A creation Myth. Who is the greatest god: Brahma, Vishnu or Siva? Read more to find out from Myths & Legends of India
The greatest of the three pg 74 – 76
Ancient stories tell of the origins of the great triad of Hindu deities – Brahma, Vishnu and Siva; and according to whether the story is told by devotees of one or the other, one of the three is known to be supreme.
The devotees of Siva tell this story, as related by Brahma to the assembled gods and rishis.
‘It was long, long ago at the dawn of time, when the whole universe and all the worlds within the universe were enveloped in primal night. Nothing was differentiated then: everything was equal and still and inseparable. I was there, for I am the Creator, and out of my thought and the fright of my thought, all things come.
‘But suddenly I opened my eyes and saw Narayana, whom many now call Vishnu. I saw his thousand eyes, and the all-seeing omniscience of those eyes; I saw him resting on the formless, dark waters of the yet-to-be-created universe, supported by the thousand heads of the serpent whose name, Ananta, means unending and infinite. The wondrous, luminous magnificence of the god transfixed me: I felt, as I gazed at him, that I was witnessing the soul of the universe, its being but also its non-being. In helpless awe and amazement, I reached out and touched him. I asked, though I had no need to ask, “What Being are you? Tell me. Explain how you come to be where you are, how you fill the void as you do?”
‘He did not properly answer. He simply gazed drowsily back at me with his thousand, lotus-shaped eyes, smiled a smile that was like a burst of sunlight, rose to his vast height and said, “Show obeisance, my child, to your shining grandfather! Welcome me.
‘At those unexpected words, my wonder turned to anger. I said, “Perfect and sinless and handsome though you are, how dare you call me child? How dare you call yourself my grandfather? I am not your grandson; I am not your pupil or servant. I am Brahma, creator of worlds to come, and Destroyer of those worlds when they have run their course. I am the source of all human and non-human creatures, father of all the other gods.”
‘But my anger had no effect. Narayana smiled again and said, “You are wrong to call yourself Creator of all. I am not only the Creator and Destroyer, but the Preserver of the universe. Without me, nothing could last, even for a thousandth of a second. I am the eternal male, the seed that is the source and centre of all beings. I am the imperishable soul of all existence. You yourself have come from me.”
‘I disputed this with him, great and magnificent though he was and is. He repeated his claim. Our argument grew heated. Maybe it would have become destructive if we had gone on much longer, and the whole unfolding of the universe would have been thwarted by our conflict.
‘But suddenly, there in the formless darkness in which we stood, a gigantic pillar of fire appeared, a fiery lingam so bright that it seemed a hundred times greater even than the fires that destroyed the universe; so fast that we could see no beginning, middle of end. No words can describe it, and we gazed at it, lost for words. Vishnu – so confident and all-powerful before – was bewildered now; and I too suddenly had a vision of the heights and depths of Creation both before and after me: of the origin even of the Origin!
‘Vishnu then said, “This pillar of fire is bigger than anything you or I have seen, bigger than anything you or I can be. Let us try to find the source of it. I will descend, and you can ascend. And when we have found the ends of the lingam, let us meet again here.”
‘Then Vishnu became a boar, as huge as a mountain, deep blue in color and thousands of miles in width. His long white pointed tusks gleamed and sparkled in the light of the pillar of fire. His snorts and grunts were louder than any sound that had ever been made or heard, and his legs had the strength and energy of Creation itself. He plunged down, scrabbling through the watery darkness, down and down through every substance and obstacle, down for a thousand years.
‘And meanwhile, I, Brahma, became a swan, with feathers more brilliantly white than Vishnu-the-boar’s tusks, with wings more powerful than his legs, and eyes as fiery as my own creative fire. I flew up and up, as swift as thought, faster than the fastest wind, up and up for a thousand years. I flew on up beside the pillar of fire, but I could not reach the end of it, and in the end I returned to the spot where I had argued with Vishnu.
‘I found him there, changed back to his own form, but limp and weary and subdued. I too was exhausted, and we lay there, slumped and speechless for some time before we could find the strength to speak. “Did you find the bottom end of the lingam?” I asked. “No,” said Vishnu. “Did you find the top end?” “No,” I said. “The pillar of fire is bigger and greater than either you or me. It must be the work of a god greater than you or me.”
‘Then Siva appeared, whom men and gods worship in the form of a lingam, and we realized that the pillar of fire was his work. It has the power to destroy all things that are made; but also from its energy comes all creation. There is no name of word for that supreme power, only a sound – the eternal, infinite OM. And it was the sound of OM – clear and perfect and inclusive of all possible sounds –that now filled the void, and which left both me and Vishnu awestruck and humbled, knowing that there was a god even greater than him or me.’
Thus is explained the greatness and supremacy of Siva! But worshipers of Vishnu tell a different version. According to them, Brahma told a lie: he returned from his search fro the top of the lingam falsely claiming that he had found it. Vishnu told the true: he admitted he could not find the bottom end. Siva then cut off one of Brahma’s heads, and acknowledged Vishnu as the greatest of the three, because he had the humility to admit to failure, and to speak the truth.