Decoding the Hindu Trinity

Indian Mythology 37 Comments

Published in Mint, 1 Feb 2010

In Hindu mythology, there are three worlds, three Goddesses and three Gods.

The three Gods include Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva who create, sustain and destroy. What is most baffling about this triad is that the sustainer and destroyer are worshipped, never the creator.

The root of this bafflement lies in a template that spellbinds the modern mind. It is the Western template, informed greatly by the Bible, where God is the creator making the Devil the destroyer. To understand the Hindu trinity one needs to break free from this Western template.

The world Brahma creates is not the objective world. Hindu seers had scant regard for the objective measurable reality. They believed that the human mind is so prejudiced that it can never ever truly break free from the fetters of bias. They focused their explorations on subjective reality, the virtual image of the world that every individual constructs in his or her mind.

Data for this mental image of the world comes from the five senses. It is then shaped by prejudices, both positive and negative, which in turn is informed by memories and dreams, both pleasurable and painful. This is Brahmanda, Brahma’s world. This makes each and every breathing person a Brahma. Hence the Vedic maxim: aham brahmasmi, I am Brahma.

We are creators of our subjective world. And our behavior is a function of this constructed world of ours. While most of us construct a finite prejudiced worldview, it is theoretically possible to construct an infinite unprejudiced worldview. He who does that becomes one with the brahman, divinity itself. Until then, we remain Brahmas, unworshipped creators. Life is a journey from construction of Brahmanda to its deconstruction, from creation to destruction, from Brahma to Shiva.

Our constructed world has three components, visualized as the three Goddesses: the material component or Lakshmi; the intellectual component or Saraswati; the emotional component or Durga. LSD, in short! As we seek to make sense of our lives, we chase LSD. Though the Goddesses belong to no one, we seek to possess them, control their flow, make them predictable and dependable, though to our dismay they remain independent and whimsical.

Lakshmi matters, because she is wealth and health and fortune. She is critical to our survival. But survival alone is not motivation enough. Besides L we seek Durga, emotional gratification. We yearn for significance; we yearn to feel good about ourselves, we want to believe we matter. That is why we are not content acquiring and securing food, clothing and shelter. We want to feel important in the social order of things, in our family, amongst friends and peers. Hence the desire to enhance our careers, increase our influence in society and expand our business empires.

The pursuit of material and emotional gratification becomes an addiction. Growth is never enough to guarantee survival or satiate significance. One feels as if one is running on a treadmill of unpredictable speed. If you don’t keep up, you will fall. Fear of the fall keeps us running. As Brahmanda expands, it splits into three. This is Tripura, the three worlds, comprising of who we are, what we possess and what we do not possess. In other words: me, mine and others.

Invariably ‘me and mine’ matters more than ‘others’. In our myopic vision of our world, we delude ourselves that ‘others’ exist only to ensure the survival and significance of ‘me and mine’. This delusion is rooted in our scant regard for Saraswati, the S of LSD, who constantly draws attention to the other Vedic maxim: tat tvam asi, you are Brahma too.

In delusion, we forget that others around us are also constructing their own subjective realities, harboring similar ambitions of survival and significance, and having their very own Tripura. And in other peoples’ Brahmanda, our ‘me and mine’ is relegated to the world they address as ‘others’.

When my Brahmanda expands at the cost of your Brahmanda, conflict is inevitable. We end up as beasts fighting over territory. We end up playing the game ‘dog & bone’ and find glory in being the alpha male. At the core of this game is the human fear of insignificance. This fear fuels our cupidity. This fear makes us go to war.

With his third eye, Shiva destroys Kama or cupidity, burns the three worlds and smears his forehead with three horizontal lines of ash. That he holds in his hand a trident, three blades united at the staff, is a reminder that the Tripura is a manmade construct born of human fear and imagination, and not a natural construction. That he demands offerings of Bilva sprigs that are constituted of three leaves joined at the base, is a reminder that true happiness comes when we balance our craving for survival and significance with sensitivity for others. Lakshmi and Durga without Saraswati will not work.

Vishnu facilitates this journey from Brahma to Shiva. Peace will come only when we empathize with others, when we realize that everyone is in the same boat, fearful Brahmas grappling with existential angst. From empathy comes dharma, elaborated in the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where as Ram and Krishna, Vishnu demonstrates the human ability to overpower the animal instinct to dominate, and make room for the helpless and the unfit. Only when we care for the other, will we stop being territorial beasts. Only then will LSD be shared rather than hoarded. Only then will we achieve what is aspired for in the triple chant that concludes all Hindu rituals: shanti, shanti, shanti-hi.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt ji.,

    In which topic this articles will be included

  • Brilliant. Lucid. Exceptional. :-D

  • This article got me thinking about multiverses or parallel universes ( I used to think it’s such a beautifully far-fetched, science-fictional idea.

