To begin, let’s get something straight. Even with the Hindu trinity, Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion. Actually Hinduism is not a religion at all. The word Hindu is British in origin. As the British arrived in India, they discovered more religious traditions than they knew what to do with. In their ignorance and understandable level of overwhelm they simply labelled everyone that lived to the east of the Indus river, ‘Hindu’.
The term serves a very practical purpose, but it is not a religion in itself. Included under this umbrella term there are dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe even thousands of distinct and unique religious/spiritual traditions.
These traditions can be loosely grouped into several categories according to the deities held as the primary personification of the absolute reality. More on these traditions will come in future posts. But for now it is that reality that we are dealing with.
A Misconception, ‘Hindus’ are Not Politheistic
We can make some generalisations to help understanding. All of these traditions agree that there is a formless, un-objectifiable essence of this reality. Often, perhaps most often, Brahman is the accepted and recognized term referring to that essence. Although of course each tradition accepts and uses its own terminology.
In their profound wisdom, these human beings understood that this most fundamental intimate essence is not knowable in the way that we know an object. Thus, reality has no objectifiable qualities.
Thus, as is also the case in Islam for example, God, or the essence of reality, is unknowable. However, since God is not separate from the cosmos, the actions, movements and expressions of that God are knowable. At least insofar as we see them unfolding in the world around us.
Thus, energetic principles, known directly by ancient sages, were unknown to modern science until the 1900’s. These sages then, through experience, identified understood, and personified abstract principles as deities. One example is the Hindu trinity, creation, preservation, destruction.
The Trimurti - the Hindu Trinity
With that cleared up, let’s take a look more deeply at the Trimurti.
During the Vedic period (17-1500 – 500 BCE) we see elements of nature personified as Devas. Or Gods. Such as Indra, the sun or Agni, fire. Some centuries after the Vedic period, we see the appearance of the Puranas. The Puranas were primarily composed between the 4th and 12th centuries.
It is during this period that we begin to see deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma rise to popularity. It is also during the earlier parts of this period that we begin to see more abstract principles personified as deities. Rather than just elements of nature as in the Vedic period.
We have established that we cannot know the absolute objectively. Yet, mystics observed abstract, somewhat mysterious principles unfolding in the world around them. It became clear to them that these mysterious functions were not random. They saw them as expressions of Brahman or the essence.
Thus we see the development of the concept of the Trimurti the Hindu trinity. Essentially Brahma represents the spark or impulse that leads to the act of creation/manifestation. Vishnu represents the interest or momentum that sustains the lifespan of any event. And Shiva is the expression of the tendency of all phenomena to dissolve back into the formless essence from which they arise.
Brahma - The Father of All
According to legend, Brahma was born out of a golden egg that emerged from the naval of Vishnu during a cosmic sleep.
Brahma is by far the least popular of the Hindu trinity. There are various reasons for this. One suggests that since through the act of creating the universe he has already set into motion everything that will happen in this cosmic cycle, therefore he has very little to do. Although this is questionable since at the level of our lived experience, many aspects of our lives are still coming into being.
As the creator of all of the universe Brahma played a vital role in this existence. He is, among other things, the deity of wisdom. In this role he creates 7 sons (Saptarishi) , or Maharishis, ‘great sages’, at the start of each cosmic cycle. These Saptarishi guide the unfolding of the universe for the duration of their cosmic cycle. They are the great teachers of humanity that unfold the spiritual wisdom that supports our evolution.
Brahma has four heads each sporting a crown. Each head faces one of the cardinal directions. Brahma has eight arms, in each he carries a sacred object: 1) the four Vedas, 2) a rosary, 3) a pot with holy water, 4) a sceptre, 5) a spoon, 6) a disc, 7) a fly whisk, and 8) a lotus flower.
Vishnu - The Preserver
The second member of the Hindu trinity is Lord Vishnu, the preserver. Lord Vishnu finds his earliest mentions as a dwarf in the Vedas. He was a kind of fool or jester to the other gods who would perform great feats for their entertainment. In one story he jumps across the cosmos in 3 great leaps.
However, with time it seems that Vishnu was melded with other gods, perhaps some solar deities. Taking new shape as the Vishnu we eventually find in the Puranas and as the second of the Gods of the hindu trinity.
Later Vishnu became the central figure of the Vaishnava movement. A movement itself made up of several similar religious sects. Each takes various forms of Vishnu, mostly Krishna or Rama as the central deity and primary personification of the divine. The Hare Krishna movement is associated with the Vaishnava sect.
Vishnu is well known for his many incarnations who appear on earth in times of great disparity to save the world.
The 10 Incarnations of Vishnu.
This is the most common list although it does vary slightly).
1) Matsya, the fish that saved the first man from the great flood by informing the King, Manu of the coming destruction. This story parallels the biblical story of Noah;
2) Kurma, a tortoise that serves as a base for the mountain that supports the universe. Lord Vishnu incarnated in this form at the behest of the other Gods.
3) Varaha a boar who went to war with a demon for a thousand years to win the earth back from the ocean;
4) Narasimha a man-lion that defeated the king of demons when he was persecuting humans who followed Vishnu;
5) Vamana a dwarf God the defeated Indra;
6) Parashurama, a Brahmin warrior who was grated a powerful axe after doing penance for Shiva;
7) Rama, the hero of the Ramayana;
8) Krishna, featured largely in the Bhagavad Gita;
9) Buddha, as in the founder of Buddhism;
10) Kalki a man-horse prophesied to appear when it is time to end the Kali Yuga.
Shiva - The Destroyer/Dissolver
Shiva, whose name means the auspicious one, is also known as Mahadeva. Shiva is commonly referred to as the destroyer, for this reason he is often feared and equally misunderstood.
As the third member of the Trimurti, Shiva represents the natural dissolution of form into the formless. This might be scary to some as to the body and mind it means death. However to a yogi, this aspect of Shiva is the promise of freedom, liberation or Moksha.
It is also worth considering that there is truly no such thing as destruction. Everything that dies feeds directly into the birth and creation of another thing. So Shiva is equally the precondition of creation. Thus the entire trinity feeds into each other and cannot really be considered separate from each other.
Like Vishnu, Shiva eventually became the central figure of another major movement. Shaivism, sits under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’. From the Shaivite perspective, Shiva performs all of the functions of the Hindu trinity and more.
Shiva's 5 Acts - Beyond the Hindu Trinity
Creation – Shiva plays a drum that sounds the rhythm of creation, to which every particle in the universe responds.
Preservation – Shiva also shows the abhya mudra. The gesture of fearlessness, of life lived fully, without holding back or being limited by fear.
Dissolution – In another of his hands, Shiva is often depicted holding a flame. That which eventually consumes everything created.
Concealment – The power of the creator to hide himself behind the forms. To temporarily fall into the dream of duality, purely for the joy of revelation.
Revelation, or grace – Being the essence of reality. And being that the fundamental impulse underlying this universe is to eventually known itself. Shiva’s final act is grace, the lifting of the illusion and the revelation of the divine essence.
- Students, scholars in the pursuit of knowledge, artists and craftsmen should worship Brahma and Saraswati for inspiration and creativity.
- Householders who want to continue their household duties and remain amidst the humdrum of life, should worship Vishnu.
- People who are spiritually inclined, willing to explore their inner worlds through meditation and tantra, turned away from the lures of the worldly life, drawn to secluded places and loneliness, willing to undergo hardships, uncertainty and social disapproval through self discipline and austerities should follow the path of Lord Shiva.