Brahma, Hiranyagarbha, Prajapati and Manu –– all seem to be connected with creating living beings and play same role. Are they all incarnations of the same God?
I shall share some verses to give you an idea of these terms before we try to analyze the differences. Hiranyagarbha literally means the Golden Womb or by extension - One born from the Golden Womb - which may refer to Brahma's birth from the golden egg that became the Universe or the golden lotus that emerged from Lord Vishnu's navel.
The famous Hiranyagarbha Sukta of the Rigveda states:
IN the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings. He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
Giver of vital breath, of power and vigour, he whose commandments all the Gods acknowledge - The Lord of death, whose shade is life immortal. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
Who by his grandeur hath become Sole Ruler of all the moving world that breathes and slumbers; He who is Lord of men and Lord of cattle. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
His, through his might, are these snow-covered mountains, and men call sea and Rasā his possession:His arms are these, his are these heavenly regions. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
By him the heavens are strong and earth is steadfast, by him light's realm and sky-vault are supported:By him the regions in mid-air were measured. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
To him, supported by his help, two armies embattled look while trembling in their spirit, When over them the risen Sun is shining. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
What time the mighty waters came, containing the universal germ (Hiranya-garbha), producing Agni, Thence sprang the Gods’ one spirit into being. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
He in his might surveyed the floods containing productive force and generating Worship. He is the God of gods, and none beside him. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
Never may he harm us who is earth's Begetter, nor he whose laws are sure, the heavens' Creator, He who brought forth the great and lucid waters. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
The above verses sort of confirm what we know about Hirayagarbha in the form of Brahma - he was born from the waters, he created the earth, mid-air and heavens, he is also the ruler of living beings as well as non-living structures like mountains and seas. So its quite easily understandable till here but the next verse specifically addresses him as Prajapati:
- Prajāpati! thou only comprehendest all these created things, and none beside thee. Grant us our hearts' desire when we invoke thee: may we have store of riches in possession.
From this last verse we get an understanding of what or who a Prajapati is - he is the the Lord of Living Beings. But before moving on to Prajapati let me also mention what the Shanti Parva of Mahabharat states:
The illustrious Brahma, otherwise called Hiranyagarbha, is the Grandsire of all the worlds. Endued with eyes like lotus petals, he takes birth within the Lotus that springs from (the navel of) Anirudha. Seated on that Lotus, the illustrious, puissant, and eternal Brahma of wonderful aspect saw that the waters were on all sides. Adopting the attribute of Sattwa Brahma, otherwise called Parameshthi, then commenced to create the universe.
The Section CCCIII also states:
The eldest-born Being is called Hiranyagarbha. This holy one has (in the Vedanta) been called the Understanding. In the Yuga scriptures He is called the Great, and Virinchi, and the Unborn. In the Sankhya scriptures, He is indicated by diverse name, and regarded as having Infinity for his Soul. Of diverse forms and constituting the soul of the universe. He is regarded as One and Indestructible. The three worlds of infinite ingredients have been created by Him without assistance from any source and have been overwhelmed by him.
Even in the Anushasan Parva same is mentioned:
Thou art the beginning of all creatures and things. Thou art Hiranyagarbha, the Creator of all things.
Now that we have settled who Hiranyagarbha is, let us come to Prajapati. As shown in the last verse of the Hiranyagarbha Sukta, the very FIRST PRAJAPATI is BRAHMA. In the following verse from the Atharva Veda the term is again used as an epithet of the creator-god:
Who out of many, tell me, is that Skambha,On whom Prajāpati set up and firmly stablished all the worlds? That universe which Prajāpati created, wearing all forms, the highest, midmost, lowest.
But this is not the only place where the term Prajapati is used. While Hiranyagarbha is specific to the one who was born from the golden womb, Prajapati is more generic and can refer to many other people provided they can be visualised as the Lords of Living Beings.
Who may these be? The same question was asked by Yuddhishthir to Bhisma Pitamah in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharat:
"Yudhishthira asked, 'Who were the first Prajapatis, O bull of Bharata's race? What highly-blessed Rishis are there in existence and on which points of the compass do each of them dwell?'
"Bhishma said., 'Hear me, O chief of the Bharatas, about what thou askest me. I shall tell thee who the Prajapatis were and what Rishis are mentioned as dwelling on which point of the horizon. There was at first one Eternal, Divine, and Self-born Brahman. The Self-born Brahman begat seven illustrious sons. They were Marichi, Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, and the highly-blessed Vasishtha who was equal to the Self-born himself. These seven sons have been mentioned in the Puranas as seven Brahmanas.
