Forms of the Formless - an Interpretive Study of the Indian Trinity

Article of the Month - May 2005

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.

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Formless, An Entity Beyond Form But Not Beyond Formal Manifestation

The massive presence of the Formless in arts is perhaps their greatest enigma, for what is widely perceived as formless arts perceive in myriad of forms. As is commonly believed, the form is destined to decay, dissolve and change and hence, can not be the frame of the Formless who is beyond dissolution and change and thus beyond time. Arts, however, seem to ignore this proposition. They have always seen in the form the instrument by which they could represent not only the formal but also the Formless and this is neither their blasphemy nor their revolt against the established position. Though by their fundamental nature arts are conditioned to use form even for representing the abstract, yet they perceive this duality- the Formless appearing with a form, persisting also in all things and in all systems of thought. The thinking mind- whether a discoursing Socrates or Plato in Greece, yajna performing Vedic seer in India or anyone in Mesopotamia, early Rome, Egypt or Israel, has perceived the formal existence as an ephemeral thing- the shadow of the 'real' or the creation of the Divine act. It has always seen the supreme reality as formless. But, in simultaneity, the creative mind of all these lands saw it manifest in form. These two positions, however, do not contradict each other. The one only claims that the form is incapable to contain the Formless, but the other claims that it is in the form that the Formless manifests. To Socrates, Plato or other rhetoricians of the ancient world, the Formless was beyond time and beyond perception; but the sculptor realized Him in his stone manifesting formally. The creative mind in primitive Mesopotamia, Egypt, polytheistic Greece or the monotheistic Rome discovered in the forms of Apollo, Hercules, Jupiter, Herakles, Minerva, Aphrodite, Juno, Venus, Peace and many others the male and the female aspects of the Divine. If Herakles represented to them the triumph of cosmos over chaos, Mesopotamian Pazuzu represented evil prevalent in the cosmos itself.

Indian Perception : Divine and Mortal Only Two Aspects of Existence

This duality of the ancient world- the rhetorician perceiving the Divine in one way and the artist in the other, did little prevail in India where the thinking and the creative mind had the common perception of the Divine. Despite that the Indian perception of the Divine image is more diversified- sometimes having the appearance of even the primitive polytheism, such diversity of the Divine image only represents her ethos and cohesive vision of existence and in them India discovers her great spiritual unity and the colors of her unique visual culture. In Indian perception, existence has two levels- the timeless and the time-bound. She visualizes the former- the timeless, as the Divine and the latter, as mortal. Thus, in Indian context, the Divines and the mortals do not represent two classes of beings but rather the cohesive vision of the two aspected existence. To the Indian mind, the Divines and mortals are just components of the same composite whole, which is existence. Obviously, they co-exist, whether visibly or otherwise, share each other's worlds and even overlap them. It is this perception of the Indian mind that leads to humanization of the Divine image- a perception that discovers the Divine in mortals and the aspects of the born ones in the Divine. As will be discussed later, it is this perception of the Indian mind that gives to her arts and theology myriad of personalized deity forms that discover the Divine in human role.

The Invisible Also Has Visible Presence

Besides, things that exist with a form are endowed with the formless aspects also. Vice verse, the things that exist beyond form are not without the formal appearance. Things, though they have their inherent fundamental nature which does not change, are neither absolutely manifest nor absolutely unmanifest. Clay is a materially existent entity, but, it has, besides its visible clay form, numerous other forms inherent in it- pot, plaque, brick and a lot more. These are the forms that the clay contains, but such forms are not visible and when any of these forms becomes visible, the original clay form vanishes. These forms comprise the invisible tally of the visible clay. Similarly, the presence of time, which is invisible, is every moment felt. A human face is only and ever a face and so is a wrinkled face. But, in common perception, the wrinkled face does not define the face-type- the old face or whatever; it defines rather the old age- the age, the time that manifests in wrinkles, which are visibly present. Thus, the entire existence has formal as well as formless levels. Of the two, the Indian art chooses its formal aspect for representing both, the Divine as also the mortal.

