Number three has been considered sacred for over many centuries throughout the world. Its depictions of the triads, triplicates and trinities have also existed in many cultures with various interpretations.
The possible oldest interpretation of the number three is that it represents completion, and many cultures today still interpret it as such—that is, something which has gone through its beginning, middle, and its end. The number three could then be interpreted as the number of reproduction or the continuation of things. From the union of oneness (1) and duality (2) comes the triad (3). The number three could then be interpreted as the number of reproduction or the continuation of things. All of the other numbers proceed from these first three numbers and from this primordial triangle all figures derive.
Triads, Triplicities and Trinities
The most popular depiction of the sacred number three in the myths and iconographies of the ancient world was that of the so-called “triple goddesses” or “triple deities”, a term popularized by Robert Graves in the 20th century. There are three different words to define these groups of three. They are: triads, triplicities, and trinities.
A “triad” refers to three separate concepts or beings that are united in some relationship. An example of this is the three Greek gods Zeus, Neptune, and Hades, who are related by their dominion over the three realms of the cosmos: the sky, the sea, and the underworld. Although as a group, the triad expresses some sense of completeness or perfection, it does not express unity. The members of the triad completely retain their individuality and dominant characteristics. An example from Asian mythology is that of the Tridevi: Lakshmi, Parvati and Sarasvati, who are mostly worshipped individually, but brought together as a triad due to their roles as consorts of the Hindu Trimurti.
Sarasvati, Parvati, and Lakshmi, the Tridevi. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A “triplicity” refers to one concept or being which has three forms. Examples of this include the early versions of the goddess Hecate, who appeared in early Greek art as three identical maidens standing around a pillar. In a triplicity, the group itself overshadows the individuality of its members. The individual members of a triplicity show complete unity under the banner of the group identity, thus they appear identical or nearly-identical.
Triple-formed representation of the Greek goddess Hecate. (Public Domain)
The trinity stands between these two opposite definitions. A trinity refers to one being with three distinguishable “persons” or aspects. In a trinity, although the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the identity of the whole does not consume the identity of the parts. The best example of a trinity is the Christian “Trinity”: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Another example is the Hindu Trimurti, the three aspects of the ultimate reality which are creation, preservation and destruction.
A representation of the Christian Holy Trinity. The persons of the Trinity are identified by symbols on their chests: The Son has a lamb, the Father, an Eye of Providence, and the Spirit a dove. (Public Domain)
The Triple Deity
“The Triple Goddesses” or “the Triple Deity”, is a term first popularized by Robert Graves in the 20th century, depicting the triplicity as Maiden, Mother and Crone.
Terracotta relief of the three Matres, from Bibracte, city of the Aedui in Gaul. (Public Domain)
The triplicity then changed in later depictions of the three women as they were then given more distinct visual identities in works of arts, thus making them a trinity. While some scholars dismissed the idea of “The Triple Goddesses” as Graves’ imagination, recent archaeology has made it clear that the concept of three goddesses, or at least three concepts or ideals, whether they are bound together as a triad, triplicity or a trinity, are to be found throughout ancient Europe, Africa and Asia.
The Mother and the Daughter, or Maiden, are typified by Demeter and Persephone, or Kore (maiden). The term "crone" in the triple goddess does not originally signify an old woman. Indeed, many ancient images of the Triple Goddess do not include an old woman. "Crone" comes from Greek cronos, which means time. Thus the significance of the crone is identical to that of the goddess Kali from India, which comes from the Sanskrit word kala, also meaning time.
A Tamil depiction of Kali, Hindu Goddess. 12th century, Bronze. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Mother’s role is that as the creator, as she is the one who has brought all things into being. The story of Demeter’s depression and neglect towards the earth when Kore was taken to the underworld and became Persephone implies a belief that if the universe were ever truly separated from the Mother, who is the creator and the source of being, it would cease to exist. Therefore, the cosmic function of the Daughter is to mediate the Mother to the created world, maintaining their relationship and prevent them from ever truly separating. However, as everything must end, the Crone is the one who represents the destruction, or the end.
While this ancient trinity is often compared to the Christian Trinity, it is closer in its roles to the Hindu Trimurti. As with the Trimurti, the Mother, Daughter and Crone are respectively the creator, preserver and destroyer of the worlds. This is also reflected in such triple figures as the Three Fates of ancient Greece or Teutonic Norns, who are respectively the Spinner (creator), Weaver (preserver) and Cutter (destroyer) of the thread of life.
The Norns and the Thread of Life. (Public Domain)
The Evolution of the Trimurti
The Vedas, the primary sacred books of the Hindus, described the creation process as unfolding, maintaining, and concluding as in birth, life and death.
