The nature of the Hindu god, one true god, the supreme spirit, called Brahman

LORD VISHNU AND SHIVA ART at Exotic India 9.7.

Lord Vishnu and Shiva @ Exotic India Art

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The “Trimūrti” ( त्रिमूर्तिः trimūrti, “three forms”) is a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are  personified as a triad of deities, typically Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer/transformer, though individual denominations may vary from that particular line-up. When all three deities of the Trimurti incarnate into a single avatar, the avatar is known as Dattatreya.

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Hindus believe in one true god, Brahman, but Brahman has many forms.

The nature of the Hindu god

Hindus believe that there is one true god, the supreme spirit, called Brahman. Brahman has many forms, pervades the whole universe, and is symbolised by the sacred syllable Om (or Aum).

Most Hindus believe that Brahman is present in every person as the eternal spirit or soul, called the atman. Brahman contains everything: creation and destruction, male and female, good and evil, movement and stillness.

There are three main aspects of Brahman.

These are expressed in the trimurti and are:

  • Brahma, the creator
  • Vishnu, the preserver
  • Shiva, the destroyer

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Evolution of Trimurti

The specific Hindu gods that combined to make the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) each have their own origins in Hindu mythology, scripture, and folklore. However, how they came together in a single iconographic representation is still a source of scholarly interest. According to scholarship, the origins of the Trimurti can be traced back to the the Rg Veda, where the earliest expression of god in three aspects is found. Here, the all-important element of fire is conceived in three forms: in the hearth, it is Agni; as lightning it is Vidyut; and in the form of the sun it is Surya. Later on in the Maitrayaniya Upanishad 4.5, it is reported that meditation upon the One reveals it to be embodied in a series of triadic entities, one of these being the triad of Gods Brahma, Rudra, and Vishnu.

By the time of the original composition of Hindu Epics (500-100 B.C.E.), Shiva and Vishnu had gained a place at the top of the Hindu pantheon. Within the Epics attempts were made to identify Shiva with Agni, the god of fire who is of utmost importance in the Vedas. For instance, in one passage in the Mahabharata the Brahmins claimed Agni to be Shiva. In regards to Vishnu, this god already occupied a place in the Vedic mythology,  occasionally being given supremacy as a supreme personal God. His famous appearance in the Bhagavadgita in the form of Krishna only reinforced this reputation. However, in the Epics, the three gods as modes of one greater entity plays almost no role. It is only in the appendix of this work (10660 ff) that the notion of Trimurti is introduced. However, Brahma is largely ignored, whereas Vishnu and Shiva are considered equal parts of an androgynous entity referred to as Hari-Hara, a duad which eclipses the triad in importance.

It was not until the arrival of the Puranas, a large corpus of mythical and historical Hindu texts, that the Trimuti became a standard doctrine. The Padma-Purana, a Vaishnava text, explains the origin of the three modalities of the one supreme Vishnu: “In order to form this world, the supreme spirit produced from his right side Brahma. In order to maintain the world, he created from his left side Vishnu. To destroy it he gave rise to Shiva from his middle. Some men worship Brahma, others Vishnu, and yet others Shiva. Since these three are one, the devout should draw no distinction between them.” This is the first explicit statement of the three gods’ essential oneness as constituents of the supreme principle. However, it should be noted that at no time was the trinity itself actually worshiped.

It has been suggested that the emergence of the Trimurti was perhaps a deliberate attempt to reconcile the major Hindu deities of the time into one universal Godhead in order to minimize the spiritual competition among devotees, and to promote unity and harmony. From this perspective, the Trimurti, like the Hindu deity Harihara, reflects the deep impetus in Hindu thought towards inclusion and syncretism. Until the creation of the trinity, Vishnu, Shiva, and to a lesser extent Brahma were recognized under varying names dependent upon the particular locality in which they were being worshiped. Eventually, they came to subsume the names and traits of deities with whom they shared a similar nature through the agency of popular poetry or art, among other mediums. For example, considering several of Vishnu’s alternative monikers, such as Vasudeva and Vaikuntha, an attempt may be made to identify Vishnu with Indra, another one of the Vedic gods. As these gods rose to preeminence within the popular traditions in various regions, their attributes became coordinate with the powers which had been attributed to Brahma, and they too came to represent the Supreme Personal Being in their own right. Therefore, the three deities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, were to represent a triple Godhead, as it manifests itself in the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe, respectively.

