When Brahma had created all the creatures, they became extremely old and numerous but did not die. There was no space between creatures at all, anywhere. The three worlds had no room to breathe, as if they had been tightly bound up. Then Brahma began to think about destroying it all, but he could not think of any reason to do this. From his anger, a fire came out of the nine openings of his body, and with that fire, Brahma burnt everything in all directions. The fire born of his anger burnt heaven and earth and the sky, and the universe with everything moving and still. All were burnt by the great blast of anger when Brahma became angry.

Then Shiva went to seek refuge with Brahma, hoping to help all living creatures. Brahma said to him, “What wish should I grant for you today? For I think you deserve a favour. I will do whatever will please you and will increase your thriving and growth.” Shiva said, “The creatures that you created are now everywhere being burnt by the fire of your great energy. Seeing them fills me with compassion. You should not get angry with them.”

Brahma said, “I am not angry, nor is it my wish that these creatures should not exist. But I want to reabsorb all of this in order to lighten the earth. For this goddess Earth, tormented by her burden, and sinking into the waters because of it, has kept urging me to reabsorb them all. I have thought about this with my full intelligence, but I don’t understand how to reduce the number of those who have grown so numerous, and I’ve been overcome by anger.” Shiva said, “Be merciful about reabsorbing everything; do not get angry. Do not destroy all the creatures. All the ponds, and all the grasses, the things that move and the things that are still – all of that has been reduced to ashes, and the whole universe has been flooded. Have mercy, lord; this is the boon I beg. These creatures who have been destroyed will never come back again. Think, therefore, of some other method, out of your desire to do what is best for your creatures, so that all these living beings may return again. Be merciful! I beg you to let these creatures come back again.”

When Brahma heard Shiva’s words, he restrained his speech and thought, and he withdrew his own fiery energy that had come from within him and drew back the fire that had been born of his anger. Then, out of all the openings of his body, a woman appeared. She was black, with red eyes, and the palms of her hands were red. She was wearing red garments and divine earrings and jewellery. As she came out of the openings of his body, she settled on his right side, and the two gods just looked at her. Then Brahma called to her and said, “Death! Kill these creatures! I thought of you when I was worrying about universal destruction, and I was angry. Destroy all these creatures, the fools and the wise, without exception; for I have appointed you for this, and you will be well rewarded.”

When the goddess Death heard this, she was miserable, and as she was just a young girl, she burst into tears. Brahma caught those tears in his two hands and asked her yet again to do what was best for humans. But the weak, wide-eyed girl controlled her grief, cupped her hands, bent like a vine, and said, “How can a woman like me, created by you, engage in such terrible work, terrifying all creatures that breathe? I’m afraid to act against dharma. Assign some work for me that is in keeping with dharma. Look upon me with a kindly eye, for I am so frightened. I should not carry off young people and old people full of the breath of life, people who have committed no offence. I bow to you. Have mercy on me! If I were to kill beloved sons, and friends, brothers, mothers and fathers, I would be afraid of them when they were dead! The floods of tears of pity would burn me for eternity. I come to you for refuge. Let those who do evil deeds go, in the end, to the house of the god of death. I beg you, grant me this boon, do me this favour: I wish to engage in tapas.”

Brahma said: “Death, I imagined you for the purpose of destroying all creatures. Go. Destroy all these creatures. Do not delay. This must happen in just this way. It will not be otherwise. Do what I told you to do.” When Death heard this, she said nothing but just stood there, bending humbly and looking up at Brahma. Again and again, he spoke to her, but she seemed to have lost her mental energy, and he remained silent.

Then Brahma became pacified, within himself and by himself, and he smiled and looked down upon all the worlds. And when Brahma’s anger had subsided, the maiden went away from him, without having promised to destroy the creatures. We have heard that she began to engage in the most difficult tapas. She stood on one foot for fifteen billion years. Brahma again came to her and said, “Death, do what I told you to do.” But, disregarding him, she immediately stood on the other foot for another seven billion years in the very same way. Then, for another fourteen billion years, she roamed with the deer, and then she went back and kept a vow of utter silence, standing in water, for eight thousand years. After that, she went to the river Kaushiki and kept her vow to eat nothing but wind and water; she went to the Ganges and Mount Meru and stood motionless like a tree; and on the peak of Himalaya, where the gods assembled, she stood on her big toe for another billion years.

Finally, she satisfied Brahma with her great effort, and he said to her, “Why is this going on, my daughter? Do what I told you to do.” But Death replied to Brahma again, “I will not destroy the creatures. Again I ask you to forgive me.” She was terrified of violating dharma, but Brahma said, “There is no violation of dharma in you, Death, if you curb and control these creatures. But I will grant you what you wished for: creatures tortured by disease will not blame you. Among men you will have the form of a man; among women, the form of a woman; and among those of the third gender, you will be a ‘non-man’.” When she heard this, she cupped her hands and said “No!” again to Brahma, but he insisted: “Death, destroy humans. Your teardrops that I see have fallen and that you are holding in front of you in your two hands – they will become diseases that will torment humans when the proper time has come. At the time of the end, you will harness with desire and anger all creatures that have the breath of life, and in this way, you will not violate dharma, for your behaviour will be equable and fair.”

Death agreed to this assignment because she was afraid of a curse. And so, at the time of the end, desire and anger overwhelm and delude creatures that breathe, and so they destroy them. The tears that Death shed became diseases that shatter the bodies of humans, of all creatures, at the end of their life’s breaths. All the gods depart and then return again just exactly as before. In this same way, all humans, at the end of their time of breathing, go away and return, just like the gods.

This is how the god Brahma created the death of living creatures so that Death could take them away at the appointed time. The diseases are the tears that she shed; and when the right time comes, they carry away living creatures.

Excerpted with permission from The Dharma of Unfaithful Wives and Faithful Jackals: Some Moral Tales From The Mahabharata, Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger Books.