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Written by Guhanatha Swami   
Saturday, 14 February 2009 12:47

The Three Aspects and The Trinity

The Three Aspects of God are Paramatma, Parashakti and Parabrahman. The Trinity or the Three Divinities in Hinduism are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. What are the similarites and diferences between these two ways of organizing our understanding of Godhead? What are the connections between the two?

First of all the main similarity between the Three Aspects and the Trinity is the number three. The main difference between the two orgainzings is that one is more complete than the other. The connection between the two is that the Trinity is contained within the first Aspect of God, that is Paramatma.

Before we go further in detail on this subject, it is important to know that I learnt about the Aspects of God from my guru. My guru created this organizing to help his disciples grasp a deeper understanding of God. The Three Aspects (my guru actually used the word perfections–the Three Perfections of God) is however, not a new concept. It is supported by the Scriptures and the experiences of Hindu mystics–The  Three Aspects as Paramatma, Parashakti and Parabrahman are all described in the Vedas and Agamas–it is just a less known concept compared to the Trinity.

Most Hindu academicians may not even be aware of the The Three Aspects and if they were trained in the Western academic understanding of Hinduism, they will have no clue of anything else but the Trinity. Apart from Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, Sri Adi Shankara also organized the understanding of God into categories like the Three Aspects; but his explanation categorizes God into two–Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman. Adi Shankara's explanations and the Three Aspects are more or less similar. We will also explore how these two concepts of God relate to each other in this insight. 

The easiest way to explain the differences and connections between these understanding of God is by graphical presentation. First, lets look at God from the perspective of The Three Aspects. 

We will use the following deities to represent The Three Aspects:


Paramatma, for the purposes of this insight, is represented by Lord Nataraja. Depending on the Hindu sect Paramatma can be represented by any form of Lord Vishnu or Goddess Shakti.


Parashakti is represented as the Divine Light and the deity Ardhanarishwara, from whom emanates a halo of white light, representing Pure Consciousness and Pure Love; and the rainbow colours surrounding Ardhanarishwara represents Parashakti as the All-Pervasive substratum of Creation.


Parabrahman is represented by the Shivalingam superimposed in a background of outerspace, to represent the ultimate transcendent Reality that is God.

In a diagram The Three Aspects is represented as below:

The entirety of God is represented by the rectangular yellow border. The Three Aspects of God are insets within this border to indicate that the different Aspects are part of a singular Godhead.

Now lets look at the concept of the Trinity as it is generally understood. I use the words 'generally understood' because this general understanding is actually a misconception and I want to distinguish it from the true understanding of the Trinity. More on this later. The Trinity are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. 

In a diagram the Trinity will look like this:


Like the Three Aspects the yellow border around the deities represent Godhead. However each of the yellow borders are of different shades of yellow to indicate that in the concept of the Trinity, there are three Supreme Godheads. Not one Supreme Godhead as is in The Three Aspects. 

Because of this misunderstood concept of the Trinity, many Hindu academicians postulate that Hinduism is polytheistic instead of monotheistic. The concept of Hinduism being polytheistic continues to be propagated by Western or most Western educated academicians of Hinduism. I believe that they came to the conclusion that Hindus believe in many Supreme Gods because of the influence from their study of pre-Christian religions in Europe that were indeed polytheistic. When Western professors of Hinduism see the myriad of the form of Hindu deities, they make connections to the ancient European and Egyptian religions and draw the same conclusions for Hinduism. They all also make the mistake of trying to describe Hinduism as 'a' religion, instead of acknowledging that the term–Hinduism is a word to organize 4 distinct sects within the Hindu family of religions.

Thus this is how many academics of Hinduism view Hinduism; and if you challenged their postulations they will claim evidence from the Vedas. It is true that the Trinity, God as Creator, Preserver and Destroyer is described in the Vedas. However if you asked any Hindu guru about God, they will teach that there is only one Supreme God in Hinduism without excluding the Trinity. The gurus can also prove their claim in the Vedas and more importantly through their mystical experiences. The reason the gurus also can claim proof from he Vedas is because most academicians miss a crucial connection between the Trinity and the singular Godhead as taught in the Vedas.

To understand this connection between the Trinity and the one Supreme Godhead we will now look at Sri Adi Shankara's explanation of God. Sri Adi Shankara was a guru who was a master of the Vedas. His teachings are called Vedanta–the conclusions of the Vedas. As mentioned earlier, Adi Shankara teaches that God has two inseparable parts, they are Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman. 

Saguna Brahman is God with form. This includes any forms of Paramatma and Parashakti. Symbolically we will represent Saguna Brahman by combining Parashakti and Parabrahman. Nirguna Brahman is God who is formless. We will use the same symbol for Parabrahman to represent Nirguna Brahman.

This is how Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman will look in a diagram:


Lets look at the other two diagrams and draw comparisons:

hindu_3aspect_sml.jpg hindu_trinity_rsml.jpg
You can see the connection between the Three Aspects and Adi Shakara's explanation. They are similar except that the First and Second Aspects of the Three Aspects are contained within Adi Shankara's Saguna Brahman.

What about the Trinity? There seems to be no connection. In this comparison too, the postulations of the Trinity that suggests three Supreme Godheads is the main difference from the Three Aspects of God and Adi Shankara's Nirguna and Saguna Brahman. So if the Trinity as it is generally understood is a misconception, then what is the right perspective of the Trinity and how does it actually fit into The Three Aspects and Adi Shankara's explanation?

The Trinity, who are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are actually the functions of Paramatma as the Creator, Perserver and Destroyer. In the Vedas the One Supreme God is referred to as either Brahman or Ishwara. This is why Adi Shankara uses with word Brahman with Saguna and Nirguna. (Note that Brahman and Brahma are not synonymous) When verses in the Vedas are describing God as the Creator, Preserver or Destroyer, Brahman will take on the personality of Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva respectively. Thus the Trinity are not three separate Godheads but part of the function of the One Supreme Brahman. Following are verses from the Vedas and Agamas about the relationship between the Trinity to the One Supreme Godhead.

When He (The One) is tamas He is Rudra. When He is rajas He is Brahma. When He is sattva He is Vishnu.

Maitri Upanishad

Parameshvara is the cause of the Lord's five actions: emanation, srishti; preservation, sthiti; dissolution, samhara; concealment, tirobhava; and revelation, anugraha.
Raurava Agama

With this explanation of the Trinity, the following is how the Trinity can be included in the diagram of The Three Aspects and Adi Shankara's Nirguna and Saguna Brahman:

hindu_3trinity_bg hindu_saguna3_bg

Thus we can conclude that the Vedas teaches about the existence of One Supreme Godhead; and we can see how the Trinity is an aspect of the One.



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