Significance of number ‘three’ in Hindu Dharma

Earlier, we used the number four to gain some insights into Hindu Dhamra – Fourfold Hindu Dharma. We will use the number three to explore more ideas in Hindu Dharma, to raise our understanding about ourselves and the world around. The information given here is highly eclectic. The attempt is neither to give a complete catalog nor connect discrete elements. Each idea may deserve a separate detailed insight, so there is no attempt to go beyond its introduction. We are merely using the number three to tap into the wisdom of Bharatvarsha.

The number three stares all around us. Be it our position on the third planet or the number of petals in multiples of three in many plants or even leaves, there seems to be something mystical about three. We all experience the three states of time – past, present and future. The most common knowledge is the Trinity of Divinity – Brahma (The Creator), Vishnu (The Preserver) and Maheswara (The Destroyer). It is very obvious even to a novice Sadaka that these are three forms of the same Brahman, divinity. Yet, for the limitations of the human mind, it becomes easier to see the role in the Universe and also as an aid for the diverse gunas to take different pathways to reach at the same destination.

The divinities are also envisioned in the form of feminity. The above said three have their counterparts as Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. Again these are not classifications to arrive at some pattern or to make the divinities anthropomorphic and provide them with wives. The cosmic divine principles as perceived by the highest human minds, rishis have offered this insight. Along the same lines Brahman, the highest principle, the primordial sound is referred as OM (Omkara). This mystical sound is a composite of three syllables – A-U-M.  

Three at physical level – Sarira Trayam and Avastha Trayam

We have studied the three instruments with which we study the world around – body, mind and intellect. (For a deeper study – BMI chart – Swami Chinmayananda’s teaching aid). Hindu Dharma perceives all of us to have three bodies – Sthula sarira (Gross body), Sukshma sarira (Subtle body) and Karana sarira (Causal body). These three are called as Sarira trayam. The root of all these bodies is subject to decay, Shreeyate, hence they are called sarira. The sthula sarira is comprised of the five elements. 

The sukshma sarira is made of nineteen principles – the five jnanendriyas, the five karmendriyas, the five pranas, manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), chitta (subconscious) and ahamkara (ego). The physical body is a mere outward expression of the subtle body. It carries the vasanas.   Even after one sheds the body, the vasana package gets continued into our next janma, thanks to the subtle body. 

The karana sarira gives birth to the stula and sukshma. The beginningless ignorance that is indescribable (as described by Swami Sivananda), avidya is said to be the causal body. This is a mere seed, the real reason behind the existence. Though the term Avidya is used, it is interchangeably used in this context with Maya or Prakriti. The different Vedantic philosophies opine differently on what happens to the Karana sarira after Pralaya or even Mukti, giving rise to subtle differences in their outlook.

Adi Shankaracharya describes three corresponding states of consciousness, as perceived by the three bodies – jagrut (waking), swapna (dream) and sushupti (deep sleep). All of us are aware of the outward, waking gross world as we perceive it. The waking state is the domain where food reaches. The inward, subtle world which is obvious in our thoughts and intellect, but also follows us as emotions, perceived even in the dream world. The subtle body can perceive both the waking and dream states. The third underlying state as perceived in deep sleep state is undisturbed by the flux in the external or internal worlds. The causal body can be perceived in all the three states. Sadakas will benefit immensely from studying Tattvabodha of Adi Shankaracharya on this topic. The three states of consciousness are usually referred as Avastha Trayam and Vedanta postulates the fourth Turiya as transcending all the three.

Bhuvanatrayam/Jagattrayam/Lokatrayam

The universe is usually visualized as Svarga, Martya and Patala. This is also mapped by the three steps measured by Vamana when he takes the form of Trivikrama to bless MahaBali

Tridosha – Vata, Pitta, Kapha

At the physical realm, the elements or bhootas exist in combination to manifest. They exist as three doshas, a reflection of Prakriti. Kapha is earth + water elements; Pitta is fire + water and Vata is air + ether. Anyone familiar with these terms can now perceive it better, based on this description.  Just like the three gunas, Ayurveda postulates human existence as a balance of the three doshas of the body. For readers more keen, please refer Charaka Samhita.

