Brahmā, the first of the three great Hindu gods, is called the Creator; he is the father of gods and men, the
Vedic Prajāpati, the lord of creatures. As nearly all the writers of the Purānas seem to regard it a duty to describe the work of creation as performed by this god, and as each account differs in detail from the others, it is a perfectly hopeless task to attempt to give a harmonized statement of this great event. I shall therefore give Manu’s account of it, which is largely founded upon the teaching of the Vedas, though considerably mixed up with more modern views.
“This universe was enveloped in darkness—unperceived, undistinguishable, undiscoverable, unknowable, as it were, entirely sunk in sleep. The irresistible self-existent lord, undiscerned, creating this universe with the five elements, and all other things, was manifested dispelling the gloom. He who is beyond the cognizance of the senses, subtile, undiscernible, eternal, who is the essence of all things, and inconceivable, himself shone forth. He, desiring, seeking to produce various creatures from his own body, first created the waters, and deposited in them a seed. This (seed) became a golden egg, resplendent as the sun, in which he himself was born as Brahmā, the progenitor of all worlds. The waters are called nārāh, because they are the offspring of Nara; and since they were formerly the place of his movement (ayana), he is therefore called Nārāyana. Being formed by that First Cause, undiscernible, eternal, which is both existent and non-existent, that male is known in the world as Brahmā. That lord having continued a year in the egg, divided it into two parts by his mere thought.” In the Mahābhārata, and some of the Purānas, Brahmā is said to have issued from a lotus that sprang from the navel of Vishnu.
The egg referred to above is thus described in the “Vishnu Purāna”:—”Its womb, vast as the mountain Meru, was composed of the mountains, and the mighty oceans were the waters which filled its cavity. In that egg were the continents, seas, and mountains; the planets and divisions of the universe; the gods, the demons and mankind. Brahmā is said to be born; a familiar phrase to signify his manifestation.” This wonderful egg, after the Creator had inhabited it for a thousand years, burst open, and Brahmā issuing forth by meditation commenced the work of creation. Seeing that the earth was sunk beneath the waters, he assumed the form of a boar, and, diving, raised it upon his tusks. After this, he continued the work of creation.
In pictures Brahmā is represented as a red man with four heads, though in the Purānas he is said to have had originally five. He is dressed in white raiment, and rides upon a goose. In one hand he carries a staff, in the other a dish for receiving alms. A legend in the “Matsya Purāna” gives the following account of the formation of his numerous heads:—”Brahmā formed from his own immaculate substance a female who is celebrated under the names of Satarupā, Savitri, Sarasvati, Gāyatri, and Brāhmani. Beholding his daughter, born from his body, Brahmā became wounded with the arrows of love, and exclaimed, How surpassingly lovely she is!’ Satarupā turned to the right side from his gaze; but as Brahmā wished to look after her, a second head issued from his body. As she passed to the left, and behind him, to avoid his amorous glances, two other heads successively appeared. At length she sprang into the sky; and as Brahmā was anxious to gaze after her there, a fifth head was immediately formed. Brahmā then said to his daughter, ‘Let us produce all kinds of animated beings, men, suras (gods), and asuras (demons). Hearing this, she descended, and Brahmā having espoused her, they withdrew to a secluded spot where they dwelt together for one hundred divine years; at the expiration of which time was born Manu, who is also called Swayambhuva and Virāj.”
The following legend occurs, with some variations, in several Purānas, showing why Brahmā was deprived of his fifth head:—
“Once when they were assembled on the top of Meru, the holy sages, having saluted Brahmā, requested him to declare the true nature of the godhead; but the Creator, influenced by the delusion of Mahesha (a demon), and his mind obscured by spiritual darkness, asserted his own pre-eminence, and said: ‘I am the womb of the universe, without beginning or end, and the sole and self-existent lord; and he who does not worship me shall never obtain beatitude.’ On hearing this, Kratu, a form of Nārāyana (Vishnu), smiled and said: ‘ Hadst thou not been misled by ignorance, thou wouldst not have made an assertion so contrary to truth; for I am the framer of the universe, the source of life, the unborn, eternal and supreme Nārāyana; and, had I not willed it, creation would not have taken place.’
