2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Divinities

From left, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
From left, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva

In some schools of Hinduism, such as the Smarta or Advaita traditions, the Trimurti (Sanskrit: त्रिमूर्ति) (also called the Hindu trinity) is a concept that holds that God has three aspects, which are only different forms of the same one God. The three aspects of God, or "Parabrahman," or God's personae are as Brahma (the Source/Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver/Indwelling-life) and Shiva (the Transformer -Destroyer/Creator).

Though all the three trimurti's are males, the hidden symbolism emphasizing female energy is not difficult to understand. Brahma was able to create because his consort is Sarasvati, the goddess of speech and learning. Similarly Vishnu's consort Lakshmi, is the Goddess of beauty and fortune making it possible for him to preserve the universe; and Durga, is the consort of Siva.

The Trimurti itself is conceived of as a deity and artistically represented as a three-faced human figure. Brahma is no longer as relevant as He once was in Hindu writing; some would say that focus on the aspect of the all-in-one Devi or of Shakti, the Divine Mother or God's Power personified, has replaced focus on the Source/Creator as Brahma.

According to the Trimurti belief, these three personae of God are simply different aspects of the one and the same God. In this manner, such beliefs are similar to some interpretations of the Christian Trinity such as Sabellianism.

Views of Trimurti within Hinduism


Trimurti is a strongly held tenet in the denomination of Smartism and Ayyavazhi, but not popularly accepted by other denominations of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism.


Vaishnavism generally does not accept the Trimurti concept. For example, the Dvaita school holds Vishnu alone to be the supreme God and Shiva as subordinate to Vishnu and interpret the Puranas differently. For example, Vijayindra Tîrtha, a Dvaita scholar interprets the 18 puranas differently. He interprets that the Vaishnavite puranas as satvic and Shaivite puranas as tamasic and that only satvic puranas are considered to be authorative.

In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Shiva is considered the best of devotee of Vishnu (vaisnavanam yatha sambhu) and also an aspect of Vishnu but not the same as Vishnu. In this view, Shiva is also viewed as subservient to lord Vishnu, although it is still understood that he is above the category of an ordinary jiva or living entity. Brahma, a deva is considered by Gaudiya Vaishnavites to be the highest of the jivas in one interpretation.The example of milk and yogurt is used to describe their difference in Brahma Samhita. For example, Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON commented that Śiva is not actually like a living entity, but he is not Vishnu and his position is somewhere between Vishnu and Brahmā, the living entity. Shiva, considered to be like yogurt but yogurt is nothing but transformed milk; nonetheless, yogurt cannot be accepted as milk. Similarly, Lord Śiva holds almost all the powers of Lord Vishnu and he is also above the qualities of the living entity, but he is not exactly like Vishnu, just as yogurt, although transformed milk, is not exactly like milk.

However, other Vaishnavite followers, such as Swaminarayan, founder of the Hindu Swaminarayan sect, differ and hold that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God. Notably, the Swaminarayan view is a minority view among Vaishnavites.


Saivites, similarly hold a similar view with Vishnu. As the following footnoted web site states, Lord Shiva perfoms five acts of creation, sustenance, reduction, illusioning and blessing. The holy masters for these five activities are Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshwara, Sadashiva respectively. Of these the later three are nothing but the forms of the Supreme Shiva called Parasiva. Saivites thus believe that Lord Shiva is the Supreme, who assumes various critical roles and assumes appropriate names and forms, and also stands transcending all these.


An art depiction of the Trimurti in Hoysaleswara temple
An art depiction of the Trimurti in Hoysaleswara temple

Swami Sivananda, in his book, All about Hinduism, noted that "Brahma represents the creative aspect; Vishnu, the preservative aspect; and Shiva, the destructive aspect of Paramatman. These functions are akin to wearing different garbs on different occasions. For example, when you do the function of a judge, you put on one kind of dress. At home you wear another kind of dress. When you do worship in the temple, you wear another kind of dress. You exhibit different kinds of temperament on different occasions. Even so, the Lord does the function of creation when He is associated with Rajas Guna, and He is called Brahma. He preserves the world when He is associated with Sattva Guna, and He is called Vishnu. He destroys the world when He is associated with Tamas Guna, and He is called Shiva or Rudra."

A widely accepted belief is that it represents earth, water, and fire. The earth, or Brahma, is seen as the originator of all life and hence is regarded as the Creator. Water is the sustainer of life and hence is the Preserver and is represented as Vishnu. Fire transforms or consumes life and hence is the Destroyer and is represented as Shiva.