Illustration depicts Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva seated on their respective mounts. (Public Domain)
In Indian art, the Trimurti, which is Sanskrit for ‘having three forms’, is often used iconographically to represent the divine. The Trimurti is seen as the Hindu trinity, the three manifestations of the Supreme Being, represented by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu symbolizes preservation, and Shiva symbolizes disintegration or regeneration. The Trimurti is generally represented as emerging from the body of the rock as a high relief. Thus the Trimurti is always associated with the ground, or rock. This depiction represents the wholeness of the three which represents emergence, fullness and dissolution.
The Hindu Trinity, or Triveda - Brahma, Siva, Vishnu - Hoysaleswara temple. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The origins of the Trimurti can be traced back to the the Rigveda (the first of the four Vedas. The others are Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvanaveda), where the earliest expression of god in three aspects is found. Here, the three have been symbolized by the three forms of the fire god Agni – the celestial, atmospheric and terrestrial fire. The fire trinity is therefore the sun god Surya, who represents the celestial fire, the storm god Indra representing the atmospheric fire, and the fire god Agni himself representing the terrestrial fire. This leads to another interpretation of the Trimurti, which is that of Brahma representing the creative energy, Vishnu then represents the creative energy’s perpetual activity and Siva represents the final outcome of the creative energy in the cosmos. In this interpretation, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva take over the roles of Agni, Surya and Indra, respectively.
Agni, the Hindu fire deity. (Public Domain)
It was not until the arrival of the Padma-purana, a large corpus of mythical and historical Hindu texts, that the Trimuti became a standard teaching. The Padma-purana explains the origin of the three modalities of the one Supreme Being. In order to form this world, the supreme spirit produced Brahma on his right side. In order to maintain the world, he created Vishnu from his left side. To destroy the world, he gave rise to Shiva from his middle. This is the first explicit statement of the three gods' essential oneness as constituents of the supreme principle.
The Triad of Consorts
The consorts of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva became a triad, called the Tridevi (‘the Three Goddesses’) based on their relationships with the Trimurti. They are Sarasvati (goddess of knowledge and consort of Brahma), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and consort of Vishnu), and Parvati (goddess of power and consort of Shiva). Being a triad, the three goddesses are commonly worshipped individually and as duos with their husbands as befitting their roles as consorts in maintaining the balance of the world, working in tandem with their spouses.
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva seated on lotuses with their consorts, Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati respectively. ca 1770. Guler, India. (Public Domain)
Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, is the Hindu Goddess of wealth, luck and prosperity. Representations of Lakshmi, sometimes known as Devi Shri, are also found in Buddhist and Jain monuments. Lakshmi is often depicted as a beautiful woman dressed in rich red silk, fully ornamented in gold and precious stones, seated on a full-bloomed lotus, holding lotus buds in two of her hands, a pot of gold in the third and the fourth blessing all those who come to her. Her four arms and what they are holding represents balance between the material and the spiritual worlds.
In her depiction with her husband, Lakshmi often depicted as being seated on the Adishesha (bed of snakes), along with Vishnu. The Adishesha is a massive snake that floats coiled in space, or on the universal ocean, to form the bed on which Vishnu lies. According to the Hindu tradition, the Shesha is the king of all the Nagas, (serpents), and is one of the primal beings in creation itself. The Bhagavata Purana quotes him as an avatar of the Supreme God, known as Sankarshan.
Brahma and Shesha of Hindu creation mythology. (Public Domain)
Parvati, consort of Shiva, is a representation of the ultimate female divinity, the Shakti. In spite of her being a benign mother goddess, she is known for unleashing her true power and strength in times of crisis. Parvati is also known to take on more powerful and fearful aspects such as Kali, Durga, Chandi and the Mahavidyas.
Though Parvati does not make an appearance in Vedic literature, the Kena Upanishad talks about Uma-Haimavati, who manifests as Shakti, the feminine energy of the Supreme Being. The classic Indian epic poetries, Ramayana and Mahabharata, both mention Parvati as Shiva's consort. Writings such as Kalidasa (5 CE) and the Puranas (c. 4-13 CE) relate in detail stories of Parvati, her previous incarnation as Sati, and Shiva with comprehensive details.
More popular than Parvati herself, are her other aspects of Durga or Kali. Durga is universally venerated as the Warrior Goddess, who manifested in order to destroy the demon, Mahisha. Her vehicle is a tiger or, sometimes, a lion. Tibetans venerated a type of lioness, called Seng-ge-dkar-mi-gyu-ral-can. It is possible that the idea of this animal being Parvati's mount stemmed from an overlap between the tribal religions of India and the Tibetan Bon Religion, particularly in the Himalayan region. Some sects such as the Mahagauri sect depict her riding Shiva's mount, the Sacred Bull, Nandi. Parvati is considered to be an ascetic and mystic. Some depictions of her show her wearing her hair in a severe top knot, much like an ascetic.
