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The Original Hindu Triad. — By Dr. Hekbekt "W. Magoitn, 
Oberlin, Ohio. 

The number three is indissolubly connected with the religious 
history of India. Its sacred character appears conspicuously in 
the Rig- Veda, and the modern Hindu triad — Brahma, Visnu, Qiva 
— is familiar to all who have even a slight acquaintance with 
India or its people. But there have been other groups of three 
gods in the religious history of the Hindus ; and, while the origin 
of the divine triad, as well as that of the sacredness of the num- 
ber three, may never be fully known, it is interesting to note 
whatever may throw any possible light on the subject. 

In one of the early Brahmanical writings, the Vedic investiga- 
tor Yaska tells of certain scholars, more ancient than himself, 
who maintained that there were but three gods, although many 
names were used in speaking of them. The only gods whom 
these scholars admitted to exist were, a deity located on the earth, 
Agni ; a deity dwelling in the atmosphere, to whom they allotted 
two names, Indra or Vayu ; and a deity whose home was in the 
heavenly regions, Siirya. These three, then, constituted a triad, 
the earliest of which there is any mention ; for, although groups 
of three gods can be found as far back as the Rig- Veda itself, — 
as, for example, Varuna, Mitra, and Aryaman, and the three 
Rbhus, — an ordinary group of three gods can hardly be called a 
triad, since a triad should possess marked differences, either in 
their field of action or in their characteristics. 

In speaking of this early Brahmanical group of gods, a recent 
writer (Macdonell, Vedic Mythology, p. 69) says that the second 
member of the group was probably originally Trita, whom he 
further regards as a god of lightning. Later on in the book (p. 
93), he concludes that the mystical threefold nature of Agni, as 
fire, lightning, and sun, — for the identification of Agni with the 
sun is also Vedic, — was the prototype of the groups, Sun, Wind, 
Fire, and Sun, Indra, Fire, which, though not Vedic, are ancient. 
He also calls attention to Agni's three dwelling places, in the 
order usually given, heaven, earth, and the waters, i. e., the rain- 
clouds. The position here taken must at once strike the reader 
as a reasonable one, on the whole ; and it must be accepted, unless 

VOL. xix. 10 



146 H. W. Magoun, [1898. 

a simpler and more natural one can be found. The notion that 
the light and heat of the sun came from the same source as the 
light and heat of a fire is based on a simple association of ideas, 
and need, therefore, produce no difficulty. By a similar process, 
Agni Vaidyuta and Trita may have also come to be identified as 
lightning, or the " middle Agni." It may be an interesting ques- 
tion, however, whether there are not other possible elements in 
the problem, and whether the origin of the groups mentioned 
cannot be pushed still further back. It is the object of this paper 
to consider briefly a few points looking in that direction. 

The position has already been taken, in the preceding paper, 
" Apam Napat in the Rig- Veda," that Apam Napat and Agni 
were originally distinct gods, and that Apam Napat was the name 
given to that phenomenon of the thunderstorm which is com- 
monly spoken of as chain lightning. It may not be out of place 
to briefly refer to the reasons for this belief. 

The name Apam Napat is very old. If it is not Aryan, it is at 
least Indo-Iranian ; for it appears not only in the Rik but also in 
the Avesta as the name of a god. In the Avesta, he is " the tall 
lord," or "the swift-horsed, the tall and shining lord"; 1 or, as 
another translator has it in other portions of the Mazdean scrip- 
tures," he is spoken of as " lofty," " kingly and brilliant," " glit- 
tering-one," etc. 

In the Rik, he is a " driver-of -horses," ii. 35. 1, and vii. 47. 2 ; 
he is a god " whom stallions swift-as-thought convey," i. 186. 5 ; 
he " shines in the waters (rain-clouds, or rain-in-the-clouds) with- 
no-need-of -kindlings," ii. 35. 4, and x. 30. 4 ; "his birth (is) in 
heaven, (and) no wrongs can reach (him) in his cloud-strongholds 
yonder," ii. 35. 6 ; he " shines f ar-and-wide with divine flame, in 
the waters," /. c, 8 ; " (standing) -erect, clothed with light, (he) 
seeks the bosom of the oblique-ones (the streaming-rain) ; bear- 
ing his preeminent majesty, the golden streams press around 
(him)," I. c, 9; "golden-colored," he descends from a golden 
seat, I. c, 10; "here (on earth), he is-active in another's body 
(fire?), so-to-speak," I. c, 13; and, "bringing (him) food, the 
waters, of-their-own-accord, quickly veil (him) standing on the 
highest station with undimmed (rays)," I. c, 14. It is hardly 
necessary to say more, so perfectly does the whole description fit 

1 Darmesteter in Sacred Books of the East, xxiii. pp. 5-6, 14, 36, 38, 
etc. 

2 Mills, ib., xxxi. pp. 197, 204, 219, 319, 326, etc. 



Vol. xix.] The Original Hindu Triad. 147 

the distant descending bolt. His food is supposed to be clarified 
butter, I. c., 11 and 14, probably because of the sudden flame 
which it produces when poured into a fire; while the swift veil- 
ing by the waters doubtless refers to the sudden withdrawal of 
the bolt from sight. Apam Napat, then, is a god of lightning 
pure and simple, and he seems to have had that character from 
the beginning. 

