In the mobile adventure Lara Croft: Relic Run, gamers have the chance to collect a number of South-East Asian artefacts in the game’s Jungle Temple level. One of these is the Golden Trident, a religious symbol commonly associated with the Hindu god Shiva.
The Golden Trident is better known by its Sanskrit name trishula, which means “three spears” or “three blades”. It can often be seen wielded by the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Durga, who manifests herself as the goddess Kali when she’s feeling particularly wrathful. Both deities are associated with destruction and transformation, and it’s widely believed that the trishula symbolizes the Great Trinity (trimūrti) of Hindu faith: the gods Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.
By extension, the three points of the trishula are thought to represent the three-fold nature of existence – the past, present, and future – and the various contradictory, yet complementary qualities of human existence. These qualities can be divided into the three guna of Hindu philosophy:
- sattva – the quality of balance, harmony, goodness, creativity, and purity, i.e. mostly positive qualities.
- rajas – the quality of passion, dynamism, change, and self-centeredness, i.e. mostly neutral qualities.
- tamas – the quality of imbalance, chaos, destruction, ignorance, and impurity, i.e. mostly negative qualities.
While the trishula is primarily thought of as a Hindu symbol, some scholars believe that it may have its origins in the iconography of the Bronze Age Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. A horned deity surrounded by animals appears on some of the seals that have been discovered throughout the Indus Valley. Some have speculated that this figure may represent an early form of Shiva, whose many titles include Pashupati, “Lord of the Animals”. While this figure does not appear to be holding a trishula, it could be argued that the proto-Shiva’s horned headdress survives in the form of Shiva’s trishula or his bull mount, Nandi, but this is still a point of contention amongst those studying the ancient roots of Hindu tradition.
The symbol of the trishula was later adopted by Buddhists to represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddhist religious community). It may have also represented the tripiṭaka (“three baskets”), the early canonical scriptures that were written in Pāli and form the basis of Theravāda Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism that became the dominant religion across much of South-East Asia.
Shiva’s trident and its Buddhist equivalent can be seen in the art and religious architecture of South and South-East Asia, from the land of his origin to the jungle temples of Cambodia and Vietnam. Trishula can be found at the entrance of most Shaivite temples and devotees can often be seen carrying trishula to present as offerings to the Hindu god. While Shiva may not be the only Hindu god who carries a trident, chances are that if you stumble upon an image of a male god brandishing a three-pronged spear, it’ll be none other than Lord Shiva himself.
And, finally, if you’re wondering why Lara’s comment about “asuras” hasn’t been touched upon in this article, it’s because I plan to save this for a future edition of Gods and Monsters. Stay tuned.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Hindu Art by T. Richard Blurton, Harvard University Press (1994)
- Hindu Sacred Symbols (Mystical Myth)
- Hindu Symbols (AncientSymbols.Com)
- Pashupati Seal (Wikipedia)
- Pasupati Seal (National Museum, New Delhi)
- Pashupatinath Temple – Nepal (Getty Images)
- Shaivism (Wikipedia)
- Shiva (Wikipedia)
- The Hindu Traditions: A Concise Introduction by Mark W. Muesse, Fortress Press (2011)
- The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols by Robert Beer, Serindia Publications (2003)
- Trishula (Wikipedia)