The Trimurti of the three Hindu Gods: Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva (left to right) at Ellora Caves
|The Hindu Trinity|
The Trimurti (English: ‘three forms’; Sanskrit: त्रिमूर्ति trimūrti) is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahmā the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Śhiva the destroyer or transformer," These three deities have been called "the Hindu triad" or the "Great Trinity", often addressed as "Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara."
One type of depiction for the Trimurti shows three heads on one neck, and often even three faces on one head, each looking in a different direction.
Evolution of the concept
The Puranic period (c. CE 300-1200) saw the rise of post-Vedic religion and the evolution of what R. C. Majumdar calls "synthetic Hinduism."
This period had no homogeneity, and included orthodox Brahmanism in the form of remnants of older Vedic faith traditions, along with different sectarian religions, notably Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism that were within the orthodox fold yet still formed distinct entities. One of the important traits of this period is a spirit of harmony between orthodox and sectarian forms. Regarding this spirit of reconciliation, R. C. Majumdar says that:
Its most notable expression is to be found in the theological conception of the Trimūrti, i.e., the manifestation of the supreme God in three forms of Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva.... But the attempt cannot be regarded as a great success, for Brahmā never gained an ascendancy comparable to that of Śiva or Viṣṇu, and the different sects often conceived the Trimūrti as really the three manifestations of their own sectarian god, whom they regarded as Brahman or Absolute.
Maurice Winternitz notes that there are very few places in Indian literature where the Trimurti is mentioned. The identification of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma as one being is strongly emphasized in the Kūrma Purāṇa, where in 1.6 Brahman is worshipped as Trimurti; 1.9 especially inculcates the unity of the three gods, and 1.26 relates to the same theme.
Historian A. L. Basham explains the background of the trimurti as follows, noting Western interest in the idea of trinity:
Early western students of Hinduism were impressed by the parallel between the Hindu trinity and that of Christianity. In fact the parallel is not very close, and the Hindu trinity, unlike the Holy Trinity of Christianity, never really "caught on". All Hindu trinitarianism tended to favor one god of the three; thus, from the context it is clear that Kālidāsa's hymn to the Trimūrti is really addressed to Brahmā, here looked on as the high god. The Trimūrti was in fact an artificial growth, and had little real influence.
Freda Matchett characterizes the Trimurti system as one of "several frameworks into which various divine figures can be fitted at different levels."
Views within Hinduism
Vaishnavism generally does not accept the Trimurti concept. For example, the Dvaita school holds Vishnu alone to be the supreme God, with Shiva subordinate, and interprets 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 authoritative.
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a leading scholar of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, also distinguishes between Vishnu and Shiva, and states: "Similarly, by expanding Himself as Lord Shiva, the Supreme Lord is engaged when there is a need to annihilate the universe. Lord Shiva, in association with maya, has many forms, which are generally numbered at eleven. Lord Shiva is not one of the living entities; he is, more or less, Krishna Himself. The example of milk and yogurt is often given in this regard – yogurt is a preparation of milk, but still yogurt cannot be used as milk. Similarly, Lord Shiva is an expansion of Krishna, but he cannot act as Krishna... The essential difference is that Lord Shiva has a connection with material nature, but Vishnu or Lord Krishna has nothing to do with material nature."
Unlike most other Vaishnavite schools such as those of Ramanuja, Madhva and Chaitanya, Swaminarayan, guru of the Hindu Swaminarayan sects (including BAPS),did not differentiate between Vishnu and Shiva; Swaminarayan, notably differs from practically all Vaishnavite schools in holding that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God.; see also, verses 47, and 84 of Shikshapatri, a key scripture to all followers of the Swaminarayan faith.; Moreover, Swaminarayan followed a Smarta approach (see more detail on the Smarta view below) by instructing his followers to venerate all five deities of the Panchayatana puja with equal reverence.
Shaivites hold that, according to Shaiva Agama, Lord Shiva performs five actions - creation, preservation, dissolution, concealing grace, and revealing grace. Each of the five actions corresponds to a name and form of Shiva. Respectively, these first three actions are associated with Shiva as Sadyojata (akin to Brahma), Vamadeva (akin to Vishnu), Aghora (akin to Rudra). Thus, Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra are not Deities different from Shiva, but rather are forms of Shiva. As Brahma/Sadyojata, Shiva creates. As Vishnu/Vamadeva, Shiva preserves. As Rudra/Aghora, he dissolves. This shatters the commonly-held false idea that Shiva is the "God of destruction." To Shaivites Shiva is God and performs all actions, of which destruction is only but one. Ergo, the Trimurti is a form of Shiva Himself for Shaivas. Shaivites believe that Lord Shiva is the Supreme, who assumes various critical roles and assumes appropriate names and forms, and also stands transcending all these.
