Friday, February 25, 2011

Decoding Mythology: Defining "God"

Decoding Mythology: Brahma in Bangkok
Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik (author, speaker, illustrator, mythologist)
A form of [Vedic Brahmanism] exists in South East Asia. Fifty years ago, the construction of the Erawan Hotel in Thailand was in trouble.

Every stage of the construction was delayed, and it seemed as if everything was going wrong. The construction up country workers had an uncanny knack for sensing when something was wrong; they refused to work until something was done to appease the guardian spirits.

A distinguished local astrologer discovered that the foundation stone for the hotel was not laid at an auspicious time. To undo the damage, a shrine had to be constructed to the land spirit [bhumi deva]. This was done and the image installed in the shrine was that of the four faced Than Tao Mahaprom ("Great God") as it was the most auspicious and would counter the oversight with the foundation stone. With the shrine in place, the rest of the construction of the hotel was completed without a hitch.

Than Tao Mahaprom is believed to be a "god" [powerful extraterrestrial entity] full of kindness, mercy, sympathy, and impartiality [the four Brahma Viharas in Buddhism, so named because the Buddha said this is how the brahmas abide]. Each virtue is represented in the four faces of the image, radiating serene grace.

His name for most foreign visitors was too hard to remember let alone pronounce. So with time he came to be known as Erawan Shrine [vimana, or a platform, mouth, spacecraft, flying ship], named after his personal vehicle, the three-headed Erawan Elephant, who served as the mount of the Buddha after his enlightenment. In time, this shrine became famous for fulfilling the wishes of people. It became, and still is, a tourist magnet. More>>

Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand (Michael LaPalme/Flickr)

Defining "God": Brahmas in Buddhism
Wisdom Quarterly (ANALYSIS)
There is no ultimate "creator god" in Buddhism. People imagine that this means the Buddha did not talk about creative brahmas. These well-born beings are sometimes described in translation as divinities, deities, even glorious "gods."

In the sense of being powerful, wise, and creative (sometimes wielding power over the creations of others), there are "creator gods." What there is not -- and this is emphatic -- is a God who created the cosmos, who stands outside of karma, who is controlling everything, who is omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent.

While there is no such being, that is not to say there is no such state-of-consciousness. There is a non-dual state that gives rise to a sense of connectedness and Oneness, intuition, bliss, and even procreative power. There is "magic" and mysterious physics that trump our mundane theories.

We are linked, interacting, and completely interdependent even in our deluded sense of isolation.

The Buddha often (e.g., Metta Sutra) advised meditators to develop the four Brahma Viharas -- the "Divine Abidings," Sublime Attitudes, Immeasurable Expressions, or Universal Outlooks -- which we conjecture relate to Brahma's four faces. The Buddha explained that this is how the brahmas abide all the time, in the bliss and equanimity of absorption:

  1. Universal loving-kindness (metta)
  2. Unlimited compassion (karuna)
  3. Infinite joy in the joy of others (mudita)
  4. Immeasurable impartiality (upekkha)

Even a superficial practice is helpful. But the real benefits he described are attained by entering the meditative absorptions (jhanas) through the four portals. Learning these meditations is very good karma, and much merit (punya) is made by frequently practicing them. The Buddha was hard pressed to give a simile of how much merit was produced and what was to be gained from adopting these exalted and unbounded heart/mind states.

Furthermore, the Buddha described one being called Maha Brahma or "Great Brahma." This being, by virtue of good karma, is the first to be born at the beginning of a world system. This being -- who is not a "he" since the brahma world transcends sexual dimorphism and gender differentiation -- This being is in fact a station more than an individual; anyone may be born in this position given that one masters the absorptions and becomes able to enter these states through various means.

Ordinary good karma (keeping the Five Precepts) leads to rebirth as a human being in fortunate circumstances, not necessarily immediately after this life but when such karma has the opportunity to ripen and serve as death-proximate or rebirth-linking karma. It may also lead to "heavenly" states as a lower deva. Extraordinary good karma (keeping the Eight or Ten Precepts) leads to rebirth as a higher deva.

