In the eighty eighth mantra of the Tirumandiram, the sage sings of the unfathomable glory of the supreme Siva by reminding us of an incident mentioned in the puranas. This 'incident' is one involving the trinity - Brahma,Vishnu and Siva. And is an oft repeated story in India. Though I refrain from going into the entire story in this post, I have tried to give as best an account of it as possible for the benefit of those who have not heard of this legend before.
Baffling Quest Of Brahma And Vishnu
Com – Ayan and Mal, His Head and Foot toiling sought The two Gods, namely, Vishnu and Brahma, decided amongst themselves to set out in search of the head and foot of Siva (and thus they sought for years on end), Baffled in their quest, again on earth they met; and after a long and hard quest they had to return to the Earth in vain, without having seen the head or foot (the limits) of Shiva. "I saw not the Foot," Achuth plained, (and, when back on the Earth) Vishnu spoke plainly and truthfully and revealed that he had not seen the foot even after his long and thorough search. "The Head I saw," Ayan falsely claimed. But Brahma made a false claim of having seen the head of Shiva.
* Through the above mantra (and the story that it brings to mind) the sage reveals to us the glory of the Supreme Shiva who is unfathomable by even the gods like Brahma and Vishnu.
The above story is mentioned in the Shiva Puranam (the purana dealing with and extolling the virtues and glory of Shiva) and for those of you unfamiliar with the legend, I will make a brief attempt to portray it here. It is worthy of note that like many many other mythological/religious legends, many versions of the same theme exist in India and a lot depends on 'who' tells the story!
Once the creator Brahma and the preserver Vishnu were caught up in a war of words, each of them was of the view that he was superior to the other. Brahma felt that being the creator he had the more important brief and was thus more powerful to Vishnu. Vishnu on the other hand felt that being the preserver was a more difficult job and thus made him more powerful than the creator. Their battle of words soon turned into a full blown war and before long they were at each other’s neck fighting with a vigour and rage that only those blinded by their own arrogance and ego possess. Soon, all the other gods noticed this and knew that it will not be good for the world if this fight between the two gods continued any further. So (as always) they went to Shiva and sought his help in settling this dispute.
Shiva then assumed the form of a great pillar of fire (light linga) and appeared between the two fighting gods. Seeing this immense shaft of light stunned Brahma and Vishnu and they were quiet for a moment, wondering what such an unknown and mighty force might be. They then heard an asariri ( a disembodied voice) from the sky commanding them to listen. The voice then continued to say that the dispute of which of the two gods were superior to the other, would be settled if one of them was able to ‘see’ the top or the bottom of the pillar of light before them.
At once, it was decided that Brahma would go up (towards the sky) and try to find the head of this pillar of Light (Shiva) and Vishnu would go down (under the earth) to find the foot of Shiva. It was agreed that whoever was able to find the limit (the head or the foot) would be superior to the other. Brahma then assumed the form of a swan and began his journey into the sky. Vishnu on the other hand, assumed the form of Varaha (wild boar) and bored through the earth to descend into the very depths of the world. The two of them went thus on their quest for thousands of years and even still could find no end to the pillar of light (as light has no limit). After proceeding in their quest for so long, the two of them began to tire and realise that the supreme Shiva was indeed greater than either of them. This realisation began to humble their ego and their arrogance.
Vishnu decided to end his search (becoming humbled) and proceed back to the earth. At the same time, Brahma saw a Ketaki (fragrant screw pine – Pandanus Sativa, kewra in hindi and thAzhampu in tamil) flower slowly wafting downwards from the sky. He stopped the flower on its way down and asked it where it was coming from. On being questioned by the creator, the flower replied that it had been placed at the top of the pillar of fire as an offering by a devotee and had fallen from there. Unable to find the head of the pillar, Brahma decided to end his search and instead use the ketaki flower as evidence of him having reached the head.
Both Brahma and Vishnu came back to the earth in the end and when asked, Vishnu replied truthfully that he had been unable to find the feet of the fiery pillar even after a very long search going to the very ends of the universe. Brahma on the other hand (to prove his superiority over Vishnu) lied by saying that he had in fact reached the head of the pillar of fire and that he had brought the ketaki flower from the top as proof of having reached there. This false claim angered Shiva and he revealed his true form and then cursed Brahma that he would have no temple dedicated to his worship as he was undeserving (as a result of his falsity) and he also cursed the ketaki flower that henceforth she shall not be used in the worship of Shiva (as she had given false testimony when questioned). Thus through his manifestation as a fiery pillar of endless light, Shiva quelled the arrogance of Brahma and Vishnu and revealed to them (and us) their place in the pecking order!