1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brahman

BRAHMAN, a Sanskrit noun-stem which, differently accented, yields in the two nominatives Brahmă (neut.) and Brahmā (masc.), the names of two deities which occupy prominent places in the orthodox system of Hindu belief. Brahmă (n.) is the designation generally applied to the Supreme Soul (paramātman), or impersonal, all-embracing divine essence, the original source and ultimate goal of all that exists; Brahmā (m.), on the other hand, is only one of the three hypostases of that divinity whose creative activity he represents, as distinguished from its preservative and destructive aspects, ever apparent in life and nature, and represented by the gods Vishṇu and Śiva respectively. The history of the two cognate names reflects in some measure the development of Indian religious speculation generally.

The neuter term brahmă is used in the Rigveda both in the abstract sense of “devotion, worship,” and in the concrete sense of “devotional rite, prayer, hymn.” The spirit of Vedic worship is pervaded by a devout belief in the efficacy of invocation and sacrificial offering. The earnest and well-expressed prayer or hymn of praise cannot fail to draw the divine power to the worshipper and make it yield to his supplication; whilst offerings, so far from being mere acts of devotion calculated to give pleasure to the god, constitute the very food and drink which render him vigorous and capable of battling with the enemies of his mortal friend. It is this intrinsic power of fervent invocation and worship which found an early expression in the term brahmă; and its independent existence as an active moral principle in shaping the destinies of man became recognized in the Vedic pantheon in the conception of a god Bṛihaspati or Brahmaṇaspati, “lord of prayer or devotion,” the divine priest and the guardian of the pious worshipper. By a natural extension of the original meaning, the term brahmă, in the sense of sacred utterance, was subsequently likewise applied to the whole body of sacred writ, the tri-vidyā or “triple lore” of the Veda; whilst it also came to be commonly used as the abstract designation of the priestly function and the Brāhmanical order generally, in the same way as the term kshatra, “sway, rule,” came to denote the aggregate of functions and individuals of the Kshatriyas or Rājanyas, the nobility or military class.

The universal belief in the efficacy of invocation as an indispensable adjunct to sacrifices and religious rites generally, could not fail to engender and maintain in the minds of the people feelings of profound esteem and reverence towards those who possessed the divine gift of inspired utterance, as well as for those who had acquired an intimate knowledge of the approved forms of ritual worship. A common designation of the priest is brahman (nom. brahma), originally denoting, it would seem, “one who prays, a worshipper,” perhaps also “the composer of a hymn” (brahman, n.); and the same term came subsequently to be used not only for one of the sacerdotal order generally, but also, and more commonly, as the designation of a special class of priests who officiated as superintendents during sacrificial performances, the complicated nature of which required the co-operation of a whole staff of priests, and who accordingly were expected to possess a competent knowledge of the entire course of ritual procedure, including the correct form and mystic import of the sacred texts to be repeated or chanted by the several priests. The Brahman priest (brahmā) being thus the recognized head of the sacerdotal order (brahmă), which itself is the visible embodiment of sacred writ and the devotional spirit pervading it (brahmă), the complete realization of theocratic aspirations required but a single step, which was indeed taken in the theosophic speculations of the later Vedic poets and the authors of the Brāhmanas (q.v.), viz. the recognition of this abstract notion of the Brahma as the highest cosmic principle and its identification with the pantheistic conception of an all-pervading, self-existent spiritual substance, the primary source of the universe; and subsequently coupled therewith the personification of its creative energy in the form of Brahmā, the divine representative of the earthly priest, who was made to take the place of the earlier conception of Prajāpati, “the lord of creatures” (see Brahmanism). By this means the very name of this god expressed the essential oneness of his nature with that of the divine spirit as whose manifestation he was to be considered. In the later Vedic writings, especially the Brāhmanas, however, Prajāpati still maintains throughout his position as the paramount personal deity; and Brahma, in his divine capacity, is rather identified with Bṛihaspati, the priest of the gods. Moreover, the exact relationship between Prajāpati and the Brahmă (n.) is hardly as yet defined with sufficient precision; it is rather one of simple identification: in the beginning the Brahma was the All, and Prajapati is the Brahma. It is only in the institutes of Manu, where we find the system of castes propounded in its complete development, that Brahmā has his definite place assigned to him in the cosmogony. According to this work, the universe, before undiscerned, was made discernible in the beginning by the sole, self-existent lord Brahmă (n.). He, desirous of producing different beings from his own self, created the waters by his own thought, and placed in them a seed which developed into a golden egg; therein was born Brahmā (m.), the parent of all the worlds; and thus “that which is the undiscrete Cause, eternal, which is and is not, from it issued that male who is called in the world Brahmā.” Having dwelt in that egg for a year, that lord spontaneously by his own thought split that egg in two; and from the two halves he fashioned the heaven and the earth, and in the middle, the sky, and the eight regions (the points of the compass), and the perpetual place of the waters. This theory of Brahmā being born from a golden egg is, however, a mere adaptation of the Vedic conception of Hiranya-garbha (“golden embryo”), who is represented as the supreme god in a hymn of the tenth (and last) book of the Ṛigveda. Another still later myth, which occurs in the epic poems, makes Brahma be born from a lotus which grew out of the navel of the god Vishṇu whilst floating on the primordial waters. In artistic representations, Brahmā usually appears as a bearded man of red colour with four heads crowned with a pointed, tiara-like head-dress, and four hands holding his sceptre, or a sacrificial spoon, a bundle of leaves representing the Veda, a bottle of water of the Ganges, and a string of beads or his bow Parivīta. His vehicle (vāhana) is a goose or swan (hamsa), whence he is also called Haṃsāvhana; and his consort is Sarasvatī, the goddess of learning.

One could hardly expect that a colourless deity of this description, so completely the product of priestly speculation, could ever have found a place in the hearts of the people generally, And indeed, whilst in theoretic theology Brahma has retained his traditional place and function down to our own days, his practical cult has at all times remained extremely limited, the only temple dedicated to the worship of this god being found at Pushkar (Pokhar) near Ajmir in Rājputāna. On the other hand, his divine substratum, the impersonal Brahma, the world-spirit, the one and only reality, remains to this day the ultimate element of the religious belief of intelligent India of whatever sect. Being devoid of all attributes, it can be the object only of meditation, not of practical devotional rites; and philosophy can only attempt to characterize it in general and vague terms, as in the favourite formula which makes it to be sachchidānanda, i.e. being (sat), thinking (chit), and bliss (ānanda).  (J. E.)