The Trimurti can also represent three individual forms on the different planes of consciousness. On the spiritual plane, the spiritual element is represented by Brahma, the mental/psychic element by Vishnu, and the physiological element by Shiva. On the mental/psychic plane, Brahma is the intuitive and creative thought, Vishnu is intelligence, and Shiva stands for emotions and feelings. The Sky as Brahma, the Sun as Vishnu and the Moon as Shiva form the earthly/physiological plane. Another representation by Adi Shankara, Shiva represents the Nirguna Brahman, Vishnu represents the Saguna Brahman and Brahma the Cosmic Mind.

Various phases of an individual’s life are said to be represented by the Trimurti. The first of these phases, that of celibacy and studentship, ( Brahmacharya Ashram) – is represented by Brahma. During this phase, knowledge is the individual’s constant companion. Knowledge, in this conception, is represented by Goddess Saraswati, who is said to be the consort of Brahma. The second phase of adulthood and household ( Grihastha Ashram) is represented by Vishnu. During this phase, the individual fulfils all religious and family obligations by involving oneself in generating wealth, which one uses to sustain oneself and one’s family. During this phase wealth is the individual’s companion and is represented by Vishnu’s consort, Goddess Lakshmi. The third phase is that of old age ( Vanaprastha Ashram) and is represented by Shiva. This phase marks the renunciation of one’s worldly life for a life void of material pleasures, dedicated to the pursuit of true knowledge. In ancient days, this typically marked the time when a householder, along with his wife, left their worldly belongings to spend their life in a forest, just like Lord Shiva leads a homeless life with only the essential belongings. The final phase ( Sanyasa Ashram) the individual seeks to merge oneself with the Supreme power ( Ishwara). One completes the process of renunciation and he along with his wife lead a life completely untouched by any attachments. The only occupation becomes deep meditation, leading to the individual becoming Ishwara Himself, with his wife as Ishwara’s consort becoming the Universal Mother. The three phases of life, represented by the Trinity thus culminates into One underlining the fact that the three are in reality one and the same Ishwara.

In philosophical terms, Brahma is said to be associated with Divinity's Creative Ground of Being, Vishnu is said to be associated with Divinity's Emanated Idea (Logos, Wisdom, or Word), and Shiva is said to be associated with Divinity's Transformative Energy (Flame, Breath, or Spirit).

Evolution of Theology on the Hindu Trinity

The definite settlement of the caste system and the Brahmanical supremacy must probably be assigned to somewhere about the close of the Brahmanas period. Division in their own ranks was hardly favorable to the aspirations of the priests at such a time; and the want of a distinct formula of belief adapted to the general drift of theological speculation, to which they could all rally, was probably felt the more acutely, the more determined a resistance the military class was likely to oppose to their claims. Side by side with the conception of the Brahman, the universal spiritual principle, with which speculative thought had already become deeply imbued, the notion of a Supreme Personal Being, the author of the material creation, had come to be considered by many as a necessary complement of the pantheistic doctrine. But, owing perhaps to his polytheistic associations and the attributive nature of his name, the person of Prajapati seems to have been thought but insufficiently adapted to represent this abstract idea. The expedient resorted to for solving the difficulty was as ingenious as it was characteristic of the Brahmanical aspirations. In the same way as the abstract denomination of sacerdotalism, the neuter brahman, had come to express the divine essence, so the old designation of the individual priest, the masculine term brahma, was raised to denote the supreme personal deity which was to take the place and attributes of the Prajapati of the Brahmanas and Upanishads.

However the new dogma may have answered the purposes of speculative minds, it was not one in which the people generally were likely to have been much concerned; an abstract, colorless deity like Brahman could awake no sympathies in the hearts of those accustomed to worship gods of flesh and blood. Indeed, ever since the symbolical worship of nature had undergone a process of disintegration under the influence of metaphysical speculation, the real belief of the great body of the people had probably become more and more distinct from that of the priesthood. In different localities the principal share of their affection may have been bestowed on one or another of the old gods who was thereby raised to the dignity of chief deity; or new forms and objects of belief may have sprung up with the intellectual growth of the people.

In some cases even the worship of the indigenous population could hardly have remained without exercising some influence in modifying the belief of the Aryan race. In this way a number of local deities would grow up, more or less distinct in name and characteristics from the gods of the Vedic pantheon. There is, indeed, sufficient evidence to show that, at a time when, after centuries of theological speculations, some little insight into the life and thought of the people is afforded by the literature handed down to us, such a diversity of worship did exist. Under these circumstances the policy which seems to have suggested itself to the priesthood, anxious to retain a firm hold in the minds of the people, was to recognize and incorporate into their system some of the most prominent objects of popular devotion, and thereby to establish a kind of creed for the whole community - subject to the Brahmanical law.