To become a brahma, it is essential to master at least the first absorption. A weak or unsteady attainment is sufficient -- if held at the time of passing -- to be reborn in the retinue of Maha Brahma. Interestingly, brahma means "supreme," and was widely used in the Buddha's time when the "religion," or pervasive dharma, in India was Vedic "Brahman-ism." (Brahman, the ultimate reality, is related but different from brahma, which is a kind of being).

Extraterrestrial devas honoring the more powerful Brahma (

Lack of Brahma worship in India
Wisdom Quarterly Brahma Wikipedia edit
Although Brahmā is one of the three major gods or aspects of God in Hinduism, few Hindus actually worship this great being. India today has very few temples dedicated to Brahma, as opposed to the tens of thousands dedicated to the other two deities in the Trinity (Trimurti) that includes Vishnu and Shiva.

Among the few that exist today, the most famous is the temple in Pushkar in Rajasthan. The idol of Lord Brahma is often fully covered with turmeric every morning.

Various stories in Hindu mythology talk about curses that have supposedly prevented Brahma from being worshiped on Earth. Interestingly, the Bhavishya Purana states that, certain demons (daityas) had begun to worship Brahma.

Therefore, the celestial devas could not defeat them. In order to lead the demons away from such worship, Vishnu is said to have appeared on Earth as the Buddha and Jainism's Mahavira, who were contemporaries who rejected the Vedas and Vedic Brahmanism.

With various arguments Vishnu convinced the demons to abandon the practice. Having done so, they lost power and were hence defeated.

  • One way to "worship" Brahma
    Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Self Realization Fellowship, seems to indicate one way to invoke or honor Brahma through a Sanskrit hymn:

Pa-ra-ma su-kha-dam,
Ke-va-lam gyān-a murtim;
Dwan-dwā ti-tam,
Ga-ga-na sa-dri-sham,
Tat-twa ma-syā-di lak-shyam
E-kam ni-tyam
Vi-ma-lam a-cha-lam,
Sar-va-dhi -kshi bhu-tam;
Bhā- ti-tam tri-gu-na ra-hi-tam,
Sad-gu-rum-tam na-mā-mi.

  • The translation of this mantra is: "Full of bliss, giving joy transcendent, of higher knowledge the abode; dual no more, clear as the heavens, known to all as 'Thou art That.' [Brahmā] is pure, permanent, unmoving, the everlasting seer of all; far, far beyond qualities and thought, guru, I bow to thee."

The Bhavishya Purana lays out that altogether giving up the worship of Brahma was unacceptable in Hinduism. This is because Brahma signifies a personification or manifestation of Brahman (GOD or godhood).

According to a story in the Shiva Purana, at the beginning of [yet another cycle of] cosmic time, Vishnu and Brahma approached a huge Shiva linga and set out to find its beginning and end.

Vishnu was appointed to seek the end, Brahma the beginning. Taking the form of a boar, Vishnu began digging downwards into the Earth, while Brahma took the form of a swan and began flying upwards.

However, neither could find what they sought. Vishnu, satisfied, came up to Shiva and bowed to him as a true form (svarupa) of Brahman. Brahma did not give up so easily. As he was going up, he saw a ketaki flower dear to Shiva. His ego forced him to ask the flower to bear false witness about the discovery of Shiva's beginning. When Brahma told his tale, Shiva the "all-knowing," was angered by this display of ego and thus cursed him that no being in the three worlds will worship him.

According to another legend, Brahma is not worshipped due to a curse by the great sage Brahmarishi Bhrigu. It is said that the high priest Bhrigu was organizing a great fire sacrifice (yajna) on Earth. It was decided that the greatest among all gods would be made the presiding deity.

Bhrigu then set off into space to find the greatest among the Trinity. When he went to Brahma, the god was so immersed in the music played by Saraswati that he could hardly hear Bhrigu's calls. The enraged Bhrigu then cursed Brahma that no person on Earth would ever invoke him or worship him again.

In the Brahma Purana and Hindu cosmology, Brahma is regarded as the creator but not necessarily as God. Rather, he is regarded as a creation of Brahman.

The lifespan of Brahma is 100 brahmā years, equivalent to 311,040,000,000,000 solar years (311 trillion and 40 billion Earth years). At the end of his lifespan, there is a gap of 100 brahmā years, after which another Brahma or creator [since it a just a station not a unique individual] begins the process of creation anew. This cycle is thought to repeat without end.

No comments: