Sounds of laughter, shades of life are ringing through my opened ears
Inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe
Jai Guru Deva…..Om– The Beatles, “Across the Universe” (1969)(Lyrics by John Lennon)
The most sacred of the holy mantras in the Hindu scriptures, “Om” signifies the essence of the ultimate reality or soul. Hinduism believes it to be the mystical primordial sound from the vibration of which the entire universe emanates. This powerful word / sound is extensively applied not just in Hinduism but also in Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is also an integral part of yoga and meditation techniques.
“Om” has fascinated religious scholars, thinkers and yoga practitioners for millennia. But it’s not one sound – it’s actually three. Also spelt as “aum”, the three letters in sequence depict the three distinct sounds that make up the mantra – ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘m’. Using a deep breath, each of these sounds is elongated while saying the word out loud.
Different sets of meanings are assigned to the three sounds. Hinduism believes that the three sounds represent:
- the three stages of life – birth, life and death
- the “Trimurti” – the three Hindu gods Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer), respectively representing these three ‘cosmic’ functions
- the the past, present and future
- the three states of consciousness – wakefulness, dreaming and dreamless sleep
- the three Vedas (Rigveda, Samaveda and Yajurveda; the ‘fourth’ Veda, Atharvaveda, is very different from the first three, and some scholars don’t even consider it a Veda)
Interestingly, “Om” is believed by some to be the root of “Hum” of the Tibetans, “Amin” of Islam and also “Amen” of Christianity.
Christianity has the doctrine of the Trinity, the “Father”, the “Son” and the “Holy Spirit”. In this doctrine, God exists as three ‘persons’, but each with the identical essence or nature, and coalescing into the omnipotent God.
While the developed doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly expressed in the books of the New Testament, it does refer to a ‘triadic’ understanding of God. This has led to the debate that Christianity ‘adopted’ the Trinity from earlier religions, as the worship of pagan gods grouped in triads was common in ancient cultures as far back as Babylonia. The theory goes that after the death of the Apostles, such pagan beliefs (from Egypt, Greece and Rome) began to ‘invade’ Christianity, and led to the development of the ‘incomprehensible’ Trinity.
Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. . . . From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity.
– Will Durant (1885-1981), American writer, historian and philosopher
Tritheism is the belief that divinity is composed of three powerful entities. Three gods are envisioned as having separate domains and spheres of influence, but they coalesce into an omnipotent whole.
Looking through mythologies, we find innumerable instances of triple deities. Some examples:
- Egyptian Osirian triad: Osiris (father), Isis (wife) and Horus (son) (pictured)
- Greek mother goddesses: Hera, Demeter and Aphrodite
- Greek goddess Hera’s three forms: Pais (maiden), Teleia (wife), Chera (widow)
- Greek goddess Aphrodite also had three forms
- Greek (they really had many!) Olympian triad: Zeus (father), Athena (mother) and Apollo (son)
- Roman triad (they switched the gender of the child from the Egyptians, thank goodness): Jupiter (father), Juno (mother) and Minerva (daughter)
- Hindu (again) Tridevi (“three goddesses”): Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati; they are also consorts of the masculine Hindu Trimurti of gods
- Norse: Odin, Freyr, and Thor – Odin is the god of war, death, poetry, and the sky, Freyr is the god of summer and fertility, and Thor is the god of thunder and destruction.
- Even a new religious movement like Wicca has the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone
Also, almost every religion another key concept inherent in them: Heaven and Hell, with Earth sandwiched in-between.
The Tao produced One; One produced Two;
Two produced Three;
Three produced All things.
– Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching” (Chapter 42), 4th century BCE
1. The Philosopher
No essay of this nature would be complete without a reference to the great philosophers of ancient Greece. The trio of Plato (~428-347 BCE) along with his teacher Socrates and his most famous student Aristotle, are considered the founders of Greek and Western philosophy. Plato is also considered as one of the founders of Western spirituality and religion.
Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul considers it to have three parts: Reason, Spirit and Appetite.
- Reason, located in the head, and the thinking part of the soul which loves the truth and seeks to learn it
- Spirit is located in the top third of the torso and is the ’emotional’ part of soul
- Appetite, in the middle third of the torso, is the part of the soul by which we experience carnal erotic love, hunger, thirst and in general the desires opposed to Reason
In Plato’s philosophy, in the just soul the Spirit aligns with Reason and resists the desires of the Appetite and in general manifests as the courage to be good. In the unjust soul, the Spirit ignores Reason and aligns with the desires of the Appetite, manifesting as the demand for the pleasures of the body.
Remember, such philosophies are based on long observations and deep, deep thinking. They make real-world sense.
