What’s the meaning of Brahma Vishnu and Maheshwar in Hinduism
Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva is the Hindu trinity, also called the trimurti. The Supreme Spirit or Universal Truth, called Brahman, is represented in three forms, each corresponding to one cosmic function, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is the transformer or destroyer. Because Hinduism is a collection of different traditions and beliefs, scholars believe Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva was an attempt to reconcile the doctrine of Brahman with different approaches to the Divine. Of the three incarnations of Brahman, Shiva has a special place in the yogic traditions as he is considered the first yogi, or adiyogi. Shiva also symbolizes the balancing of awareness and bliss, and the calming effects of yoga practices in general.
Unity with Brahman – which is personified as the trimurti is the ultimate goal in yogic philosophy and practice. Today, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva as the trimurti is rarely worshiped. Instead, Hindus typically worship one of the three as the supreme deity, and consider the others as incarnations of their supreme god. For example, Vaishnavism holds that Vishnu is the supreme god, while Shaivism believes that Shiva is supreme. Brahma, in comparison, has relatively few devotees as the supreme deity.
In ancient texts, the three gods symbolize earth, water and fire:
- Brahma represents earth. He is the originating power and creator of all life. One story claims he is the son of Brahman, while another says he created himself from water and seed.
- Vishnu represents water, which symbolizes his role as the sustainer of life. He is the protector side of Brahman, known for upholding goodness and creation, and is identified with his incarnations — Krishna and Rama.
- Shiva represents fire and is identified as the destructive power of the trimurti. However, he is also viewed as a positive force that cleanses and destroys evil, paving the way for new creation and a fresh start.
Vedas: In the Vedas we do not find any reference to the concept of Trinity. During the Rigvedic period, Vishnu was a minor solar deity, while Shiva was almost unknown. The Rigvedic hymns speak of Rudra, a fierce god of the skies and thunder, father of Maruts, who was invoked mostly as the healer with wondrous medicines. But we are not sure whether he was in any way connected with the Shiva of later times. The triple deities (Trimurthis) do exist in space and time, although it is difficult to explain the nature of their existence, as well as their true potentialities since they belong to the very highest realms of creation. In the human beings they exist beyond the mind as potentialities of the divinities of the super-mind or the divine mind, who are envisioned only by a handful of adept yogis in deep meditation. Seemingly there is nothing physical about them although in their ignorance people tend to consider them human beings with flesh and blood. From the experiences of adept yogis and self-realized souls, we understand that although the triple deities remain in their ethereal aspect as pure energies and consciousness with dimensions beyond our imagination and comprehension, they can assume physical form when they deem fit, appear anywhere in the universe at will, and manifest themselves in whatever way they choose. They are God’s most pleasing and benevolent aspects in the manifested creation, personifying His dynamic functions. They represent His will in cognizable forms with which the human mind can interact and relate well.
The cycle of nature: In reality they are the cycle of life. In creating anything, one needs to destroy something and to protect the creation likewise. It might happen that one has to destroy to create something new. If one destroys, in reality eventually something new will be created. The cycle is always inter bonded with each other and human life needs to abide by this fact. So we are brought to the concept of the rotating cycle of nature. Everything will cease to exist one day but the trinity will remain. The god existing in the trinity or three persons (immeasurable planes) appear at the same time in three various roles. The difference lies in the appearances which become part of the majestic or magnificent illusion that the god entwines all around humankind.
Brahma: In the Vedas, Brahma is the physical aspect (Viraj) of Isvara and enjoys a unique place as the highest in the pantheon. The Vedic hymns do not give the same importance to Vishnu and Shiva, who became prominent in the later Vedic period. In the Vedas, Brahma is the father of gods, humans and demons. In importance, he is next only to Brahman or his higher aspects namely Isvara and Hiranyagarbha. He is also the teacher and ruler of all beings. Hence, he is known as Brahma Prajapati. According to the Vedas after manifesting from Isvara, he created the worlds and beings with his mind powers. The Puranas present a slightly different version. They describe that in the beginning of creation he emerged from the navel of Vishnu, sitting inside a lotus flower and holding the Vedas in his hands. In the iconography, he is depicted as having four heads and four arms. In one hand, he holds the Vedas, in the second a rosary, in the third a lotus flower and in the fourth a ritual ladle. The swan is considered his vehicle.
