Brahma

Definition

by
published on 16 May 2015
Brahma (Dennis Jarvis)

Brahma is the Hindu Creator god. He is also known as the Grandfather and as a later equivalent of Prajapati, the primeval first god. In early Hindu sources such as the Mahabharata, Brahma is supreme in the triad of great Hindu gods which includes Shiva and Vishnu.

Brahma, due to his elevated status, is less involved in picturesque myths where gods take on human form and character, but is rather a generally abstract or metaphysical ideal of a great god. In later Puranas (Hindu epics) Brahma is no longer worshipped and other gods are assigned his myths, even if he always maintains his status as the Creator god. Brahma's epithet is ekahamsa, the One Swan. His vahanam ('vehicle') is a peacock, swan or goose. He is still honoured today with an annual ceremony at the pilgrimage site of Pushkar in Rajasthan, India and he remains a popular figure in South-east Asia, especially in Thailand and Bali.

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Brahma the Creator

In the beginning, Brahma sprang from the cosmic golden egg and he then created good & evil and light & dark from his own person. He also created the four types: gods, demons, ancestors, and men (the first being Manu). Brahma then made all living creatures upon the earth (although in some myths Brahma's son Daksa is responsible for this). In the process of creating, perhaps in a moment of distraction, the demons were born from Brahma's thigh and so he abandoned his own body which then became Night. After Brahma created good gods he abandoned his body once again, which then became Day, hence demons gain the ascendancy at night and gods, the forces of goodness, rule the day. Brahma then created ancestors and men, each time again abandoning his body so that they became Dusk and Dawn respectively. This process of creation repeats itself in every aeon. Brahma then appointed Shiva to rule over humanity although in later myths Brahma becomes a servant of Shiva.

Brahma created the four types: gods, demons, ancestors, and men.

Brahma had several wives, the most important being his daughter Sarasvati who, after the Creation, bore Brahma the four Vedas (Holy books of Hinduism), all branches of knowledge, the 36 Raginis and 6 Ragas of music, ideas such as Memory and Victory, yogas, religious acts, speech, Sanskrit, and the various units of measurement and time. Besides Daksa, Brahma had other notable sons including the Seven Sages (of whom Daksa was one), and the four famous Prajapatis (deities): Kardama, Pancasikha, Vodhu, and Narada, the latter being the messenger between gods and men. 

Brahma Creates WomEn & Death

In the myths told in the Mahabharata, Brahma created women, the source of evil amongst men:

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A wanton woman is a blazing fire...she is the sharp edge of the razor; she is poison, a serpent, and death all in one.

The gods feared that men could become so powerful that they might challenge their reign, therefore, they asked Brahma how best to prevent this. His response was to create wanton women who 'lusting for sensual pleasures, began to stir men up. Then the lord of gods, the lord, created anger as the assistant of desire, and all creatures, falling into the power of desire and anger, began to be attached to women.' (Mahabharata in Hindu Myths, 36). 

In another myth Brahma's first female is also Death, the evil force which brings balance to the universe and which ensures there is no over-crowding of it. The figure of Death is picturesquely described in the Mahabharata as 'a dark woman, wearing red garments, with red eyes and red palms and soles, adorned with divine ear-rings and ornaments' and she is given the job of 'destroying all creatures, imbeciles and scholars' without exception (Mahabharata in Hindu Myths, 40). Death wept and begged Brahma to be released from this terrible task but Brahma remained unmoved and sent her on her way to perform her duty. At first Death continued her protests by performing various extraordinary acts of asceticism such as standing in water in complete silence for 8,000 years and standing on one toe on the top of the Himalaya mountains for 8,000 million years but Brahma would not be swayed. So Death, still sobbing, performed her duties bringing endless night to all things when their time came and her tears fell to the earth and became diseases. Thus, through Death's work, the distinction between mortals and gods was preserved forever.

Brahma

Brahma in Art

Brahma is often represented in red with four heads, symbolic of his creation of the four Vedas. Thus he is often called Caturanana/Caturmukha or 'four-faced' and Astakarna or 'eight-eared'. Originally Brahma had five heads but when he lusted after his daughter Sandhya an outraged Shiva cut off the head which had ogled the goddess (or burned it with his central eye). Brahma is also represented with four arms. One right hand holds the brahma-tandram, an oval disk with a beaded rim which is perhaps a sacrificial ladle and used to mark men's foreheads with their destiny. The other right hand holds a rosary made from rudraksham seeds. One left hand holds a cleansing vase and he sometimes holds his bow Parivita or the Vedas. Brahma may also be depicted sitting on the sacred lotus flower which sprang from Vishnu's navel, a scene especially common in Cham art.

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In Cambodian art, Brahma -known as Prah Prohm- is again represented with four heads and often riding a sacred goose, the hamsa (a popular form of depiction in Javanese art, too), and so the god may in this guise be referred to as Hansavahana. In Tibet, where Brahma is known as Tshangs-pa or White Brahma (Tshangs-pa dkar-po), he often rides a horse and carries a white bull and a sword.


About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark holds an M.A. in Greek philosophy and his special interests include ceramics, the ancient Americas, and world mythology. He loves visiting and reading about historic sites and transforming that experience into free articles accessible to all.

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Chicago Style Citation

As Footnote/Endnote:

1. Mark Cartwright, “Brahma,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified May 16, 2015, http://www.ancient.eu /Brahma/.

As Bibliography Entry:

Mark Cartwright. “Brahma,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 16, 2015. http://www.ancient.eu /Brahma/.

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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 700 BCE
    Indian scholars codify and reinterpret Aryan beliefs to create the Upanishads texts forming the basis of Hinduism.
  • c. 400 BCE - c. 200 CE
    The Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata, is written at some point between 400 BCE and 200 CE.
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