The Divine Manifesting in the Divine Role

More significant is the Indian perception of the cosmic act, to which whatever exists- the invisible or the visible, the timeless or the ephemeral, contributes. As perceives the Indian mind, cosmic activity is a totality and all things- the formal or the formless, are obliged to not only co-exist but also co-act, as it is in the action and not in inertness that the existence prevails. Thus, whether as the creator or as the created, in cosmic existence all things have a role. As such, an entity, even when it does not formally manifest, may manifest in the role that it accomplishes. Such cosmic activity has three aspects- the creation, the preservation and the dissolution. Creation is the one time Divine act, under which the cosmos came into being, as also a recurrent activity happening in things- the material and the non-material, whereby they take to new forms. Some systems of thought perceive it also as evolution. All things- the material or non-material, manifest or unmanifest or good or bad, by which the existence or life sustains, are aspects of preservation. Like creation, dissolution is also the one time as well as recurrent activity happening in all things, as before they take to new forms their old ones dissolve. These three aspects rotate in a cycle, which never ends and is thus eternal and absolute. This eternal and absolute activity is the attribute of the Formless, as it is only the total formlessness that prevails beyond time and to which neither may anything be added nor extracted from. Thus, three aspected cosmic act is the role of the Formless and it is only in such role that the Unmanifest manifests. The Indian tradition conceives the Great Trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as representing these three aspects and thereby the Unmanifest One- the Formless, in His triple aspected cosmic role.

The Holy Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh) (Audio CD)

In its form the Great Indian Trinity represents, thus, the Unmanifest manifesting formally. This triple aspected role is multi-dimensional involving various kinds of energies, the male and female in particular, and various levels of existence, the intrinsic as well as external and the good as well as evil. Initially, the Great Gods' Trio seems to have represented all kinds of energies and all levels of existence in their beings, but subsequently for a more elaborate and apt visualization of such aspects the Indian tradition discovered many more new forms, though only in subordination to the Great Trinity. Some of such forms have been conceived as the consorts or the female aspects of the Gods' Trio. Such aspects represented the female energy involved in cosmic activity. Some others of such forms were seen as incarnating the Great Gods' Trio for accomplishing different objectives, which required their appearance at various levels of existence- sometimes as human born, in animal form and sometimes such as required a blend of different elements and realms. Incarnation cult is the major thrust of Indian thought, as it is in different incarnations that the Indian mind discovers various aspects of life from as it is to as it should have been. There also evolved subordinate deity forms, the forms of beings who by their association with any of the Gods' Trio not only acquired a part of His divinity but also the divine heights and status. They also personified some aspect of the cosmic activity. All these disparate looking forms effect only the greater magnification of the Great Trinity and while representing the multi-dimensionality of the cosmic activity they only represented various forms of the Formless.

The Great Trinity


Creation is the foremost of the three aspected cosmic activity. Creation, which the popular mind considers as one of the three aspects of cosmic activity, is usually the one time divine act which brought the cosmos into being and which in the Great Trinity Brahma represents. Obviously, Brahma's role is massive but brief. He is hence contemplated to have the shortest span and has consequently a minor presence in scriptures as well as art. His independent appearance in art is very little. Wherever he appears, it is mostly in subordination to a theme, sometimes as one of the characters in a legend and sometimes as component in an abstract concept as in Khambavati Ragini.

Khambavati Ragini
Khambavati Ragini

Brahma has been conceived with four heads- the source of a number of myths, some of which abound in human frailties. In the course of creation, Brahma created Saraswati, obviously a daughter in the order of kinship. But, her enchanting beauty bewitched him. He looked at her with passion in eyes. To escape his lust, Saraswati ran from one direction to the other, but Brahma created a head on each of his four sides lest he lost sight of her. He also had a fifth head, which Shiva had later removed. Symbolically interpreted, such myths meant differently. The Creator was required to have before his eyes not only all four directions but also the sky above. Brahma, acclaimedly the author of Vedas, invariably carries in one of his four hands a book, while in others he carries pot, rosary, lotus, scepter and the like symbolising various aspects of his being.

