In my quest to find out more about gods as narrative characters I have just been reading Greg Bailey’s The Mythology of Brahmā (Delhi: OUP, 1983). Bailey’s main thesis is that Brahmā is always associated with pravṛtti, in other words he is a god of world affirmation, associated with creation, sacrifice, and the restoration of order. Using stories from the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, Pāli suttas and a selection of Purāṇas, Bailey explores various aspects of Brahmā’s characterization using his pravṛtti nature as the ordering principle.
It is often said that Brahmā, unlike his fellow trimūrti gods Viṣṇu and Śiva, never really had a cult of devotion. However, Bailey assesses textual, inscriptional and material evidence and concludes that ‘it is probable that Brahmā was a very popular and widely worshipped god in north-central and north-east India (and perhaps western India) from the beginning of the fourth century B.C. or slightly earlier’ (p.34). Part of his evidence base comes from Pāli texts that portray Brahmā either as a ridiculous and deluded deity or as a devotee of the Buddha – as Bailey points out, both attitudes imply that Brahmā-worship was a strong rival tradition at the time of the texts’ composition. Certainly the inclusion of Brahmā (and his double-act partner Indra) in so many Buddhist texts implies that he was a character that could not be ignored.
Following this exploration of Brahmā worship and a few other preliminaries concerning pravṛtti vs nirvṛtti and the Vedic antecendents of Brahmā, Bailey begins his analysis of the narrative materials. He divides this into two sections, addressing the cosmogonic myths and avatāra myth respectively, and his pravṛtti thesis continues throughout both. Brahmā, he argues, is associated with creation, ahaṃkāra (ego or individuality), desire, possessions, worldliness and sacrifice. In the avatāra myth he is dharma within the world, never transcending it as Viṣṇu does. His ordinances and boons serve to maintain dharma even when they appear to do the opposite, and thus he is also linked to fate, karma and saṃsāra. He symbolises kingship and social order. He serves to mediate between gods and men (like the brahmins who mediate between humans and gods through sacrifice), as well as between demons and gods, and gods and other gods. In short, he is lord of pravṛtti.
Bailey’s book has been a great way for me to orient myself within Brahmanical portrayals of Brahmā, and although he does not discuss Jainism and nor is he interested in the Buddhist portrayals in their own right (he does not note, for example, the multiplication of Brahmās in Buddhist cosmology and narrative) his comments and analysis are very thought-provoking. His use of pravṛtti as ordering principle and analytic key feels a little forced at times, but nonetheless he has brought together some rich narrative material and used it to paint a delightful portrait of a largely-neglected deity.