The Trimūrti (Sanskrit: त्रिमूर्ति – ‘three forms’) represents the three-fold manifestation of God in His three main functions of Creation, Preservation and Dissolution of the worlds (often wrongly called “Destruction”).
The Supreme Lord (God, Ishwara, Acintya, Parama Shiva, or simply Shiva), is called Brahma when He takes over the Creation of the Universe, Vishnu when He assumes the role of the Preserver, and Maheswara, when He is the Dissolver of the World.
Shiva (God) exists both Formless (Nirguna) and with Form (Saguna). The various deities are understandable human forms of His power and His attributes, to teach us of His omniscience and His omnipotence. Therefore, Dharmic sculptures and iconography are like a “book frozen in stone”. Art, scriptures and music are all used to convey the teachings of Shiva.
One may wonder why gods, goddesses and devatas of the Dharmic cosmology are shown with several arms, and sometimes with several faces. The main reason is to show their spiritual attributes, as Aspects, or Manifestations of the Divine (just as in Christianity, the saints hold various attributes of spiritual significance).
A high degree of symbolism has evolved to explain the attributes and qualities of God to the worshipers. This is why different iconographic features are depicted for the different deities at different times, depending on the roles they perform. For example, in one temple Vishnu may be shown in a peaceful form, and in another in a fierce form, for destroying evil.
Brahma the Creator, is shown with four heads facing all four directions, symbolizing that he has created the entire Universe. After each Kalpa, he meditates and recreates the Universe. This is symbolied by the Vedas he holds in his hand, and the kamandalu which is used in the ritual of prayer prior to tapasya (austerities), after which he creates the Universe.
He sits on a lotus which is a symbol of purity, as the lotus usually grows in muddy waters but is untouched by the dirt and mire from which it emerges. So also the true Yogi should be unaffected by the world around him.
The feminine aspect of the Creator is personified in Saraswati, the consort of Brahma, who embodies learning and wisdom. In her hand she holds the veena, symbolic of Nada-Brahman, the music or rhythm of the Universe.
The beads in her fingers bring out the importance of prayer and meditation, and the palm leaf scrolls she holds represent learning and wisdom without which man is nothing. Her white saree reminds us that all knowledge of value should be pristine pure and unsullied by untruth.
Pratima (statue) of Lord Brahma in Prambanan temple, Yogyakarta
Vishnu holds the Sudarshana Chakra, denoting that he maintains Dharma (righteousness) and order in the Universe. The shankha (conch) that he holds in the other hand is for the removal of ignorance and is also symbolic of Nada-Brahman or the Music of the Cosmos, as the conch when placed to the ear has a deep humming sound.
The gada (mace) is for removing the evil in the world and the lotus is the symbol of the beauty and purity of the Cosmic Universe. The vehicle of Vishnu is Garuda, a figure of great strength, power and piety.
The feminine aspect of Vishnu the Preserver is Lakshmi. She is known as the one who brings prosperity. One hand she holds in the abhaya mudra which says “Do not fear” and the other in the varada mudra symbolic of the prosperity and grace she gives to humanity.
She sits on the lotus and holds lotus flowers in her hand emphasizing the importance of pure living without which her grace and giving are meaningless and prosperity but an empty shell. Bhumi Devi (Mother Earth) is depicted as the second consort of Vishnu.
Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe, is often shown as Nataraja, the King of Dancers, his dance depicting Cosmic Energy. He dances on the demon Apasmara Purusha, who represents our egos. Only by destroying one’s ego can one attain God-head. In one hand Shiva holds a deer which denotes man’s unsteady mind which darts hither and thither like the deer but has to be brought under control.
In another he holds a rattle-drum, the symbol of creative activity, and in the third, the fire, the symbol of destruction. His fourth hand in the abhaya mudra says, ‘Do not fear. I shall protect as I destroy’. The circle of fire behind him symbolizes the continuity and eternal motion of the Universe through the paths of Creation, Preservation and Destruction.
Shiva’s garland of skulls reminds man that death comes to all and his third eye depicts that God is all-seeing and wise. The crescent moon reminds us of the waxing and waning of the Moon and the movement of Time. The cobra coiling around him is, again, the symbol of Cosmic Energy.
On the right ear Shiva wears a kundala (a jewel worn by men) and on his left ear a tatanka (ear ornament worn by women). This is to tell us that he is Ardhanarishwara, half-man and half-woman (as Parvati, his consort, is part of Shiva himself), symbolizing the ideal union of man and woman.
As fire and heat are inseparable, so are Shiva and Parvati one, and purusha (the spirit) and prakriti (matter) are combined in them.
The ashes worn by Shiva tell us that the body is transient and ends in ashes. The tiger-skin that he wears around his waist is the ahamkara or arrogant pride which, like the tiger, springs out of us and has to be suppressed. Shiva not only destroys the Universe but is also the destroyer of man’s illusions, and the cycle of birth and death which binds us to this world.
Soon after the creation of this world, Shiva is believed to have appeared in the form of a pillar of fire, reaching into space at one end and into the bowels of the earth at the other, and neither Brahma nor Vishnu was able to trace the beginning or end of this supernatural manifestation. Therefore Shiva is symbolised as a Linga or Lingam (meaning a symbol) representing this endless pillar of cosmic power and light.