Vishnu: Lord Vishnu is the preserver. He upholds the worlds by upholding Dharma and ensuring the order and regularity of the worlds. In the Vedas, he is described as one of the solar deities (Adityas), the god whose three strides covered the entire creation. The Puranas portray him as the god of love and compassion who responds to the cries of his devotees and rescues them from the ocean of suffering. He goes by numerous names. From time to time he incarnates upon earth to restore order and destroy evil. In the sacred literature, he is depicted as the god who is blue in color and holds a disc in one hand, a conch shell in the second, a mace in the third and a lotus flower in the fourth. Garuda, the divine eagle is his vehicle. Followers of Vaishnavism revere him as Brahman himself.
Shiva: Lord Shiva is the destroyer. He is portrayed in the Puranas and the Upanishads as the God of renewal as well as destroyer, who rules the body as breath. He is also the revealer and concealer of spiritual knowledge from people and grants them liberation according to their merit. At the end of the Time Cycle, he destroys the worlds and dissolves them. Shiva was probably worshipped in pre-Vedic cultures and gained prominence due to his personal appeal as the god of healing, sickness and death. Parvathi is his consort and he lives on the snowy mountain of Kailash in the Himalayas with his children, Ganesha and Kumara and his entourage of devotees, ascetics, and a large army of ferocious warriors and ganas. Nandi, the sacred bull is his vehicle.
Shaktis: Apart from having distinguishing features and unique functions, each of the Trinity gods has their own Shaktis, who are considered aspects of Mother Goddess or Universal Mother (Devi, Mata or Mahashakti). Goddess Saraswathi is the consort of Lord Brahma. She is the goddess of knowledge and learning and thereby compliments the functions of Brahma. Lakshmi, the goddess of unsurpassed beauty, wealth and prosperity, is the consort of Vishnu. Parvathi, who is also known as Uma, Gauri and several other names is the consort of Shiva. The River goddess, Ganga, who is her sister, adores his head. These shaktis are considered the triple aspects of the Primal Mother or Prakriti. They also have numerous other manifestations and associate forms and are worshipped individually as well as in association with their lords.
The symbolism: Symbolically, the three gods represent various things at various levels. They exist both within creation and outside of it. They exist in us also as consciousness, energy, will power, thoughts, emotions and qualities. The whole universe is made of the three powers and sustained by the three powers. Hence, the triple gods are found in their subtle states in almost every object and aspect of the universe. The symbolism is strictly limited to their functional aspects only as part of the general Hindu pantheon and popular Hinduism, but not to their highest aspect as Isvara and his numerous manifestations, which form part of the sectarian traditions of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. In the microcosm of an individual, Brahma is the mind and ego, Vishnu intelligence, and Shiva the body. Brahma is the mental power of the person, Vishnu spiritual power and Shiva physical power. In any action, Brahma is the intention, Vishnu the motivating power, and Shiva resistance. In life Brahma is birth, Vishnu life and Shiva Death. Among the organs, Brahma is speech, Vishnu the heart and Shiva the breath. Within the mind, Brahma represents thoughts and ideas, Vishnu reason and purpose and Shiva feelings and emotions. In any endeavour or sacrifice Brahma is the introductory part, Vishnu the middle part and Siva the concluding part. In the flow of life Brahma is the forward movement, Vishnu the balancing movement and Shiva the opposing movement. In the cosmos Brahma is the sky, Vishnu the Sun and Siva the moon. In the regions, Brahma is the upper region, Vishnu the middle region and Siva the lower region. In the day, Brahma is morning sun, Vishnu the daylight and Siva the twilight. Among directions, Brahma is East, Siva the West and Vishnu the region in between. In the Vedic Pantheon, Brahma is Prajapathi, Vishnu is Aditya and Shiva is Rudra. In the triple worlds Brahma is the lord of Vedic gods, Vishnu the lord of human beings and celestial beings and Shiva the lord of animals and subterranean worlds. Of the Gunas or modes of Nature, Brahma represents Rajas, Vishnu Sattva and Shiva Tamas. Among the paths of salvation, Brahma is the path of selfless action (karma yoga), Vishnu the path of knowledge (jnana yoga), and Shiva the path of renunciation (sanyasa yoga). Of the seasons, Brahma is Spring, Vishnu Summer and Shiva Autumn and Winter. Among the Vedas, Brahma is the Rigveda, Vishnu Samaveda and Shiva Atharvaveda.
