Past, present, future; length, width, height; small, medium, large—there are many groupings of 3 that we’ve used throughout human history to describe and organize the world around us.
Across all religions, many of the most important theological concepts are expressed as groupings of 3. One of the most obvious examples of this is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which most—though not all—branches of Christianity believe in.
The Holy Trinity refers to the belief that God, though One, is manifested in 3 forms: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. The 3 forms coexist as distinct from one another, but each one is understood as God. There are many other 3s in Christianity as well: the 3 wise men who came to witness the birth of Jesus, the 3 days between Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the 3 Abrahamic Patriarchs, recognized by Judaism and Islam as well: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
There are 3 Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And the religions of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are all subdivided into 3 major sects.
Three main sects of Christianity are Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodox; Sunni, Shia, and Sufi are the 3 for Islam; Buddhism is also split into 3: Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana; Hinduism has countless sects, but the largest 3 are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism. Hindus also believe in 3 primary gods, which are all manifestations of God, somewhat similar to the Christian Trinity: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the nurturer, and Shiva (also known as Mahesh), the destroyer.
Hinduism abounds with groupings of 3. Some others include “Sat, Chit, Annand” (truth, consciousness, bliss), the 3-part description of Brahman, the ultimate reality; the 3 core values of Satyam, Shivum, Sundaram (truth, godliness, beauty); and the 3 “gunas,” qualities that are present in every individual in different proportions: sattva (goodness, calmness, harmonious), rajas (passion, activity, movement), and tamas (ignorance, inertia, laziness).
The number 3 features so prominently in the psyche of Indians that the richest Indian when choosing a number (phone, car, bids) will only choose the numbers that are divisible by three.
Many religions represent beliefs and principles relating to conduct in groupings of 3 as well. There are 3 Taoist Treasures: compassion, simplicity, and humility. In his Analects, Confucius designates many similar groupings of 3 core principles of conduct. In Jainism, there are 3 Jewels: samyagdarshana (“right faith”), samyagjnana (“right knowledge”), and samyakcharitra (“right conduct”).
Buddhists affirm their faith through the following trio of statements: I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma (the teachings). I take refuge in the Sangha (the monastic community). These are known as the 3 Jewels of Buddhism. There are also 3 Baskets of Buddhism, which refer to the groupings of the original Buddhist texts.
The beloved Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, discusses many concepts of 3s, most notably the 3 yogas, or paths to enlightenment: Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion), Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge), and Karma Yoga (the path of action).
These 3 paths also correspond closely to UEF’s fundamental trio of human flourishing—love, learning, and play— which UEF believes to be the ONLY deepest longings of us humans.
There is something very special about the number 3!
One way for accounting for the prevalence of the number 3, which has been proposed by psychologists and cognitive scientists, is that 3 is right around the number of discreet pieces of information we can hold in our minds at once. “For example, when we present phone numbers, we present them in groups of three and four, which helps us to remember the list,” says psychologist Nelson Cowan. Perhaps this is also why the authors of religious scriptures chose to represent the most important aspects of their teachings in groupings of 3.
Another way to understand groupings of 3s is from the perspective of harmony: the triangle is the strongest basic shape and the many trichotomies we see are like perfectly balanced triangles. The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel famously described the tripartite dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, in which the contradictions between a thing and its opposite are resolved, giving birth to a new third thing. Plato spoke of the tripartite human, composed of nous (mind), soma (body), and soul (psyche), a trichotomy that many people still believe describes humanity well. Similarly, Sigmund Freud’s famous theory of mind was a tripartite one: the human mind is composed of 3 parts—id, ego, and superego. The ego is the mediator between the two extremes of the id (our primal drives) and the superego (our sense of morality and restraint).
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
—The New Testament (2 Corinthians 13:14), Christian text
“Om is composed of three letters, A, U, and M. These symbolize the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind; they also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.”
—The Dalai Lama, Buddhist spiritual leader
“Control of the senses, contentment, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline — these form the basis of holy life here for the wise monk.”
“For the intention, the power and the action, all the three essential elements are brought together and the realization of everything in the contingent world dependeth upon these three principles.”
—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
—Ecclesiastes 3:11, The Hebrew Bible
“Om Tat Sat: these three words represent Brahman, from which come priests and scriptures and sacrifice. Those who follow the Vedas, therefore, always repeat the word Om when offering sacrifices, performing spiritual disciplines, or giving gifts.”
—The Bhagavad Gita (17:23-24), Hindu text
“Perhaps no other theme of the mosque lessons better captures the Aristotelian principle of ethical formation than that of the classical triad of fear (al-khauf), hope (al-raja’), and love (al-hubb).”
—Saba Mahmood, scholar of Islam
“The Way gave birth to the One
The One gave birth to the Two
The Two gave birth to the Three;
And the Three gave birth to the ten thousand things.”
—The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 42), Taoist text
“There are three things constantly on the lips of the gentleman none of which I have succeeded in following: ‘A man of benevolence never worries; a man of wisdom is never in two minds; a man of courage is never afraid.’”
—The Analects (14:28), Confucian text
Modern Social Sciences
“[There is a] relatively uniform description of [memory] capacity limits of three to five chunks as the population average (with a maximum range of two to six chunks in individuals).”
—Nelson Cowan, psychologist
“Civilization, instead, has always rested on three pillars. Public goods, social investments, and cooperation by average people, to better themselves — instead of paying tribute to warlords, emperors, and rulers.”
—Umair Haque, British economist