Bhagawan Brahma - Large Size

Vaishnavite Line

Vishnu who represents in the Great Trinity sustenance or preservation, the ever continuing multi-dimensional aspect of cosmic activity, has a wider and multifarious role and correspondingly as numerous manifestations, each varying from the other. As the keeper of the cosmic order, Vishnu has been often represented in monarchical frame wearing a towering bejeweled crown, precious jewels, costume and the garland of celestial Parijata and carrying various weapons. 

Lord Vishnu on Sheshanaga

His primordial form, however, has associated with it his consort Lakshmi, the ocean of milk, where he reclines on the coils of the Great Serpent Shesh, the lotus rising from his navel with Brahma seated on it and so on and so forth. Lakshmi, or Shri is the riches, prosperity and fertility incarnate, something Vishnu could not do without. Serpent Shesh stood for formidability and hence defined timeless existence and the ocean of milk for the life-giving nectar. After the cosmos had been created, Brahma's role had merged into that of Vishnu. This reduced Brahma to a subordinate position, which this Vaishnava analogy symbolically reveals.

Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu (Dashavatar)

The Vedas perceive Vishnu as the one who spanned the entire cosmos in three strides. This corresponds to the Sanskrit root vyapta, from which the term Vishnu developed. Vyapta meant all pervading, something present in all things and all beings as also beyond them all. Obviously, myriad are his forms and as many his ways wherein the creation seeks to sustain. Thus, whatever helps things sustain is treated as an aspect of Vishnu and sometimes as incarnating him. Hence, the number of his incarnations varies from ten to many thousands, although it is his ten and twenty-four incarnation cult that has wider sanction. Arts, to also include miniature art, represent him either in his primordial form or in one of his ten or twenty-four incarnations.

Dashavatara - The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu (Set of Ten Paintings)

The ten incarnation cult is, however, more popular.

Lord Vishnu in His Cosmic Magnification

Vishnu's role, in his early incarnations of which first three are in animal forms and the fourth a mix of man and lion, is restricted to accomplishing one object each time. In his seventh incarnation as Rama this role widens to include, besides eradicating evil, the representation of the ideals for personal living and the model of the ideal statehood. Around the story of Rama there creep up a number of independent legends and also subordinate deity forms, which add further dimensions to Vaishnava cult. The monkey god Hanuman, Rama's aide, though a subordinate god largely in folk tradition, is as much in popular worship as is Rama himself. He has a greater number of shrines in his name than Rama himself has.

 Shri Jagannatha in King's Costume (Raja Vesha)

 It is, however, in Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, that arts, particularly the medieval painting, discover the ultimate of Vaishnavism. Krishna incarnates Vishnu as a lowborn gwala, a cowherd boy, rising to godly heights during his incarnation tenure itself. He sings, blows flute, dances, wears peacock feathers as his crest, plays tricks, steals butter, indulges in sensuous games of love making, breaks traditions, faces all calamities that come into his way and undoes them, protects his fellow beings and their cows from nature's wrath, subdues evil- the venom emitting serpent and all devouring forest fire, and eradicates the wicked ones- men, animals and forces of nature. He accomplishes what his loved ones and devotees desire, saves them from disgrace, undertakes diplomatic missions, leads wars and battles and composes, in the battlefield itself, the timeless rhetoric, now known as Bhagawat-Gita, to liberate the born ones not only from fears and fallacies but also from the cycle of births and deaths. Krishna represents every shade and color of life in its glory as also in gloom. Hence, as in life, so in arts, the artist discovers in Krishna the ultimate model for representing all that the life affords- all its songs, symphonies, situations of love and life and so on. He discovers in him man's strength and frailties, passions and emotions and all that connects him with the flesh and the earth. Of all incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna was the earliest to have been deified and enshrined. Some of his shrines, the Pîtha- such as Puri in Orissa, Nathdwara in Rajasthan, Dwarika in Gujarat and so on, developed their own iconic distinction of Krishna's deity form.

