SEE ALSO Hinduism and Mythology; Shiva; Vishnu


views updated May 14 2018

Brahmā (to be distinguished from Brahman or its alternative Brahma). In Hinduism, a post-Vedic deity. Brahmā is the god of creation and first in the Hindu triad of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva. He is represented as red in colour, with four heads and four arms, the hands holding, respectively, a goblet, a bow, a sceptre, and the Vedas. Today Brahmā is seldom worshipped, and his shrines are few; only two major temples in India are dedicated to him: one at Pushkar, near Ajmere, the other at Khedbrahmā. Nevertheless, Brahmā does figure in both Buddhism and Jainism.


views updated May 21 2018

Brah·ma / ˈbrämə/ 1. the creator god in later Hinduism, who forms a triad with Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. 2. another term for Brahman (sense 2).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Brahma Creator god in Hinduism, later identified as one of the three gods in the Trimurti. Brahma is usually thought equal to the gods Vishnu and Shiva, but later myths tell of him being born from Vishnu's navel. There is only one major temple to Brahma, located at Pushkar, Rajasthan, nw India.


views updated May 18 2018

Brahma the creator god in Hinduism, who forms a triad with Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma was an important god of late Vedic religion, but has been little worshipped since the 5th century ad and has only one major temple dedicated to him in India today.