ब्रह्मा— Hindu Creator God
Hindu thought recognizes an almighty, but impersonal, absolute being called Brahman—Brahma, whose name translates as 'The Great Being' or 'the Creator,' is supposed to be its incarnation. Brahma stands at the head of a divine Hindu trinity called the trimurti. His colleagues Vishnu and Shiva represent sustenance and destruction, respectively and he is the balance between the two. This balancing act is further reason for his status as top god—Hindu thought is very keen on balance, moderation, proportion, they lent this idea to the Buddhists, who also revere balance.
More recently, the popular deity Vishnu has thrown worship of Brahma into eclipse. In a few sources, the two are mixed together and Brahma is sometimes regarded as a mere manifestation of Vishnu. Either one of these deities is sometimes said to be the Prajapati—the lord and father of all creatures.
Some Buddhist sects also recognize the Hindu gods, although it is popularly belived that the Buddhas, gods, and other Buddhist divinity have superseded those stately deities. Under this system, Brahma is grouped with Vishnu, Shiva, and Indra in a group named the maras.
A God is Born
There are several accounts of how this great deity came to be. One story tells that he was self-created by a supreme act of will—a golden egg emerged from the mind of Brahma and all things came out from it—beginning, of course, with Brahma himself (thinking about this for too long may cause vertigo). The halves of the eggshell became the sky and the earth.
One variant tale says that Brahma emerged from the cosmic egg as the thousand-headed, thousand-armed, thousand-legged creator called Purusha. He then broke into pieces and his various bits became all of the gods, the castes of humanity, the celestial bodies and every part of creation. This calls to mind a story from the holy tales of ancient Sumer. Tiamat, the primordial chaos-mother dragon, was slain by the hero Marduk. Her skull then became the vault of the sky, her blood became the ocean, and all the other parts of her body became the elements of the physical universe.
In another version of the birth of Brahma, the right side of the primordial force of creation became this god. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana both say that he was born from a lotus growing from the navel of Vishnu. According to Saiva scholars, Brahma was the offspring of the storm god Rudra, for whom he also served as charioteer. It has also been claimed that his father is the god Mahadeva (who is an incarnation of Shiva).
Most sources name the wife of Brahma as Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, arts, and science. In some tales, however, his wife is Aditi and some sources have him wed to speech goddess Vac. He is also supposed to have had the milkmaid Gayatri as his lover. One legend says Vac was his daughter and they became the parents of the living world.
The sun god Daksha is supposed to have been born from Brahma's thumb. Marici, a powerful creator deity, was also said to be his offspring. The primal and powerful fire god Agni is often claimed to be a manifestation of Brahma.
By Vaishnava tales, he is supposed to have borne Rudra from his forehead. The four deities called the Kumaras were also supposed to be his sons. He is supposed to have created the beautiful mortal woman Ahalya, who spent some quality time with either Gautama or Indra (maybe both).
The Many Names of Brahma
Among the many titles ascribed to this god are Narayana ('He Who Comes From The Waters,' a title later ascribed to Vishnu); Abjaja, Abjayoni, or Kanjaja ('Born From A Lotus');
Adikavi ('the First Poet');
Ashtakarna or Astakarna ('Eight-Eared');
Chaturanana or Chaturmukha ('Four Faced');
Dhatri or Vidhatri ('the Sustainer');
Drughana ('the Axe' or 'the Mallet');
Kamalasana ('Sitting on a Lotus');
Kanja ('the Lotus');
Lokesa ('Lord of the World');
Paremeshta ('Supreme in Heaven');
Pitamaha ('the Great Father');
Sanat ('the Ancient');
Sarojin ('Having a Lotus');
Srashtri ('the Creator');
Vedhas or Vedas (the holy texts which he brought to the world; and Vidhi ('Ritual' or 'Prayer').
Brahma is most frequently depicted as a four-armed man, usually with red or pink skin and arrayed in white robes or a loin cloth. In the Vedas, geese and swans are seen as sacred to him and he is often shown mounted on a mighty bird named Hamsa or Hansavahana.
He is usually pictured holding any of several items in his hands: a string of beads or pearls; a water pot (representing prosperity); his bow (which is called Parivita); a sceptre, staff, or spoon; and the Vedas. These holy scriptures are said to have come from him, he is supposed to have inscribed their words on leaves of gold. His hands are frequently shown upraised in prayer or in blessings.
Brahma sits upon a lotus blossom. The lotus, with its roots deep below the water and its blooms on the surface, is a very powerful symbol in Hinduism, carried over to Buddhism as well.
The Ramayana describes him as a boar who raises the earth up on its tusks, while other accounts call him a tortoise or a fish. He lives in a great temple or palace called Brahmavrinda.
Brahma is often depicted as having four heads, usually bearded, each facing a different direction. Here is the story of how his four heads came to be: half of Brahma broke away and became the comely goddess Satarupa (aka Saraswati). The mighty god could not help but look at the lovely goddess with lust—a fact which made her extremely uneasy. She circled Brahma to keep him from getting a good look. In order to better ogle her, he got four heads. By some accounts, he originally developed five heads, but got into it with Shiva and...well, lost his head. The goddess eventually relented to his affections and the two ran off on a hundred year (that’s Brahma years, mind you, see below for more information) honeymoon. At the end of these years, Manu, the first human, was born. This resembles the tale of him and Vac, above, and the two stories are no doubt related.
Time Flies When You Are A God
Brahma’s life is measured in heavenly years, each day (kalpa) being over four million years of our time*. 360 of such days make a year, and after each year the universe is destroyed and reborn in an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth (after each day, the world ends, but the rest of the universe, gods etc continue on). Brahma is currently 51 years old, and it is said that he will live to be about 100 (how this squares with the 100 year honeymoon, no one can say). After he dies, everything stops and starts over, perhaps with him thinking himself into existence again.
The kalpa is divided into ten parts (432,000 years each), these break down into four seasons, called yugas: the satya yuga (the longest yuga, also called the krita yuga), the treta yuga, the dvapara yuga, and the kali yuga. The four ages represent a slow decline in quality, morality, and overall godliness of all things. We live in the shortest and most brutal of the yugas, the kali yuga, which started about five thousand years ago and has over a quarter of a million years left to go!
*There is some disagreement in the sources about the order of magnitude appropriate to the length of the kalpa. Both Webster1913 (in kalpa) and sheThing (above) place the length at 4.3 BILLION years, while Encyclopedia of Gods, Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, and Wikipedia put it at 4.3 million. One other source, MythFolklore.net, weirdly puts the number at 2.16 billion years, which is the length of his year if each day is 4.3 million years.
Much of this information has been gleaned from a (self-published) book on mythology I have written and am constanly in the process of revising.
Evans, Bergen, “Dictionary of Mythology” (Dell, New York, 1970).
Jordon, Michael, "Encyclopedia of Gods" (Facts on File, New York, 1993).
Cotterell, Arthur and Storm, Rachel, “The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology” (Hermes House, Anness Publishing, London, 1999).
Myth and Folklore on line: http://www.mythfolklore.net/india/encyclopedia/brahma.htm
And a trip to Wikipedia to hork the Sanskrit spelling of his name and triple-check all the lengths of the cosmic cycles!