Q: How does the Hindu concept of the Trinity differ from that of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity ?
A: Hinduism has a trinity—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—and Christianity has a trinity— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Different names, same idea, right? Well, not quite. Though we should be aware of the clear similarities, there are also some important differences. Let me begin by delineating the doctrines in each of the two religions.
The Christian doctrine of the trinity is a model used by early Christians in order to make sense of the teachings of the Christian New Testament. There are two basic data that the model needed to accommodate. First is the assertion of monotheism, the fact that there is only one God. Christianity does not teach that there are three Gods, but, just like Judaism or Islam, holds that there is only one God who is simple and indivisible. That is to say, you can neither multiply him into more than one God nor divide him up into parts. He is the personal God who created the universe and continues to direct it. But second, there is also the fact that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each referred to as “God” in the New Testament. So, there is only one God, and yet each of these three is called “God.”
So, in order to find some way of putting these biblical data together, the theologians of the early church came up with the idea of the trinity. They declared that there is only one God and stated this fact by saying that there is only one divine nature (or “substance” or “essence”—the terms are not as important as the concepts). Then they went on to stipulate that this one nature expresses itself in three distinct persons, that is to say, three centers of identity. Thus, they insisted that we must observe two different categories, one for expressing the unity of God, the other for expressing the three-ness of the persons. To mix them up, such as saying that there is one God in three Gods or that there is one person in three persons, would be to say something that is both rationally incoherent and not in keeping with the data of the Bible. The correct definition for the Christian trinity is that there is one God eternally in three persons—never, ever, ever three Gods.
Well, as anyone can see simply by scouting around this webpage, in Hinduism things are never as straightforward. There is a doctrine of a trinity; in fact, there are many different beliefs concerning a trinity in various phases of Hinduism. It all depends on whom you ask. Of course, a particular person coming out of a specific tradition may say that his or hers is the correct way of understanding the Hindu trinity, but there is no official formulation of the doctrine as there is for Christianity.
One of the most common ways of understanding the Hindu trinity occurs within a Vedantic/monistic model; certainly insofar as Hindu philosophy has been exported to the contemporary world, this is the most widespread model. It is frequently called the “trimurti”—the “three-forms” of God. In this interpretation, there is only one God, the all-pervading impersonal reality called Brahman (note the “n” at the end of the word, of you will get really confused in a moment). Brahman is beyond all human categories of language and logic; it is the infinite true reality behind all of reality. Nothing that we can think of with our minds, such as our bodies, souls, the world, the gods, and so forth, is actually truly Brahman. (This branch of Hinduism goes on to say that our spiritual fulfillment consists of finding Brahman deep within our spiritual selves, our atman, but this is not relevant to our present discussion.)
In this version of the trimurti, Brahman, the infinite reality, has manifested itself particularly in three gods: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Brahma (note now that there is no “n”) is the one who created the physical universe. He performs the role of Prajapati or Ishvara, as it is referred to in other forms of Hinduism, by creating the universe many eras ago (typically, Hindus think of this event as occurring many billions of years in the past). Vishnu’s job is to preserve the universe. His assignment is not only to sustain the world in a physical sense, but also to make sure that the sentient beings in it will observe the dharma, the proper way of life. Any trespass against the dharma will also cause the total spiritual and physical energy of the cosmos to run down. When the process of deterioration is complete (and most Hindus would say we are very close), Shiva will destroy everything, but only so that Brahma can create a new world and the entire cycle can begin again. In the meantime, all three of these gods carry out many other important religious functions as well, serving as objects of worship for their devotees. And, of course, in various ways the myriad of further Hindu gods all issue from these three.
This, then, is one important Hindu understanding of the trimurti: the impersonal Brahman manifested in the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. We can see the clear distinction to Christianity: one impersonal God in three gods vs. one personal God in three persons. But this is only the beginning of the story.
People with a closer understanding of Hinduism know that the impersonal Vedantic/monistic school is only one version of the religion, and that for many (perhaps the majority of) Hindus, the highest form of God is, in fact, personal. This is true, for example, for the many Hindus who worship Shiva or Vishnu and his avatars (such as Rama or Krishna) as their supreme deity. There would still be a trimurti, but it would be more of a collegial arrangement in which one’s highest god is seen as the main god, and the other two are his associates who ultimately derive their standing from him. Rather than there being three gods who are one Brahman, there are three gods, who are actually just one of the three. For example, there is a famous purana in which Vishnu and Brahma debate which one of them is superior to the other. As they are carrying on, they are suddenly confronted with a manifestation of Shiva’s lingam, which extends an infinite distance up and an infinite distance down, thus demonstrating to the other two gods how vastly superior he is to them and that they ultimately derive their being from him. Thus, in this case, the trimurti is Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva, all three of whom are in reality Shiva. Similar adaptations would be made by those who recognize Vishnu as their highest God in his various forms.
But this is not all. Many Hindus recognize the crucial importance of the goddess—devi—among the Hindu gods. After all, she is the shakti, the empowerment of the gods. At the same time, the importance of Brahma in Hindu devotional practice is not that great, and so the goddess has taken the place of Brahma in the triad of important deities. Consequently, many people, such as the scholar Heinrich Zimmer, believe that the true Hindu trimurti today is Vishnu, Shiva, devi, where the devi will then be a specific goddess, e.g., Parvati, Lakshmi, Durga, or Kali. In a number of Hindu traditions, it is the goddess who is supreme. Thus we would have a trimurti of three deities (one of them female), one of whom is the source of the other two.
Specific examples could go on. Hinduism is as fluid on this point as it is on many others since it has never pretended to be a uniform doctrinal system. In sum, these are some of the models:
Christian: one personal God in three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit);
Vedantic/monistic: the impersonal Brahman manifested as three gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva);
Personal Hindu: three gods, one of whom is the origin of the other two (e.g., Shiva manifesting himself as Brahman and Vishnu);
Later personal Hindu: two gods and one goddess; sometimes the goddess is seen as the origin of the gods, as in some Shaktite schools.
So, which understanding of the trinity is the right one? Let me just make one preliminary remark on that issue. Surely it’s not a matter of personal preference. I like this idea of a trinity, so that one must be the right one, while you like some other one, and so that must be the right one. Nor can it be a matter of logic or reason alone. The first step in addressing this matter has to be to figure out what our basis for deciding is going to be. And that comes down to recognizing divine revelation. It’s not what I want to believe that counts, but what God wants me to believe. For Christians, the reality of the trinity begins with the fact that God has shown himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ who demonstrated his deity in his death and resurrection.