The three main gods of the Hindu pantheon are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. While followers of the latter two gods, who form two sects within Hinduism, may regard one of these two gods as the creator of the universe, that role traditionally falls to Brahma. His name comes from the Sanskrit word “Brahman,” which is also the term for the ultimate creative force and omnipresent power noted in the Upanishads, the seminal philosophical texts at the heart of Hinduism.
ASPECTS OF BRAHMAN
The concept of Brahman, the radiant, eternal, limitless reality of early Hinduism, is difficult to understand, much less to express, so Hindus focus their worship on the three faces of god — the Trimurti. While Vishnu protects and conserves the world, and Shiva destroys it so it can be reborn again, Brahma is the creator god. He is said to have emerged from the navel of Vishnu, who was lying on a serpent adrift in the ocean of eternity.
According to legend, Brahma, all alone at the beginning of the universe in a state of contentment and fulfillment, eventually began to long for company. He split himself in two, creating the goddess Shatarupa, whom he immediately desired to possess. Whenever he approached her, however, she would turn into something else, such as a goat, bull or eagle. He would therefore turn into the corresponding male form, and in this way all the creatures in the universe came into being. Brahma sprouted five heads to keep Shatarupa in his sights, but Shiva, in an effort to temper his lust, chopped off one of them. Coming to his senses, Brahma settled with his consort, Saraswati.
DEPICTIONS OF BRAHMA
Brahma has four heads, and each of his four mouths recites one of the Vedas, or original Hindu scriptures. According to legend, he does this in repentance for having pursued Shatarupa. He has a long beard, to signify age and wisdom, and he has four arms. In one arm is a spoon for pouring ghee, or clarified butter used in sacrifices, indicating that he is the lord of sacrifices. In another he has a water pot — water being the element of creation. He has a string of beads called a mala, which signifies time, in his third hand, and in his fourth he holds a copy of the Vedas.
The emergence of Brahma from the navel of Vishnu signifies the creation of the manifest world from the unmanifest, eternal reality. Because Brahma must have knowledge in order to create a good universe, his consort, Saraswati, is the goddess of knowledge. He is frequently depicted sitting upon or holding a lotus, which represents the pure and infinite reality. He also rides a swan, a bird that can separate milk from water, signifying Brahma’s ability to distinguish good from evil. The animal hide that Brahma wears is a symbol of austerity — it signifies the discipline that is needed on the spiritual path.
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