At the time of the original composition of the great epics two such deities, Shiva or Mahadeva (the great god) and Vishnu, seem to have been already admitted into the Brahmanical system, where they have ever since retained their place; and from the manner in which they are represented in those works, it would, indeed, appear that both, and especially the former, enjoyed an extensive worship. As several synonyms are attributed to each of them, it is not improbable that in some of these we have to recognize special names under which the people in different localities worshipped these gods, or deities of a similar nature which, by the agency of popular poetry, or in some other way, came to be combined with them. The places assigned to them in the pantheistic system were coordinate with that of Brahma; the three deities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, were to represent a triple impersonation of the divinity, as manifesting itself respectively in the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe.

It is worthy of note that when the Vedic triad of Soma, Agni and Vayu was still recognized, attempts are made to identify Shiva with Agni,- in one passage in the Mahabharata it is stated that the Brahmins said that Agni was Shiva.

Although such attempts at an identification of the two gods remained isolated, they would at least seem to point to the fact that, in adapting their speculations to the actual state of popular worship, the Brahmans kept the older triad distinctly in view, and by means of it endeavoured to bring their new structure into harmony with the ancient Vedic belief.

As regards Vishnu, this god occupies already a place in the Vedic mythology, though by no means one of such prominence as would entitle him to that degree of exaltation implied in his character as one of the three hypostases of the divinity. This belief is not universally held as there are many Vedic verses that utter the oppositive view, i.e., Vishnu's supremacy as a personal supreme God. Moreover, although in his general nature, as a benevolent, genial being, the Vedic god corresponds on the whole to the later Vishnu, the preserver of the world, the latter exhibits many important features for which we look in vain in his prototype, and which most likely resulted from sectarian worship or from an amalgamation with local deities. In one or two of them, such as his names Vasudeva and Vaikuntha, an attempt may again be traced to identify Vishnu with Indra, who, as we have seen, was one of the Vedic triad of gods. The characteristic feature of the elder Vishnu is his measuring the world with his three strides, which are explained as denoting either the three stations of the sun at the time of rising, culminating and setting, or the triple manifestation of the luminous element, as the fire on earth, the lightning in the atmosphere and the sun in the heavens. This three strides corresponds with the events that took place when Vishnu incarnated as Vamana.

The male nature of the triad was supposed to require to be supplemented by each of the three gods being associated with a female energy ( Shakti). It was symbolized that Brahma was able to create because his consort is Sarasvati, the goddess of speech and learning. Similarly Vishnu's consort Sri or Lakshmi, is the Goddess of beauty, fortune making it possible for him to preserve the universe; and Parvati, the daughter of Himavat, the god of the Himalaya mountain, who has a variety of other names, such as Kali (the black one), Durga (the inaccessible one), Mahadevi (the great goddess) is the consort of Siva. On the other hand, it is not improbable that Parvati, enjoyed already a somewhat extensive worship of her own, and that there may thus have been good reason for assigning to her a prominent place in the Brahmanical system.

A compromise was thus effected between the esoteric doctrine of the metaphysical and some of the most prevalent forms of popular worship, resulting in what was henceforth to constitute the orthodox system of belief of the Brahmanical community. Yet the Vedic pantheon could not be altogether discarded, forming part and parcel, as it did, of that sacred revelation ( śruti), which was looked upon as the divine source of all religious and social law, and being, moreover, the foundation of the sacrificial ceremonial on which the priestly authority so largely depended.

The existence of the old gods is, therefore, likewise recognized, but recognized in a very different way from that of the triple "revelation" of divinity. For while the triad represents the immediate manifestation of the eternal, infinite soul while it constitutes, in fact, the Parabrahman itself in its active relation to mundane and seemingly material occurrences, the old traditional gods are of this world, are individual spirits or portions of the Brahma-like men and other creatures, only higher in degree.

To them an intermediate sphere, the heaven of Indra (the svarloka or svarga), is assigned to which man may raise himself by fulfilling the holy ordinances; but they are subject to the same laws of being; they, like men, are liable to be born again in some lower state, and, therefore, like them, yearn for emancipation from the necessity of future individual existence. It is a sacred duty of man to worship these superior beings by invocations and sacrificial observances, as it is to honour the pitris (the fathers), the spirits of the departed ancestors.

Other uses

Trimurti can also refer to the trinity of Carnatic music, that is, Tyagaraja, Muttusvami Dikshitar and Syama Sastry.

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