Durga, Slayer of the Buffalo Demon (Public Domain)
Sarasvati, consort of Brahma, is the Hindu goddess of learning and knowledge. An older interpretation of Sarasvati identified her as a river goddess, connecting her to the ancient Sarasvati River in the hymns of the Rigveda. Modern satellite mapping still shows images of the once mighty river still flowing as a small channel near Kurukshetra. Further, a signboard on the main highway (the GT road) marks the former path of the once great ancient river Sarasvati.
In the post-Vedic age, Sarasvati began to lose her status as a river goddess and became increasingly associated with literature, arts, music, etc. The name “Sarasvati” means "the one who flows", which is applicable to thoughts, words, or the flow of a river.
Sarasvati is also prominently features in Mahayana Buddhism, where she initially manifests in a Mahayana Sutra of the late fourth or early fifth century. The four arms of Sarasvati represent the four aspects of human personality in learning: mind, intellect, alertness, and ego. Alternatively, these four arms also represent the four Vedas.
The 3 Treasures and the 3 Jewels
Other Asian traditions also value the number three as representations of concepts or ideals, although they do not necessarily attach these concepts to deities.
Taoists value the number three because the Taoist principle to immortality is derived from Sanbao, or the Three Treasures of the Universe. The three treasures of the universe are Heaven, Earth, and Mankind. And each of these “treasures” contains its own three treasures. The three treasures of Heaven are the sun, moon, and stars. The three treasures of Earth are fire, water, and air. The three treasures of mankind are chi, jing and shen.
Buddhist symbol representing the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Three Treasures first occurs in chapter 67 of Tao Te Ching. The Three Treasures are the three rules that formed the practical and political side of the teaching of Taoism. They are the absence of aggressive war and capital punishment, the absolute simplicity of living, and the refusal to assert active authority.
The first of the Three Treasures is Chi. The Chinese character used for chi means love and compassion. Chi is also a classical Chinese term for “Mother”. Chapters 18 and 19 of Tao Te Ching associate Chi with xiao (filial love or filial piety). The second is Jian. The character for Jian means moderation and restraint. Therefore, jian stands for the simplicity of desire. The third treasure, Shen, means humility and not being first or ahead in the world. This is the Taoist way to avoid premature death. To be at the world's front is to expose oneself, to render oneself vulnerable to the world's destructive forces, while to remain behind and to be humble is to allow oneself time to fully ripen and bear fruit.
Buddhism has a slightly different three treasures from Taoism, called the Triatna (the Three Jewels). The Triatna are: The Buddha (the person of the Sakyamuni Buddha), the Dharma (the teachings that describe Buddhist belief) and the Sangha (the people who follow the Buddha and his teachings).
Statue of Buddha (Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Mirror, The Sword, and The Jewel
The significance of number three in Asia spread beyond mythology and religion. The Imperial Family of Japan identified with Three Sacred Treasures: the mirror, the sword and the jewel. According to Japanese mythology, the three sacred treasures were given by Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and then passed along the imperial line. They are believed to be the creations of the age of the ancestral gods, emblems of the gods which were transferred to the rulers of Japan to legitimize their power. Therefore, the Three Sacred Treasures have been carefully preserved throughout the ages by the Imperial family. The mirror, sword and jewel represent truth, courage and compassion respectively.
Amaterasu emerging out of a cave. 1857. (Public Domain)
The legends in the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) both say that the Three Sacred Treasures have existed since the dawn of the Nara Period. They appear in history more than three hundred years after the reign of Ojin (362-394 CE).
The roots of the mirror lie in China. Han Chinese mirrors were common in northwestern Kyushu by Middle Yayoi, though these were preceded by mirrors from Korea a bit earlier. In the Yamato age it became associated with the supreme goddess, Amaterasu, ancestor of the emperor.
The Three Treasures: Sword, Mirror and Jewel (Public Domain)
Bronze swords and spears were imported from Korea from the end of the Early Yayoi period. Later ritual forms of the weapons were manufactured in Japan and are commonly found in Yayoi sites — spears in northwestern Kyushu and swords in western Honshu and Shikoku. Swords were symbols of spiritual authority in Japan, similar to Excalibur in Europe.
Jewels are commonly found in Kofun Period burials, and are common also in Korean sites of the same age. The Jewel is said to represent the soul. Tama in Japanese means jewel or ball. However, it also means soul (as in tamashi, the Japanese word for soul or spirit).
By the Middle Yayoi period, the mirror, the sword and the jewel were already considered important religious symbols. They then gradually evolved to also indicate a supreme authority. In the government the Three Sacred Treasures also symbolize the administrative authority (the mirror), the armed forces (the sword) and the religious authorities (the jewel). Of these authorities, the Japanese emperor, the keeper of these three treasures, is formally the head. In modern day Japan, the mirror is placed in Ise Jingu, the sword at Atsuta Jinja and the jewel in the imperial palace in Tokyo.
Featured image: An idol of Durga Pooja, comprising Goddess Durga, her daughters Laxmi, Saraswati and her sons Ganesha, Karitik (Public Domain)
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