Worship of Lord Brahma, Part 102

BY: SUN STAFF - 8.6 2018


Lord Brahma, from a Trimurti panel 
11th century, Burma


A serial exploration of places of Lord Brahma's worship.

Lord Brahma in Burma and Laos

In the same way that the Brahma cult spread from India to China by way of Lord Brahma's association with Buddha, we find that Brahma worship also traveled to Southeast Asia through its association with Jainism. In several previous segments we have discussed the convergence of Brahma worship with the Jain religion, and visited several temples Jain temples where Lord Brahma resides. In the case of Burma, one of Indochina's closest neighbors to India, we find the presence of Brahma both in the Jain context, and in Vaisnava temples, some of which bear Jain iconography.

Given Jainism's philosophical genesis in the Vedas and the fact that Jain temples came up in towns and villages where Vaisnavism and Saivism were already well established, it's not surprising that Jain temple architecture was very divergent. The construction of Jain basadis typically affiliated itself with the prevailing architectural style of the place. For example, Jain temples in South India were similar to Dravida style temples. In the Khajuraho area, Jain temples took after the Central Indian Nagara style.

In the same way, many Jain deities and icons took their style and mood from the predominant Vaisnava or Saivite deities. The lingam form, for example, is described in Jain literature has having been styled after the Jain sarvatobhadrika. But in fact, both styles can be seen to have originated with Lord Brahma.

The catur-mukha style in Jain deities is sometimes said to have been modeled after the three, four, or five-headed Visnu-Vaikuntha aspects, but again, there are many indicators that the influence predates even this Vaisnava form, and actually has its source in Lord Brahma.

One school of thought that suggests the Jain catur-mukha form comes from the Vaikuntha is the fact that in Vaikuntha-Vishnu temples, such as the Laksman Temple at Khajuraho, there is only one entrance in the front. The deity is meant to be greeted straight on, face to face. The Brahma temple at Khajuraho, on the other hand, has four entrances (three closed by lattice work, and the east fully open), presumably because Brahmadeva's four faces can be greeted from all directions. Similarly, many lingam temples have four entrances. Some Jains therefore suggest that the lingam form, which has four faces or sides, was actually fashioned after the Jain sarvatobhadrika, which has four entrances. But again, Lord Brahma's four-faced form predates even the catur-mukha Shiva-linga forms, or the Mahadeva multi-faced Shiva forms.

At the Nat Hlaung Kyaung temple at Pagan in Burma, which is consecrated to the worship of Vishnu, a Jain motif is seen in the temple iconography. Likewise, at the Mon Nanpaya Temple at Pagan, the low-relief images of Lord Brahma also incorporate some Jain iconography. These Brahma images, dated to 1060-1070 A.D., depict Brahmadeva's hands and feet, his throne and the image borders, in the same way other Jain deities are presented. Similarly, there are images of Brahma found in Burma that bear a Buddhist influence.


Garbhodakasayi Visnu, Kaw-gun 
(Brahma is top left)

We find another interesting manifestation in Burma -- an extension of the minimization of Brahma's worship that was taking place in India, which traveled into Southeast Asia, as well. For example, in the Kaw-gun, Burma sculpture of Garbhodakasayi Visnu reclining on Sesanaga, as well as in similar images from Burma, particularly the Thaton area, we see that Brahma has been placed in quite a secondary role in the scene. It is Visnu who emerges from the central lotus, given a place equivalent to Brahma's usual place. Shiva's role is emphasized, on the other hand, by way of the linga, which is placed on a throne at the side of the central deity. This juxtaposition is also found in the 11th century Angkorian sculptures found on stones in the riverbed at Kbal Spean, in which the reclining Visnu is framed from below by a row of lingams.

Clearly these Burmese depictions, which illustrate Brahma's progressive minimization in favour of Shiva's pronounced presence, is an influence that came to Burma from India. Whether it traveled there in association with Jainism, Buddhism, or both, we do not know. But it is clear that with the growing popularity of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, even Shiva worship was quickly overshadowed, what to speak of the Brahma cult.


Lord Brahma 
Singasari, Burma

This deity of Lord Brahma pictured above, which is now housed at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, is said to have come from the Singasari temple complex in Burma. Sculpted in the style of late 13th century Java, this beautiful Brahmadeva is catur-mukha, bearded and moustached. He holds the whisk, and Hamsa is beside him. On his two lower hands, he balances a lotus bud. While part of the lower sculpture is lost, the murti still stands 1.74 m tall. It is one of two large Brahma deities known to have been at Singasari.


Burma sculpture of Buddha, Brahma and Indra, from the ladder descent
Brahma (on right) has kiritamukuta and umbrella pole

At Burma's Nan-hpaya Temple in Pagan, among the finest carvings in the entire temple are a set of four bas-relief panels of Lord Brahma. They appear on the inner sanctum walls, facing the presiding deity there. Carved from single stone blocks rather than a slab, the blocks are interlocked to form the panel, reminiscent of Java or Cambodian sculptures. Brahma is depicted being carried on a lotus cushion, which lotus stems encompassing his body with buds. This opulent depiction of Brahma was not repeated anywhere else in Burma, although his worship was well established amonst the Pyus and Old Mons people. Even so, Brahma was always secondary to Buddha, and the Nan-hpaya was a Buddhist temple, not a Brahmanic temple.

Trimurti panel at Wat Phu Temple, Laos

Situated to the east of Burma, and north of Thailand, the country of Laos stretches down to meet Cambodia and Vietnam in the boot of the peninsula. While we have little information about Brahma's presence in Laos, there is one temple relic of note.


Wat Phu Temple – Champasak, Laos

The temple of Wat Phu near Champasak, Laos is considered one of the most sacred sites in Southeast Asia, and was one of the most important Hindu temples of the Khmer empire. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, Wat Phu temple is situated halfway up the Lingaparvata, or 'Mountain of the Linga'.

The temple was built of sandstone and bricks in the 11th century. Behind the temple, under a cliff, a small bronze Khmer deity of Vishnu and his consort were found. The Trimurti panel pictured above, was installed inside the temple.

Outside there is a staircase, now in ruins like the temple itself, which climbed the mountain, flanked by rows of red jasmine trees. At the top is terrace, edged with naga carvings.