“Thus Vishnu and Brahmā disputed, and at length they agreed to allow the matter to be decided by the Vedas. The Vedas declared that Siva was creator, preserver, destroyer. Having heard these words, Vishnu and Brahmā, still bewildered by the darkness of delusion, said, ‘How can the lord of goblins, the delighter in graveyards, the naked devotee covered with ashes, haggard in appearance, wearing twisted locks ornamented with snakes, be the supreme being? ‘ The incorporeal Prāna (Life), then assuming a form, said, ‘This is not the real form of Siva; but when united to his energy, he sometimes, under the figure of Rudra, delights himself in various illusive sports.’ But even these words dispelled not the spiritual darkness of Vishnu and Brahmā; when suddenly appeared between them a wondrous effulgence filling the heavens, earth, and mid-air. In the midst of this they beheld a human form, vast, uncreated, of a dark hue, holding in his hand a trident and a rosary, and wearing a serpent for a Brāhmanical thread. On seeing whom, the fifth head of Brahmā glowed with anger and said, ‘I know thee well, O Chandra Shekera, for from my forehead didst thou spring, and because thou didst weep I called thee Rudra. Hasten then to seek the refuge of my feet, and I will protect thee, O my son! ‘ At these proud words of Brahmā, Siva was incensed; and from his anger sprang into existence a terrific form (Bhairava), whom he thus addressed:
‘Chastise this lotus-born!’ No sooner did Bhairava receive this order, than instantly he cut off the head of Brahmā with the thumb of his left hand. That member which had committed the fault received punishment; and therefore Brahmā was deprived of his fifth head.” Upon this Vishnu and Brahmā praised Siva.
In another part of the same Purāna is another legend, giving a somewhat different account of this circumstance:—
“Formerly all things movable and immovable having been destroyed, nought remained but one boundless ocean; nor fire, nor air, nor sun, nor atmosphere, nor stars, nor planets, nor light, nor earth, nor heaven, nor gods nor demons existed then; and all was involved in impenetrable darkness. One being alone, Mahā Kāla (Siva), pervaded all space; who being desirous of creation, churned his left arm with his right forefinger; whence issued a bubble, which increasing in size became an egg resembling gold. This egg Mahā Kāla divided with his hand; of the upper part he formed the heavens, and of the lower half the earth, and in the centre of it appeared Brahmā with five hands and four arms, to whom Mahā Kāla thus said, ‘Through my favour effect creation.’ Having thus spoken, he disappeared.
“Brahmā having then considered in what manner he could accomplish this object, propitiated his lord Bhava with a severe tapas (meditation), and in consequence received from him the four Vedas, and was thus enabled to become the Creator. But as Siva had not revealed himself, Brahmā continued his meditation in order that he might behold that god. Siva was propitiated; but, still invisible, thus said, ‘O Brahmā, choose whatever boon thou choosest!’ Brahmā craved that Siva would become his son. Siva replied: ‘Propitiated by thy piety, I will become thy son under the form of Rudra; but as thou hast craved a boon which ought not to have been asked, I shall on this account hereafter cut off one of thy heads. Nevertheless, though thou shalt afterwards possess but four heads, yet as thou hast been formed by me, from my own substance which is that Brahmā, thou shalt in remembrance of this circumstance be denominated Brahmā. Also from my becoming thy son, shalt thou be called Pitāmāha (the great father).’