Turning now to Agni, it will be observed that he is essentially 
the god of fire, and the antiquity of his fire character is attested 
by the Latin ignis whose proper meaning is simply ' fire.' But 
that he was originally the lightning-kindled-fire is to be inferred 
from the fact that the Grecian myth, according to which fire first 
came from heaven, is to be traced in the Rig- Veda (Hopkins, 
Religions of India, pp. 108-110), and also from the fact that 
Agni has, in parts of the Rik, a lightning character. Agni, then, 
from his original character as the lightning-kindled-fire, or, bet- 
ter, the lightning-stroke-which-results-in-fire, developed, as a Vedic 
god, a twofold nature, i. e., he became both fire and lightning ; 
but, by a later extension, he also came to include the sun, and 
this gave him his mystical threefold character as fire, lightning, 
and sun. 

Such a genesis seems, at least, to account most readily for all 
his peculiarities, even to the function of ' spook-killer,' raksohdn, 
x. 87. 1, etc.; for the ancient Hindus, like their modern brethren, 
believed that the air about them was infested with spooks and 
goblins of various kinds. To suppose that fire is fatal to evil 
spirits, seems, under ordinary circumstances, like a strange notion; 
but, to one who has seen the stroke, the lightning-kindled-fire 
becomes a most natural death-dealer to the goblins of the air. 
As a rule, such a stroke is simply a terrible blinding flash ; for 
a distant observer can hardly be aware of the stroke at all, except 
by inference. Occasionally, a sudden streak of dazzling light, 
more or less approaching the horizontal, may be seen by some 
one looking in the direction taken by the bolt ; and its effect 
upon the mind can hardly be described. The sudden passage of 
a large swift-winged bird just over the head may sometimes pro- 
duce a startled sensation akin to that produced by the flight of 
the lightning's bolt ; but nothing else in nature approaches it. 
For this reason, it is not strange, perhaps, that Agni, in his light- 
ning character, is sometimes the 'eagle' in the Rik (see M. 
Bloomfield, in JAOS., xvi. 1 ff.) ; and, if his name means ' Agile- 
one,' as is supposed, it was certainly appropriate. 



148 H. W. Magoun, [1898. 

No wonder that the superstitious Hindu observer, or his ances- 
tors, felt that such a stroke must have proved fatal to many a 
spook, and this original idea of the lightning-stroke-in-the-fire 
can still be traced in passages to Agni, the ' goblin-smiter ' ; as, 
for example, " pierce him (the sorcerer) thou slinger with (thy) 
dart, (thou) keen-one," tdrn dsta vidhya pdrva pipanah, x. 87. 6. 
To the lightning side of his nature, doubtless, is also to be traced 
the epithet vrtrahdn, ' dragon-slayer,' which is applied to Agni 
alone with any frequency, if Indra be omitted. The blinding 
flash does not always strike, nor does it always leave fire behind 
it when it strikes ; but it would very soon tend to be regarded, 
for the most part, as Agni just the same, and, if some chance 
beholder were to see a tree cleft by a sudden thunderbolt, it 
would be a very simple and a perfectly natural bit of reasoning 
which would lead to the conclusion that Agni could and actually 
did smite the ' cloud-dragon ' also in like manner. Whether the 
Vrtra, i. e., the ' cloud -dragon,' myth arose from a lack of rain 
or from a fear lest the light was to be snatched from men, would 
not affect the question ; for, when the blinding flashes begin to 
come, not only does the rain descend but the heaviest clouds also 
pass over and the light begins to return. 

But close observers must soon have noticed that there was a 
third form of lightning no less conspicuous than the other two ; 
and the wonderful play of the cloud-bolts in the sky, which also 
often produce a blinding flash, may well have excited the wonder 
and admiration of a primitive people in a land of violent thun- 
der-storms such as both the Hindus and their ancestors seem to 
have inhabited. Very soon also the question must have sug- 
gested itself whether this third form of lightning was not after 
all the god who destroyed the 'cloud-dragon,' since he always 
appeared so high up in the air where the ' sky-dragon ' was, and 
since he always seemed to be smiting something there just as Agni 
was sometimes seen to do on the earth. Speaking of him as the 
' third -one,' he may soon have come to be simply ' Third,' and it 
is possible that this was the way in which Trita got his name. 

