Of Sanskrit origin, the term Trimurti is composed of the roots tri, being ‘three’ and murti, being ‘form,’ referring to the three-deity nature of the Hindu Trinity (Dent 2012). The origins of the Trimurti are thought to stem from the Harappan Civilization of pre-Aryan India but appear in later writings and art (Chakravarti 1986). The associated deities of the Trimurti are Siva, Visnu, and Brahma in the Puranas, though there are antecedents to the Trimurti in Vedic texts and art forms that are still under speculation (Vitsaxis 1977). To understand the complex nature of the evolution and rise of the Trimurti, the origins of its deities and their development with the expansion of Aryan culture and religion must first be examined.
The intermingling and interchanging of deities and their respective names in the Vedas allowed a fluid base for the concept of the Trimurti to begin its bout. Rudra is the fearsome Vedic god of howling wind, who represents fear and destruction (Chakravarti 1), but also a generous healer in the Vedas (Flood 122). Although he is not regularly mentioned in Vedic literature, his character is one that is built upon as the Aryans encounter the Harappan Civilization (more generally the Indus-Valley Civilization). Included in Vedic literature are the Aranyakas, Brahamanas, Samhitas, and the Upanisads. The worship of a proto-Siva deity in the Indus-Valley Civilization predates the arrival of the Aryans in the Indus Valley. This proto-Siva is arguably shown on seals dating back to near 3000 BCE (Flood 122). A seal from Mohenjo-Daro pictures the figure sitting with the soles of its feet together, arms rested above its knees, and horned headdress (trait associated with Siva) (Nagar 58), and others include animals or people surrounding the proto-Siva as shown by Chakravarti (plate 1). Such is evident of the gradual integration of non-Aryan beliefs into Indo-Aryan religion, and the beginning of the non-Aryan proto-Siva being impressed upon Rudra (Chakravarti 22-23). Synonyms of Siva (yajurveda, bhavas, sarva) were attributed to Rudra in Vedic literature, and Siva was used as an adjective in the Vedas, ascribed to multiple gods, particularly to Rudra, where the first linking of Siva to the Vedic god Rudra can be observed. Siva was later incorporated into the Trimurti and became predominate in the Hindu tradition (Chakravarti 73).
In the Svetasvatara Upanisad, Rudra, among other deities (isvaras), is given the title of Great God (mahesvara), and is regarded as having the qualities of the Trimurti (creator, preserver, destroyer); Rudra is the precedent of the Trimurti that officially appears later in the Puranas. There were examples of a triad in the Vedas, one example being in the Rgveda, where Agni is revealed to have three forms (sun, lightning, fire) (Chakravarti 54). Three deities in unison can be noted, as there is a tendency to reduce many gods to three major ones, namely those of the Trimurti in later texts (Chakravarti 54). An example (Chakravarti 54) in the Rgveda is as follows: “May the Surya protect us from the sky, Vata from the air, Agni from the earthly regions” (RV X, viii. 1). In the Upanisads, Visnu is linked with Surya, the Vedic sun god (Chennakesavan 48). Evidence of this correlation is slim, however, it does offer a connection from the Vedic proto-triad.
Brahma remained as the creator in ancient texts when Siva and Visnu were extolled on a much larger scale (see Glucklich 148). The dualism between Siva and Visnu is an antecedent for Trimurti doctrine that emerges later in the Puranas (Chakravarti 54). Rival, but not evidently hostile, cults, the Saivas and the Vaisnavas worshiped Siva and Visnu respectively (Chakravarti 54, 174). It was likely in efforts to harmonize the aforementioned cults in the Gupta period (approx. 300-600 CE) that brought such doctrine into being (Basham 310).
The first legitimate accounts of the Trimurti as an entity in Hindu literature appear in the Puranas, which date prior to 200-300 BCE (Bharati 106). The Puranas are diverse in the ways they are written as they were compiled over time by many authors (Bharati 106), and are thence named for the deity that they regard (Bharati 128). Differing from Vedic literature, Puranas encourage worship of a single, all-encompassing deity that has dominion over all reality, even though they exalt the three deities of the Trimurti as well (Matchett 138). Constructed to encourage greater religious devotion and awareness (bhakti), the Puranas, with time, introduced new means of worship in Hindu society; pilgrimage (tirthayatras), alms (dana), and observances (vratas) began to replace certain Vedic rituals, shaping the common religious practices among the general majority of Hindus (Bharati 128). It is important to note that, in regards to dharma, the Vedas are considered authoritative over the Puranas, despite their significance among Hindus (Bharati 27). There are three groups (sattva, rajas, tamas) that the eighteen major Puranas are divided between, each devoted to a member of the Trimurti (Bharati). The rajas Puranas regard Brahma as a force maintaining equilibrium, capable of action. Visnu’s qualities of preservation and renewal are conveyed in the sattva Puranas, and Siva’s destructive nature is displayed in the tamas Puranas (Dallapiccola 2002).