    But each of us create our own universe in our minds and they all co-exist. They are very similar to each other yet not the same. Isn’t that what multiverses are all about?

    The revelation was goosebump-inducingly beautiful.

    Thanks again.

  • The significance of the triad is also brought out in the “Tatwathraya” which refers to the Jivatma, Paramatma and the inanimate which together constitute the universe or the multiverse if you will.

  • Arvindhakshan

    a very good article

  • Namaskar,

    Mr. Devdutt you have said that the delusion of ‘‘me and mine’ matters more than ‘others’’ is rooted in our scant regard for Saraswati. Are you talking about “human ego” here? Do you mean to say that Saraswati helps to control our ego and be selfless? if so, then how can Vidhya/Sarawati do that?


  • Sam

    Exceptional!!! The only word I can utter after reading this piece. Such perception of the life is seldom possible without the ashirwad of a Sadguru. I bow to the Sat tatva inside you. May Parmatma bless you with many more such illuminating thoughts so that we all may bask under its perpetual light!!! Pranam!

  • It is a great insight to read this article. this is the first time im reading your articles, so it be a great dishonour if i comment without reading other articles.
    but it really feels good that people have such philosophical outlook to a religion. rather than just a strong belief in an old practice (which is what most people think religion to be)

    strong belief though important should not be without a base or knowledge. and knowledge without questions is again not true knowledge. Hindu mythology has deep rooted philosophy in it, this is something that my parents have taught me again and again.
    Thank you for a great read. Will be regular reader of your Website. your illustrations are what brought me here. now your writing will bring me too

  • Kishore

    Very very interesting… nice flow of your thoughts.. lucid writing. I will be checking more often. Keep up the good work.

  • DevDutt,
    Great to see a full fledged mythologist concerned with decoding Indian pantheon. Also just when ‘3 Idiots’ is so much in fashion, nice to see an article on the original trinity:). And here is an addition, that of the three gunas. Yup Sattva, Rajas and Tamas too for a trinity, and have a direct mapping here. Tamas is the material world, Sattvic the world of Brahma, with Rajas being the middle world. Wondered why human avatars of Vishnu are Kings i.e Rajas, well that’s why. Also since Rajas is principle of action, notice Vishnu’s birth as avatar, and notice their invocation to Siva,for success. The 3 gunas, another aspect of the same trinity.

  • Sir,

    had the opportunity to read on the same by Sri Kishore Biyaniji at Coimbatore…

    Absolutely great revelation on the three gods!!!

  • Geetika Bajpai

    Dear Devdutt ji,

    this is a brilliant article. being born in a brahmin family, I was just not taught the rituals and traditions but was explained the deeper significance and philosophical meanings of the mantras, rituals and personification of God. my contemporaries see religion/God just a way to get “good stuff” in life through “Bribing God” in temples and nothing beyond. It is so great to see you throwing light on the intricate and deep meanings of scriptures.I absolutely admire you and I hope more and more people learn the essence of Hinduism.

  • Ram

    Dear Devdutt,

    Thank you for posting very good topic; Need more topics to unwrap the Hindu myths.

    I interpret in a men’s life the 3 Goddess “SLD” as Mother, Wife & Child (Girl). Mother gives “Knowledge”, Wife gives “Shakthi” & Child (Girl) gives wealth (or make wealth to her). As long as you make good relationship, “Shakthi” remains “Durga”. If not, she turns to “Kali”.

    If we able to handle these 3 goddess in a balanced way. Life is heaven.



  • Vikas

    I have read your articles and books and i found them interesting.
    However, there are certain points that i would like you to consider before interpretating any of the ndian Myths
    1. You have to base your interpretation into their theoretical grounding i.e. you have to explicitly state the framework in which or using which you are approaching the myth. The common perspectives are Freudian, Jungian, Structuralist, Allegorical, based on an Indian Philosopher like Sri Aurobindo, and you may find some more perspectives as well.
    2. These frameworks then give different meanings to symbols and if we mix any of these we must make sure that it is conscious and not because of any ease of interepretation.
    3. Any meaning that you ascribe to a god or deity or any other symbol must have the capability of retaining itself across interpretations and must be based on some LOGIC.
    4. Indian Mythology is not just mythology and/or history it is itihasa, with a message.
    5. While attributing any psychological category of emotions or attitudes or personality and the like one must understand that aspect in accordance with the Indian Culture.
    6. Since these are Indian myths, one must know enough of Indian Psychology as well as Indian Philosophy to interpret them.
    7. While interpreting one must understand and explain why was there any need to give different names etc. to the same god or diety.
    8. One must read the original sanskrit text or its hindi translation before depending on any english translation if it is not of an authority figure in philosophy and mythology like Sri Aurobindo.
    9.Please read Sri Aurobindo,s ‘Secret of the Veda’ to understand his Philological and Psychological Method.

