The Hindu trinity refers, informally, to the cosmological pantheon of Hinduism. This pantheon is comprised of Hinduism’s three principal deities, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In Sanskrit, these three deities are referred to as the Trimurti, or ‘three forms.’ Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva each play an integral role in the running of the cosmos.
Commonly accepted Hindu cosmology holds that in the time between cosmic cycles, Vishnu lays asleep in the cosmic ocean. This ocean is known as the Garbhodaka Ocean. Vishnu’s sleep is a cosmic slumber embodied by the goddess Yoganidra. His bed is the back of a great serpent deity known as a Naga. This Naga’s name is Sesa, which means the “remainder.” In other words, Vishnu sleeps on what remains after the end of the last cosmic cycle.
The cosmic cycle is set in motion when a lotus with one thousand petals sprouts out of the navel of Vishnu. In the middle of the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma looks in the four directions, observing the cosmic ocean, and then creates the world. Once the world is created, Vishnu sustains it. He does this primarily through preserving dharma, the Hindu concept of truth and virtue.
Vishnu maintains the world for a period of time known as a Brahma Day. Nearing the end of the Brahma Day, Shiva takes the form of Nataraja, and dances the cosmic dance of destruction, known as the ananda natanam. After the destruction, there is a period of 311.04 trillion years of nothingness. This is the period of time during which Vishnu lays asleep on the back of Sesa. Nothingness persists as Vishnu remains asleep in the cosmic ocean, the Garbhodaka Ocean, under the spell of Yoganidra. The period of nothingness ends when Yoganidra lifts her spell, Vishnu awakens, another thousand-petal lotus sprouts from his navel and blooms to reveal Brahma inside.
When discussing Hindu deities, it is important to remember that the hierarchy of the Hindu pantheon is not fixed. In other words, when one speaks of the Hindu trinity, it is a loose organization that is being referred to. Aside from the Trimurti, or Hindu trinity, there are other ideas regarding the hierarchical organization of the deities, and these are equally valid under the umbrella of Hinduism. For example, various schools of thought hold one of the members of the Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva triad above the rest. Vaishnavism devotes to Vishnu, and Shaivism to Shiva.
Another popular school of thought, Smartism, focuses on five deities. These are Vishnu, Shiva, Shiva’s son Ganesha, the great goddess Devi, and the solar deity Surya. Shaktism devotes to Maha Devi, the great goddess. The Hare Krishna devotees hold Krishna above Vishnu, despite the fact that within the generally accepted cosmological structure, Krishna is an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu.
As this varied information suggests, the idea of the Hindu trinity, while it is certainly a solid and widely accepted view of the Hindu pantheon, is not the only view. Perhaps the name alone brings conflict, since it suggests similarity to the Holy Trinity of Christianity. In this sense, the term Hindu trinity is a misnomer, and other terms continue to be coined and used to indicate the three-part system of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Perhaps the most appropriate of these is the Sanskrit term Trimurti, rather than the interpreted term, Hindu trinity.