Article: Brahmadeva or Brahmayakṣa

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The god Brahmadeva or Brahmayakṣa has come to be identified with Brahmā, the yakṣa or male attendant deity of the tenth Jina, Śītalanātha or Lord Śītala. He has gained the status of an independent god worshipped as a deity in his own right. It is unusual for a yakṣa to have this role, especially as Brahmadeva's female counterpart, the yakṣī Aśokā or Mānavī is not considered an individual goddess.

As a god, Brahmadeva or Brahmayakṣa is a soul subject to the cycle of birth and can intervene in human affairs, unlike Jinas, who are liberated, perfect souls, completely detached from everyday human experience. Lay Jains worship gods partly to request help with worldly matters, ranging from issues of health and fertility, and passing examinations to business success. By the tenth century several of the śāsana-devatās had developed into independent gods at the centre of their own cults. This may be because of their connections with the major Jinas, links with a prominent pilgrimage centre or various stories of their powers.

Brahmadeva seems to be a clear example of an originally non-Jain god who was absorbed into the Jain fold in the course of time. He has gained a visible presence within Jain temples through his installation on the so-called Brahmadeva-stambhas. He is a guardian deity popular principally among Digambaras and is worshipped chiefly in southern India, particularly Karnatak.

Origins

This Digambara temple in Kundadri, Karnataka, has a typical example of a Brahmadeva-stambha. These tall columns are a common sight in Jain temples of southern India. A statue of the Jain deity Brahmā sits at the top of the pillar, protecting the temple

Brahmadeva-stambha and temple
Image by Manjeshpv © CC BY 3.0

Brahmadeva as an independent god in Jainism has gained importance because of his presence on the so-called Brahmadeva pillars, which are found in the precincts of Digambara temples, mainly in south India. A protective deity, at some point he has been identified or confused with Brahmā, the yakṣa of the tenth Jina, Śītalanātha or Lord Śītala, even though they look quite different. They are now generally considered to be the same divinity.

Initially, Brahmadeva seems to have been a powerful tribal god in coastal Karnatak. He ‘appears to have forced his entry into the fold of Jainism [...and] the Brahmadeva cult also began to gain in importance. Brahmadeva even became one of the Yakṣas, but he retained most of his former characteristics of the tribal war-god’ (Settar 1971: 35–36). This process can be said to go back to around the 15th century.

Literary evidence in Kannara shows that this Brahmadeva had become popular by the 16th to 17th century. For example, an inscription from the 16th century:

mentions that when the Caturmukha basti [temple] was erected at Karkala in the South Kanara or Mangalore District, the images of the Jinas were set up in the niches at each entrance of the outer enclosure of that temple, ‘together with Brahma and [the goddess] Padmāvatī to the left and right’ and provisions were made for the worship of all these

Settar 1971: 36–37

In addition, the 17th-century poet Candrama invokes him as follows: ‘I salute Brahma, the brave one, who having scattered the enemies with the hooves of his steed, climbed the hill and stood on the pillar, still looking for the foes’ (quoted in Settar 1971: 36). This statement refers to distinctive features of Brahmadeva’s iconography, suggesting that the Brahma-stambhas – the pillars associated with the deity – were a common sight by then.

Appearance

Image of the Jain deity Brahmadeva at the top of a Brahmadeva-stambha. These tall columns are common outside Digambara temples in southern India. Found in Karkala in Karnatak, this example faces the colossus of Bāhubali within the temple courtyard.

Brahmā
Image by anoopratnaker – Anoop Rao © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both yakṣas and yakṣīs are considered part of the entourage of the Jina image, technically known as parikara. Like all of the attendant deities, Brahmā has certain features that help to identify him and indicate his powers. These are described in, for example, texts on the iconography of the Jina, which outline the appearance of the Jina's attendants.

Being presented as a deity implies that Brahmā has special characteristics linked to the depiction of gods in art. This means he:

  • may have more than two arms or hands
  • has a vehicle – vāhana
  • demonstrates attributes by holding various objects
  • may exhibit hand-gestures that symbolise a concept or attitude – mudrās.

