Hinduism Trimūrti
by
Greg Bailey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0056

Introduction

The trimūrti is a theological grouping of three gods in Sanskrit literature bringing together Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva into a role-oriented scheme where each is said to be responsible for the tasks of creation, preservation, and destruction of the cosmos according to a sophisticated theory of cosmogony. It is the result of a theological synthesis emerging after the 2nd century CE, resulting in broader syntheses in later centuries. For example, in the medieval period images of Śūrya are also incorporated into synthetic trimūrti images. However, the development of the trimūrti itself occurs only when Hinduism emerges as a distinctive set of beliefs coming out of the earlier Vedic ritualism and the ascetic traditions associated with the Upanishads and Buddhism. Its development is a direct reflection of the emergence of devotionalism as the central stream within Hinduism with the need formally to integrate its principal deities within a cosmological theory that did not restrict them too much in terms of their own traditional roles. Equally, it provides a framework where the three gods can be related to other triads, and yet can still permit the presence of another deity who exists beyond the trimūrti and in some sense enlivens them. This deity can either be one of the three traditional members of the trimūrti or another god or goddess and is then conceived as the foundation of the universe and not involved in its instrumental functioning. Because it seems to be a theological imposition on already existing mythological cycles, especially those associated with Vishnu and Shiva, the trimūrti has not received as much scholarly attention as it deserves, focus being placed much more on its individual divine constituents than on their combination into a triad. Unsurprisingly, because of its similarity with the Christian Trinity, it attracted the attention of Western missionaries in India from the 17th century onward, and criticisms of it often appear in their writings.

Historical Development

The earliest reference to the trimūrti occurs in the Mahābhārata and the Maitryupaniṣad, but even in these texts it occurs only twice. Scholarly attempts to trace it back to earlier Vedic literature have been in vain. Carpenter 1921 is the first scholarly work to find its origins in the Vedas, and Gonda 1968 has also attempted to find Vedic predecessors, but these seem unconvincing. Mathothu 1974 develops the arguments that it rises out of Vedic triads and from color symbolism in the Upanishads. Dhavamony 1982 argues that it emerges out of earlier Vedic triads, but more compelling is Brinkhaus 1999, which sees it emerging from an earlier triadic scheme involving the god Brahma.

  • Brinkhaus, H. “Cyclical Determinism and the Development of the Trimūrti Doctrine.” In Composing a Tradition: Concepts, Techniques, and Relationships; Proceedings of the First Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purānas, August 1997. Edited by Mary Brockington and Peter Schreiner, 35–47. Zagreb: Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1999.

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    Argues that before the development of the classical trimūrti doctrine there was an earlier one associated with Svayaṃbhū-Brahmā alone who creates the world as Brahma, destroys it as kāla, and is inactive as puruṣa. In the Nārāyaṇīyaparvan of the Mahābhārata, Vishnu and Shiva assume fundamental importance as the supreme deity manifesting in the three cosmogonic roles.

  • Carpenter, Joseph Estlin. Theism in Medieval India: Lectures Delivered in Essex Hall, London, October–December 1919. London: Williams and Norgate, 1921.

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    A pioneering work that traces the development of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma through the Vedas to the Mahābhārata and the Puranas. Section 5 (pp. 273–295) provides a rambling though useful survey, tracing the relationship between the three gods in different historical strata of literature, especially the Mahābhārata and the Puranas.

  • Dhavamony, Mariasusai. Classical Hinduism. Rome: Universita Gregoriana Editrice, 1982.

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    Traces the trimūrti back to a tendency found in the Vedas to assign various divine forms to gods such as Śūrya and Agni. Translates relevant passages from Kālidāsa’s works and seeks a theological interpretation of the trimūrti as an instrumental expression of the ineffable neuter Brahman. See especially pages 63–68.

  • Gonda, Jan. “The Hindu Trinity.” Anthropos 63 (1968): 212–226.

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    Focuses on the theological nature of the trimūrti but tries to trace it through Vedic references in a manner that seems diffuse rather than convincing. Notes that several Vedic gods have multiple names and identities and that this provides a conceptual foundation for the development of the trimūrti. Reprinted in Gonda 1975, pp. 27–41.

  • Mathothu, Kurian. The Development of the Concept of Trimūrti in Hinduism. Palai, India: Sebastian Vayalil, 1974.

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    Traces the development of the trimūrti from the appearance of triads in the Vedas through to various celestial and terrestrial gods. Finds the origins of the trimūrti in the colors red, white, and black found in the Upanishads, corresponding to the three guṇas, the divine equivalences of which are manifestations of the one supreme, Vishnu in later texts.

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