2. The Scientist
Georges Dumézil (1898-1986), the French philologist and mythographer (yes, these are real fields of study), came up with his “trifunctional hypothesis“. He proposed that ancient Indo-European societies structured themselves around three activities: worship, war, and toil. In later times, when slave labor (sadly) became common, the three functions came to be seen as separate “classes” of society. Such tripartite class systems are found in ancient Indian, Iranian, Greek and Celtic societies.
For example, in the infamous Hindu caste system this trifunctional segmentation gave us the following classes:
- Brahmins – the priestly, academic class
- Kshatriyas – the rules, administrators, warriors
- Vaishyas – Artisans, farmers, tradesmen, merchants
These three classes are all considered as ‘Dvija‘, or ‘twice-born’, hence superior. However, there is no reference to ‘Dvija‘ in the Hindu Vedas or Upanishads. The fourth class of Shudras was almost certainly a subsequent creation of Hindu society (and not of the religion) to provide a “service” class for the other three. The unfortunate people belonging to this class became the slaves for the so-called higher classes.
While there are some critics of Dumézil’s theory, it has found widespread acceptance among scholars, and has even been embraced outside the field of Indo-European studies.
3. The Mystic
Although not a scientist like Dumézil, Osho was nonetheless a deep thinker – and a great orator. He had interesting and often controversial views about almost everything.
Osho also spoke about trinities. “Remember three M’s…..The first M is mathematics; mathematics is the purest science. The second M is music; music is pure art. And the third M is meditation; meditation is pure religion. Where all these three meet, you attain the trinity…..This is my trinity: mathematics, music, meditation.”
Another time he says “A perfect human being is scientific about objects, is aesthetic, musical, poetic about individuals, and is meditative about himself. When all these three meet, great rejoicing happens.”
Hmmm….interesting. But then that’s Osho, always interesting.
Trilogies and triads
The conditioning begins in our early years – “Three Little Pigs”, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, “The Three Stooges”. Why “The Three Musketeers” when, arguably, there were four – Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan? The art of writing has “the rule of three” which refers to a collection of three words, phrases, sentences, lines, paragraphs, sections of writing, and even whole books. The three elements together are known as a triad. Books trilogies like Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings“, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and John le Carre’s “The Karla Trilogy“. Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” is a trilogy consisting of “Hell“, “Purgatory” and “Paradise“.
Trilogies are even more popular in movies. “Mad Max“, “The Matrix” and “The Hunger Games“, all good trilogies. The collaboration between Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone that gave us the ‘Dollars Trilogy‘ of “A Fistful of Dollars“, “For A Few Dollars More” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly“. The fun Indiana Jones trilogy. Chris Nolan’s fabulous Batman trilogy. Until, of course, the studios get greedy and ‘extend’ the original trilogy into (ugh!) a ‘series’, in franchises like Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible and Jurassic Park. Star Wars is a rare example when the ‘extension’ of a trilogy into a series was done better…but only slightly.
In classical western music the sonata is a musical structure consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. And there are 3 notes in a triad, the basic form of any chord.
Smart orators often use triads when they want to get the attention of the audience and get them to retain key points. Shakespeare knew this when he had Mark Antony start his speech with “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…“. Smart presenters also do this in the corporate world. McKinsey consultants have an informal ‘pro-tip’, the Rule of 3 – whenever you’re trying to persuade a senior executive about something, always present three reasons.
If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.
– Jim Collins, management guru and author, in “Good to Great” (2001)
Three is also so catchy…
- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Slogan of the French Revolution, 1790)
- Faster, Higher, Stronger (Motto of the modern Olympic Games)
- Just Do It. (Nike slogan since 1988)
Imagine any of the above slogans with two words – they’ll feel incomplete. Or four words?
But why three?
Religions preach trinities. The occurrences of tritheism across human history are too numerous to be accidental.
Triads surround us. There’s birth, life and death. We have a past, the present and a future. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Why do we like the number three so much? What makes us think about everything in threes? What gives?
Of course, three theories
“Omne trium perfectum“
“Everything that comes in threes is perfect”
– Latin phrase
1. Human memory
This theory has to do with the way our memory works. In the most popular model of human memory, there are three (again!) types of memory: sensory, short-term and long-term. Short-term memory (aka ‘active memory’) is the capacity for holding, but not manipulating, a small amount of information in the mind for a short period of time, max around a minute. For example, short-term memory can be used to remember a 10-digit phone number (say, 7528149036) that has just been recited.
Another concept that applies to short-term memory is “chunking” that helps to increase short-term memory capacity. Chunking refers to arranging the information into smaller groups, like hyphenating a 10-digit phone number into groups of 3 or 4 digits, and magically it becomes much easier to remember. Try the phone number from above (752-814-9036; so much easier then trying to remember 7528149036). Further, experiments have shown that the ideal size for chunking of letters and numbers is also three.
