Hindu Gods And Heroes, Studies in the History of the Religion of India
Lionel D. Barnett author
CHAPTER III - IV
Brahma and the Trimurti
Brahma, the Creator, a masculine noun, must be carefully distinguished from the neuter Brahma, the abstract First Being. The latter comes first in the scale of existence, while the former appears at some distance further on as the creator of the material world (see above, p. 60 f.). In modern days Brahma has been completely eclipsed by Vishnu and Siva and even by some minor deities, and has now only four temples dedicated to his exclusive worship. But there was a time when he was a great god. In the older parts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana he figures as one of the greater deities, perhaps the greatest. But in the later portions of the epic he has shrunk into comparative insignificance as compared to Vishnu and Siva, and especially to Vishnu. This change faithfully reflects historical facts. During the last four or five centuries of the millennium which ended with the Christian era the orthodox Vedic religion of the Brahmans had steadily lost ground, and the sects worshipping Vishnu and Siva had correspondingly grown in power and finally had come to be recognised as themselves orthodox. Brahma, as his name implies, is the ideal Brahman sage, and typifies Vedic orthodoxy. He is represented as everlastingly chanting the four Vedas from his four mouths (for he has four heads), and he bears the water-pot and rosary of eleocarpus berries, the symbols of the Brahman ascetic. But Vedic orthodoxy had to make way for more fascinating cults, and the Vedic Brahman typified in the god Brahma sank into comparative unimportance beside the sectarian ascetics. Still the old god, though shorn of much of his glory, was by no means driven from the field. The new churches looked with reverence upon his Vedas, and often claimed them as divine authority for their doctrines; and though each of them asserted that its particular god, Siva or Vishnu, was the Supreme Being, and ultimately the only being, both of them allowed Brahma to retain his old office of creator, it being of course understood that he held it as a subordinate of the Supreme, Siva or Vishnu as the case might be. Meanwhile, at any rate between the third and the sixth centuries, there existed a small fraternity who regarded Brahma as the Supreme, and therefore as identical with the abstract Brahma; but although they have left a record of their doctrines in the Markandeya-purana and the Padma-purana, they have had little influence on Indian religion in general.
A love of system—unfortunately not always effectual—is a notable feature of the Hindu mind in dealing with most subjects, from grammar to Ars Amoris; and this instinct inspired some unknown theologian with the idea of harmonising the three gods into a unity by representing in one compound form or Trimurti Brahma as creator, Vishnu as the sustaining power in the universe, and Siva as the force of dissolution which periodically brings the cosmos to an end and necessitates in due course new cycles of being. This ingenious plan has the advantage that it is without prejudice to the religion of any of the gods concerned, for all the three members of this trinity are subordinate to the Supreme Being, or Param Brahma, whom the Vaishnavas identify with Vishnu in his highest phase, Para-Vasudeva, and distinguish from his lower phase, the Vishnu of this compound, while the Saivas draw a corresponding distinction between Parama-Siva, the god in his transcendent nature, and the Siva who figures in the Trimurti. So the most orthodox Vaishnava and the most bigoted Saiva can adore this three-headed image of the Trimurti side by side with easy consciences.
This idea of the three gods in one, though it is embodied in some important works of sculpture such as the famous Trimurti in the Caves of Elephanta, has not had much practical effect upon Hindu religion. But it has given birth to at any rate one interesting little sect, the worshippers of Dattatreya, who are to be found mainly in the Maratha country. The legend of the saint Dattatreya, which is already found in the Mahabharata and Puranas and is repeated with some modifications and amplifications in modern works of the sect, relates that when the holy Rishi Atri subjected himself to terrific austerities in order to obtain worthy progeny, the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva visited him and promised him the desired boon; accordingly his wife Anasuya gave birth to three sons, of whom the first was the Moon, an incarnation of Brahma, the second Dattatreya, an incarnation of Vishnu, and the third the holy but irascible saint Durvasas, representing Siva. Dattatreya dwelt in a hermitage in the Dekkan: he indulged in marriage and wine-drinking, which however were not detrimental to his miraculous sanctity and wisdom, and he became famous as a benefactor to humanity. He is said to have lived in the time of Kartavirya Arjuna, the Haihaya king, and to have counselled the latter to remain on his throne when he wished to resign it. In older works of plastic art he is sometimes represented by the simple expedient of placing the three gods side by side, sometimes by figuring him as Vishnu in the guise of a Yogi with some of the attributes of the other two; but in modern times he usually appears as a single figure with three heads, one for each of the great gods, and four or six arms bearing their several attributes (usually the rosary and water-pot of Brahma, the conch and discus of Vishnu, and the trident and drum of Siva), while he is accompanied by four dogs of different colours, supposed to represent the four Vedas, and a bull. Observe that in all these types Dattatreya is conceived as an embodiment of the three gods, which is comparatively a later idea, for in the oldest version of the legend he was simply an incarnation of Vishnu; but as Vishnu was regarded not only as a member of the Trinity but also the Supreme Being over and above it, Dattatreya as his representative has come to include in his personality the nature of all the trio. There is, moreover, something curious in his character. His love of wine and woman is a singular trait, and is quite incompatible with the nature of an ideal saint. It smells of reality, and strongly suggests that he was not a figment of the religious imagination but an actual man; and this is supported by the tradition of his association with Kartavirya Arjuna, who, in spite of all the mythical tales that are related of him, really seems to have been a king of flesh and blood. Thus we may venture to see in him yet another example of the metamorphosis so common in India from a saint to an incarnation of the god worshipped by him.