Smartism is a denomination of Hinduism that places emphasis on a group of five deities rather than just a single deity. The "worship of the five forms" (pañcāyatana pūjā) system, which was popularized by the ninth-century philosopher Śankarācārya among orthodox Brahmins of the Smārta tradition, invokes the five deities Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Devī, and Sūrya. Śankarācārya later added Kumara (Muruga/Subrahmanya/Karttikeya) to these five, making six total. This reformed system was promoted by Śankarācārya primarily to unite the principal deities of the six major sects on an equal status. The monistic philosophy preached by Śankarācārya made it possible to choose one of these as a preferred principal deity and at the same time worship the other four deities as different forms of the same all-pervading Brahman.
- For quotation defining the trimurti see Matchett, Freda. "The Purāṇas", in: Flood (2003), p. 139.
- For the Trimurti system having Brahma as the creator, Vishnu as the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva as the transformer or destroyer see: Zimmer (1972) p. 124.
- For definition of trimurti as "the unified form" of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva and use of the phrase "the Hindu triad" see: Apte, p. 485.
- For the term "Great Trinity" in relation to the Trimurti see: Jansen, p. 83.
- Jansen, p. 83; picture p. 84.
- For dating of Puranic period as c. CE 300-1200 and quotation, see: Majumdar, R. C. "Evolution of Religio-Philosophic Culture in India", in: Radhakrishnan (CHI, 1956), volume 4, p. 47.
- For characterization as non-homogeneous and including multiple traditions, see: Majumdar, R. C. "Evolution of Religio-Philosophic Culture in India", in: Radhakrishnan (CHI, 1956), volume 4, p. 49.
- For harmony between orthodox and sectarian groups, see: Majumdar, R. C. "Evolution of Religio-Philosophic Culture in India", in: Radhakrishnan (CHI, 1956), volume 4, p. 49.
- For quotation see: see: Majumdar, R. C. "Evolution of Religio-Philosophic Culture in India", in: Radhakrishnan (CHI, 1956), volume 4, p. 49.
- Winternitz, volume 1, p. 452, note 1.
- For references to Kūrma Purana see: Winternitz, volume 1, p. 573, note 2.
- Basham, pp. 310-311.
- Matchett, Freda. "The Purāṇas", in Flood (2003), p. 139.
- "Brahma, Rudra and Vishnu are called the supreme forms of him. His portion of darkness is Rudra. His portion of passion is Brahma. His portion of purity is Visnu" Maitri Upanisad [5.2]
- name= Sharma>Sharma, B. N. Krishnamurti (2000). A history of the Dvaita school of Vedānta and its literature: from the earliest beginnings to our own times. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. ISBN 8120815750. http://books.google.co.in/books?id=FVtpFMPMulcC&pg=PA412&dq=Varaha+sarabha&cd=11#v=onepage&q=sarabha&f=false. Retrieved 2010-01-15.
- The Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, Chapter 8: The Avataras Author: A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
- According to this site, http://www.kakaji.org/shikshapatri_verses.asp?catid=viewAll, verses 47, 84, of their scripture, Shikshapatri, a key scripture to all followers of the Swaminarayan faith.  states, "And the oneness of Narayana and Shiva should be understood, as the Vedas have described both to be brahmaroopa, or form of Brahman, i.e., Saguna Brahman, indicating that Vishnu and Shiva are different forms of the one and same God.
- Swaminarayan Satsang - Scriptures
- Swaminarayan Satsang - Scriptures
- An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism, by Raymond Brady Williams at http://books.google.com/books?id=tPkexi2EhAIC&pg=PA25&dq=Shikshapatri+Vishnu+shiva&lr=&cd=1#v=onepage&q=Shikshapatri%20Vishnu%20shiva&f=false
- How can the god of destruction be the Supreme ?
- Flood (1996), p. 17.
- Dating for the pañcāyatana pūjā and its connection with Smārta Brahmins is from Courtright, p. 163.
- For worship of the five forms as central to Smarta practice see: Flood (1996), p. 113.
- Grimes, p. 162.
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