Who is the greatest: Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva?

Our Indian trinity is composed of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu is the Preserver and Shiva is the Transformer. According to some, Shiva is the Destroyer, but we say Transformer.

Once it happened that pride entered into Brahma. He said to his devotees, “From now on, you have to consider me as the highest Absolute. I am not of the same standard as Vishnu and Shiva. What do they do, after all? Vishnu just preserves and Shiva only deals with demons. But I am the Creator.”

Brahma’s devotees bowed to him, saying, “You are the highest.”

As they were praising Brahma, Vishnu appeared. “What are you saying?” he asked the devotees.

They replied, “Brahma has informed us that he is the highest and we are repeating his words.”

“It can never be!” exclaimed Vishnu. “He just creates, but I take the trouble of preserving. My task is far more difficult because it goes on for years and years. My patience, compassion and forgiveness far surpass Brahma’s act of creation. It takes very little time to create, but to preserve the creation goes on indefinitely. I am the one you should be praising as the highest!”

Brahma’s devotees did not agree with Vishnu’s reasoning at all. They stated Vishnu’s case to Brahma, and then Brahma and Vishnu began quarrelling and fighting. Their dispute went on and on.

The four Vedas could not brook this kind of conflict. They took the form of four divine beings and stood in front of Brahma and Vishnu, who were engaged in bitter argument. The Vedas said, “We feel that Shiva is by far the best of the trinity. You two are quarrelling and fighting, but he is far above all this. Only ordinary human beings quarrel and fight in this manner.”

At that moment, Lord Shiva was passing by. “What is going on?” he asked.

Vishnu summed up the whole story: “Brahma thinks that he is the greatest and I think that I am the greatest.”

Now it was Shiva’s turn. “Neither of you is the greatest and highest,” he said. “I am the greatest and highest.”

Vishnu surrendered. “I cannot go on arguing. I will gladly proclaim that you are the greatest,” he declared.

Shiva was highly pleased with Vishnu, but Brahma strongly opposed Shiva. He said, “I am undoubtedly the greatest. You deal only with ghosts and demons. You do not take care of your physical existence. You wear skulls around your neck. You do not believe in creation!”

“Enough!” shouted Shiva. “I am no longer going to tolerate your insults. I challenge you to a fight!”

As Shiva prepared to fight, a being came out of his body and said, “I will fight for you.” Brahma and this being struck each other very hard, but the being was finally able to cut off one of Brahma’s heads and Brahma fell down dead. Originally Brahma had five heads, but this being removed one of the five.

Seeing Brahma lying lifeless on the ground, Shiva felt sad. “After all,” he said, “Brahma was once upon a time my friend. What have I done? This being and I are responsible.”

So Shiva revived Brahma, but Brahma now had only four heads. Brahma immediately cursed the being: “The head that you have cut off will always remain on your hand.”

This is how Brahma’s fifth head became stuck to the hand of that being, whose name was Nandi.

Another version of the story says that the head became stuck to Shiva’s palm. When Shiva lies down, it can be seen there.

Yet a third version says that Nandi went from one place to another trying to dislodge Brahma’s head from his palm. Finally he went to Krishna, who advised him, “Go to Benares. It is the most sacred place of all. There the very sanctity of the place will enter into your palm, and you will see that this head will come off your hand.”

Nandi listened to Krishna’s advice and went to Benares. As soon as he arrived in that sacred city, lo and behold, the head of Brahma left him.

Shiva was very pleased with Nandi for winning the fight with Brahma. He said to Nandi, “I am so satisfied with you. You were able to kill Brahma. You are extremely powerful. I am compelling you to stay with me. From now on, you will be the leader of all the demons and ghosts that are my subjects.”

That was how Nandi became Shiva’s chief attendant.