Both the principal Jain sects see Brahmā, the yakṣa of the tenth Jina, as having four faces, three eyes and eight hands, and sitting on a lotus flower. But such representations are rarely found in Jain temples. The usual images have one face and two or four hands.

The four-armed images grasp his attributes of a fruit, club and noose in a hand each. The fourth hand makes the gesture of granting safety – abhaya-mudrā.

In the case of idols with eight arms, the other four hands each hold a:

  • mongoose
  • mace
  • goad
  • sword.

Brahmadeva is also frequently depicted riding a horse. Together with his attributes, which are weapons or weapon-like, this hints at his original identity as a warrior god. He thus fulfils his role as a guardian or protector deity.

Brahmadeva-stambhas

The 'Kūge-Brahmadeva' pillar on Candra-giri, at Shravana Belgola, Karnatak. Dated around 974 CE, the column is 9 metres high in total. The statue of the Jain deity Brahmadeva at the top represents the yakṣa of the tenth Jina, Śītalanātha or Lord Śītala.

'Kūge-Brahmadeva' pillar
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The most prominent visible expression of Brahmadeva’s presence is the monolithic, freestanding stone pillars within the precincts of Digambara temples. A pillar is often so tall that it can be seen from a distance before the temple itself. Found mainly in south India, these are the Brahmadeva-stambhas or Brahma-stambhas.

A column is located at the entrance of a temple or in front of colossal images of the Jain saint Bāhubali. At the top of the pillar sits the figure of Brahmā. The idol has a different appearance from the yakṣa Brahmā, in that ‘he is usually seated, holding a club or sword and a fruit, or with one hand in the safety-granting gesture – abhaya-mudrā’ (Hegewald 2011: 148). A carving at the base of the column shows Brahmadeva standing or riding a horse and carrying a sword in his right hand.

Instances of such pillars in Karnatak are the:

  • column known as the ‘Kūge-Brahmadeva’, found on Candra-giri at Shravana Belgola
  • Brahmadeva pillar now in the Gullekāyi-ajji maṇḍapa on Vindhya-giri at Shravana Belgola
  • Cāgada-Brahmadeva on Vindhya-giri at Shravana Belgola
  • Brahma-stambhas at the front of the Bāhubali image enclosures at Karkal, Venur and Dharmasthala.

It seems that such columns are a development of the traditional kind of monolithic pillar known as māna-stambha – ‘pride pillar’. These had at the top a Jina statue with four faces – a catur-mukha or cau-mukha Jina. The figure of a yakṣa at the top could be a replacement (Settar 1971: 31). Inscriptions written on the pillars bearing yakṣas refer to them mostly as māna-stambhas. In common parlance, they have come to be called 'Brahmadeva-stambhas'.

It is not known when this move from Jina to yakṣa happened, but this practice is evidenced only in Karnatak or south India. The earliest images of a yakṣa atop a column in this region depict Sarvāhṇa, who was installed and worshipped in Jain temples from the seventh to the 12th centuries. He is a muscular and pot-bellied figure shown standing on a round base, with an elephant at his feet and a miniature Jina in his crown. Images of him started to be installed at the top of monolithic pillars in the tenth century.

Evidence of Brahmadeva columns is found mainly in western and southern Karnatak.

Temples and images

The Jain deity Brahmā facing the saint Bāhubali within the temple courtyard at Karkala, Karnataka. On a Brahmadeva-pillar, Brahmā is guardian of the temple. Huge figures of the Jain saint Bāhubali are also popular in southern India.

Brahmadeva and Bāhubali
Image by anoopratnaker – Anoop Rao © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Images of Brahmadeva on his horse, or of his horse, are housed in shrines or maṇḍapas and venerated all over Karnatak (Hegewald 2011: 152).

On the other hand, pillars have often not remained standing alone in the open air. Large superstructures have increasingly been built around them. Significant examples are the:

  • complex multi-storeyed maṇḍapa at Guruvayanekere in coastal Karnatak (Hegewald 2011: 154 and plate 10)
  • Brahmadeva-stambha found at the top of Vindhya-giri at Shravana Belgola, which is enclosed in a pavilion surrounded by several concentric circles of pillars.