21" x 27" Padmasana Gajalakshmi Tanjore Painting | Traditional Colors With 24K Gold | Teakwood Frame | Gold & Wood | Handmade | Made In India

The female aspect of Vishnu has been personified as Lakshmi, variedly named also as Mahalakshmi, Shri, Padmavati, Kamala, Dharini, Vaishnavi, Narayani and so on. She represents riches, prosperity, fertility, good crop, good fortune, magnificence and beauty in life. In her votive icons Lakshmi has been perceived as four armed, though in her aesthetic representations she is usually conceived with normal two arms. She is perceived as having golden complexion and as wearing rich costume, large bejeweled crown, precious stones and garland of Parijata flowers. Lotus is invariably associated with her. She either carries lotuses in one or two of her hands or is seated or stands on a lotus flower. So she has associated with her pot and elephant. With elephants in attendance, she is also called Gaja-Lakshmi.

Krishna Combing Radha’s Hair

A few shrines are also dedicated to her independently, though instead she more often appears with her lord Vishnu, also known as Narayana. Most of the shrines enshrining Vishnu and Lakshmi are known as Lakshmi-Narayana temples. In his incarnation as Rama, Sita was his consort. Sita represented a different dimension of Lakshmi. In her manifested the highest level of chastity to prove which she even undertakes fire ordeal. Though deified, she is not in popular worship. In his incarnation as Krishna Lakshmi appears as Radha and symbolizes in her being the highest form of love, in which the mundane is seen sublimating to spiritual heights.

Shaivite Line

Like creation, dissolution or destruction is also the one time act but Shiva, who represents it in the Great Trinity, has been conceived with an unending tenure- as Sadashiva, obviously, because for effecting dissolution he has to be there not only till dissolution takes place but also beyond it.

Sadashiva (Five-Headed Shiva)

Thus, Shiva prevails before dissolution and also after it. It is a position different from that of Brahma and Vishnu. As Brahma reduces into a subordinate presence after his role of creation is over, so reduces Vishnu to the form of a child just of the size of a fig leaf after the creation dissolves.

27" x 33" Large Dancing Shiva with Devi Parvati Tanjore Painting | Traditional Colors With 24K Gold | Teakwood Frame | Gold & Wood | Handmade | Made In India

He is able to overcome his indolence and grow out of his juvenescence only after the primordial energy-Mahadevi, the female aspect of Sadashiva, reveals to him as to who he was and what for he was there. Vishnu then creates Brahma who lets the cosmos come into existence. Shiva, as he is Sadashiva, neither grows nor reduces from one form into the other. The multi-dimensionality with which he has been conceived is simply unique. Vishnu does not come out of his monarchical frame but Shiva is beyond all forms, or rather he fits in all frames except that of a monarch. He dances with alike fervor to dissolve the cosmos, to annihilate Tripura and to delight his consort as also his devotees.

Kali, Mahakali or Shmashana-Kali

He is as great a divine lover as Krishna, but unlike Krishna who indulges also in love with Gopis other than Radha and with a number of his consorts, Shiva's love is only his consort Parvati. Even when Parvati takes to other forms, as Kali, Mahakali or Smashan-Kali, Shiva's union with her is only as a passive agent- often defined as 'Shava'.

Shiva and Family

Obviously, the plurality of love-partners is a thing foreign to Shiva's cult. He is the model husband and the model father and the Shiva family presents the highest example of the ideal family life. The Bhole Nath, the simplest one, as he is popularly revered, is the perception of the simple artless Divine. He may be discovered passing a shivering cold under a tree, beside a hill or just around a roadside along with his family and pets and with absolute satisfaction.