“Brahmā having obtained both a boon and a curse, proceeded, in order to effect creation, to sacrifice to that fire which had sprung from his own effulgence; and from the heat, perspiration collected on his forehead. In wiping this off with a small piece of wood, a drop of blood fell into the fire, from which by the will of Siva sprang Rudra, of a dark hue, with five heads, ten hands, and fifteen eyes; having a serpent for his Brāhmanical thread, wearing twisted locks, and the moon on his head, and clothed in the skin of a lion. Having seen such a son, Brahmā was delighted, and bestowed on him various appellations. Brahmā having created various classes of beings, they all adored him, except Rudra; to whom Brahmā said, ‘Why dost thou not also adore me?’ Rudra replied, ‘I worship none other than that effulgence from which I sprang! ‘ Having thus spoken, he departed to Siva’s abode. But Brahmā from the impurity of his nature became immersed in spiritual darkness, and thought that it was by his own power alone that he had effected creation, and there was no other god equal to him. His fifth head also having read the Vedas, which the other four heads had delivered, acquired a splendour which neither suras (gods) nor asuras (demons) could endure.”
The “Padma Purāna” thus concludes this story: “Unable therefore to approach or behold it, they determined to apply to Siva for relief. Being propitiated by them, Siva granted their request, and proceeded with them to where Brahmā remained inflated with pride. On seeing Siva, Brahmā did not pay him the customary honours. Siva, seeing Brahmā’s fifth head inflicting distress on the universe by its effulgent beams, brighter than a thousand suns, approached him and said, ‘Oh! this head shines with too much splendour,’ and immediately cut it off with the nail of his left thumb, with as much ease as a man cuts off the stem of a plantain tree.”
The Mahābhārata says that Siva did not actually cut off Brahmā’s head on this occasion, but was only prevented from doing so through the intercession of the gods. It was because of his attempting to seduce his own daughter that Siva decapitated him. This crime was attempted when in a fit of intoxication; hence Brahmā pronounced a curse upon the gods who should hereafter drink spirits.
In the passages just quoted, Brahmā is represented as worshipping Siva for his own personal benefit; in the Vishnu Purāna,” he is described as joining with gods and men in the worship of this same deity, and as officiating as priest on that occasion. And in another part of the Purāna is the following hymn addressed to Vishnu by Brahmā:—”Thou art the common centre of all, the protector of the world, and all things exist in thee. All that has been, or will be, thou art. There is nothing else but thee, O lord; nothing else has been, or will be. Thou art independent, and without beginning.” The object of this laudation was to induce
Vishnu to save the earth from its load of sorrow; in answer to it, Vishnu appeared here as Krishna.
At the present time Brahmā is not largely worshipped by the Hindus. “The Brāhmans in their morning and evening worship repeat an incantation containing a description of the image of Brahmā; at noon they present to him a single flower; at the time of burnt-offering, ghī is presented to him. In the month of Māgh, at the full moon, an earthen image of him is worshipped, with that of Siva on his right hand, and Vishnu on his left.” Brahmā as Creator is supposed to have finished his work; hence, excepting in one place, viz. at Pushkara in Ājmir, there is no temple to him now existing. It is evident that for centuries the worship of Brahmā has not been common, for in the “Skanda Purāna ” is an indelicate legend, in which the charge of falsehood is proved against him, and this fact is given to account for the fact that his worship had ceased. It concludes as follows:—”Since thou hast childishly and with weak understanding asserted a falsehood, let no one henceforth perform worship to thee.”
The Mahābhārata says that Brahmā’s heaven is eight hundred miles long, four hundred wide, and forty high. Nārada declared himself incompetent to describe it. In two hundred years he could not mention all its excellences. He said that it contained in a superior degree all the excellences of the other heavens; and that whatever existed in the creation of Brahmā’ on earth, from the smallest insect to the largest animal, was to be found there.
In the later mythology, a deity named Dhātā (the Creator), who in the Rig-Veda has no very clearly-defined powers, but is there said to operate in the production of life and the preservation of health, is identified with Prajāpati, or Brahmā; and in the sense of “maker ” the term is also applied to Vishnu and Krishna. Sometimes he is said to be a son of Brahmā.