As the conviction grew that Trita, ' Third,' was the real smiter 
of the ' cloud-' or ' sky-dragon,' the myth would naturally tend 
to become attached to him even more strongly than it was to 
Agni ; and, when Indra at length displaced him and became the 
supreme god of the storm, it was to be expected that he would 
also usurp the function of ' dragon-killer '; for it must be remem- 



Vol. xix.] The Original Hindu Triad. 149 

bered that Trita, as well as Apam Napat, was probably an Indo- 
Iranian god, while Indra seems to have been purely a Hindu 
■creation. 

Just here it may be noted that Apam Napat never appears in 
the role of a ' fiend-smiter ' in either the Rik or the Avesta. 
In the latter, to be sure, when Atar, ' Fire,' and Azhi Dahaka 
{the Avestan sky-dragon) are battling for "the awful Glory that 
cannot be forcibly seized, made by Mazda," i. e., the light (phys- 
ical and sacerdotal); Apam Napat seizes the "Glory" when it 
flees to " the sea Vouru-Kasha," or the upper air (see SBE. vol. 
iv., Introd., pp. lxii-lxiii, and vol. xxiii. pp. 297-9); but he takes 
no other part in the fight. If, now, Apam Napat is the lightning 
form of Agni, as is commonly supposed, and if the epithet 
vrtrahdn was transferred to Agni from Indra, as is commonly 
held, it is difficult to understand, on a priori grounds, why Apam 
Napat never has the character of a fiend-smiter, even if he does 
not receive the epithet vrtrahdn; for assuredly it is the light- 
ning side of Agni which is most prominent in both Agni Vrtra- 
han and the dual divinity Indragnl. See RV., iii. 20. 4, i. 59. 6, 
x. 69. 12, etc., and i. 108, v. 86, vi. 59, vii. 93, etc. Again, since 
the Zend word Verethraghna, from its etymology, must origi- 
nally have been an adjective, and since the Avestan god Verethra- 
ghna is identified with the sacred fire of the Parsis, which was 
the great spook-killer of the Magi, it appears that Agni Vrtra- 
han and Verethraghna were, in all probability, closely related ; 
but Verethraghna and Apam Napat have no connection in the 
Avesta. In short Agni and Apam Napat must have been decid- 
edly distinct in the early days. 

It is perfectly clear to us, to be sure, that the two kinds of 
lightning are really identical ; but to assume that the early Vedic 
Hindus or the Indo-Iranians possessed the same knowledge is to 
attribute to them a degree of intellectual power in the analysis 
of natural phenomena which their whole religious history belies. 
If they ever discovered the actual identity of the two, it must 
have been the result of some accidental combination of circum- 
stances, the full force of which they would be very slow to 
admit. In fact, just such an accident might account for the 
statement which appears in ii. 35. 13, "Apam Napat is-active 
here in another's body, so-to-speak," i. e., when he appears on 
earth, he looks like Agni ; but this does not prove the identity 
■of the two. 



150 H. W. Magoun, Hindu Triad. [1898. 

Turning again to Trita, it will be noticed that he is called aptyd, 
' dwelling-in-the-waters,' i. e., the clouds ; and the title is signifi- 
cant. If the three gods are grouped together, we shall have : 
'Agile-one,' the fire-producing-stroke or the blinding-flash, who 
is active on the earth ; ' Son of the Waters,' the distant-descend- 
ing-bolt, who is born in heaven and descends from his golden 
seat, and is therefore a god located in the air ; and ' Third 
Whose-home-is-in-the-clouds,' a divinity of the sky. In other 
words, the three will constitute an incipient triad which must be 
very ancient. 

It may not be unreasonable to suppose that the original Hindu 
triad, or an Indo-Iranian triad, was so constituted. But, since 
the blinding flash came down from the clouds as well as the dis- 
tant bolt, Agni was occasionally spoken of as a " son of the 
waters," and this fact may have ultimately led to a confusion of 
the two. Whatever the cause may have been, Apam Napat 
seems to have been so overshadowed by the remarkable develop- 
ment of Agni that he lost his character as a distinct god- and was 
then practically absorbed. In the meantime the light and heat 
of the sun had come to be attributed to Agni ; and, as the sun is 
evidently higher than the lightning, it was a natural step for- 
ward to assign to the sun the highest position, while Trita drop- 
ped back into second place. In time, Trita's turn also came ; and, 
as he yielded his chief feats and characteristics to Indra in other 
things, he may well have been displaced, as god of the atmos- 
phere, by his more popular rival. 

Just what connection Vayu had with the matter when the 
triad finally emerged from the nebulous state into a well recog- 
nized group, cannot be determined, beyond the mere fact that, as 
god of the wind, he was naturally the god of the atmosphere j 
but, in any case, his connection with the latter triad came rather 
from his relation to Indra than from any association with the 
other gods concerned.