Brahmadeva images can also be housed in small shrines raised on small terraces. These are known as brahma-stana in coastal Karnatak.

Isolated bronze or stone images of this divinity are found in Karnatak (Settar 1971: 36). They are not earlier than the 12th to 13th centuries.

Brahmadeva is said to be the protector of the holy site of Nitani in Karnatak (Wiley 2004: 59).

Worship

Brahmadeva-stambha at Guruvayanekere, Karnatak. An image of the guardian deity Brahmadeva sits at the top. This is a good example of a Brahma-pillar that has been surrounded and roofed.

Brahma-pillar at Guruvayanekere
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kamiya

Today, Brahmadeva on the Brahma-stambhas is worshipped as a guardian of the temple precinct. He is the focus of religious rituals in the same way as other Jain divinities.

Since Brahmadeva is believed to protect the temple where his image resides, there may also be local ceremonies honouring him at different times in various temples. In addition, some temples have addressed the practical aspects of performing worship ceremonies to a deity sitting on a tall column.

For example, at Guruvayanakere in Karnatak, there is a particular yearly ceremony at the time of the festival of Nava-rātrī, which takes place around October. ‘Only the head priest, responsible for the temple complex, is allowed to climb a temporary ladder and to venerate the sacred statue contained in the raised shrine’ (Hegewald 2011: 154).

The difficulty of accessing the Brahmadeva image at the top of high pillars makes worship a strain. This is one of the factors that have led to the erection of smaller columns so that devotees can more easily see the image at the top. One example is the statue of Brahmadeva at the Digambara Pārśvanātha temple in Hassan, Karnatak. This idol is on a pillar-like base, but is only elevated about one and a half metres above the ground (Hegewald 2011: 158).

Images

  • Brahmadeva-stambha and temple This Digambara temple in Kundadri, Karnataka, has a typical example of a Brahmadeva-stambha. Also known as Brahma-stambhas or Brahma pillars, these tall columns are a common sight in Jain temples of southern India. A statue of the Jain deity Brahmā sits at the top of the pillar, protecting the temple and its precincts.. Image by Manjeshpv © CC BY 3.0
  • Brahmā Image of the Jain deity Brahmadeva at the top of a Brahmadeva-stambha. These tall columns are also known as Brahma-stambhas or Brahma pillars and are common outside Digambara temples in southern India. Found in Karkala in Karnatak, this example faces the colossus of the Jain saint Bāhubali within the temple courtyard and dates back to 1436. Brahmā is a protective god who is also identified as the yakṣa or attendant deity of the tenth Jina, Śītala.. Image by anoopratnaker – Anoop Rao © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • 'Kūge-Brahmadeva' pillar The 'Kūge-Brahmadeva' pillar on Candra-giri, at Shravana Belgola, Karnatak. Dated around 974 CE, the column is 9 metres high in total. The statue of the Jain deity Brahmadeva at the top represents the yakṣa of the tenth Jina, Śītalanātha or Lord Śītala. Brahmadeva is a protective deity who guards the temple. Examples of Brahma pillars are widespread in south India, especially Karnatak.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Brahmadeva and Bāhubali Brahmadeva facing Bāhubali within the temple courtyard at Karkala, Karnataka. The Jain deity Brahmā sits at the top of a Brahmadeva-stambha, a tall pillar frequently seen outside Digambara temples in southern India, as guardian of the temple. Huge figures of the Jain saint Bāhubali are also popular in southern India, with this example the second tallest in Karnataka after the enormous colossus at Shravana Belgola.. Image by anoopratnaker – Anoop Rao © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • Brahma-pillar at Guruvayanekere Brahmadeva-stambha at Guruvayanekere, Karnatak. Called Brahmadeva-stambhas, these tall pillars have images of the Jain guardian deity Brahmadeva sitting at the top and are found throughout southern India, outside Digambara temples. Some of these columns have been enclosed by other pillars or by roofs, as with this one. This image on this Brahmadeva-stambha is the focus of an annual ritual in October, in which the head priest climbs a temporary ladder to worship the statue.. Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kamiya

