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Brahma, the Creator, the One God of the Hindus
The image of Brahma is invariably the five-faced God which appears to be yet another representation of the four astrological elements, earth, water, fire and air, traditionally arranged facing the four directions, with the transcendent fifth at the centre. As with the four elemental creatures around the throne of God which have been associated with the four Gospels, the four faces of Brahma have been associated with the four Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures. This symbolism is explored further below.
Brahma represents the Hindus’ basic monotheism. Beyond the multiplicity of deities, there is only one Spirit Supreme. The universal Spirit of Brahma is called Brahman. Brahman is classically recognised as ‘immanent and transcendent,’ within all creation and beyond, above, all creation.
The Spirit of Brahman dwells in our hearts as our own immortal Spirit, the Atman. This spirit travels from rebirth to rebirth in the cycle of ‘samsara,’ bound by the law of action, desire, ‘karma.’ You reap the consequences of your actions. A good life is rewarded by more of the same.
Modern scholars generally urge a clear distinction between Brahma, the personal God, and Brahman, the universal Spirit of Creation, though the difference in terms is optional. It is this universal Spirit which is hymned in the extraordinary scriptures of the Upanishads. Other schools, Vishistadvaita and Dvaita, do identify the deity and the divine spirit and the difference is perhaps academic to the western mind where God is both a personal figure and an ever-present Spirit.
Hinduism has always been based on a recognition of only One God, just as in the Christian system, despite the apparent divisions of the Trinity. Later with the emergence of the sectarian cults headed by Vishnu and Shiva, Brahma was relegated to a Trinity or ‘Trimurti,’ these three together.
The Hindu theology of this spiritual truth has always been extremely articulate and clear in the Upanishads, the earliest dating back to about 800 BC , roughly the same time the earliest parts of the Old Testament were written. Biblical recognitions of God are much less clear but this was just the time Elijah was insisting on only One God for Israel. Modern thinking has evolved a concept of God (see Note on the Throne of God) which has clarified this obscurity with an idea remarkably close to the theology of Brahma. This chimes strongly with the venerable Kabbalistic idea of Ain Soph (see Note on the Throne of God). How much this may owe to a tradition linked to Hindu thinking is open to speculation.
One of the most popular of these Hindu scriptures, the Isa Upanishad*, dating from about 200 BC , beautifully enthuses the identification of Brahman with the spirit of the Sun, not blinded to the reality that our Sun is but our local potentate :
‘The face of truth remains hidden behind a circle of gold.
The ‘blinding splendour’ of the Sun seems to refer to more than the physical dazzle which blinds us to the underlying spirit, just as all physical forms obscure the spirit within. There is also a strong suggestion of the ‘numinosity’ or emotional awe of the supreme deity which prevents us seeing clearly, associating this Spirit Supreme with the familiar old Sun.
The Isa Upanishad opens with the line : ‘Behold the universe in the glory of God.’
One of the earliest Upanishads expresses the full glory of this theology with a clarity and insight we can only echo. This is not just poetry, it is the science, the knowledge, of metaphysics. The spiritual facts of life. The definition of the spirit within holding ‘all the love of the universe’ is particularly striking :
‘The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun, and the moon and the stars; fire and lightening and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is not, for the whole universe is in Him and He dwells within our heart …..
‘ The Spirit who is within the body does not grow old and does not die, and no one can ever kill the Spirit who is everlasting. This is the real spirit wherein dwells all the love of the universe. It is Atman, pure Spirit, beyond sorrow, old age and death; beyond evil and hunger and thirst. It is Atman whose love is Truth, whose thoughts are Truth.’
The Chandogya Upanishad.
It is not only the Spirit of the Sun within our hearts. With the whole universe and all the earth there in spirit, it is still the Sun which is the overwhelming One, as in the physical reality.
Brahma is revered as the great Creator throughout India but there are now few temples dedicated to his worship : at Mandi in the Himalayan foothills and Pushkar on the edge of the Rajastani desert.
Five Faces, Five Elements : Religion, Astrology, Psychology, Metaphysics, Physics
Brahma’s five faces are particularly evocative of the Christian and Judaic images of God, surrounded by the four astrological creatures, representing the five metaphysical elements.
