Tridevi, a three-in-one-goddess. Tri is Sanskrit for three, and devi is goddess (the meaning is "shining one", etc.). Indian iconography is rich, complex, and ancient. Thoughts are expressed in picture form, and not just verbalised. Each of the three goddesses depicted as one, has a rich and complex "history of making", where ideas replace others, some merge and so on. The presentation below is not unusual today.
Lakshmi is to the left, Parvati is in the middle, and Saraswati, goddess of learning,music, arts, and much else, is to the right.
The triple-goddess is standing on a lotus, which is rich in mythological significance. For one thing it represents purity, for another thing it may be associated with chakras (wheels, padmas, vortexes, most of the main ones along the spine area). Each devi has many arms, which represents several functions. One of their hand gestures is one of fearlessness - the abhaya mudra. At times a devi is represented as having two arms, at other times four arms, and still other times as having eight arms, suggesting that each may effectuate many things. Each devi has a forehead decoration called bindi (tilak), which is a mark between the eyebrows. It reminds of the third eye, which may be experienced in that area in some forms of advancing yoga- depending on methods. All Hindu women wear a bindi. Each goddess is crowned, suggesting Subtle Attainments, nobility - royalty, even lordship.
Also, a goddess typically has a consort: Saraswati has Brahma, God the Creator; Lakshmi has Vishnu; and Parvati has Shiva. Together they correspond to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The goddess icon is taken to represent the shakti, power, prowess of her consort, but maybe she is independent, or quite independent of him also - at times, and so on.
Many a devi has a history of amalagamated features from many sources attributed to her. And there is room for many interpretations, but sound historical knowledge of each goddess is not bad for those who would like to get closer to any of them.
When represented separately, the three goddesses have typical features; some of them are seen in the tridevi (triple goddess) painting too:
Saraswati, beautiful goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, is considered the consort of God the Creator, so she represents fertility and prosperity also. She is also reckoned with in Mahayana Buddhism, holding Tripitaka scriptures. In Vedanta she is considered to be the feminine energy and knowledge aspect (shakti) of Brahman (God).
Dressed in pure white, which signifies the purity of true knowledge, she represents the experience of the Highest Reality, and also intelligence, consciousness, secular learning, and essential divine knowledge, creativity, education, enlightenment, music, the arts, and power. She is associated with purity and creativity, literary communication, and sound verbal skills - flows of thoughts and words.
In Hindu iconography she is seated on a swan, hamsa. She is often seated on a white lotus as well, and is additionally associated with the colour yellow. Saraswati dresses modestly, not heavily adorned with jewels and gold.
Her four arms represent the four sides to learning: mind, intellect, alertness, and ego. Alternatively, her four arms are taken by some to mean prose - the book in one hand; poetry - the garland of crystal; music - the vina; and the pot of water - purity:
A white swan is often seen close to her feet. The swan thus symbolizes fine, elegant discrimination. Saraswati is also referred to as Hamsa-vahini, which means "she who has a swan as her vehicle". She is usually depicted near a flowing river, which may be related to her early history as a river goddess. The swan and her association with the lotus flower also point to her ancient origin. Sometimes a peacock of vain arrogance is shown beside her. It is allegedly to teach not to be so much concerned with external appearance and to be wise concerning eternal truth.
Lakshmi of beauty, grace, loveliness, and charm represents calm and wealth, prosperity, purity, generosity and good fortune, such as by strokes of luck. She holds a lotus and spreads petals. Her name indicates she is a goddess of means to achieving objectives, including prosperity, according to Monier Williams Sanskrit English Dictionary, which is online today.
According to one legend she appeared at the creation, floating over the water on the expanded petals of a lotusflower. She is closely associated with the lotus. The lotus represents purity, and a lotus seat in Hindu iconography represents a fertile growth of organic life too.
Her traditionally accepted vehicle is the owl who sleeps at day and prowls at night. it may be understood in this way: "Loveliness is a prowler in the unseen." There are other possibilites of interpretation too.
Parvati is generally considered benign, and represented as fair and beautiful. She seems to be the most recent addition to Hindu goddesses of the three, as she does not appear in ancient, Vedic literature. She is referred to first between 400 BC - 400 AD. She used to be consistently depicted with bare breasts before the muslim invasion in the 1100s AD. Bare breasts were considered a mark of divinity in ancient India. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata present Parvati as Shiva's wife, but only between the 300s and 1300s AD do the myths of her and Shiva get comprehensive details. Different scholars suggest many older, Vedic goddesses she might be a mixture of.
After the combinations were rather stabilised, she now stands for fertility, marital felicity, devotion to the spouse, and asceticism. Her characteristics have become more and more obscured, as she absorbed more and more goddesses into her iconography. The colour of her clothes is milk white, the colour of enlightenment and knowledge, or of having and being without the three gunas (classifications of matters) (!). At times she carries a rosary, mirror, bell, and citron in her hands. Her worship first arose in the Himalayas, and her qualities were mainly supernatural and fairy-queen-like.
Her symbolic hand gestures indicate fascination, among other things. In typical recent iconography, where she is wed to Shiva, the bow and arrow in Parvati's hand suggests she is a markswoman. She holds a trident and sword too. However, the arrow may symbolise an idea, and the bow is the spine in yourself, according to one interpretation.
Parvatis' main animal vehicle is a (white) lionness, and in some places she rides a bull.
At bottom of the picture is the idea that one goddess has many manifestations: Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati, and many others. Many goddesses have mantras along with them. [Link]
Each is associated with an animal - or several animals. These beings indicate energies and their expressions somehow.
Kinsley, David R. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.
For more about the drifting ideas and the iconography, see Wikipedia, s.v. "Category:Hindu goddesses," "Lakshmi," "Parvati," and "Saraswati."
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