In addition to the names of Brahmā already referred to, the following are those most commonly known:—
Ātmabhu, “The self-existent.”
Paramesthi, “The chief sacrificer.” He as the first Brāhman performed all the great sacrifices of the Hindu religion.
Lokesha, “The god of the world.”
Hiranyagarbha, “He who came from the golden egg.”
Savitripati, “The husband of Savitri.”
Adikavi, The first poet.”
Brahmā’s wife is Sarasvati, the goddess of wisdom and science, the mother of the Vedas, and the inventor of the Devanagari letters. She is represented as a fair young woman, with four arms. With one of her right hands she is presenting a flower to her husband, by whose side she continually stands; and in the other she holds a book of palm-leaves, indicating that she is fond of learning. In one of her left hands she has a string of pearls, called Sivamāla (Siva’s garland), which serves as a rosary; and in the other is a damaru, or small drum. At other times she is represented with two arms only, seated on a lotus, playing a kind of banjo. She dwells on earth amongst men, but her special abode is with her husband in Brahmāloka.
Sarasvati having been produced from Brahmā, was regarded as his daughter; hence her union with him was said to be criminal by the other gods. Sometimes she is called the wife of Vishnu, but this difficulty is explained by a legend. * “Sarasvati, by the standard mythological authorities, is the wife of Brahmā. The Vaishnavas of Bengal have a popular legend that she was the wife of Vishnu, as were also Lakshmi and Gangā. The ladies disagreed, Sarasvati, like the other type of learned ladies, Minerva, being something of a termagant; and Vishnu, finding that one wife was as much as even a god could manage, transferred Sarasvati to Brahmā and Gangā to Siva, and contented himself with Lakshmi alone.
“Sarasvati is a goddess of some, though not of very great, importance in the Vedas. . . . She is celebrated both as a river and a goddess. She was primarily a river deity, as her name, ‘the watery,’ clearly denotes; and in this capacity she is celebrated in a few separate passages. Allusion is made in the hymns, as well as in the Brāhmanas, to sacrifices being performed on the banks of this river, and of the adjoining Drishadvati; and the Sarasvati in particular seems to have been associated with the reputation for sanctity which . . . was ascribed to the whole region called Brahmāvartta, lying between these two small streams, and situated immediately to the westward of the Jumnā. The Sarasvati thus appears to have been to the early Indians what the Ganges (which is only twice named in the Rig-Veda) is to their descendants. . . . When once the river had acquired a divine character, it was quite natural that she should be regarded as the patroness of ceremonies which were celebrated on the margin of her holy waters, and that her direction and blessing should be invoked as essential to their proper performance and success. The connection into which she was thus brought with sacred rites may have led to the further step of imagining her to have an influence on the composition of the hymns which formed so important a part of the proceedings, and of identifying her with Vāch, the goddess of speech. At least I have no other explanation to offer to this double character and identification.
“Sarasvati is frequently invited to the sacrifices along with several other goddesses, who, however, were never, like her, river nymphs, but personifications of some department of religious worship, or sacred science. She is frequently invoked along with other deities.
“In many passages where she is celebrated, her original character is, as I have intimated, distinctly preserved. Thus in two places she is mentioned along with rivers, or fertilizing waters: ‘Ye opulent waters, command riches; ye possess excellent power and immortality; ye are mistresses of wealth and progeny; may Sarasvati bestow this vitality on her worshipper.’ And she is mentioned with the other well-known streams which are there named, the Sindhu, the Ganges, &c. In another place she is said to ‘surpass all other rivers, and to flow pure from the mountains to the sea.’ In other verses she is called upon to ‘descend from the sky, from the great mountain, to the sacrifice;’ and is supplicated to combine with the spouses of the other gods to afford secure protection to the worshippers. . . . It is difficult to say whether in any of the passages in which Sarasvati is invoked, even in those where she appears as the patroness of holy rites, her character as a river goddess is entirely left out of sight. . . .
