On planet Earth there are around 10,000 distinct religions that exist, and around 80% of the world’s population is affiliated with one of the four largest ones, which is Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. With the exception of Islam, it is astonishing how often in world religions that the concept of a trinity of some form appears to come up. That is, one God that reveals itself in three forms or three Gods that occupy the space of the almighty divine.
In Christianity, founded around 2,000 years ago, there is only one God, but who exists as coeternal persons who are known as the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct yet are said to be one substance, essence or nature. In this definition God exists as three persons or hypostases, but is one being and has a single divine nature.
In Hinduism, founded around 2,500 years ago (and considered the world’s oldest religion), there are three principal deities that make up the divine. In this system, the goal of life is to realise that one’s soul is identical to the supreme soul. The triple deity of the supreme divinity is called Trimurti, for which the cosmic functions are personified. This includes Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. When incarnated into a single avatar it is known as Dattatreya.
In Buddhism, founded around 2,600 – 2,400 years ago, it is the goal in life to overcome suffering and the cycle and death of rebirth, such as through the attainment of Nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism there is the concept of the three bodies or modes of being of the Buddha. Firstly there is the dharmakaya (the body of essence), the unmanifested mode and the supreme state of absolute knowledge. Second there is the Sambhogakaya (body of enjoyment), the heavenly mode. Third there is the Nirmanakaya (body of transformation), the Earthly model or the Buddha as he appeared on Earth or manifested himself in an Earthly Bodhisattva.
Taoism is a religious tradition of Chinese origin, founded around 2,400 - 2330 years ago. It teaches that an individual should become one with the unplanned rhythms of the Universe called The Way (Tao) which is the natural order of the Universe. In Taoism there is the concept of the Three Pure Ones, that is three divine teachers which constitute the divine trinity and are the three highest Gods in the pantheon. The Pure Ones represent a deity and a heaven. In this belief system, the Tao produced One, then One produced Two, then Two produced Three, and then Three produced all things.
Another one of the world’s oldest religions is Zoroastrianism, founded around 2,600 years ago, which is also considered the origin of the idea for a dualistic cosmology for good and evil, heaven and hell, and therefore a judgement after death. The principal deity of this system is Ahura Mazda who is the creator and the highest possible. But he is also often invoked in a triad with Mithra and Anahita.
Whilst many of the world’s religions appear to be vastly different in both their beliefs and doctrines, if one digs deep enough one can find similarities which perhaps reflect the fundamentally true nature of the Universe. But instead, each of the religious systems represents merely an interpretation of the divine, much the way people may view a piece of art painting differently.
One can’t but wonder, what could be accomplished between people if instead of the differences between various belief systems, instead we focussed on what is similar, and allow for artistic interpretation of the nature of reality as a fundamentally subjective human experience. This would surely be one way from which we can achieve a unified cosmic and spiritual perspective on our shared suffering and destination at the end of our days on this Earth.
1. African Studies Association, History of Africa, 32, p.119, University of Michigan, 2005.
2. The Global Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center, 18th December 2012.