At the peak of his powers Prajapati was the greatest deity of the Vedas and more powerful than Indra, Varuna, Agni, or Surya. Like many Vedic gods, however, he gradually lost his standing. When Prajapati is invoked these days, he is often remembered as a creator deity, although not all aspects of his creation are seen in a positive light. Prajapati's greatest claim to fame is the unique sacrifice mentioned in the Purusha Sukta- which is the tenth mandala of the Rigveda and dedicated to the Purusha, the Cosmic Being. The Purusha Sukta, or the "Great Sacrifice of Creation,"is a hymn of only sixteen verses written in the older form of Sanskrit.
Prajapati - The Lord of Creators
It speaks of Purusha as a cosmic being-a primeval man of mammoth proportions, with a thousand heads, eyes, and feet, and pervading everything. The Purusha Sukta celebrates the sacrifice of this god like entity, who makes an offering of the cosmic man to himself on a funeral pyre to bring forth all of creation. The whole universe was believed to have been created from the body of the sacrificed Purusha. Thus from his mind came the moon; from his many eyes the sun; from the navel the atmosphere;from his innumerable heads the sky, and from his feet the earth. Purusha is also said to have created the gods-Indra and Agni from his mouth and Vayu from his breath. The vamas, or the four great castes of Hindu society, sprang from his body: the Brahmins (priests/scholars) originated from his mouth, the Kshatriyas (warriors) were born of his arms, Vaishyas (traders) sprang from his thighs, and the Shudras (servants) came from his feet.
While the Rigveda dedicates the creation of the universe to the all-powerful cosmic man, the Yajurveda, the Vedic text that came a few hundred years later identifies this single supreme power, which reveals itself in many forms as Prajapati, the Lord of Creatures, in the following lines:
Agni is That, VayuIs That, Chandramas is That, Light is That, Brahman is That, Waters are Those, Prajapati is He !
In essence, the Purusha Sukta relates a creation myth, and to be fair Hinduism has more than a dozen creation myths. Yet the Purusha Sukta survived to this day even with its modifications and red actions. It is one of the few hymns in the Rigveda that still finds a place today in Vedic rituals and the worship of deities. A modification of this myth appears as Hiranyagarbha, or "the Golden Egg." In this golden egg version of creation, the universe was all waters at the beginning, and the Supreme Being wanted to divide the waters.In the division appeared a golden egg, and this egg produced the first man, Prajapati, who created gods in the sky with light, and asuras (demons) in the earth with darkness, thereby creating day and night. His breath brought about air, a woman, a cow, and a mare.He created the power of procreation into his self and divided himself into two people, one male and one fe male.She became a cow and he became a bull, and they produced calves.This story goes on and on until the whole earth was populated with animals.
Glory of Prajapati
Prajapati achieved the height of his glory during the Vedic period, but his powers subsequently waned. In the Upanishads Brahman becomes the ultimate reality, and Prajapati is subordinated to Brahman. By the end of the Vedic period, as Hinduism concentrated on intuitive spirituality instead of the ritualistic sacrifices of the Vedas, Prajapati's significance steadily eroded. Brahma absorbed much of Prajapati's portfolio of functions, such as his relationship with the golden egg of creation.
Eventually Brahma supplanted Prajapati in supremacy and was soon seen creating Prajapati as his agent of creation. This single Prajapati morphed into multiple Prajapatis, as later myths describe the creation of a number of Prajapatis for carrying out all aspects of creation. As Vishnu and Shiva grew in power, Brahma became their agent for creation. Brahma in turn subcontracted his job to several-first seven, then ten, and finally twenty-one-Prajapatis, with Brahma identifying himself as one of the Prajapatis.
In Sanskrit Prajapati means "lord of the people." In contemporary Hinduism, however, Prajapati has become the name of a group that presides over procreation and protection of life. Nonetheless Prajapati left an indelible mark on Hinduism through Purusha Sukta. The idea of sacrifice, which later became a recurring theme in the Vedas, can be found in these verses. More important, the Purusha Sukta establishes that the Supreme Being creates us out of itself.
This has significant implications for Hinduism. While Western religious traditions believe that God creates people out of nothing, in Hinduism people are literally one with the divine and with each other. Prajapati (along with Brahma and Manu) bears the stigma of creating the caste system, a consequence of Purusha Sukta. The caste system, as everyone knows, had tremendous influence on Hindu society because of its divine sanction. It later became a persistent and pernicious element of Indian society.