What do the three Hindu gods represent?
By Amy Underdown, London, UK
If you were to search into Google ‘how many Hindu gods are there?’, the top answer is 33 million. In truth, nobody knows the exact number of Hindu deities, simply because they are represented in everything we know and do. But one fact we are sure of is that Hindus typically worship the Trimurti. With the literal translation from Sanskrit meaning ‘three forms’, the Trimurti is the collective name of the Hindu Trinity, made up of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Whilst there are distinct preferences in various communities for particular deities, the trinity is a consistently worshipped and recognised grouping of deities in Hindu practice.
Like any good trinity, these three gods all represent something very different in order to create universal balance.
Brahma = the creator of the universe
Vishnu = the preserver of the universe
Shiva = the destroyer of the universe
Brahma - Creator
Brahma is the first god in the Trimurti, or triumvirate of Hindu gods. Not to be confused with Brahman, Brahma was responsible for the creation of the universe, and is therefore also considered as the god of knowledge alongside this feat. It would be easy to think that his knowledgeable nature comes from his four heads and thus four brains. Instead, Brahma’s heads have several origin stories, some flattering and others less so. One of the main explanations for this depiction is that the four heads represent the four Vedas (ancient Hindu texts.) Another story suggests they were sprouted in order to have a permanent view of his womanly creation, Shatarupa, who went significantly out of her way to avoid his immovable gaze. In fact, she turned into every animal on earth, only for Brahma to do the same.
This latter story offers one explanation as to how our many animal species came to be, but it is also one suggestion as to why Brahma is worshipped significantly less than Vishnu and Shiva. Others suggest that this decline is mostly in relation to the fact that Brahma’s role and power are over, having fulfilled his expectation of creating the universe. As you will find out later, Shiva is responsible for any re-creation that needs doing, quite frankly leaving Brahma out of a job!
Nevertheless, there are still a few temples that are dedicated solely to Brahma. Though these are far less common than the temples for his counterparts, his inclusion in the triumvirate and his recognition as the creator are not something to be put to one side.
Alongside his four heads and hands, Brahma is often depicted through art as having a red or golden complexion, sporting a beard and seated on a lotus. Sometimes he is seen with his consort and wife, Saraswati, who represents both creative energies and knowledge.
Vishnu is the god in the trinity with the greatest following, with it being quite common for Hindu households to have several Vishnu statues (murti.) Vishnu’s intense following is in part due to his powers being constructive, rather than focussed on destruction. Vishnu represents eternal life, reflected in his dominant role of sustaining and preserving the universe as a whole. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Hindu households are drawn to Vishnu murti, especially as he is said to mediate all disputes between humans, deities and demons.
Vishnu’s greatest worshippers – called Vaishnava – profess that Vishnu is the greatest of the triumvirate. This authority is represented through Vishnu’s four human arms, with each hand holding an item that expresses his powers and responsibilities. The conch, the chakra, the lotus flower and the mace are all indicative of Vishnu’s unrivalled strength and wholesome authority.
In terms of depiction, Vishnu is often seen alongside others, such as resting on the serpent god, Sheshnaag, who has one thousand heads, or alongside his consort Lakshmi. Most commonly portrayed in brass, Vishnu and Lakshmi are seen as a fitting pair as Vishnu oversees good governance of the world, which goes hand in hand with Lakshmi’s role as the goddess of wealth. One of Vishnu’s most recognisable affiliations, however, is with the sun or with light in general. This is confusing for some, as in the earliest texts Vishnu is not included amongst the seven solar gods. However, in later texts, he is actually presented as their leader.
Bringing a Vishnu statue into the home is therefore a very popular choice, as a desire for peace, prosperity and happiness are naturally things many individuals strive for through their religious practices.
Equipped and tasked with the power of universal destruction, Shiva instinctively emanates power. It may seem counterintuitive that a deity would exist in order to destroy the creations of others, but Shiva’s powers are not arbitrary and are instead intended to make way for new and positive creations. This power of recreation, alongside his power of destruction, means many consider him to represent both good and evil. It would appear that Shiva is therefore the embodiment of contradictions, and you would be right to think as much. Even within his own personality, Shiva sometimes acts as a hedonist and yet other times will abandon all earthly pleasures. This magnitude of power and contradiction is something that must be considered when choosing where to place a Shiva statue in order to perfect the balance of energies and vibrations. It’s therefore best to bring a Shiva statue into the home, rather than the workplace (where a Ganesha is preferable!).
As with many Hindu gods, Shiva is represented in lots of varying forms and incarnations. One of his most recognisable depictions is in his human form, shown with blue or purple skin, reputedly caused by his drinking of poison in order to rescue to protect the world from perishing. His other recognisable features include his powerful third eye, trident, cobra necklace and the vibhuti, which are white lines across the forehead. Other representations show Shiva as an androgynous being, split cleanly down the middle into himself and an incarnation of his wife Parvati, representing the unity of opposites.
Amongst all his other day jobs, Shiva is also recognised as the Lord of the Dance, so he really does have quite the respectable CV. However, this isn’t quite Saturday Night Fever style – in true Shiva fashion his most important dance, the Tandav, is known as the cosmic dance of death, the performance of which would destroy the universe. Dancing is a very important facet of Hindu life, so it is a key part of Shiva’s depiction. This is reflected in the statues of Shiva, and it again encourages the true understanding of which kind of statue an individual would want to bring into the home. A dancing Shiva statue is representative of high energy, in contrast with the meditating Shiva who is naturally is composed of softer, yet still remarkably strong, energies.
One other popular depiction of Shiva is the Harihara or Shankaranarayana, statues which combine Shiva and Vishnu into a single body. This bringing together of two powerful gods represents a coming together of two strong schools of thought, showing unity through art and recognising the indisputable authority of both gods. Not only this, but the Harihara or Shankaranarayana are emblematic of the stronger focus on the second and third gods in the Trimurti, as opposed to Brahma. Whilst each of the three gods are crucial to the balance of the universe in its various ages, the tendency towards Shiva and Vishnu reflects the popular nature of these gods in modern Hinduism.