The Trinity and the three phases of human life: In the life of an individual, the Trinity play an important role. They preside over the three phases of human life namely childhood, adulthood and middle age, just as they do in creation also. Brahma represents the first phase, Vishnu the second phase, Shiva the third phase and Brahman or Isvara the fourth phase. In the Vedic tradition, the four phases are called ashrmas (resting places) and the duties associated with them are collectively known as Dharma. Since the duties varied from caste to caste, the practice was known as Varnashrama Dharma. It is no more practiced in contemporary Hinduism, except in rare cases, but in the past it formed the basis of the Hindu way of life. The correlation of the four deities with the four phases of human life is important, because by knowing it people can invoke the presiding deity of each phase for achieving progress in life. The hidden symbolism of the triple gods in the Varnashrama Dharma is explained below.
Childhood, Brahmacharya: In Vedic society, this phase began with the initiation of children into education, and continued until their marriage. The phase was known as Brahmacharya, meaning the practice of Brahmahood, or more specifically celibacy. During this phase, students lived in the households of their teachers (gurukuls), and mastered the knowledge of the scriptures under their guidance. The teacher symbolized Brahma, the divine teacher in human form (Acharya devobhava), who like Brahma acted as the sole source of all Vedic knowledge.
Adulthood, life as a householder or grihasta: When the students completed their education, they returned home and joined as apprentices (snataka) under their own fathers or under an experienced priest. Their lives as householders (grihasta) began when they married and took up their family profession and householder duties. Symbolically, this phase is represented by Vishnu. Just as Vishnu preservers the worlds and ensures the order and regularity of the worlds through his sacrifices, a householder preserves his family and its orderly progression to the next generation by performing his obligatory duties such as the daily sacrifices and offerings to ancestors.
Middle age, or the age of reclusive life: Varnashrama Dharma suggests that when a householder discharges his duties and obligations to his family and society, he may retire from active duty into forests or a secluded place and live like a hermit or a recluse to study the scriptures, practice spirituality and prepare for liberation. In the Vedic tradition, it is called vanaprastha, going to the forests. In contemporary world, we may call it the post retirement phase. People no more go to the forests or retire entirely from worldly life. They may at the most start taking interest in spiritual subjects, listen to discourses, read religious literature, go to temples or sacred places, join spiritual organizations and spend time in communes. Symbolically the phase is represented by Shiva, the destroyer. Just as Shiva destroys and dissolves the worlds, in this phase a person has to destroy his selfish desires, relationships, old habits and attachments to free himself from the bonds of the world and prepare for liberation. For people who are passing through this phase, Shiva is the best role model. He has children, a wife, a friend as Ganga, several dependents and many responsibilities. Yet, occasionally he also withdraws into himself and goes into meditation.
Old age, the age of renunciation or sanyasa: The last phase of human life in Hindu tradition is sanyasashrama, or life as a renunciant. It began when a person gave up worldly life, cut asunder his family and social bonds including his name and family name, and renounced sheltered life and the use of fire including for cooking. From then on he was expected to live an uncharted and unplanned life, without a shelter, subsisting on meagre food and gradually subjecting his body to rigorous austerities and emaciation. Symbolically this phase represents Isvara Himself, the transcendental universal Self, who is beyond all attachments, illusion and objectivity and in whom everything resolves itself into a unified state of perfect freedom and harmony. For the renunciant, faith in God is the only support. He must live without expectations, with complete faith in God, without seeking and striving, accepting what is given to him by providence or by circumstances. As he practices Yoga and purifies his mind and body, he becomes one with God himself, without any duality.
God in his infinite wisdom provides innumerable paths to his devotees and gives them immense freedom to exercise their free will in accordance with their inner nature. In such matters it is always wiser to follow ones own inclinations and inner promptings of the soul rather than the advice of others.