Trimurti and the Trinity
Hinduism is a religion which is practiced by millions of people all over the world, particularly in India and other eastern nations. It is a religion which is unlike any other, a religion designed for the individual. Unlike most religions which demand that followers a designated set of rules and practices which require adherence, Hinduism is about individual beliefs. Most religions begin from a written interpretation of what the creators have stated that their God, or Gods in polytheistic religions, wants from the practitioners, also known as the dogma. Because of this fact, the other religions are comparatively slow to evolve and are less likely to accommodate individual believers. Religious scholar J.N. Nanda explains, “Hinduism is not limited by the view of a single founder, a single holy man or a single holy book” (Nanda 106). Since there is no one type of person in the world, so too there is no one type Hindu. Everyone is unique and therefore the rules of the religion have to be modified for the individual believer and it is their job to find the form of the religion which best suites them. However, that being said there are certain components of Hinduism which do remain constant no matter who the believer might be. One of the more controversial tenets of Hinduism is the concept of the Trimurti which is the Hindu Trinity and literally means “having three forms,” is similar but also very different from the Christian perception of the Trinity. This tenet, although not embraced by all people who practice Hinduism has an important role in the sects which do believe in the Trimurti.
Hinduism is a religion which allows the believer to formulate their own beliefs and to accept whichever components work for them and to reject the ones that do not. At least, this was the attitude in Hinduism which began during the Puranic period (300-1200 AD). Secularism became even more prolific in the 19th century after the colonization of India by Great Britain. During that period, the Hindu population was influenced by the culture of a new, politically-dominating governance and consequently were more likely to accept alterations in their religion as well (D’Costa 53). This matter of having choices within the religion allows all individuals to find the religious pathway that is required in order to find Nirvana, which is a state of equality and understanding of the world which is only reached through meditation and dedication. Theologians argue the Hinduism is unlike any other religion on the Earth because instead of one system of beliefs, Hinduism continues to expand as a whole in order to encompass a larger group of individuals. According to Axel Michaels, “Hinduism is not a homogenous religion at all, but is rather a potpourri of religions, doctrines and attitudes towards life, rites and cults, moral and social norms” (Michaels 3). As this is the case, there is no one singular way to practice the religion because there are many forms which a person can choose from. Those who choose to practice Hinduism can embrace certain components of the traditions and yet ignore other customs as they see fit. By creating a religious system where the individual is allowed to choose which aspects to accept, Hinduism opens itself to people who might be atheists or agnostics, as well as those individuals who happen to believe in all the gods of the Hindi people. Whereas most religions demand that all components of the dogma be accepted without individual interpretation or even question, Hindus are allowed and even encouraged to take only the parts they need to better their own lives. In addition, the Hindus also embrace the icons of the other world religions. In many Hindu temples, iconography of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can be found. The only thing that Hindu leaders are concerned with is that practitioners somehow find their way to a God or some power which is higher than their selves (Keene 78). This belief will inevitably lead the individual to make choices in their life which are for the good of themselves and mankind. Therefore, any path that leads to some sort of enlightened attitude is encouraged in the Hindu religion.
In the Puranic period, there was a growing desire to unify the disparaging Hindu people, such as those who held orthodox beliefs and those with more secular interest in the religion. Before that period, the two sides were in the throes of a religious war which was more theologically-based rather than violent, and those in positions of power wanted to reconcile the two sides of the issue. One of the best ways in which to do this effectively was to open the levels of discourse between the groups on all components of the religion, including the Trimurti, which is the Hindu version of the Holy Trinity. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism defines the Trimurti as a concept “in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver or “indwelling-life,” and Shiva the destroyer or transformer” (Flood 139). Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are the three gods who make up the Hindu trinity and are often referred to as either “the Hindu triad” or the “Great Trinity.” The Trimurti represents “all aspects of the Supreme Being” (Trimurti). By this, it is meant that the three gods together work to perform the function of one omnipotent and all-powerful god, such as is characteristic of Judeo-Christian or Islamic religious beliefs. Gods of the Hindu Trimurti need one another in order to perform all the necessary duties of the one monotheistic god because each has a unique function but none has all the abilities needed to continue the world.
