Monday, February 11, 2008

The Three Main Hindu Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva

The Three Main Hindu Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva

In the Hindu religion, many gods and goddesses are recognized and worshiped. There exists, however, a "trinity" of three especially important and widely worshiped and acknowledged deities. They are: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva. Often, Brahman is recognized as the creator, Vishnu as the preserver, and Shiva as the destroyer. However, the roles these gods play in the cosmos are not quite this clearly defined. Brahman is, paradoxically, both the creator and the created. Vishnu covers all three roles of creator, preserver, and destroyer. Shiva, too, is recognized as being part of the creation process, for life flows forth from destruction. Here are the profiles of the three gods in greater detail.

Brahma is the first of the major gods in classical Hinduism. Of all three of the main gods, his nature is the most difficult to grasp. Brahma is defined as the emanation of Brahman, or the order that holds together the cosmos, into maya, or the physical world, what we can observe with our senses. In other words, he is the physical form of what is seen as "the essence of creation". This form is possessed of four heads (he used to have five but lost one to Shiva) from which the Vedas (sacred Hindu texts) are said to have emerged. The four castes also originated from Brahma, from his head, arms, thighs, and feet. He emerged from a lotus that grew from Vishnu's sleeping body. In order to bring about creation and the human race, he made two beings out of himself, a god and a goddess (Gayatri). He also created ten patriarchal figures and seven great sages to help him make the universe. He has ten sons, and his female consort is the goddess of wisdom and science, Sarasvati.

Brahma is not worshiped with the same frequency and devotion afforded to the other two members of the Hindu "trinity". There are several speculations as to why this is. Some say it involves a curse put on him by Shiva. Others say that his work as the creator is done until the end of the world, at which time everything will be dissolved back into separate elements. Most probably it is because of his abstract nature. Whatever the reason, he has fewer temples devoted to him than do Vishnu and Shiva but is still greatly revered.

Vishnu is the second main god. He is depicted as a strong and virile male with four arms that can be holding weapons or other items. Lakshmi, his devoted companion and the goddess of beauty, light, fortune, and wealth, also appears in conjunction with him, often massaging his feet. In each of Vishnu's incarnations, Lakshmi followed him and incarnated with him. Vishnu has many avatars, or incarnations of himself, including nine major ones. The names of the different forms he has taken are: Matsuya (the fish), Kurma (the turtle), Varaha (the dwarf), Parasurama, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (all different people). In all of these different forms, Vishnu performed great feats. For instance, while in the form of Matsuya, he saved a Hindu saint from a flood. In all of his previous human forms (and in most of his non-human forms) except that of Buddha, he ridded the world of evil kings and demons. When he incarnated as Buddha, his purpose was to provide a path to rid the world of pain and suffering. It is said that at the end of the earth he will incarnate as a person riding a white horse, Kalki, and that will be his tenth and final incarnation.

Vishnu's role as the Preserver is such that he will restore the cosmos to order any time there is chaos. His job is to maintain dharma. The concept of dharma is multifaceted and can be described in various ways as a person or thing's natural purpose, the natural law, a way of living that is harmonious and beneficial throughout the universe, the eternal truth, or a conscious action which is appropriate for the moment. In this way, Vishnu can be seen as the overseer of the universe, making sure everything works together harmoniously and righting wrongs in the natural order of things when they occur. Examples of this can be seen in his avatars' exploits. By saving people from death, steadying mountains with his back, and killing demons and tyrants, Vishnu stepped in to avert disasters in spectacular ways throughout the history of the cosmos.

Shiva is known as the Destroyer, but this is by no means a negative moniker. Death and destruction are part of life and are needed to maintain cosmic balance. Destruction and the ending of things can be extremely positive, as in the sloughing off of bad habits. A common image of this deity features him dancing a "Dance of Bliss", while crushing an evil demon under his feet. This dance is done in order to better the world and represents the natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth. When Shiva dances, he dances atop a fire that represents the final destruction of the world, but it also symbolizes renewal, as the ashes from the fire will be scattered by his dance and provide the blueprint for the creation of a new universe.

Although Shiva has no avatars, he is often depicted in several different poses, denoting forms or "energies". The Panchavaktra is a combination of all of these forms, and has five heads. Besides these energies, he also has a large family including several women and sons. The four main females traditionally connected to him are Parvati, the young and beautiful goddess of love and romance, Umma, who is the nurturing mother figure, Durga, the warrior for justice, and Kali, who represents the power of unharnessable and unpredictable force. Shiva's son with Parvati is Ganesha, who has the head of an elephant. Parvati made him with the dirt from her own body and set him as a guard outside while she bathed. Shiva came home, and outraged at seeing a strange man at his gates, promptly cut off his head. Parvati told him who the man was and, sorry for his mistake, Shiva ordered another head to be found and brought to put on Ganesha's body. The head that was brought back happened to be an elephant head, giving Ganesha his distinctive appearance. After affixing the head, Shiva bestowed a blessing upon Ganesha making him god of overcoming obstacles. It is believed that those who worship him will have success in this area. Shiva's other son is Skanda, worshiped as the god of war. All of Shiva's wives are also goddesses who represent shakti, the female life force, and are worshiped in their own right.

One symbol that is closely associated with Shiva is the lingam. This is an object often made of valuable material and kept in temples dedicated to Shiva, where it provides a focal point for worship. It is two to three feet tall and phallic in shape. It is also believed to be the unborn and invisible form of the god. Since it is the embodiment of male energy, it is accompanied by a yoni, its female counterpart.

The interplay between these three gods and their respective wives, children, and consorts is very complex. There are no clear dividing lines between their duties, rather, they seem to overlap each other in performing the tasks that keep humanity and the cosmos in order.


Hinduism—The Hindu Cosmos:

Sanatan Society—Hindu Gods and Goddesses:


Ganesha Homepage:

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