BRAHMAN and the Indian Deities: Faces of the Divine – Part 1

When we think of Hinduism, we can easily get lost in the ideas of the infinite number of gods, deities, their female aspects, their "mounts," their mystical signs and hand positions (mudras), and much more.

BRAHMAN and the Indian Deities: Faces of the Divine – Part 1

The myths, tales and images about the faces of the divine in India, however, can, indeed should, be understood as indications that behind these statements stands and works a power that is not “of this world”, a power that we carry within us and to which we can surrender our worldly ego-consciousness in humility, faith and trust. We carry within us the key, indeed the participation in BRAHMAN, in Nirvana or the “realm that is not of this world”.

The pantheon of Hindu deities is immeasurable, as it is written in one of the holy scriptures: “innumerable as the grains of sand on the Ganges River”. And yet behind, above or within this multiplicity is a starting point, a principle that embraces all limitations of form, time, space and representations. It is called BRAHMAN, as

… the ABSOLUTE, the ALL-embracing, the UNIVERSAL. It is the all-pervading, divine, nameless, formless, eternally absolute, all-inherent principle. BRAHMAN is the central divine principle of Vedanta. BRAHMAN has no material quality, IT is not a concept of this world and therefore cannot be described in words or pictures. BRAHMAN is the SELF, the true I of every organism and the highest non-dual reality [1].

This one [BRAHMAN] is my Atman in the inner heart, smaller than a grain of rice or a grain of barley or a grain of millet or a kernel of millet. This is my Atman in the inner heart, greater than the earth, greater than the sky, greater than the worlds. The All-Acting, All-Desiring, All-Smelling, All-Tasting, All-Encompassing, Wordless, Heedless, this is my soul in the inner heart, this is the BRAHMAN, to which I, departing from here, will enter. To whom such was, forsooth, there is no doubt [2].

From this “kernel of millet” arises, appears the whole visible and invisible universe, in which gods, demons, solar systems, galaxies, but also people, animals, plants and minerals manifest themselves through energies, vibrations and crystallizations. The creation of the universe leads to a seeming separation between BRAHMAN and His creatures, but this separation is only an imagination, since everything is permeated by BRAHMAN and exists in unity with Him. The creation of the universe, its flourishing and its dissolution are seen in Hinduism as “days of BRAHMAN”, Kalpas (periods of unimaginably long ages).

Many attempts to describe the process of creation of the universe have been made by mankind. Many, if not all cultures, have tried to give and describe answers to this process of coming into being from the absolute, the all-embracing, the unlimited non-being into the world perceptible to us with our sense organs. From this arose innumerable writings, pictures, statues, prayers, philosophies, all trying to make the incomprehensible tangible, the unknowable knowable, the inaudible audible. Along the way, gods, deities, angels and saints with countless forms and attributes have come into being, images, likenesses of that which cannot be represented. They are all limited attempts to bear witness to the ineffable mystery of God in the sense world. Are these images, statues, temples and texts “faces of God”? Can they point mankind to the mystery of BRAHMAN and bring them to answers in their inner searching and questioning?

On the basis of selected representations of the three main gods of Hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, we will try to show how the images of these three can guide us on the way to the search of BRAHMAN within us.

Trimurti (“the three figures”): Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

There are many myths and tales about the creation and non-creation of the universe from and through the Absolute, BRAHMAN, all of which have one thing in common: the manifestation of the three main gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, a trinity which in turn gave rise to many, indeed countless, other deities, often with a direct connection to human life, its desires, fears and needs.

Brahma is credited with the creation of the worlds and the universe. Vishnu is seen as the sustainer of creation and Shiva as the destroyer of ignorance and the renewer. Symbolic attributes are assigned to each of the three deities, a female manifestation as well as “mounts,” symbols and mystical hand postures (mudras).

About the origin of Brahma it is said: Brahma is the firstborn in the universe. To create the world and the human race, he divided himself into two halves: the male principle Brahma and the female principle, the goddess Gayatri , who in turn expresses herself in many different manifestations like, for instance, Saraswati[3].


In Hinduism lived today, however, Brahma is hardly visible. There are very few temples in India where he is worshipped exclusively. The coming into being of the universe, its blossoming and passing away are seen as the inhalation and exhalation of Brahma. The unimaginably long periods of this inhaling and exhaling are detached from the daily life and work of humans and gods. Brahma is often depicted as an old, wise man with four heads, implying that he looks in all four directions and is thus omnipresent. It is also implied that he irradiates the four basic texts of Hinduism, the four Vedas, to keep them everywhere and always in the consciousness of mankind.

The best known and also widely used female manifestation of Brahma is Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning, as well as of art and fertility. Schoolchildren and students, artists and scholars pray to Saraswati. Saraswati wants to show us the way to wisdom, a wisdom that leads to the overcoming of separation and reaching the union of the individualized Atman with BRAHMAN.

More visible and tangible to people are the other two deities of the trinity: Vishnu, the sustainer, and Shiva, the destroyer and renewer of the world. They are practically omnipresent. Countless temples, shrines, sacred trees, watercourses, mountains, etc. are dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva in one incarnation or another. For all needs, desires and expectations there are images, statues and temples representing one of them or one of their incarnations. They are worshiped, sacrifices are made to them, and the fulfillment of one’s desires is expected from them. Most of these desires are directed to daily life and its problems, although all the sacred scriptures of India always point to the transcendent, to overcoming the ties to this world and becoming absorbed in BRAHMAN.

(to be continued in part 2)



[2]Chandogya-Upanishad (3.14)


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Date: January 13, 2022
Author: Horst Matthäus (Nepal)
Photo: Wikipedia CCO

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