‘art and soul

In search of Brahma

Aman Nath’s recent work—‘Brahma’s Pushkar: Ancient Indian Pilgrimage’—uses an impressive amount of material from texts and floating myths for establishing what makes this tirtha a great centre of pilgrimage and commerce, says B.N. Goswamy

Brahma seated on a lotus emerging from Vishnu’s navel Oleograph; 19th century
Brahma seated on a lotus emerging from Vishnu’s navel Oleograph; 19th century

ONE knows the image—at least from paintings—well. Brahma, the ‘Creator’, seated on his hamsa-vehicle; four headed, as if keeping an eye over all directions at the same time; holding in his hands objects that instantly establish his sacerdotal, ‘Brahmanical’ status: the four Vedas, a kamandalu, a spoon for pouring libations into the yajna fire, a rosary of beads. One also knows his elevated rank: member of the majestic Trimurti or triad in ancient Indian thought and myth; presiding as a priest over the ceremonies when Shiva takes Parvati’s hand in marriage; offering sage advice to the gods when they keep turning to him in their struggle against the demons.

But does he receive the same kind of homage; is the object of the same adoration, as, say, Shiva or Vishnu? Or the Great Goddess? In the average believer’s mind, does his image surface and stay with the same ease as that of the other deities of the Hindu pantheon? And if not, then what explains this? Why are there so few temples dedicated to him?

Again, despite being formally designated as the Creator, does he not appear to be a subsidiary, rather than a primary, figure when we see him seated on a lotus that issues forth from Vishnu’s navel, or when he becomes the object of Shiva’s ire who cuts his fifth head off in rage?

Questions of this order hang in the air, and there are no easy answers: there never are. But it was exciting to find these, and others, raised in Aman Nath’s thoughtful recent work: Brahma’s Pushkar: Ancient Indian Pilgrimage. Pushkar, in Rajasthan, is of course the premier site in India as far as the worship of Brahma is concerned: in many minds, in fact, it is perceived—erroneously—as being the only place associated with Brahma worship.

The tirtha, therefore, looms large in the book: steeped in faith, covered with the patina of time, sacred and mystifying. An impressive amount of material is pulled in, from texts and floating myths, for establishing what makes this tirtha what it has become over the centuries: a place for devotees to cleanse themselves of accumulated sins; great centre of pilgrimage; meeting ground of diverse, sometimes opposing, faiths; clearing house of historical and pseudo-historical information.

In the account that Aman Nath has pieced together, gods and goddesses emerge and then disappear, the mythical river Saraswati surfaces but only briefly as is its wont, Rajput chiefs keep appearing on the scene, now full of swagger, now bent in devotion, Mughal conquerors awed by the landscape issue heartless commands. The three parikramas or circumambulations with the sacred sarovar of Pushkar at its centre swing into view, the shortest one being 7.5 kos or 30 km long, and the most ambitious as many as 84 kos.

Along the path a bewildering range of shrines and grottoes and tanks and hoary trees can greet your eye. As you read, there is a rhythm that you become aware of: of masses of humanity caught in a cadenced move, of time now holding its breath and now exhaling.

But then, thoughts of Brahma receding, great commerce also takes over at Pushkar, for the place serves as the site for one of the largest cattle-marts in the country, come the full moon of Kartika, in October-November. While the practice of faith keeps its own pace in the background, the place and its environs are transformed into a vast bazaar where cows and buffaloes, goats and sheep, but above all camels, brilliantly sheared and tattooed, are bought and sold and exchanged in massive numbers.

Alongside all this, popular entertainment – dancing and music – becomes part of the milling scene while everyone plies his trade: the roadside dentist, the astrologer who runs a tea-stall as a side business, the art-studio owner who advertises his wares with a poster of Salvador Dali sporting his sabre-like moustache, the man who amuses people by dressing up as Dracula and almost scares them into parting with their coins. All this comes to life in Aman Nath’s book, sustained and supported as the text is by some spectacular photography. In fact, as one sees the images captured on his camera by Rajan Kapur, one can almost hear the noises of the place, smell the incense in the air, feel fine dust rise slowly towards one’s nostrils.

The work is brim-full of information and images, almost excessively so. In so many ways, it keeps moving from one terrain—one kshetra, if one so likes—to another. A little like a kaleidoscope in which, with one little jerk of the elbow, a new pattern emerges each time. One has therefore to pick and choose. On my part, I found myself going back to the first section in which the figure of Brahma remains in sharp focus. For here the mystery is explored but stays, somehow, intact. Cosmic myths mingle with themes of incest and denial and piety. Ever-renewing stories are told, divine genealogies are traced from one text to another, the rise and decline of the great god is followed. And yet, after all this, the Great Progenitor remains a hazy being.

In many ways it is only appropriate that this be so. For is it not in the nature of the Creator to keep eluding our grasp?