This arrangement of the five faces reflects the archetypal ‘mandala’ or spiritual model which is found throughout Indian religious imagery. Portraits of other Hindu Gods, particularly Shiva, sometimes show a four-faced image. Many temples, ancient and modern, are adorned with lotus mandalas, showing a circle of eight, sixteen, sometimes thirty-two lotus petals (the pattern of four) celebrating the centre. These mandalas and divine images have survived particularly strongly in Tibetan Buddhism which owns openly its Indian origins. The Tibetan image of Avalokitesvara also shows four faces for the four directions.
The cross of the four elements, translated psychologically as thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition, with the unifying fifth at the centre, is the figure which the great spiritual psychologist, C.G. Jung, produced to illustrate his theory of human psychology. He labelled the centre as the (Unconscious) Self but at a higher level he recognised the correspondence between the Self and the divinity within.
Jung’s psychology was closely linked to his studies of astrology, alchemy and the Kabbalah. He was particularly keen to recognise eastern mandalas as representations of this inner psychological and spiritual reality. He believed mandalas held a valuable healing power. When dreams portrayed a distorted mandala, he found this reflected an unbalanced inner reality.
On the Tree of Life we see the Sun at Tipheret, Beauty, surrounded by these same four metaphysical elements at the corners of His Throne.
These sacred elemental spirits on the Tree of Life show the higher metaphysical reality : surrounding the divine Spirit of the Sun, the Spirit of God; representing the thrones of the Gods and the seats of the biblical patriarchs. They are the basis of all cosmic planetary theologies. These mirror at a higher level the more personal, lower, astrological sphere of the ascending levels of earth, water, air and fire. The two should not be confused. Astrology does not strictly designate the fifth element, the quintessence of ether or space. It has traditionally been recognised in the higher, immortal Spirit of the Sun. These five correspond to Jung’s basic psychological functions : sense, feeling, thinking, intuition and our innermost Self.
In the physical sphere this metaphysical pattern is echoed by the basic states of solids, liquids, gases, heat and space. These ascending levels of the elements may be mirrored again at the level of sub-atomic physics (32) although the picture is still far from clear, with many questions still to be unravelled. This sub-atomic pattern suggests an image a little like Russian dolls, with different levels of energy, one within another. The same image may be applied to basic physical states where all five elements are generally present all together, for instance the water, air, vacuums and heat (not to mention fire !) within the solid earth.
The Plenum-Void, Creation out of Nothing
The spiritual concept of the plenum-void, the empty space full of potential, has been recognised by sub-atomic physics to be the physical reality of any so-called vacuum, space. This ultimate energy contained within physical space at the material level mirrors the Buddhist concept of the plenum-void, the ‘nothingness’ which holds the potential of all things, the enlightened state of ‘sunyata,’ emptiness.
Sunyata or emptiness is also an ideal metaphysical recognition of the reality and power of the quintessential fifth spirit of ether, space. Equally this concept in physics an ideal manifestation on the material plane of the creative power of Brahman, the universal spirit from which all life has its being.
This is described in particle physics as the quantum field. Fritjof Capra, the renowned mystical physicist points out,
“the ‘physical vacuum’ as it is called in field theory ― is not a state of mere nothingness, but contains the potentiality for all forms in the particle world. These forms are not independent physical entities but merely transient manifestations of the underlying Void. As the sutra says, ‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is indeed form.’
The relation between the virtual particles and the vacuum is an essentially dynamic relation; the vacuum is truly a ‘living Void,’ pulsating in endless rhythms of creation and destruction.’’
Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Flamingo. London 1991. 3rd edition.) pg. 247
Metaphysics’ basic principle insists its patterns will be echoed at ever ascending / descending levels. ‘As above, so below.’
These ascending levels of the elements can be recognised as a complex interplay figuratively portrayed in the Taoist illustration, ‘the centre among the conditions.’ Language and knowledge has hardly evolved to recognise these different realms beyond the physical level where we have already noticed levels within levels. On the psychological level these elements determine our experience of the world through Jung’s five functions. On the more comprehensive but still personal, astrological level, these metaphysical elements reveal and determine all aspects of our lives, in harmony with all other forces. Finally we find all five elements at the level where all this is directed and reflected in the context of eternity, with the knowledge and vision of our immortal spirits. Beyond this is the higher divinity where everything fits in to a perfect Plan for this world and for all Creation. The Kabbalah recognises the Tree is reproduced in five ascending realms.
Beyond this …. our understanding is soon stretched to its limits and we find our language has not developed maps for this uncharted territory. If we can envisage the metaphysical pattern repeating beyond comprehension, we glimpse infinity.― We approach a wonderful concept of God, an understanding of Ain Soph, the One, Brahma.
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