Brahma (ब्रह्मा) is a Hindu God, referred to as “the Creator” within the Trimurti, the trinity of supreme divinity that includes Vishnu and Shiva. In some Puranas, he created himself in a golden embryo known as the Hiranyagarbha. Brahma is frequently identified with the Vedic God Prajapati. During the post-Vedic period, Heas a prominent deity, and his sect existed; however, by the 7th century, He had lost his significance. Brahma is commonly depicted as a red or golden-complexioned bearded man with four heads and hands. According to the scriptures, He created his children from his mind and thus, they are referred to as Manasaputra.
Who is Brahma?
Brahma is the first God in the Hindu triumvirate or Trimurti. The triumvirate consists of three Gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep, and destruction of the world. The other two Gods are Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the preserver of the universe, while Shiva’s role is to destroy it to re-create. Brahma’s job was the creation of the world and all creatures. He is the least worshipped God in Hinduism today.
Brahma Literature and Legends
One of the earliest mentions of Brahma with Vishnu and Shiva is in the fifth Prapathaka (lesson) of the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, probably composed around the late 1st millennium BCE. Brahma is first discussed in verse 5,1, also called the Kutsayana Hymn, and then expounded in verse 5,2.
In the pantheistic Kutsayana Hymn, the Upanishad asserts that one’s Soul is Brahman, and this Ultimate Reality, Cosmic Universal or God is within each living being. It equates the Atman (Soul, Self) within to be Brahma and various alternate manifestations of Brahman, as follows, “Thou art Brahma, thou art Vishnu, thou art Rudra (Shiva), thou art Agni, Varuna, Vayu, Indra, thou art All.”
Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva
The Maitri Upanishad asserts that the universe emerged from darkness (tamas), first as passion characterized by innate quality (rajas), which then refined and differentiated into purity and goodness (sattva). Of these three qualities, rajas are then mapped to Brahma, as follows:
Now then, that part of him which belongs to tamas, that, O students of sacred knowledge (Brahmacharins), is this Rudra.
That part of him which belongs to rajas, that O students of sacred knowledge, is this Brahma.
That part of him which belongs to sattva, that O students of sacred knowledge, is this Vishnu.
Verily, that One became threefold, became eightfold, elevenfold, twelvefold, into infinite fold.
This Being (neuter) entered all beings, he became the overlord of all beings.
That is the Atman (Soul, Self) within and without – yea, within and without! — Maitri Upanishad 5.2,
While the Maitri Upanishad maps Brahma with one of the elements of the guṇa theory of Hinduism, the text does not depict him as one of the trifunctional elements of the Hindu Trimurti idea found in later Puranic literature.
Post-Vedic, Epics and Puranas
During the post-Vedic period, Brahma was a prominent deity and his sect existed during the 2nd to 6th century CE. Early texts like Brahmananda Purana describe that there was nothing but an eternal ocean. From this, a golden egg called Hiranyagarbha emerged. The egg broke open and Brahma, who had created himself within it, came into existence (gaining the name Swayambhu). Then, he created the universe, the earth, and other things. He also created people to populate and live on his creation.
However, by the 7th century, He lost his importance. Puranic legends mention various reasons for His downfall. There are primarily two prominent versions of why He lost His ground. The first version refers to Shiva Purana, where Brahma and Vishnu argued about who was the greatest among them. Then suddenly, they heard a voice and saw a huge lightning pillar. The voice asked them to find out the end of the pillar and whoever could find the end of the pillar would be the greatest. Vishnu went toward the bottom and Brahma went toward the top. Vishnu came back and accepted his defeat that he couldn’t find the end. However, Brahma returned and lied that he could find the top end. The pillar was Shiva Linga and the voice was of Shiva and this lie infuriated Shiva.
Rise of Shaivism and Vaishnavism
Historians believe that some of the major reasons for Brahma’s downfall were the rise of Shaivism and Vaishnavism, their replacement of him with Shakti in the Smarta tradition, and the frequent attacks by Buddhists, Jains, and even by Hindu followers of Vaishnavas and Shaivites.
The post-Vedic texts of Hinduism offer multiple theories of cosmogony, many involving Brahma.
Brahma is a secondary creator
He is a “secondary creator” as described in the Mahabharata and Puranas, and among the most studied and described. Some texts suggest that He was born from a lotus emerging from the navel of the God Vishnu and from Lord Brahma’s wrath, Shiva was born.
Yet others suggest the Goddess Devi created Brahma, and these texts then state that He is a secondary creator of the world working respectively on their behalf. He makes all the forms in the universe, but not the primordial universe itself. Thus in most Puranic texts, His creative activity depends on the presence and power of a higher God. Further, the medieval era texts of these major theistic traditions of Hinduism assert that the saguna (representation with face and attributes) Brahma is Vishnu, Shiva, or Devi, respectively.
Brahma creates but neither preserves nor destroys anything
In the post-Vedic Puranic literature, He creates but neither preserves nor destroys anything.
