Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Curse of Obscurity

Since we've recently seen some artwork of the Trimurti in Cameron's weekly updates, this week we're also going to talk about them! Today's question is: You know, we see Shiva and Vishnu go out and kill demons and do heroic stuff, but we never see Brahma do any of that. Are there any interesting myths about the deity?

And you know, there's actually a very good reason for the fact that we hear less about Brahma than the other two gods of the Trimurti. Actually, several potential reasons, and all of them have to do with Brahma making a mistake and being punished for it.

Essentially, Hindu myth tells us that Brahma committed a crime or made a serious ethical error, and as a result he was cursed to never be worshiped the same way his fellows are. Brahma stars in far fewer myths because of this curse, performs far fewer legendary exploits, and has vastly fewer temples and festivals dedicated in his honor. Even today, Brahma has only a few temples to his name; there are somewhere between ten and thirty temples to Brahma, although the number varies based on whether or not you count various different aspects of Brahma and how large a place of worship has to be to qualify as a temple, as opposed to the literally hundreds of temples to Shiva and Vishnu worldwide.

So what did Brahma do to be punished in this manner? There are actually several myths explaining his lack of worship, all united by the common theme of the god doing something that was religiously inexcusable. In one tale, Brahma and Vishnu discovered an enormous cosmic pillar (or, alternatively, they were fighting for dominance and Shiva placed the pillar between them to distract them), and after unsuccessfully trying to estimate its size, they decided to have a contest to find the ends of the great column. Vishnu transformed himself into a boar in order to race down the pillar toward its bottom, while Brahma took on the form of a hamsa (a large white bird similar to a swan) and flew upward to seek its top.

The pillar, however, was in truth Shiva's lingua, the cosmic phallus that supports the universe, and both Vishnu and Brahma traveled for thousands of miles but could not find the pillar's end because it was literally limitless. Exhausted, they returned to where they had begun to compare notes; Vishnu admitted that he had been unable to find the pillar's bottom, but Brahma was prideful and lied, claiming that he had found its top and was therefore superior.

At this point, Shiva appeared out of the lingua and, after all three of the Trimurti acknowledged one another, thoroughly cursed Brahma for his lie and his disrespect of the lingua, decreeing that he would not be commonly worshiped by humanity because he had proven himself unworthy.

Other stories about Brahma's curse involve his wife Sarasvati, whom he created from his own essence. When she was formed, he found her so beautiful that he was consumed with lust for her, which was highly inappropriate because, having been made by him and from him, she was equivalent to his own daughter and his interest in her was incestuous. In some versions of the story, Brahma pursued Sarasvati around the world in the form of various animals, siring all the creatures of the world on her whenever he caught up to her, while in others, he merely gazed at her lustfully, with such determination that he grew multiple extra heads just to make sure he can see her no matter where she went or what direction she tried to flee in.

Either way, Shiva intervened in this version of the curse's origin as well, this time in the form of Bhairava, the Destroyer. He cut off one of Brahma's extra heads and placed the curse upon Brahma that he would not be worshiped in the world, thanks to his improper lust and shameful behavior.

In another story, it is Sarasvati herself who cursed Brahma; he held a great ritual gathering and invited many wise sages to participate in it with him, but when the sages arrived early, Sarasvati refused to receive them, pointing out that it would be improper for her to sit in a room full of men without her husband present. Brahma was angered by her decision and decided to find and marry a new wife in order to replace her, but Sarasvati arrived while the wedding was still in progress, and laid the curse upon him to punish him for disrespecting her and demanding that she do improper things.

In yet another story, Brahma's problems are explained by relating a story in which he was approached by Bhrigu, a famous sage, who wanted to determine which of the Trimurti were most powerful in order to help decide what gods were most worthy of sacrifices. Bhrigu went to Brahma's home and requested to speak with him, but Brahma failed to properly receive him; in some versions Bhrigu was intentionally disrespectful in order to test Brahma's character while in others Brahma was just busy spending time with Sarasvati and not paying attention. Either way, he did not grant Bhrigu the respect due a holy man, and Bhrigu cursed him with a lack of worship to ensure that he would never receive as many sacrifices as did the other gods.

Regardless of the specific events, it's obvious that Brahma's lack of worship stems from his failure to properly comport himself with the integrity required of a god and the respect he is required to show to other deities and sacred laws. Sometimes it's obvious that he needed to be chastized for his misbehavior, such as when he harassed Sarasvati or lied to the other members of the Trimurti; other times you can almost feel sorry for him, such as when he was cursed by Bhrigu for nothing more than wanting to be left alone to hang out with his wife.

Of course, while Brahma's missteps are mythically important because they remind those who hear those stories of the rules of proper conduct and religious virtue by showing examples of the consequences when someone flouts them, that doesn't make him any less an equal member of the Trimurti or less important as one of the gods that form the foundation of the universe. Brahma is the creator who brought all things into being and is still bringing them into being now, and who represents ultimate wisdom and the power of pure thought and understanding. He is a figure to be respected and revered, lest unwary Heroes who fail to do so fall into the same trap that he once did.