Symbolic Significance of Brahma, Vishnu And Siva

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by Jayaram V

In Hinduism God is viewed as one and the many. He is also described as both the known and the unknown and the One with qualities and the One without qualities. He is compared to the sky, the space, consciousness, ether and even emptiness. He is both the known and the unknown, the lower and the higher, the immanent and the transcendent. According to some schools He manifests the objective worlds out of Himself using Himself as the raw material, through His dynamic energy or shakti.

According to other schools, creation is accomplished by Nature or Prakriti (Mother Goddess), either independently on Her own or under His inviolable will. Whatever may be the truth, the Hindu cosmogony is a complex structure, without a beginning and without an end, consisting of innumerable worlds and planes of consciousness inhabited by various beings and divinities possessing different degrees of potency and intelligence and performing different roles in executing and enforcing the will of God.

At the top of this universal pyramid and also extending beyond it resides Brahman in His undifferentiated and absolute aspect while He also permeates the entire pyramid as its inner witness. The trinity of gods, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Siva occupy the second highest tier. Collectively they are the three functional aspects of the one and the only Brahman. Individually they reside in their own spheres and perform their respective functions. Lord Brahma is the creator, Lord Vishnu the preserver and Lord Siva the destroyer. In the objective world, each has His own distinguishing features or attributes and also their own Shaktis or aspects of the Universal Mother. Goddess Saraswathi is the consort of Lord Brahma, Lakshmi and goddess earth of Lord Vishnu and Parvathi and Ganga of Lord Siva. Symbolically the three gods represent various things at various levels. They exist both with in the creation and outside of it. They exist in us also as consciousness, energy, will power, thoughts, emotions and qualities. Symbolic significance of the the Hindu Trinty is discussed below

1. In the Physical plane, that is within ourselves, Brahma resides as the psychic element, Vishnu as the mental element and Siva as the physical element. In other words, Brahma is the intuitive mind, Vishnu is the conscious mind and Shiva is the physical body.

2. In the mental plane, Brahma manifests as creative ideas, Vishnu as the inspiration and Siva as the doubt and hesitation. Brahma manifests as the thought, Vishnu as the action and Siva as the corrective action. In us Brahma is the initiator, Vishnu the perpetuator and Siva the remover. Inside the mind, Brahma manifests as thoughts, Vishnu as positive feelings and emotions and Siva as the negative ones.

3. In the earthly plane, Brahma is the sky, Vishnu is the Sun and Siva is the moon. Among the regions, Brahma is the upper region, Vishnu the middle region and Siva the lower region. In a day, Brahma is morning, Vishnu is afternoon and Siva the night. Among directions, Brahma is east, Siva is west and Vishnu is all that is in between.

4. In Nature they manifest as the three qualities or gunas, which are described in the Bhagavadgita, namely sattva (purity), rajas (egoism) and tamas (darkness). According to the original Vedic tradition, Brahma represents sattva, Vishnu represents rajas and Siva represents tamas. According to the Vaishnava tradition, which presently dominates the mainstream popular Hinduism, Brahma represents rajas, Vishnu represents sattva and Siva represents tamas.

5. Among the paths of salvation, Brahma manifests as the path of knowledge, Vishnu as the path of action and devotion and Siva as the path of renunciation.

The Trinity symbolize the three phases of human life

6. In the life of an individual, the Trinity appear as the three phases of life. Brahma represents childhood, the first phase, which is also regarded traditionally as the phase of celibacy and studentship (brahmacharya). During this an individual is expected to spend his life cultivating buddhi (intelligence, siksha (education), samskaram (character) and dharma (religious knowledge and ethical behavior) through academic studies. This phase is also regarded as a preparatory phase for the spiritual journey of each individual. In this phase he lives for the sake of and in the company of knowledge, represented in our pantheon by goddess Saraswathi, who is the consort of Brahma.

Lord Vishnu represents the second phase, the adulthood, which is the phase of a householder, during which an individual spends his time in preserving himself, his family, society and religion by performing his obligatory duties towards his ancestors, nature, gods and others. He engages in actions for the preservation of himself, his family, children, society, environment, plants and animals and religion. He leads a very responsible life, helping the poor and the needy, working for the preservation of his family and community and the salvation of himself and others. In this phase he seeks health, harmony, name, fame, status, progeny, wealth and happiness, which are the qualities of goddess Lakshmi, who is the consort of Lord Vishnu.

Lord Siva represents the third phase, the old age, or the phase of withdrawal and renunciation, called Vanaprastha. During this phase an individual is expected to gradually withdraw from the active life he was so far leading as a householder and detach himself from all the relationships, distractions, allurements and entanglements so that he can eventually begin to focus on the real purpose of his life and prepare himself for his liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Hindu tradition suggests that during this phase person should handover his individual responsibilities and the ownership of his personal belongings to his children and retire to a forest or a secluded place, away from the active society. He should live there either alone or with his wife and engage himself in spiritual practices to discipline his mind and body. In other words, in this phase he should model his life on Lord Siva, who despite being Supreme Universal Lord lives a very detached life, like a simple sadhu, spending his time mostly in meditation. During this phase he needs to cultivate compassion, courage, unconditional love, humility, faith, surrender, devotion, qualities which are essential for his spiritual practice and which are also personified by Parvathi, the consort of Siva.

The last and final phase of human life in Hindu tradition is sanyasashram, or the phase of complete renunciation. According to Hindu tradition during this phase an individual should cease to live a sheltered and secure life or live selfishly thinking about his survival or the welfare of his family, children or grandchidlren. He is advised to stop using physical fire completely for rituals or for cooking or keeping himself warm and instead awaken the spiritual fire within him. He should also avoid contact with every one and reduce his dependence on food by eating as little food as possible just to keep himself alive. During this phase he overcomes all forms of desire and the need to strive and struggle to perpetuate his individuality or ego. altogether and tries to attain liberation from this mortal world. He destroys all his previous attachments and desires and engages himself in deep meditation, leading the life of a true renunciate along with his wife who as his consort becomes the Universal Mother.

Symbolically this phase represents Iswara Himself, the transcendental universal Self, who is beyond all attachments, illusion and objectivity and in whom everything resolves itself into a unified state of perfect freedom and harmony. Symbolically it constitutes the full circle, containing with in it, all the memories, knowledge, wisdom and experience of the previous three phases, which gives us the ability to look at ourselves and our lives with compassion, understanding, unconditional love and insight, qualities that are characteristic of Iswara Himself. In this phase, the three phases of life represented by the Trinity resolve themselves into one holistic life, indicating that the duality of our existence is but an illusion which appears in our perception of the things, but not in the things themselves.

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