Brahma rises from the Ocean of Causes
He, states this Purana, emerges at the moment when time and universe are born, inside a lotus rooted in the navel of Hari (deity Vishnu, whose praise is the primary focus in the Purana). Brahma, states Bhagavata Purana, thereafter combines Prakriti (nature, matter) and Purusha (spirit, soul) to create a dazzling variety of living creatures and a tempest of causal nexus. The Bhagavata Purana thus attributes the creation of Maya to Brahma, wherein he creates for the sake of creation, imbuing everything with both the good and the evil, the material and the spiritual, a beginning and an end.
The Puranas describe Brahma as the deity creating time. They correlate human time to Brahma’s time, such as a mahākalpa being a large cosmic period, correlating to one day and one night in Brahma’s existence.
Stories about Brahma in various Puranas are diverse and inconsistent
The stories about Him in various Puranas are diverse and inconsistent. Goddess Parvati is the one, states Skanda Purana, who combined the three Gunas – Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas – into matter (Prakrti) to create the empirically observed world.
The Vedic discussion of Brahma as a Rajas-quality God expands in the Puranic and Tantric literature. However, these texts state that his wife Saraswati has Sattva (quality of balance, harmony, goodness, purity, holistic, constructive, creative, positive, peaceful, virtuous), thus complementing Brahma’s Rajas (quality of passion, activity, neither good nor bad and sometimes either, action qua action, individualizing, driven, dynamic).
Brahma is traditionally depicted with four faces and four arms. Each face of his points in a cardinal direction. His hands hold no weapons, but rather symbols of knowledge and creation. On one hand, he holds the sacred texts of Vedas, second he holds Mala (rosary beads) symbolizing time, in third he holds a Sruva or Shruk — ladle type symbolizing means to feed the sacrificial fire, and on the fourth a Kamandalu – utensil with water symbolizing the means where all creation emits from. He sits on a lotus, dressed in white (or red, pink), with his vehicle (vahana) – hansa, a swan or goose – nearby.
His wife is the Goddess Saraswati. She is considered to be “the embodiment of his power, the instrument of creation and the energy that drives his actions”.
Worship of Brahma
Very few temples in India are primarily dedicated to Brahma and his worship. The most prominent Hindu temple for Him is the Brahma Temple, Pushkar. Others include:
- Shri Kheteshwar Brahmadham Teerth, Asotra, Barmer, Rajasthan
- Adi Brahma Temple, Khokhan, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh
- Brahma Karmali Temple, Nagargao, Valpoi, Goa
- Brahmaji Temple, Chhinch, Banswara, Rajasthan
- Brahma Temple, Khedbrahma, Sabarkantha, Gujarat
- Brahma Kuti Temple, Bithoor, Uttar Pradesh
- Kumbakonam Brahma Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu
Some more temples are Thanumalayan Temple, Sri Purushothaman Temple, Ponmeri Shiva Temple, Thripaya Trimurti Temple, Mithrananthapuram Trimurti Temple, Kodumudi Magudeswarar Temple, Brahmapureeswarar Temple.
In Tamil Nadu, there is also a shrine for Brahma in Kandiyoor Mahadeva Temple in a rare posture along with his consort Goddess Saraswathi.
There is a Chaturmukha Brahma temple in Chebrolu, Andhra Pradesh, and a seven feet height of Chatrumukha (Four Faces) Brahma temple at Bangalore, Karnataka.
A famous icon of Brahma exists at Mangalwedha, 52 km from the Solapur district of Maharashtra and in Sopara near Mumbai. Temples exist in Khokhan, Annamputhur, and Hosur.
Southeast and East Asia
A shrine of Brahma can be found in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. One of the three largest temples in the 9th-century Prambanan temple complex in Yogyakarta, Central Java (Indonesia) is dedicated to Him, and the other two to Shiva (largest of three) and Vishnu respectively. The temple dedicated to Brahma is on the southern side of Śiva temple.
A statue of Brahma is present at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, and continues to be revered in modern times. The golden dome of the Government House of Thailand houses a statue of Phra Phrom (Thai representation of Brahma). An early 18th-century painting at Wat Yai Suwannaram in Phetchaburi city of Thailand depicts Brahma.
Brahma in Buddhism is known in Chinese as Simianshen (四面神, “Four-Faced God”), Simianfo (四面佛, “Four-Faced Buddha”), or Fantian (梵天), Tshangs pa in Tibetan, Bonten (梵天) in Japanese, and Beomcheon(범천,梵天) in Korean. In Chinese Buddhism, he is regarded as one of the Twenty Devas (二十諸天 Èrshí Zhūtiān) or the Twenty-Four Devas (二十四諸天 Èrshísì zhūtiān), a group of protective dharma palas.
Hindus in Indonesia still have a high regard for Brahma (Indonesian and Javanese: Batara Brahma or Sanghyang Brahma).
The biological father of Ken Arok
In the past, although not as popular as Vishnu and Shiva, the name Brahma appeared on several occasions. In the legend that developed in East Java about Ken Arok, for example, Brahma is believed to be the biological father of Ken Arok. It is said that He was fascinated by the beauty of Ken Arok’s mother, Ken Endok, and made her a lover. From this relationship was born Ken Arok.
In the Javanese version of Wayang (shadow puppet play), Brahma has a very different role from his initial role. Brama, the son of the figure of Bathara Guru (Shiva).
Teachings of Brahma