Many gods in Hinduism have more than one head. Even demons and animals are depicted with multiple heads at times. This is a feature of Vedic mythology that carried over into the Puranas, too, later. In Vedic mythology, the Fire god, Agni, has four heads, while Parjanya has three, and Brihaspati has seven heads. Brahma is a Puranic god who has four heads.
The Bhagavad Puranas claim that when Vishnu was asleep on the serpent Ananta, a lotus stalk came out of his navel and bloomed. This was how Brahma was born. After his birth, Brahma looked around in four directions. He manifested four heads, one for each direction. Brahma’s four heads represent space, the four directions, and four cardinal points. But some Puranic texts say that Brahma actually had five heads.
So, what happened to his fifth head? There are many versions of the fate that befell Brahma’s fifth head. Let us see some of them.
The Vamana Purana says that when Creation began, Vishnu lay floating on the waters. First, he created Brahma with five heads. Next, he created Shiva, who, too, had five heads. Soon, Brahma and Shiva began quarreling about who was superior. Finally, Shiva flew into a rage and chopped Brahma’s fifth head.
The Skanda Purana offers a different version. Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about who was superior. The argument became quite intense. Suddenly, a pillar of fire appeared from nowhere. It seemed to have no beginning or end and reached the skies. The fiery pillar was actually Shiva. He told the two feuding gods that the one who could find the beginning or end of the fiery pillar was the superior god. Vishnu and Brahma took up the challenge.
Brahma turned into a swan and flew up into the sky to find the beginning of the column. Vishnu turned into a boar and dived down into the earth. After a while, they came back. Shiva asked them if they had found the source of the column. Vishnu admitted that he had not been able to find its source. But Brahma said he had seen its endpoint, which was a lie. To convince Shiva, he made a ketaki flower bear false witness. But Shiva knew the truth, and he chopped Brahma’s fifth head for uttering a lie.
In another story, Brahma was all alone, and he did not know whence he came from. He wondered who he actually was. Getting no answer, he decided to find out who he was not. So he created the other, and this other had the form of a woman. Her name was Shatarupa, and she was one of many forms. She kept changing her form.
Seeing her beauty, Brahma fell for her, and he created four heads to gaze at her always. She tried to elude him, and he chased her. She ran away, and he tried to catch her. But she kept eluding him. She became an animal, and he turned into its male form. He became a bull to her cow and a horse to her mare. He was hell-bent on conquering her. Due to his obsession, he also sprouted a fifth head to spy on her better. Watching Brahma chasing after Shatarupa, the other gods shouted that the father was chasing his daughter (she was his creation, after all). The disgusted gods told Shiva to do something about it. So, he cut off the fifth head of Brahma.
Yet another version says all four heads of Brahma recited the four Vedas – Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda, and Sama Veda each, while the fifth head recited all the Vedas as well as the Itihasas. Brahma’s ability to assimilate and retain such a vast amount of knowledge worried the other deities. Also, Brahma was beginning to get arrogant. The gods begged Shiva to limit Brahma’s powers. So, Shiva clipped Brahma’s fifth head with the nail of his left hand.
Brahma Purana has an interesting story about how Brahma lost his head. Once, there was a fierce battle between the Asuras and Devas. When Brahma was standing amidst the armies of the Devas, his fifth head, which was the head of a donkey, brayed loudly. It said, “O Daityas, why are you running away? Why are you afraid of the Devas? I will devour all of them for you in a moment”.
When they heard this, the other Gods were scared, and they approached Vishnu. He said, “You can cut the head of Brahma, but if it falls on earth, the earth itself will be destroyed. So you need someone who can hold his head in the hand without allowing it to fall on the earth. Only Shiva is capable of it, as he has the strength.” So the Gods approached Shiva, and he chopped off Brahma’s fifth head. But the severed head became stuck to his palm. Try as he might, Shiva was not able to shake it off. Shiva then roamed on earth as Kapalika, the skull bearer. ‘Kapalam’ means ‘skull’.
According to some versions, Shiva took the form of Bhairav or Bhairava, a fierce form, to cut off Brahma’s head. By cutting off Brahma’s head, Bhairav incurred the sin of Brahmahatya, for which he had to perform Prayaschitta or atonement.
Shiva told Bhairav to beg with the skull as a begging bowl and to take baths in the sacred Theerthas. He also created Bhairavi, a woman, to accompany him on his wanderings. But, despite taking dips in the holy Theerthas, Bhairava could not overcome his sin. So he went back to Shiva and asked him for another solution. Shiva told him to go to Varanasi and take a dip in the Ganga, the holiest river. When he did so, he was freed of his sin, and the skull of Brahma fell into the water and flowed away. Kapalamochana Theertha is the place where Bhairava took the dip with the skull in the Ganga.