He is also worshiped as Lingodbhavamurti, in which the figure of Shiva emerges out of the pillar of fire, with Brahma and Vishnu standing on either side. In all Shiva temples, his vehicle, Nandi the bull, faces the figure of Shiva symbolizing the soul of man, the Jiva, yearning for Paramatma, the Great Soul (God).
Symbolically, the three gods represent various things at various levels. They exist in us also as consciousness, energy, will power, thoughts, emotions and qualities. The whole Universe is made of the three powers and is sustained by the three powers. The Triple Gods are found in their subtle states in almost every aspect of the Universe.
• In life Brahma is birth, Vishnu life and Shiva Death.
• In any endeavor or sacrifice Brahma is the introductory part, Vishnu the middle part and Siva the concluding part.
• In the day, Brahma is morning sun, Vishnu the daylight and Siva the twilight.
The Puranas describe the triple gods as Trimurthis (the three-forms). Individually, they are separate divinities, each having his own functions, worlds, names. forms, powers, potencies, consorts, associate gods and methods of worship.
Although they reside in their own spheres, they work in harmony and coordinate their actions to ensure the order and regularity of the world. In upholding of Dharma, they perform specific functions.
Puranas perceived the formless God manifest in His triple function, which He performed as the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer, both initially and finally, as well as always, they chose Shiva to represent one of these functional aspects of Him and elevated him to the status of the Great Trinity.
Javanese Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma
Temples dedicated to various permutations of the Trimurti can be seen as early as the 8th century C.E., and there are even temples today in which the Trimurti are actively worshiped.
• Baroli Trimurti Temple
• Elephanta Caves https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephanta_Caves
• Mithrananthapuram Trimurti Temple
• The sacred temple complex of Prambanan – one of the world’s biggest Shaiva temples – is dedicated to the Trimurti.
• Savadi Trimurti Temple
• Thripaya Trimurti Temple
The three lingas of the Trimurti, in the Goa Gajah cave temple
The Trimurti in Shaivism
To the Shaivites however, Shiva is God and performs all actions Shaivites hold that Shiva performs five actions – creation, preservation, dissolution, concealing grace, and revealing grace.
Respectively, these first three actions are associated with Shiva as Sadyojata (akin to Brahma), Vamadeva (akin to Vishnu) and 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 stands in contrast to the idea that Shiva is the “God of destruction.”
Therefore, for Shaivas, the Trimurti is a form of Shiva Himself. 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. An example of a Shaivite version of the Trimurti is the Trimurti Sadashiva sculpture in the Elephanta Caves on Gharapuri Island.
Other forms of the Trimurti
The different branches of Sanatana Dharma conceive the Trimūrti as really the three manifestations of their own vision God (Vishnu or Shiva), whom they regard as Brahman or Absolute. However, non-Shaivite branches of Dharma such as the Saura school worship the Trimurti differently.
• The Saura Dharma sees Surya as the supreme personality of the godhead and saguna brahman doesn’t accept the Trimurti as they believe Surya is God. Earlier forms of the Trimūrti sometimes included Surya instead of Brahma, or as a fourth above the Trimurti, of whom the other three are manifestations; Surya is Brahma in the morning, Vishnu in the afternoon and Shiva in the evening. Surya was also a member of the original Vedic Trimurti, which included Varuna and Vayu.
• The Shakti worshipers assign the eminent roles of the three forms (Trimūrti) of Supreme Divinity not to masculine gods but instead to feminine goddesses: Mahasarasvati (Creator), Mahalaxmi (Preserver), and Mahakali (Destroyer). This feminine version of the Trimurti is called Tridevi (“three goddesses”). The masculine gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) are then relegated as auxiliary agents of the supreme feminine Tridevi.
• Smartism places emphasis on a the Five Main deities rather than just a single one. The pañcāyatana pūjā (“worship of the five forms”) system, which was popularized by Śankarācārya invokes Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devi and Ganesha. 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.
• In Vaishnavism, despite the fact that the Vishnu Purana describes that Vishnu manifests as Brahma in order to create and as Rudra (Shiva) in order to dissolve, Vaishnavism generally does not acknowledge the Trimurti concept, but they believe in avataras of Vishnu like Buddha, Rama, Krishna, etc. They also believe that Shiva and Brahma both are forms of Vishnu. Vaishnavas therefore worship the human avatars of Vishnu such as Rama and Krishna. Especially, in ancient times the relationship between Shiva and Vishnu was one of rivalry. Followers of each considered the other as a rival god and treated his followers with disdain. Their attitude was also sometimes reflected in their literature and methods of worship.
Shaktis of the Trinity
Each of the Trinity gods has their own Shaktis, who are considered aspects of Mother Goddess or Universal Mother (Devi, Mata or Mahashakti).
• Goddess Saraswati 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.
• Parvati (also known as Uma, Gauri and several other names) is the consort of Shiva.
These shaktis are considered the triple aspects of the Primal Mother or Prakriti. They also have numerous other manifestations and associate forms and are worshiped individually as well as in association with their lords.