Bandha Trayam

In Hathayoga, three important neuromuscular locks are practiced. Jalandhara Bandha, chin lock, to regulate bloodflow to the cephalic region of the head, accelerates draining of blood from head and neck relieving many symptoms of migraine, issues related to nasal passage, throat and neck. Uddiyana Bandha, abdominal lock, strengthens diaphragm, cures dyspepsia, aids in improving liver health. Moola Bandha, anal lock, aids in mitigating the uro-genital area inflammation. Practicing Yogasanas can give better insight and benefits than reading about it.

Granthis – Knots

One encounters three types of knots – granthis while raising the Kundalini from the Muladhara to Ajnachakra and beyond. At Muladhara, there is the Brahma granthi. When Prana and Apana unite, it awakens the Kundalini breaking this knot. The Vishnu granthi exists at Manipura chakra. The Rudra granthi exists in the Ajna Chakra. Continuous practice is required and experts recommend practicing Bhastrika to break all the three granthis. Once the last knot is broken, Kundalini goes to Sahasrara chakra. Guru’s guidance is crucial during these practices.

The threes seem to be a long list. Few others include:

Triphala – three dried fruits – Amlaki (Emblica officinalis), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica), and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula) – a very potent Ayurvedic medicine used to treat many ailments.

Trikatu – an equal blend of three different peppers used in Ayurveda for aiding gastric health – the fruits of Black Pepper (Piper nigrum), Long Pepper (Piper longum) and the rhizomes of Ginger (Zingiber officinale).

Pranayama – Breath Control or regulation is a key aspect of not merely maintaining good health physically or emotionally but also crucial practice in Yoga in the path of Samadhi. This involves three steps – Puraka (inhalation), Antara Kumbhaka (inner retention of breath) and Rechaka (exhalation). The benefits of Pranayama are for one and all.

Now let us focus on the subtler threes that exist.

 Spanda trayam

Yoga Vasishta, one of the advanced spiritual texts, where Vasishta Maharishi expounds the subtle Truth in response to the questions of Rama is a must study for Sadakas seeking more layers of deeper insight. Spanda means ‘to move a little’ or ‘vibration’ in Sanskrit. Human effort involves Spanda, according to Vasishta. Three movements are behind every action. Indriya spanda – movement of karmendriyas and jnanedriyas. This gives rise to the actual manifestion of the action in the outside world. Manasa spanda, movement of the mind. This is understood as thought, desire or purpose from which wells the former. The primary movement behind even the thought is Samvit spanda, movement of knowledge or consciousness. The knowledge that an action will produce certain outcome causes the movement in consciousness. This sequence of knowledge-desire-effort is referred as samvit-manasa-indriya spanda and is at the root of every human action.

Shaktis

Shakti or energy to perform an action is also classified into three and the idea has overtones with Spandatrayam. They are Ichcha Shakti, Jnana Shakti and Kriya Shakti. Ichcha Shakti is the will/desire to perform an action without which there can be no true action. To perform any action one must have the knowledge, the how-to and this aspect is referred as Jnana Shakti. Finally one performs the real action and it is referred as Kriya Shakti. In common parlance, this can be referred to as Thought-Word-Action, though the Sanskrit translations lose a lot of content.

Three Doshas (Defects) of the mind

The mind has three doshasMala (impurity), Vikshepa (tossing) and Avarana (veil of ignorance). Mala is easily understood as the different forms of desire modificationKama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Mada, Matsarya. Mala is the gateway to sin. This can be counteracted only through Nishkamya Karma. Vikshepa of the mind indicates extreme Rajas.  We are all familiar how the thoughts constantly keep changing in our mind like a leaf caught in a tornado. The lack of focus can be overcome by Upsana, Pranayama, Japa or Raja Yoga methods. The root of the above two is Avarana, the lack of understanding of correct knowledge due to ahamkara. This can be overcome by Jnana – by scriptures, realized mahatmassatsang.           