The Creation Of Devi

Devi, the most complex and the most powerful Divine female, is seen variedly sometimes as the primordial energy, which like Sadashiva has always prevailed and sometimes as the female power, which gods created out of themselves.

In Indian pantheon hers is perhaps the earliest appearance. She has many features in common with the Indus mother goddess. Her association with Shiva is another pointer of her early inception as Shiva himself is a pre-Vedic deity. All female deity forms are her forms, though more popularly she is associated with Shaivite female deity forms, mainly, Parvati, Durga, Kali, Mahakali or Shamshan Kali, Chamunda, Chhinnamasta and many more. As in Vaishnava line Hanuman is the most popular subordinate deity, Ganesh is in Shaivite line. Shiva's other son Karttikeya is also widely worshipped primarily in South. Thus, each of the divine forms- whether discovered locally by the believing mind or conceived by theologians, reveals an aspect of cosmic activity and thereby represents the Great Trinity, which is the manifest form of the Formless. Trinity, far from being a group of three disparate Gods, defines not only the unity of the Formless or that of the cosmic activity but also of the Indian mind. Over a period of time, this perception of the Formless with myriad of forms has given to India her unique visual culture. Though it was the idea out of which the image was born, but in the course of time the image emerged as the foremost and the idea slipped down to the secondary position. This visual culture has been so strong that even Buddhism and Jainism that did not support, or rather rejected, the theory of three aspected Divinity or three aspected cosmic activity, not only deified Buddha and Tirthankaras but also created their visual images for worship.

References and Further Reading

Rigveda, Bhandarkar Institute Poona.
Shiva Purana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Vishnu Purana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
Markandeya Purana, Devi Mahatmya part, Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, 10th Canto, Gita Press Gorakhpur.
Manifestations of Shiva, Stella Kramrisch, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Art of Indian Asia (Vol. 1 &2), Heinrich Zimmer, Bollingen Series.
The Enduring Image : Ed. T. Richard Blurton, The British Council.
Devi : The Great Goddess, Vidya Dahejia, Mapin, Ahmedabad.
Indian Mythology, Veronica Lons, Prakash Books, New Delhi.
Krishna : Raga Se Viraga Taka, Dr. Daljeet & P.C. Jain, Aravali Books, New Delhi.

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  • as i am a great worshipper of lord shiva, i feel myself in all the stories narrated above...~OM NAMAH SHIVAYA RUDRAYA NAMAHA~
    sandia October 13, 2008
  • Simply suberb!!
    Dr. Raj Bawa October 30, 2007
  • very interesting and informative.such articles are the need of the day to enlighten the the followers about their religious concepts.
    satpal amar October 29, 2006
  • I believe the three-headed elephant Airavan who supports Indra's throne is a manifestation of Trimurti. Buddhism maintains that the gods were converted by a speech Buddha made to them from this seat. A Buddhist statue in my possession depicts this, but with Airavan flanked L an R by two horses - possibly Badhavagni and Kalki - the Vishnu avatars from the beginning and end of the world.
    Ian July 16, 2006
  • Very informative and a beatiful teaching aid especially in Kaliyug where people have lost their hertage in the race towards materialism.
    Dr.Chandra Prakash July 27, 2005
  • Ohh my devine Lady. My enigmatic form of Venus. You are a real creation. My mind can't imagine more beautiful than you, when you manifest your personality invisible form. Let my eyes look your loveliness.
    Markku Zuban, Finland July 17, 2005
  • Most informative! Please keep up the good work in providing such valuble resources
    arul June 10, 2005
  • An excellent, informative, and teaching article. Thank you for your work given freely to all.
    Billy Name-Linich May 18, 2005
  • Very interesting info about the Great trinity. Keep up the good work. Hope to see more of these…
    Neela May 17, 2005