From: Mineke Schipper, Humanity’s End as a New Beginning: World Disasters in Myths

3. Brahma and Death

(Hindu, India)

Living beings increased in age and number and did not die. They overcrowded the earth so that there was no space left anymore, no space even to breathe. Brahma (also called The Grandfather or Prajapati) became seriously worried: did he need to save the earth by destroying his own creatures?  Usually the periodical destruction of the universe is associated with Shiva (also called the Pillar), but in this text Shiva takes the side of the badly victimised creatures. From a Hindu perspective immortality is not equated with eternal life, but rather with a complete life including all phases and fully lived. Death, usually imagined as male, is presented as a female character here. 

How to accomplish this destruction, how to exterminate them? Brhama pondered for a long time but found no solution to this problem. That made him so angry that from all his body openings a fire came forth, a scorching fire that burnt heaven and earth, the air, and all else. The whole universe and all creatures, moving or still, caught fire because of the god’s devastating blast of anger. 

Then the Pillar with his tawny matted hair locks came to see Brahma, the god who grants boons, who said to Shiva: “What is the wish that I shall grant for you today? You deserve my boon and whatever you choose I will do.”

“Know that I am worried about the creation of living beings. You have created them, o Lord of the universe; I beg you, do not be angry with them.”

“I am not angry,” Prajapati said, “nor do I wish that they would cease to exist, or great god. I just wanted to help goddess earth. She is sinking into the waters under her burden and does not stop urging me to destroy them. I was unable to think of how to destroy these beings who keep increasing, and that enraged me.”

“Have mercy,” the Pillar said, “o lord of the universe, do not be angry.  Do not destroy creatures, moving and still, gods, humans, animals, and inanimate objects. The universe has been reduced to ashes and flooded over. Have mercy, this is the boon I have chosen. If they cease to exist now, all these living beings will be gone for ever, and they will be cut off from any progeny. So, please, find some means for them to return. If I have pleased you, great god, I beg you to subject all creatures to alternating birth and death.”

When Brahma heard the Pillar’s words, he drew his energy back into himself, but as soon as the noble god suppressed the fire caused by his anger, a dark woman came forth from his body apertures, dressed in red, with red eyes and red hand palms and foot soles,. As she appeared, she went to Brahma’s right, and the two gods looked at her. Then the Lord of the people said to her: “Death, when in my anger I looked for a means of destruction you must kill these creatures, I thought of you.  So, destroy all creatures, feeble-minded and learned. Go and destroy them, all of them, and, be sure, it will bring you great merit.”

The fragile young goddess whose name was Death was wearing divine earrings and garlands of lotuses. She was extremely worried and wept torrents of tears, which she caught in her hands as she praying for the well-being of humankind. She suppressed her deep sorrow, joined her palms and bent like a vine. Then she said: “O lord, how could you have created me to carry out such an awful task, the task of terrifying all breathing creatures? I am scared of violating dharma. Please, give me some task that is not going against dharma. O lord, please, take pity on me, I am so scared.  How can I carry off innocent children and old men, and people in their prime, breathing creatures, o lord of all who breathe?  O lord, giver of boons, I beg for your mercy, o Grandfather of all. The boon I wish from you is to practice asceticism.”

“Death,” the Grandfather said, “I made you in order to do away with creatures. Go now without delay and destroy them all. It is as it is, inevitable. You, sinless one with perfect limbs, do as I told you.”

At this command, Death kept silent. She stood there, humbly bowling down and gazing up at the lord of all creatures. He spoke to her again and again, but she didn’t utter a word, as if she had been robbed of her vital force. The lord of lords deigned to be pleased, he looked down upon humanity and his anger calmed. The maiden left, without having promised to destroy creatures.

Death hurried to Dhenuka, a place of pilgrimage, and began to practice supreme asceticism: during fifteen thousand million years she was standing on one foot. Whilst she was practising this most difficult form of asceticism, Brahma once again spoke to her and said: “Death, you must obey my command.” But she ignored his words and once more practised asceticism on one foot for another twenty thousand million years, followed by yet another ten million million years during which she dwelt among the wild animals. For twenty thousand years she ate air, just air. And then, for another eight thousand years she stood in water without saying a word. She then went to the Kausiki river where she lived upon just air and water. She went on to the Ganges river, and then to Mount Meru. There she stood, all alone, motionless, as if she were a piece of wood, because she wished for the well-being of all. Finally, on a summit of Himalaya she stood on one big toe for another thousand million years, an effort which satisfied the Grandfather.

The creator and destroyer of all people said to her: “My daughter, what is going on here? You must do what I have told you to do.”

But Death answered: “O god, I cannot carry off people, I beg you once again for mercy.” Really terrified of violating dharma she begged the lord of lords once again, but he rebuked her: “You, righteous Death, you must subdue these creatures, and you will not go against dharma. Eternal dharma will enter you. My words, friendly lady, are always words of truth, and the gods will always take care of your welfare. And I will grant you the wish in your heart: creatures struck by disease will not put the blame on you. Among men you will take the form of a man, among women, the form of a woman; and among eunuchs, the form of a eunuch.”

At these words she put her palms together and said to the noble lord of lords: “No.”

Then the god said to her: “Death, you must destroy mankind. I have seen your teardrops fall; you caught and held them in your hands. Those tears will become terrible diseases to afflict mankind at the appointed time. But you will be impartial and not violate dharma, righteous one, I promise you.”

Even though she was worried about being known by the name of Death, she was so afraid of a curse that she agreed to his command. She began to take away the breath of breathing creatures when their time had come. The teardrops fallen from the eyes of Death became diseases that attack and injure people’s bodies. This is how the god created Death and this is how she has come to carry off creatures, at the appointed time. And the tears from her eyes are the diseases which afflict creatures at the time of their end.