A representation of the Hindu god Brahmā art 9.7.

A representation of the Hindu god Brahmā

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Meaning and Significance

The Trimurti has been interpreted in many different ways, particularly in relation to cosmology. A widely accepted belief is that the three gods seen together represent earth, water, and fire. The earth is seen as the originator of all life and hence is regarded as Brahma. Water is seen as the sustainer of life and is represented as Vishnu. Fire consumes or transforms life and is therefore considered to be Shiva. Alternatively, the three members of the Trimurti are conceived to be analogous with the three planes of consciousness: On the spiritual plane, the spiritual element is represented by Brahma, the psychic element by Vishnu, and the physical element by Shiva. On the psychic plane, Brahma epitomizes intuitive and creative thought, Vishnu is intelligence, and Shiva represents emotion. On the physical plane, the sky is Brahma, the Sun is Vishnu and the Moon is Shiva. 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, represented by Brahma’s consort Saraswati, is the individual’s constant companion. The second phase of adulthood and householders (Grihastha Ashram) is represented by Vishnu. During this phase, the individual fulfills all religious and family obligations by becoming involved in generating wealth, which is then used to sustain the 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 the material world for an austere life dedicated to the pursuit of true knowledge. In ancient days, this typically marked the time when a householder, along with his wife, left his worldly belongings to live in a forest with only essential belongings, just like Lord Shiva. In the final phase (Sanyasa Ashram) the individual seeks merger with the Supreme power (Isvara). The three phases of life, then, just like the trimurti, culminate into a transcendent One, bolstering the idea that the three gods are in reality one and the same Isvara.

The philosopher Shankara (c. 788–820 C.E.) provided another cosmological interpretation of Trimurti. In his view, Shiva represents the Nirguna Brahman (or Brahman without features), Vishnu the Saguna Brahman (Brahman with features) and Brahma the Cosmic Mind. In more philosophical terms, Brahma is associated with Divinity’s Creative Ground of Being, while 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).

Trimurti Today

The concept of Trimurti is most strongly held in Smartism, a contemporary denomination of Hinduism. Smartas, who follow Advaita philosophy, believe that deities such as Vishnu or Shiva are various forms of one ultimate higher power (“Brahman”), which has no specific form, name, or features. The forms of the deity serve as a heuristic purpose in that they provide a physical form for the supreme divinity which is inconceivable. These conceivable forms of divinity allow Smarta followers to narrow their focus during worship and meditation, thereby assisting their spiritual progression toward the great, ineffable divinity.

Vaishnavism and Shaivism, however, believe respectively that Vishnu (and/or his avatars) and Shiva are the superior, personalized forms of god, with all other representations paling in comparison. Whether it be Shiva or Vishnu that they worship in personalized form, the one god is seen in both traditions to ultimately transcend all personal characteristics, essentially embodying the monistic essence of the universe like the classical conception of Brahman. Although Vishnu and Shiva as have each spawned their own monotheistic devotional tradition, Brahma still remains in relative obscurity.

Today Brahmā is almost totally ignored by Hindu devotees, while Vishnu and Shiva continue to be worshiped en masse. Modern India has but two temples dedicated exclusively to Brahma, in contrast to the thousands of temples dedicated to the other two deities in the Trinity. The most famous of the Brahma temples is located at Pushkar in the Rajasthan state. The other temple for Brahma is located in the town of Kumbakonam, (Thanjavur District) Tamil Nadu. Thus, Brahma is no longer as relevant as he once was in Hindu writing, as the focus upon other generative deities, such as Shakti, the Divine Mother has supplanted Brahma as the Source/Creator. As is the case with followers of Vishnu and Shiva who view their own God to be the embodiment of all three divine personas, Shakti worshipers believe the three deities emerge from the Divine Mother, and they are merely aspects of her nature.

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Source : New World Encyclopedia and Internet