  • Mahendra

    Dear Sir,

    The interpretation of Indian Knowledge including Vedas, Upnishadas and mythology should be taken place in native style i.e. it should be free from all prejudices of western theories. Bible is such a small work that it cannot be a parameter to evaluate and interpreat Indian Tradition, and if doing so it does nothing bu humuliates Indian Tradition and unnecessesarily Indians begin to put them selves on a lower steps.
    This is noting but the Victory of Mecaulay

  • Maneendra

    Coming back to the question why we don’t worship brahma,
    I understand there is no nessecity worshiping self . But I can understand from the above story why we worship shiva and Vishnu and significance of worship to them as such

  • Krishnaveni

    Recently watched the video: that explained mythos vs. logos….Superb presentation, captivating and an interesting perspective!
    This article on Hindu Trinity is well composed and conveys significance of each God in a manner that is comprehensible to most!
    Might it be possible; as per your own words the scant regard to Goddess Saraswati results in ignorance or lack of knowledge due to which, humans have difficulty in overcoming the ills; such kaam, krodh and lobh! Wouldn’t it be better if availing education actually entails acquiring the sublime status also besides viewing it (education) as means to provide for worldly needs and desires!
    We have such treasure of philosophy in the form of our vedantas and upnishads that ought to be propagated in a manner that can not only be comprehended by every individual but put to practice!
    A practice that will enable each individual to respect brahmand in self and also in others!

  • Prashant S Patil

    Dear Sir,

    I have no words to praise you. Your interpretation is splendid. Love to read.

  • raoravi

    L.S.D Lovely Story Devduttji,
    Dear Devduttji i am a regular reader of ur article in ET-CD. It helps me to imbibe the traditional value in my day today life.keep contributing to the growth of thousands of regular readers like me.

  • Sunita

    Dear Devduttji,
    Your articles have opened a whole new vista, on the thought process, concerning our Hindu mythology and the Ramayan & Mahabharata.
    I always thought they were books to be read and that’s all.
    But your analysis is superb, in that it satisfies the rational & practcal mind.
    Thanks again.

  • Devdutt,

    Very fine explanation. But like I mentioned in my last email to you, the explanation becomes even simpler if you connect it to the Sāmkhya philosophy.

    Any object in the measurable nature is said to compose of 3 gunas : satwik (lucidity), rajas (activity) and tamas (inertia) respectively. The Hindu trimurti figure comes straight from these 3 gunas. Brahma stands for satwik (lucidity expressed as intelligence / awareness), Vishnu for rajas (activity expressed as life) and Shiva for tamas (inertia expressed as time-symmetric laws of nature, particularly dealing with energy). These 3 are the representation of the saguna brahman (the absolute with attributes), in contrast to the Nirguna Brahman who has no names, no attributes whatsoever (no words can describe “it”).

    The trimurti (3 figures) present three perspectives for looking at the universe in its entirety. Their wives stand for exactly the same concepts – the male gods represent actors and the female goddesses the corresponding actions. Saraswati reprsents intelligence, Lakshmi represents life (and the beauty / wealth that comes with it) and Parvati / Shakti represents energy.

    The 3 gunas of Samkhya have a direct connection with the Indian system of counting with zeros. Satwik (lucidity) stands for regression to a zero. Rajas (activity) stands for progression or increasing. Tamas (inertia) stands for staying the same. All of these are completely non-intuitive and have to be understood with respect to the system of counting with zeros (which has originated in India). The reason why Brahma is not worshipped is because he has no meaning unless connected with Vishnu. A zero has no meaning unless it is preceeded by a 1 (as 10, 100, 10000, 100000 etc). This is why Brahma germinates from the navel of Vishnu.

    Just as these 3 figures are present in every single object of nature, they are present in one’s own self. You are correct that the intelligent observer (what we call as the empirical self in psychology) represents Brahma. There are limitations imposed by logic and paradox on what can be attained by intelligence alone. This is also why Brahma is often disparaged in Indian myths (the most beautiful story, in my opinion is that of Brahma turning into a swan, and Vishnu to a boar trying to explore the ends of Shiva).