“In the later mythology, as is well known, Sarasvati was identified with Vāch, and became under various names the spouse of Brahmā, and the goddess of wisdom and eloquence, and is invoked as a Muse. In the Mahābhārata she is called the mother of the Vedas, and the same is said of Vāch in the Taittariya Brāhmana where she is said to be the wife of Indra, to contain within herself all worlds, and to have been sought after by the Rishis who composed the Vedic hymns, as well as by the gods through austerity.”
In the Purānas, Sarasvati is spoken of under other titles. A verse in the “Matsya Purāna” gives authority for the belief that one goddess only is intended, though she is called by several names: “Brahmā next formed from his own immaculate substance a female, who is celebrated under the names of Satarupā, Savitri, Sarasvati, Gāyatri, and Brāhmani.” In the following legend from the “Skanda Purāna,” though by Savitri Sarasvati is intended, Gāyatri represents some other person who became a second wife of Brahmā. Iswara (Siva) is addressing Devi (Parvati):—
“Listen, O Devi, and I will tell you how Savitri forsook Brahmā, and he in consequence espoused Gāyatri. The Vedas have declared the great advantages which are derived from sacrifice, by which the gods are delighted, and therefore bestow rain upon the earth. . . . To secure therefore the verdure and vitality of the three worlds, I perform sacrifices; and, in imitation of me, sacrifices are performed by gods and men. For the same purpose Brahmā and his wife Savitri, the immortals, and the holy sages repaired to Pushkara; but when all the preparations had been made, with all due rites and ceremonies, for performing the sacrifices, Savitri, detained by some household affairs, was not in attendance. A priest accordingly went to call her; but she replied, I have not yet completed my dress, nor arranged several affairs. Lakshmi, and Bhavāni, and Gangā, and Svāha, and Indrāni, and the wives of the other gods and of the holy sages, have not yet arrived, and how therefore can I enter the assembly alone?’
“The priest returned, and thus addressed Brahmā: ‘Savitri is engaged and will not come; but without a wife what advantage can be derived from these rites?’ The god, incensed at the conduct of Savitri, thus spoke to Indra: ‘Hasten, and, in obedience to my order, bring a wife from wherever you can find one.’ Indra proceeded accordingly; and as he passed hastily along, saw a milkmaid, young, beautiful, and of a smiling countenance, carrying a jar of butter. He seized her and brought her to the assembly, when Brahmā thus spoke: ‘O gods and holy sages, if it seem good unto you I will espouse this Gāyatri, and she shall become the mother of the Vedas, and the cause of purity to these worlds!’ Upon this Brahmā was united to Gāyatri, who was led into the bower of the bride, and there arrayed in silken garments, and adorned with the costliest ornaments.
“At this time Savitri, accompanied by the wives of Vishnu, Rudra, and the other gods, came to the place of sacrifice. Seeing the milkmaid in the bride’s bower, and the priests engaged in the performance of the sacred rites, incensed with anger, she thus addressed Pitāmāha: ‘O Brahmā! hast thou conceived so sinful an intention as to reject me, who am thy wedded wife? Hast thou no sense of shame, that thus, influenced by love, thou committest so reprehensible an act? Thou art called the great father of gods and holy sages, and yet thou here publicly actest in a manner which must excite the derision of the three worlds. But how can I now show my face; or, deserted by my husband, call myself a wife?’ Brahmā replied: ‘The priests informed me that the time for the sacrifice was passing away, and that it could not profitably be performed unless my wife were present, . . . and Indra having brought Gāyatri, Vishnu and Rudra gave her in marriage to me. Forgive, therefore, this one act, and I will never again offend thee!’