Historically, the concept of a Hindu trinity goes back to the Rig Veda which was where god was combined in three distinct forms and brought into light. Before their unification, the gods were separate entities called Agni for hearth, Vidyut for light, and Surya for the sun. In the text of the Padma Puranas, these three gods joined to become a single entity “in order to form this world, the supreme spirit produced from his right side Brahma and in order to maintain this world, the supreme spirit produced Vishnu from his left side and to destroy he gave rise to Shiva from his middle” (Yaday). From this point, for some Hindu believers, the three gods would be forever intertwined. The Trimurti appears primarily in epic poetry rather than the holy books of Hinduism (Ninan 184). Those who believed in the trinity also were said to believe in the Brahman which was a term which encompassed one deity who was composed of all three gods. Authro Lynne Gibson explains:
Many Hindus believe in One Supreme God, whom they call Brahman, but they worship that one God in various forms, according to the different functions they believe He performs. Hindus believe that God is omnipresent, always present everywhere and in all living things. They also believe that God may be represented in masculine and feminine ways. A unique feature of Hinduism is that God is worshipped in male and female forms. It teaches that both men and women are ‘different wings of the same bird’ (14).
This ability to alter gender is indicative of the fluid nature of the Hindu gods and the ways in which they can change their identity. The three gods are all powerful but only in the context of their interaction and unification with one another. Each god was intricately connected to the other two gods and therefore together the three gods made up the one true god, also called the supreme spirit.
The gods themselves can represent many different things depending upon the individual beliefs and can represent multiple ideas even in the same denomination of Hinduism. Together, the three gods are said to represent the balance of earth, water, and fire which are the three life forces which allows for human beings to continue existing in the world. Earth, where life begins is Brahma while water is Vishnu as they both sustain life, and finally Shiva is fire as he is violent and all-consuming but without his ability, the world could not continue; things must die so that other things can live, grow, and thrive. According to another theory, they are meant to represent the three planes of consciousness, Brahma the spiritual plane as he is the spiritual element, Vishnu the psychic element, and Shiva the physical body. Alternatively, there is a theory that the gods represent the three components of the mind: Brahma intuitiveness and creativity, Vishnu intelligence, and Shiva raw emotion. Further, the Trimurti can represent the stages of a person’s life with celibacy and innocent childhood being Brahma, adulthood and the rearing of children is represented by the god Vishnu, and of course old age and death are represented by Shiva.
The Trimurti are depicted in works of art either as three individual people or as being with one body but three heads or as a single head and body with three faces on it. The three different bodies, heads, or faces are meant to represent the three roles of the primary god or gods, creation, preservation, and destruction. Iconic images of the Trimurti first began appearing during the period between the eighth and tenth centuries (Yaday). It is thus assumed that this was the period when the trinity became the most popular in terms of believers. Together, the three gods supposedly bring balance because none of the singular gods are capable of being the one, all-powerful god of a monotheistic religion and this is why they are artistically presented in this way.
Brahma as an individual god is associated with the swan and his images are most often depicted in shades of red and symbolize the power and creativity of the sun (Hindu). As the creator god, it makes sense that he is most closely associated symbolically with the sun, which is responsible for the creation of life upon the earth. He has four heads, each with a unique face, and four arms growing from his upper body. In each hand he holds a different object; in one he holds a scepter in the shape of a spoon, a mala which is a string of beads, the Vedas which are the Hindi texts or a lotus flower, and a pot of water. This god is unique in that he is often depicted with a long, white beard.
Vishnu who is the preserver of life is associated with nurturing and care. Those who practice Hinduism believe that Vishnu appears by himself to protect the righteous and destroy evildoers. His skin is usually colored a light blue shade which is used to show his closeness with both the sky and the water which are both life forces (Hindu). Like Brahma, he is usually depicted with four arms. In each of his four hands, Vishnu holds a type of talisman: a conch shell which represents the sound of primitive creation, a chakra which symbolizes the egoless mind, a Gada which is a mace which grants both physical and mental strength, and a lotus flower which represents liberation through dharma. Also, he is almost always showed adorned with various ornaments including a crown, a garland of flowers, the Kaustubha jewel around his neck, and a golden earring in each ear. Vishnu has other names because he has supposedly come to the earth nine separate times to save the world from destruction (Penney 8). Krishna and Rama were two of the names by which Vishnu was called, both heroic gods who came to earth to protect the people.
The last Hindu god associated with the Trimurti, Shiva, is the god of destruction, who exhibits the supreme power of the deities and their ability to control all aspects of human existence. Shiva is the least permanent of the gods in terms of physical characteristics. He can be shown as young or old, libidinous or chaste, gentle or vicious, and can even be presented as either man or woman (Hindu). Physical presentations of Shiva are often done in white and the face usually has a third eye on the forehead to represent the all-seeing power of the god. This is also the source of Shiva’s energy and allows him to destroy those who do acts of evil. On Shiva’s head, he is shown to war a crescent moon representing the power of sacrificial offerings. Also, , deer, and elephant skins as well as a deadly cobra around his neck illustrating the god’s strength and his ability to conquer death. In his hand, Shiva holds a trident with which he can punish individuals in both the real and spirit worlds. It is stated that Shiva, when depicted artistically, is often shown in poses as though he was dancing. According to Sue Penney, “One of his names is Lord of the Dance. His dance is the energy which keeps the universe moving. Sometimes the dance shows him destroying the monster, Ignorance” (9). Shiva is the most prominent of all the Hindu gods and it is reported that he is perhaps worshipped more than any of the other Hindu gods. Twenty five percent of all Hindu followers worship Shiva (Penney 8). Although Shiva is terrifying because of his incredible power, Hindus also believe that he is kind to those who are virtuous. Only those who behave maliciously, selfishly, or with evil intention should be afraid of him because he is both vengeful and careful in choosing targets.