  • Also the trident, the tripura, the three-worlds .. all of them correspond exactly to the 3 gunas of nature (prakriti).

    This is why I think Sāmkhya lies at the very root of all Indian myths.

  • Actually, I made a mistake in the above explanation.

    Brahma stands for Rajas, and Vishnu for Sattwa.

    Without the use of Vishnu (regression to zero) Brahma remains a finite number .. For example, In a decimal base, he can reach up to until 9 only.

    When coupled with a zero, a new Brahma germinates at the next level and he shall remain in his finite (but exponentially superior existence) until Vishnu decides to put a zero there too.

    So Brahma doesn’t even stand for Infinity, but only for a finite number (but which is still extremely larger than all the objects of existence in the universe at the moment). WIth respect to knowledge, he signifies vijnana (the understanding about the other, which can be uttered as speech, his wife Saraswati) but not jnana (knowledge about one’s own self that is considered to be beyond all forms of speech).

    Apparently, only Shiva and Vishnu stand for Infinity. Brahma probably just exists in the trimurti so as to have a representation of all the 3 gunas, and not just 2.

  • V T Rajan

    Though a tamil brahmin, have always felt and feel so ignorant, when i read and listen to well-informed scholars and practitioners. May Hinduism (ism???!!) live long!

  • Anand

    Rofl LSD, good lord !

  • Keshav

    Reading the comments, I never knew there were so many meanings for LSD.

  • Ladu Kishore Dash

    Namaskar Devdutt sir,

    As usual this article is also very nice,I am reading your articles for the last couple of months,All of your articles are very much inspiring.

    I have few queries for you,If you will provide answer for those I will be really greatful to you.

    1.When exactly the Hindu Dharma came into the picture? In Mahabharat and Ramayan everything is mentioned about Sanatan Dharma not about Hindu,Please explain what is the difference between these two Dharma.

    2. As per Hindu Mythology there are 33 million gods, Is their any scriptures which contains all of their names and significance?

    3.Is there any myth how and from whom Brahma,Vishnu and Shiva got created?

    Thanks & Regards
    Ladu Kishore Dash

    • Devdutt

      Hinduism is in constant evolution….you are functioning with a Western method to thought, seeking textual evidence and references and testimonies….Indian thought is based on faith in teacher or personal logic.

  • “This makes each and every breathing person a Brahma. Hence the Vedic maxim: aham brahmasmi, I am Brahma”

    Devdutt: Aham Brahmasmi, is a reflection of the realisation of the ‘true-self’, wherein it means, the ‘I’ in myself, is the supreme one, the super consciousness that pervades all over, and which includes the trio.
    Here it does not mean the creator Brahma, it is the ‘Bramah’ the supreme soul, that which is consciousness supreme, yes , that which is also present in the trio, ie.Brahma, Vishnu, & Shiv.

    Hope its ok.
    your comments !!!

    • Devdutt

      It is BOTH: Brahma and Brahman…what you are and what you can be….finite in practice and infinite in principle….most writers of this maxim Aham Brahmasmi restrict themselves only to Upanishads which focuses on Brahman. Very few scholars have bothered to study the Puranas which elaborates on Brahma. Amar Chitra Katha does not even have a comic in Brahma’s name, hence the widespread ignorance about this very key character in mythology.

  • vijay

    Dear sir,
    I have read in your articles that it’s not on self actualisation that we need to focus on but its self realisation.Can you please tell us what is self actualistion.I could not understand it in depth.Can you please dilate upon the issue of self realisation as well.
    Thanks Devdutt ji

  • Sunil

    Thanks Devdutt,

    This article has given me a new level of understanding.


  • Samskruti

    Your thoughts were so very clear, so very convincing. I just can nothing but salute you for your awesomeness.!

  • Nandini

    Suddenly the words ‘To be or not to be’ have a different meaning, after reading this article. Nicely written.

  • Bharat

    Reason Brahma is not revered in Hindu literature is because Brahma beiing a creator & has Consort as Saraswati, possibly a creation of Brahma. As per human thinking would amount to Sraswati being a daughter of Brahma. Naturally , the deity having consort who is daughter can not be revered.

  • P.R.Kaushik

    Thank you Sir. Helps us undestand the true concept of God.

  • Mat James

    So clear!

    What a wonderful and enlightening little paper.
    We are all “fearful Brahmas grappling with existential angst.” Ha! How true.
    I had no idea of this (Hindu) psychological position. It is pure magic, Devutt.
    Thanks for the insight.