So this tells us that the mind-born sons of Brahma known as the Manas Putras are also called Prajapatis. But that's not all and Bhishma continues with the narration to enumerate some more:
I shall now mention all the Prajapatis who came after these. In Atri's race was born the eternal and divine Varhi the ancient, who had penances for his origin. From Varhi the ancient sprang the ten Prachetasas. The ten Prachetasas had one son between them, viz., the Prajapati called by the name of Daksha. This last has two names in the world, viz., Daksha and Kasyapa. Marichi had one son called Kasyapa. This last also has two names. Some call him Arishtanemi, and some Kasyapa. Atri had another son born of his lions, viz., the handsome and princely Soma of great energy. He performed penances for a thousand celestial Yugas. The divine Aryaman and they who were born unto him as his sons, O monarch, have been described as setters of commands, and creators of all creatures. Sasavindu had ten thousand wives. Upon each of them their lord begat a thousand sons, and so the tale reached ten hundred thousands. Those sons refused to call anybody else save themselves as Prajapatis. The ancient Brahmanas bestowed an appellation on the creatures of the world, derived from Sasavindu. That extensive race of the Prajapati Sasavindu became in time the progenitor of the Vrishni race. These that I have mentioned are noted as the illustrious Prajapatis.
In the Astik Parva also, Kashyap, the progenitor of all species of life is referred to as Prajapati:
And the Prajapati Kasyapa, hearing everything from Indra, went to the Valakhilyas and asked them if their sacrifice had been successful. And those truth-speaking Rishis replied to him, saying, 'Let it be as thou sayest!' And the Prajapati Kasyapa pacifying them, spake unto them as follows, 'By the word of Brahman, this one (Indra) hath been made the Lord of the three worlds. Ye ascetics, ye also are striving to create another Indra! Ye excellent ones, it behoveth you not to falsify the word of Brahman.
Prajapati, therefore, appears to be a generic title given to many exalted personalities and the Mahabharat also mentions Manu, the First Man as Prajapati. This makes sense as Manu is the leader of Manavs or Humans so in that sense the appellation is quite applicable to him.
The highly-blessed Vasus, eight in number, have formerly been enumerated by me. These were reckoned as gods at the time of the Prajapati Manu.
The Adi Parva also enumerates the Prajapatis and says that they are 21 in number (besides Brahma). This list also mentions Manu as a Prajapati:
In this world, when it was destitute of brightness and light, and enveloped all around in total darkness, there came into being, as the primal cause of creation, a mighty egg, the one inexhaustible seed of all created beings. It is called Mahadivya, and was formed at the beginning of the Yuga, in which we are told, was the true light Brahma, the eternal one, the wonderful and inconceivable being present alike in all places; the invisible and subtle cause, whose nature partaketh of entity and non-entity. From this egg came out the lord Pitamaha Brahma, the one only Prajapati; with Suraguru and Sthanu. Then appeared the twenty-one Prajapatis, viz., Manu, Vasishtha and Parameshthi; ten Prachetas, Daksha, and the seven sons of Daksha.
On a side note, in various texts, the first Manu is also mentioned as Hairanyagarbha or born from Hiranyagarbha since he had emerged from Brahma.To consider a different scripture, the Devi Bhagwat Puran not only confirms this relationship but also reaffirms Brahma as Hiranyagarbha:
The powerful Svâyambhuva Manu, the First, the husband of S'atarûpâ, the prosperous and the Ruler of all the Manvantaras worshipped the sinless Prajâpati Brahmâ, his Father with due devotion and satisfied Him when the Grandsire of the Lokas, the Hiranyagarbha spoke to his son:-- The excellent worship of the Devî should be done by you. By Her Grace, O Son, your work of creating worlds will be successful. Thus spoken by Brahmâ, the Bibhu Svâyambhuva Manu, the Virât incarnate, worshipped the World Mother with great austerities. And with his concentrated devotion, he satisfied the Devî Deves'î and began to chant hymns to Her, the First-born, the Mâyâ, the S'akti of all, and the Cause of all causes.
To sum up all this let me conclude with one sentence - Hiranyagarbha is an epithet of Brahma while Prajapati is a title that is applied to many personalities INCLUDING Brahma as well as Manu.