Many other religions share the concept of a trinity, most commonly referenced is the Christian version of the Trinity. However, despite the fact that the three gods are connected in Hinduism and Christian religions, there is actually a great difference in the worship or belief of the triumvirates. Christianity’s Holy Trinity is comprised of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” terms which refer to the one Judeo-Christian God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Each of the components is worshipped equally and each is given the same level of importance because each is, in actuality, a representation of God. The three components of God is known as Sabellianism, and it is this concept which is found in Hinduism as well as Christianity. Sabellianism was the idea that rather than individual and permanent entities, the three parts of the trinity were all modes of one singular God. The members of the Trimurti are equal because they are, according to the religion, the same person, but in a different form (Grudem 226). The Father is both the one who begot Jesus and the one who begot all of mankind. It is the Father who rules within Heaven, while the Son is God’s representation upon the earth, and the Holy Spirit is the representation of God in the spiritual world.
The trinity is one of the concepts of Hinduism which is not commonly embraced and many people who practice Hindi prefer to believe that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are three distinct deities. Before the concept of the Trinity was popularized, it secular and religious beliefs were heavily divided, as was the social and economic classes of the nation of India. The Trinity gained popularity during the Puranic period; the reason for this is explained by Indian historian R.C. Majumdar who wrote in the article “Evolution of Religio-Philosophic Culture in India” that:
[The Trinity’s] notable expression is to be found in the theological conception of the Trimurti, i.e., the manifestation of the supreme God in three forms of Brahma, Visnu, and SivaBut the attempt cannot be regarded as a great success, for Brahma never gained an ascendancy comparable to that of Siva or Visnu, and the different sects often conceived the Trimurti as really the three manifestations of their own sectarian god, whom they regarded as Brahman or Absolute (49).
Unlike the trinity that is present in other religions, the Hindu version never caught on with the majority of worshippers. One of the reasons for this is that few people were able to worship all three of the gods in the trinity equally. Instead, historian A.L. Basham says, “All Hindu trinitarianism tended to favor one god of the three” (310). Usually Brahma was worshipped as a more powerful god than the other two members of the trinity, causing the idea of the trinity to have disunity and inequality.
There was one particular group which was dedicated to the Hindu trinity. In the early twentieth century Swami Abhishiktananda and an ashram named Saccidananda Ashram (Phan 318-319). Their sect was based on the principle outlined by Monchanin who stated, “Only the mystery of the Trinity is capable of resolving the antimonies which cause Hindu thought to swing endlessly between monism and pluralism, between a personal and an impersonal God” (319). Here again, it is shown that those in positions of authority believed that by merging the religious beliefs as well as secularism through the concept of the Hindu trinity, it was more likely to relieve the tensions between factions in the Hindu world.
Some of the sects of Hinduism believe in the trinity more than others. The Sauram, those who worship Surya, did not believe in the Trimurti because they place Surya above all other gods and only included the trinity as a group secondary in power to Surya. Those who are involved in the sect known as Vaishnavism do not accept the trinity because they place Vishnu above all other gods and believe that Shiva is the subordinate to Vishnu. Similarly, Shaivites, or people practicing Shaivism do not believe in the trinity because they believe that Shiva is the most important of the Hindu deities. Finally, Smartism is the sect which is most closely identified with a belief in the Trimurti. Although for some denominations of Smartism, the trinity is modified because they hold that there is a group of five gods who are in control of all others including Vishnu and Shiva, but also including Surya, Ganesha, and Devi. A sixth deity, Kumara, was added in approximately the ninth century.
In the present historical moment, the worship of the Trimurti is unpopular. There are few temples devoted to the trio of gods, but instead individual temples dedicated to the three gods individually. Brahma worshipping is the least practiced of the three while Vishnu and Shiva worshipping continues to be practiced far more commonly. Hinduism being an individual religion allows for people to pick and choose their religious practices as well as which deities they choose to worship and so choice has a great deal to do with whether or not a practice continues from the past into the present. The lack of popularity of the trinity has led to the decline of their worship to the point where in the modern era there is little care or concern given to the trio at all.
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