Thus for an average mind, a combination of all the methods is required for faster evolution.

Eshana trayam

All the obstacles in Yoga can be traced to vitteshana, putreshana and lokeshana. Vitteshana is the thirst for worldly objects, commonly referred as Kanchana. In other words, one feels the need to expand beyond the confines of the limited misidentification of Self. Putreshana is the desire to exist forever. This manifests as sex, desire for children and is also known as Kamini. Lokeshana also called as Kirti is the urge for name and fame, in other words acknowledgement of others. Without overcoming these three, it is not possible to make significant spiritual progress.

Escaping the threes

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad refers the world as – trayam va idam, nama rupam The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad refers the world as – trayam va idam, nama rupam karma. Everything in the world is classified by name, form and karma. Though name and form are countless, Karma is easily understood in threes – Sanchita, Prarabda and Agamya. Sanchita Karma is the Karma we have accumulated in all our Janmas. A small subset is extracted, which causes our current Janma and this is called Prarabda Karma. We may either exhaust these or add on to Karmic baggage. If we do the latter, it is referred as Agamya Karma. Krishna in Gita guides us that when we stop mixing our personality (likes and dislikes – raagadvesha) we intervene in the creation of new Karmic baggage.. 

Patanjali in YogaSutra defines the integration of Dharana (Single pointed attention), Dhyana (Concentration, which is sustained over time) and Samadhi (Complete absorption). When all three are integrated it is referred as Samyama and indicates the apex of Yoga, where mind, intellect and consciousness are intermingled.

त्रयमेकत्र संयमः॥३४॥   Trayamekatra sayama||3-4||

The (abovementioned) triad –i.e. Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna and Samādhi– (trayam) on a single object (ekatra) is Saṁyama (saṁyamaḥ).

A mature integrated personality (mind and intellect raised to the level of consciousness) either through Raja Yoga of Patanjali or Karma Yoga outlined in Gita effectively nullifies all Karma by frying the seeds with Jnana.

Numerous are the obstacles in the path of spirituality. Our rishis have classified them as TaapatrayaAdhyatmika (from our self), Adhidaivika (from the Devas) and Adhibhautika (from other living beings). It is customary to chant Om Shanti thrice to ward off the three groups of obstacles.

Krishna’s three guaranteed ways to HELL

The best commentary and study guide to gain better insight into Bhagavat Gita is itself. We will observe three slokas talking the same idea of three in as many different chapters. We saw how desire manifests itself in various emotions in Desire – a genealogical approach. Unbridled emotions lead to outbursts of our personality in dangerous ways. Krishna warns us of three guaranteed doorways to hell – Kama, Krodah, Lobah.

त्रिविधं नरकस्येदं द्वारं नाशनमात्मन: | काम: क्रोधस्तथा लोभस्तस्मादेतत्त्रयं त्यजेत् ||16- 21||

tri-vidha narakasyeda dvāra nāśhanam ātmana | kāma krodhas tathā lobhas tasmād etat traya tyajet ||

Triple is the gate of this hell, destruction of the self (Atman) – lust, anger and greed; therefore one must abandon the three.

Desire intensified by extreme attachment is lust. Lust is an extreme craving. Very easy to see it in drug addicts, but it manifests in all our daily lives, except in the former case, the chemical imbalance has altered the brain biochemistry to an extreme. This lust issues out as fear and greed. This is rooted in the deep ignorance that without the desired object, the subject feels an extreme incompleteness, which it believes will alone make it more complete. This leads to coveting in greed or the loss of not getting enough as fear, which are the two sides of the same coin. Denial of the desired object leads to wrath, explosive anger. 

Krishna outlines the same idea in two other slokas – BG 4-10 and BG 2-56.