Short-term memory is best able to retain three pieces of information – that’s just the way our brains are wired. Two pieces are too little and four pieces too much.
2. Pattern recognition
Humans are inherently inclined towards finding patterns in everything (coincidentally, that’s also the tag line of my blog). Look – really look – at the image on the left. Although there are no actual triangles in the image, your brain will interpret it as two overlapping triangles. The ‘Pac-man’ circles and angled lines suggest gaps in which objects should be. The brain does the rest by triggering a pattern recognition phenomenon.
Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”
– Auric Goldfinger to James Bond, in Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger” (1959)
To paraphrase, “Once is chance, twice is coincidence, thrice is a pattern”. We’re always trying to discern patterns in the world and there’s a darn good evolutionary reason for this – survival! Recognizing patterns allow us to expect and predict what will come next. And this enables us to do only the things that we think will have safe outcomes, and avoid those that may result in danger.
‘Three’ is the minimum quantity required to form any pattern. Once we’ve found three elements that seem to form a pattern, we’re usually ‘satisfied’ and stop looking for more elements.
3. Jungian archetype of trinities
This one’s the mind-bender, folks, so read carefully.
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, founded analytical psychology which contains the concepts of archetypes and the collective unconscious.
- Archetypes are images that people see in their minds in cultures all over the world and across the ages. These images then find their way into our religions, our myths and movies, our legends and fairy tales. We find them in our personal dreams, visions and fantasies. To illustrate some common archetypal figures, I’ll use examples from Star Wars – “the hero” (Luke Skywalker), “the wise old man” (Obi-wan Kenobi) and “the trickster” (the Emperor). Another set of examples are Thor, Odin and Loki, respectively, in Norse mythology. Similarly, many religions have archetypal motifs like “a creation myth”, “the flood” and “the apocalypse”. And examples of personal archetypal events across cultures are “separation from parents” “initiation (rites)” and “marriage”. We see them everywhere and Jung believed these to exist in the human collective unconscious.
According to Jung, every person’s psyche is made up of ego (the conscious mind of every individual), personal unconscious (which is the focus of Freud’s psychoanalysis) and the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious contains all of the knowledge and experiences we share as a species, and through it we inherit archetypes. It’s due to this inheritance that a person can have memories, dreams, fantasies or visions of archetypal figures, motifs or events even though s/he has not had a personal experience of them.
Jung’s critics accuse him of being too mystical. But consider that certain phobias, like that of snakes, manifest in children even when there is no apparent origin for their fear. A study found that one-third of British children are afraid of snakes at age six even though they’ve never encountered a snake in a traumatic situation. Jung also believed children fantasize so much because they have not experienced enough of reality to cancel out their mind’s enjoyment of archetypal imagery which they have inherited from the collective unconscious. Supporters of Jung suggest that his theories are now borne out by findings of psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology.
Jung considered trinities as one of the archetypes of the human collective unconscious. Based on his extensive research, he wrote “Divine triads occurred already at the primitive level: there are an immense number of archaic triads in the old and exotic religions. The grouping in triads is something like an archetype of the history of religion on which the threefold Christian Trinity may well be modeled.” We saw several examples in the section on “Tritheism”. For Jung, trinities are an ingrained part of human collective unconscious, transmitted from generation to generation. Hence trinities are a compelling theme for us humans.
Told ya its a mind-bender.
Trinity = Tri + Unity
Trinities and triads hold a compelling fascination of the human mind. I have described three theories, and there may be others. But there’s another aspect of trinities to be covered before we close.
‘Triune’. Oxford Dictionary defines ‘triune’ as “consisting of three in one”. This is a recurring theme in cultures across time – that the three elements of a trinity are, at a fundamental level, united into one. While each element of a trinity has its own ‘identity’, it cannot exist in isolation from the others, and the union of the three is the more (often the most) fundamental reality.
- the Christian Trinity converges into the ‘Godhead’, the divinity or essence of the one true Christian God
- the Hindu Trimurti are but aspects of the pervasive ‘Brahman’, the highest universal principle of Hinduism
- the Taoist trinity, the Three Pure Ones, are regarded as pure manifestations of the Tao and the origin of all sentient beings
He who can make distinction in God without number or quantity, knows that the three persons of the Trinity are one God.– Eckhart von Hochheim (aka Meister Eckhart) (c.1260-c.1328)German theologian, philosopher and mystic
A trinity is actually a union, one that is greater and all-encompassing. The human ‘mind-body-soul’ trinity is one example, merging together inseparably to form each unique human being. Three are in essence One – and One will be the subject of another essay.