“On hearing these words, Savitri exclaimed, ‘By the powers which I have obtained by the performance of tapas, may Brahmā never be worshipped in temple or sacred place, except one day in each year. . . . And, Indra, since thou didst bring that milkmaid to Brahmā, thou shalt be bound in chains by thine enemies, and confined in a strange country; and thy city and station shall be occupied by thine enemies.’ Addressing Vishnu, she said, ‘Since thou gayest her in marriage to Brahmā, shalt thou, in consequence of Bhrigu’s curse, be born amongst men, and shalt endure the agony of having thy wife ravished from thee by thine enemy; and long also shalt thou wander, the humble keeper of cattle!’ To Rudra she said: ‘By the curse of the holy sages, shalt thou be deprived of thy manhood!’ To Agni: ‘Mayest thou be a devourer of all things, clean and unclean!’ To the priests and Brāhmans: ‘Henceforth shall ye perform sacrifices solely from the desire of obtaining the usual gifts: and from covetousness alone shall ye attend temples and holy places; satisfied only shall ye be with the food of others, and dissatisfied with that of your own houses; and in quest of riches shall ye unduly perform holy rites and ceremonies! ‘
“Having pronounced these curses, Savitri left the assembly, and was accompanied for a short distance by Lakshmi and the other goddesses, when they all declared their intention of returning. On hearing this, Savitri was incensed, and thus addressed them: ‘Since you now forsake me, O Lakshmi! mayest thou never remain stationary in one place; * and mayest thou always abide with the vile, the inconstant, the contemptible, the sinful, the cruel, the foolish, and the barbarian! And, Indrāni, when Indra incurs the guilt of Brāhmanicide by slaying Tvastri’s son, then shall Nahusha acquire his kingdom, and, desirous of obtaining thee, shall exclaim, “Am I not Indra? why then does not the young and lovely Indrāni wait upon me? If I do not obtain her, I will slay all the gods.” Thou on learning his wishes shalt remain in thy house immersed in grief, and borne down by the weight of my curse!’ Savitri then pronounced this curse on the wives of the gods collectively: ‘May you all remain barren; and may you never enjoy the pleasure of having children!’ Vishnu then tried in vain to appease her.”
After Savitri’s angry departure from the assembly, Gāyatri modified the curses that had been pronounced. She promised all kinds of blessing, including final absorption into him, to all the worshippers of Brahmā. Though Indra be bound, his son should release him. Though Vishnu lost his wife, he should regain her. Though Rudra be deprived of his manhood, the Linga as his representative should be universally worshipped. Though men made gifts to the Brāhmans, it would be because they reverenced them as gods. And though the goddesses could not have children of their own, this would not cause them regret.
The “Padma Purāna” gives a happier termination to the story. Vishnu and Lakshmi, at Brahmā’s request, followed Savitri when she left the assembly, and induced her to return. On re-entering, Brahmā asked what she wished him to do with Gāyatri. Savitri was too bashful to speak; whereupon Gāyatri threw herself at her feet. Savitri raised her, and embracing her said: “A wife ought to obey the wishes and orders of her husband; for that wife who reproaches her husband, who is complaining and quarrelsome, and instead of being his life, deprives him by her conduct of length of years, shall, when she dies, most assuredly go to hell. Considering this, the virtuous wife will do nothing displeasing to her husband; therefore let us both be attached to Brahmā.” “So be it,” said Gāyatri; “thy orders will I always obey, and esteem thy friendship precious as my life. Thy daughter am I, O goddess! Deign to protect me!” It would appear that between the time when the “Matsya Purāna” was composed and the date of the Padma, considerable change had come in the character of the ideal woman. Or it may be that the writer of the Padma wished to give a better ideal to the wives of his day.
In a legend in the “Varāha Purāna,” Sarasvati is addressed as Gāyatri, Sarasvati, Maheshvari (one of the names of Parvati), and also Savitri. Her most common name is Sarasvati, by which name, as the goddess of learning, she is regularly worshipped once a year (Extracts from “Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic”).