वीतरागभयक्रोधा मन्मया मामुपाश्रिता: | बहवो ज्ञानतपसा पूता मद्भावमागता: || 4-10||

vīta-rāga-bhaya-krodhā man-mayā mām upāśhritāḥ | bahavo jñāna-tapasā pūtā mad-bhāvam āgatāḥ||

Freed from attachment, fear and anger, absorbed in Me, taking refuge in Me, purified by the fire of knowledge, many have attained My Being.

दु:खेष्वनुद्विग्नमना: सुखेषु विगतस्पृह: | वीतरागभयक्रोध: स्थितधीर्मुनिरुच्यते || 2-56||

dukhehv-anudvigna-manāḥ sukhehu vigata-spiha| vīta-rāga-bhaya-krodha sthita-dhīr munir uchyate ||

He whose mind is not shaken by adversity, who does not hanker after pleasures and is free from attachment, fear and anger , is called a sage of steady wisdom.

The antidote to this dangerous situation is to get detachment from desire. A plastic toy or blanket may be the object of extreme affection for a child. Yet when the child grows into a parent, he/she doesn’t have the same level of attachment for the object. They understand the phase of their child; even amuse it by nurturing the harmless attachment for their child.

Fear is an emotion where one is imbalanced by the loss of a desired object. A true understanding of the object and its interaction cures one of this affliction. Also, the idea of greed doesn’t arise due to a better insight. 

Anger is a factor of attachment. The more the attachment to the object, the greater is the intensity of the anger. 

Prasthanatrayi

To understand the three most important concepts that we all face – Jeeva (Self), Jagat (World of objects, emotions and thoughts) and Ishwara (Cosmic Being) one must have better understanding of the three gunasSattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva is clarity of perception, sharpness of understanding. This results in the temporary suppression of Rajas and results in the feeling of joy, gives rise to calm and quietude, satisfaction within. Rajas is the inherent dissatisfaction in ourselves, the feeling of incompleteness and the need to obtain something else to make it complete. This results in insatiable desires, Trishna, makes us toil again and again. Tamas is total ignorance, idiocy, lethargy, fatigue, dullness and a desire to do nothing. Some of us are more familiar with this feeling. This results in illusion, delusion, blunders and mistakes

The above definitions of the gunas are highly simplistic as they may warrant a future detailed discussion. 

To focus on the solution aspect, three prescriptive texts are administered to true spiritual students – Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras.  If one were to write an authoritative commentary on all the three, it lays the proper philosophical grounds to establish a new school of thought, as have been done by the great mahacharyas – Adishankara (Adwaita), Ramanuja (Visishtadwaita) and Madhwa (Dwaita).  These three texts are often referred as Prasthanatrayi.

The principal ten Upanishads – Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashan, Mundaka, Mandukya, Tattiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka. There are numerous other minor Upanishads. The real essence of Vedas is available in them and hence they are also referred as Vedanta – the logical and meaning essence of Vedas.

Bhagawad Gita is the essence of all Vedanta, Upanishads.

Vedavyasa compiled the highest Vedas into terse aphorisms which explain about the different aspects of Brahman, the highest ideal and objective

As we see the threes, we touch so many interconnected ideas in Hindu Dharma. We find the three varnas qualified to wear the sacred thread, janeu, which is also made of threads of three joined by a knot. The other one is not excluded by birth, but their guna and karma. As also the three times one does Sandhyavandana.

Threes figure in Visishtadwaita philosophy more as signified by the tridanda used by their sannyasins and also Gadyatrayam. One finds threes in the eyes of Shiva, Kartikeya. Some of these are shrouded in deep symbolism and mysticism, yet we find common groupings of three as in the Carnatic music trinity. Objects may be understood as three, yet they all point towards the same One in Hindu Dharma. Let us keep our mind focused on this One, Brahman that appears as many.

ॐ तत् सत्


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About the Author

Satchitananda
Sanatana Dharmist. Endeavor is to share the little I have learnt along this Cosmic journey with my fellow travelers. Sincerely interested in raising awareness of Hindu Dharma, especially to Hindus.