The Trimurti is associated with the three gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas (Dallapiccola 2002; Sharma and Bharati 73). The guna to which Brahma correlates is rajas, as Visnu is to sattva and Siva is to tamas. Bharati (313) explains that gunas describe temperament or attributes. Brahma’s rajas guna is the quality of activity, the sattva guna is characteristic of Visnu’s stability and purity, and the rajas guna equates to the dark nature of Siva.
As Glucklich (148) notes, textual evidence for the roles of the Trimurti deities can be found in the Matsyapurana as well, which states, “Brahma creates the universe, Visnu fosters it, and at the end of the kalpa, Siva destroys it.” This further reinstates the central concept which the Trimurti endure. The significance of the Trimurti as creating, preserving, and destroying forces support the encouragement of worshiping a single figure that overshadows all reality (Matchett 138).
Sharma and Bharati (72) recall the poem, Kumarasambhava, of Kalidasa (approx. 400-500 CE) in which the creator, preserver and destroyer aspects of the Trimurti are regarded as being representative of birth, life and death, and morning, noon and night (see also Dallapiccola 2002).
An early story involving the Trimurti under its respective name is in the Devipurana. Mahadevi tells Visnu that the god Brahma will be born through his navel, and that Rudra will be born from between Brahma’s eyebrows (Mani 147). Brahma is to have the quality of activity (rajoguna), Rudra, darkness (tamasaguna), and Visnu is to be the preserver (sattva) of the world that Rudra will eventually destroy [Rudra here is homologous to Siva]. The Vamanapurana Mani (147-8) states “the Eternal Being is Brahma, Visnu, Siva.” Various stories in the Puranas involve all three Trimurti, who do not act as a unified deity, rather are portrayed more often as individualistic deities. A myth in the Lingapurana that involves Brahma, Siva and Vishnu also denote superiority in the triad as residing with Siva (Chakravarti 138-9). In this myth, Brahma and Visnu are in conflict over who is the rightful creator of the universe, when the sight of an expansive linga (phallus) that is aflame interrupts their quarrels. To locate the top of the immense ligna, Brahma turns himself into a swan, and flies off in search of it; to locate the bottom, Visnu takes the form of a boar and runs to search. They do not succeed in their attempt, as the linga was larger than they had thought it to be, and so they praise it. The linga is that of Siva, and so by praising it, they also bowed to him. Another example of Siva’s superiority over Brahma and Visnu in the triad is in the inscription on the Aug Chamnik that conveys Siva’s dominance over Brahma and Visnu, which stand with folded hands before him (Chakravarti 174).
Some scholars believe that a relief (raised sculpture), excavated from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan, detailing a single body with three heads, those of Siva (center), Visnu (proper right), and Brahma (proper left) is a depiction of the Trimurti (Chakravarti 56). Vitsaxis (1977) notes that although popular iconography of the three faces of Siva tend to have little differentiation from one another, in classical iconography, particularity in sculptures, there is a different expression on each of his three faces, possibly corresponding to his different attributes or revealing three different deities constituting the Trimurti. Another possible occurrence of Siva with Visnu and Brahma is depicted on a Huviskian coin (approx. 100-200 CE) where Siva wields his trident (trisula), and the symbolic weapons of Visnu (cakra: discus) and Indra (vajra: club) (Chakravarti 54, 148).
While art forms and the literature containing Trimurtic doctrine remain and continue to be consulted by Hindus today, the implication of the Trimurti is rather limited. Unlike the familiar example of Christianity, the Hindu Trinity did not gain momentum or significant influence in the Hindu tradition (Basham 310). The strong tendency towards polytheism among Hindus meant that praising three deities equally was an abstract form of worship, which ultimately undermined any wholesome worship of all three deities together as one (Basham 310).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Basham, A. L. (1988) The Wonder That Was India. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
Bharati, Dayanand (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Chakravarti, Mahadev (1986) The Concept of Rudra-Siva Through the Ages. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Chennakesavan, Sarasvati (1980) A Critical Study of Hinduism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Dallapiccola, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Dent, Susie (2012) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap.
Flood, Gavin 2004. “Saiva.” In The Hindu World, edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 119-139. Abingdon: Routledge.
Glucklich, Ariel (2008) Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hinnells, John R., and Eric J. Sharpe (1972) World Religions Education in Hinduism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press Limited.
Jamison, S. W., and M. Witzel. 1992. “Vedic Hinduism.” In Hinduism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (2015), edited by Will Sweetman, 258-350. Abingdon: Routledge.
Mani, Vettam (1975) Puranic Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Puranic Literature. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Matchett, Freda (2005) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Nagar, Shantila (1998) Indian Gods and Goddesses: Vol 1. The Early Deities from Chalcolithic to Beginning of Historical Period. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.
Sharma, Arvind, and Ray Bharati. 2000. “Chapter VI: The Hindu Trinity (Trimurti).” In Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction, 72-75. New York: Oxford.
Vitsaxis, Vassils G. (1977) Hindu Epics, Myths and Legends in Popular Illustrations. New Delhi: OUP.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
This article was written by: Hannah Bouma (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.