Further Reading

‘Sacred Symbols: Enlightened Beings and Temple Guardians: The Display of Holy Elements on Pillars in Jaina Temple Complexes in Karnataka’
Julia A. B. Hegewald
The Jaina Heritage: Distinction, Decline and Resilience
edited by Julia A. B. Hegewald
Heidelberg Series in South Asian and Comparative Studies series; volume 2
Samskrti Publishers; Delhi, India; 2011

Full details

Opulent Candragiri
Hampa Nagarajaiah
S.D.J.M.I. Managing Committee; Shravanabelgola, Karnataka, India; 2001

Full details

‘The Brahmadeva Pillars: An Inquiry into the Origin and Nature of the Brahmadeva Worship among the Digambara Jains’
S. Settar
Artibus Asiae
volume 33
1971

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Glossary

Bāhubali

One of the hundred sons of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, Bāhubali is one of the most revered Jain saints. After fighting with his half-brother Bharata, he renounced the world and finally conquered his pride to reach enlightenment. He is always shown in the kāyotsarga pose in art and immense freestanding statues of him are a feature of southern India.

Basadi

A term for a Jain temple common in Southern India.

Clergy

Formally recognised leaders within a religion. The clergy often perform rituals, lead worship and instruct believers in religious principles. Lay men and women usually complete formal study before being initiated into the clergy. Clerics are active among lay believers, often living in society. They may have specific roles or ranks and may progress through a hierarchy to become top leaders of the religious organisation.

Cult

Religious activity centred around a deity or saintly figure. Religious rituals are performed regularly to the god or goddess, who may be represented in images or relics or found in natural features such as springs and trees. Shrines and temples are frequently built at the site of a cult and pilgrims arrive to worship the deity.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Devotee

An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Iconography

Conventions or rules governing how images, symbols and the placement of elements and figures are used in art to represent ideas and convey meaning. Also the term for the academic study of such artistic conventions.

Idol

An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.

Invocation

A formula or prayer calling upon a deity or authority to bring blessings and protection. Invocations are frequently found at the beginning of Jain texts.

Jina

A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.

Karnataka

State in south-west India.

Lotus

A plant noted for its beautiful flowers, which has symbolic significance in many cultures. In Indian culture, the lotus is a water lily signifying spiritual purity and detachment from the material world. Lotuses frequently feature in artwork of Jinas, deities, Buddha and other holy figures.

Maṇḍapa

The hall of a Jain temple. Creating an approach to the inner shrine, the temple hall usually has columns and ritual equipment. It may display idols if the temple belongs to a murti-pujaka sect. The hall is where the congregation gathers for rituals of worship, to hear sermons and readings of sacred texts and to sing hymns and perform dances.

Padmāvatī

The yakṣī or female attendant of Pārśva. Along with other yakṣiṇī, Padmāvatī has become an independent figure over the centuries and is worshipped in her own right. She is particularly associated with Karnataka in southern India.

Pūjā

Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

Saint

Someone who is declared by a religious organisation or by popular acclaim to be of outstanding goodness and spiritual purity, usually some time after his or her death. The person's holiness is often believed to have been demonstrated in the performance of miracles. Saints are frequently held up as examples for followers of a religious faith.

Shrine

A small structure holding an image or relics, which may be within a temple or building designed for worship. A shrine may be a portable object. Worshippers pray and make offerings at a shrine, which is often considered sacred because of associations with a deity or event in the life of a holy person.

Temple

A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.

Vāhana

The vehicle of a Hindu god or goddess. Usually an animal, the vāhana fulfils one or more roles and may:

  • be the deity's emblem
  • symbolise positive attributes associated with the deity
  • represent evil powers over which the god has triumphed
  • help the divinity to perform duties.

The vāhana may also have its own divine powers or be worshipped in its own right.

Yakṣa

The male attendant of a Jina, one of the pair of guardian or protector gods for each Jina. The śāsana-devatā protect his teachings – śāsana – and can appease evil powers. The yakṣa and yakṣī's closeness to the Jina and their divine powers mean they are popular subjects of worship.

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