Brahma, the cosmic power of creation, emerges from a fragrant white lotus and looks around. At first, he sees nothing but the dark waters of the endless primal sea. It is the time of the pralaya—the great dissolution—and the entire manifest universe has dissolved into the primordial waters. With no universe to sustain, Vishnu Narayana, the cosmic force of maintenance and protection, rests in yoga nidra on his couch, the naga (serpent) Ananta-Shesha, who floats gently on the causal waters. But then Brahma sees two demons who have mysteriously materialized from an unsavory residue in Vishnu’s ears. These two are like kryptonite to Superman; they are Brahma’s antimatter, and they are intent on destroying him.
Brahma’s lotus has sprouted from the sleeping Narayana’s navel, so Brahma shakes the golden stalk of his lotus seat to awaken Vishnu, the protective cosmic force. Vishnu rises to the occasion and a fierce, prolonged battle ensues between Vishnu and the demons. Finally, deluded and filled with arrogance, the two asuras offer Vishnu a boon. He promptly says he will kill them both. Since the entire world is nothing but the primordial sea, those two impose the condition that they be killed where water does not cover space, thinking that this will save them. Vishnu, however, cleverly takes them on his thighs and beheads them with his discus.
Presumably, Brahma is now free to go about the creation of the world. But in one version of the story from the Srimad Bhagavatam, Brahma sits alone on the primordial ocean of potential and fails to obtain the vision of the universe he needs to create it. When two syllables, ta and pa, arise deep in his mindfield, and seeing no other source of instruction, he begins tapas, composing his mind and controlling his breath and his senses for a thousand celestial years. Eventually, the Lord blesses him, and all three worlds are illuminated by the power of his tapas. The universe once again comes into manifestation. But note this: Brahma now asks the Lord to protect him from becoming attached to his creation. “Let me not be puffed up with pride,” he prays.
It is easy to overlook the personal significance of creation stories, but like all good ancient stories, this one contains deeper layers of meaning. What are the lessons for us in this story?
The Lotus Grows from the Navel Center
Consider that Brahma emerges from a lotus rooted in Vishnu’s navel. The lotus is nurtured and sustained by its connection to Vishnu’s navel, the hub of prana, or life energy. The navel hub is our source of virya—potency, enthusiasm, forward momentum, and the creative energy of life. Like the stalk of the lotus connecting Brahma to Vishnu, or the umbilical cord connecting a baby to the nourishment of the mother, this source of vitality fuels the body and our growth in every aspect of being throughout life.
The lesson: The first step is to look around and realize we need to actively tap into our source of inner nurturance, protection, and creative energy. Stirring the instinctive source of prana at the navel, the treasured yogic practices like nauli kriya, agni sara, and kapalabhati are examples of what we can do to remove the inertia, congestion, and stagnation in the tissues of the body and the mind. Then our innate desire to know ourselves at the deepest level and find our congruence with the divine is nurtured—and begins to grow and find expression.
Two Demons Materialize and Threaten Brahma
Could the two demons—leftover forces outside of the present cycle of creation—be the unhelpful traces of our past, our shortsightedness, and our ignorance, forces that block the creation of something new in our lives? Our past habits and preconceived notions preclude a new life. Our anger, fear, hatred, sloth, the tendency to inertia and contrariness, and our fierce attachment to our ego-driven identities, whether negative or positive and from whatever source, are inimical to the creative force. When Vishnu awakens from his sleep, he destroys the demons.
The lesson: The practices of yoga—like asana, pranayama, meditation, and self-reflection—activate the protective, stabilizing energy of Vishnu. Then we can afford to recognize and face our demons, and use those same practices to defeat these disruptive forces of the past.
Brahma Struggles to Create the World
I’ll grant you, it seems a bit odd to have the divine creator of the world displaying a very human-like impotency, but recall that one intention of this story is to help us understand our lives. Brahma opens his mind to the larger dimension, the question of what to do and how, and follows the cryptic instruction—tapas—with full faith that all would be revealed. Then he meditates with complete commitment and reverence without interruption for a long time.
The lesson: To rise above our circumstances and preconceived notions to create something new requires focus and self-effort. Fulfilling our deepest sense of purpose requires reflection, sustained self-effort, and discipline of mind and senses. Tapas is the ability to delay gratification, override the immediacy of our instinctive urges for better long-term outcomes, and realize that we are more than the experiences of physical life, our thoughts, or our personality. The hub of pranic energy at the navel center fuels our tapas, enables us to begin the spiritual journey, and organizes and sustains our efforts to overcome our obstacles and difficulties.
Brahma Prays to Be Free of Attachment
Brahma’s prayer points out the need to remember the true source of our lives and to give credit where credit is due. We are offshoots of the divine, empowered and sustained by the will of the divine, but easily seduced by pride and power, and it is a fine line between being fully invested in our actions without defining ourselves according to our successes and failures. Recall that vairagya, freedom from attachments, including the roles we play and our ego-driven identities, is one of the two pillars of yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In other words, non-attachment is an essential component for our spiritual flowering.
The lesson: It is not easy to escape the trap of identification with our thoughts, our personalities, our knowledge, and so many roles that we think define us. But if we think “it’s all about me,” as one of my teachers describes this particular form of ignorance, we suffer from pride, anger, and fear, and miss the joy of simply being alive. Don’t forget the true source of our power and the Lord of Life within, even when everything is going well!
The Story Speaks to Us
Now is a good time to recall that Brahma and Vishnu are not only forces upholding the universe, but also forces in our own existence, in our own body and mind. The world is manifesting every moment. Our personal world is constantly changing, unfolding in accordance with the genetic blueprint from the womb to childhood, adulthood, old age, and death. The real lesson here is that we can grow beyond the biologically determined pattern and the largely unconscious, reactive habits shaped by personal inclinations and experiences. We can grow increasingly independent and free, dropping the umbilical cord of conditioning and connecting instead to the ultimate source of nurturance and protection. With self-effort and divine grace, our true creative potential awakens.
All the practices of yoga, especially pranayama and meditation, can integrate the body and the mind, attenuate the wayward senses, resolve disparate impetuses arising deep in the mind, and gently release our attachments to limited identity. With a stronger connection to the source of life within and less craving for support or validation from the outer world, we can align more deeply and completely with the ineffable, unchanging essence of ourselves, the very source of prana shakti—a rejuvenating, energizing charge of creative force manifesting in every aspect of our lives.
So here we are, floating on an ocean of potential, sitting on a flower sprouting from the navel of the life force. Now what? Look around you, and shake the stalk.