What is the position of Lord Shiva?
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Transcription (edited) by- Keshavgopal Das
Question- It is difficult to summarize ISKCON’s position and I have not seen any official note from ISKCON about the difference between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. There is a reference in Skanda Purana which mentions that there is no difference between Lord Vishnu, Lord Brahma, and Lord Shiva. However, ISKCON’s position is that they are different. Lord Shiva is a demigod, a devotee, and a servant (or best devotee) of Lord Vishnu. Kindly explain.
- Relationship between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu is of simultaneous oneness and difference. They are the manifestations of the same absolute truth but perform different functions.
- Lord Shiva is in-charge of mode of ignorance (tamoguna) and attracts conditioned souls who have natures in mode of ignorance.
- Vallabhacharya story from 500 years ago tells us that Lord Krishna is most dear to Lord Shiva.
- Various Bhagvad-gita verses tells us that demigod worshippers also get their desires fulfilled through Lord Krishna only.
- Important is not who is Supreme, but that we show our sincerity to the Supreme and pray for their guidance.
Answer (long)- In brief, the relationship between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu is one of achintya bhedabheda (simultaneous oneness and difference). Sometimes some neophyte devotees while having some discussions or debates may emphasize a point of Lord Shiva being a devotee and a servant of Lord Vishnu (reference from Srimad Bhagvatam 12th Canto – vaishnavanam yatha shambhu i.e. among all Vaishnavas Lord Shiva is the greatest). At the same time, in SB there is also the pastime of Attreya Rishi getting Dattatreya as his son. In this pastime all three Deities appear and say that there is no difference between Us. Similarly, there are several places in the SB where Lord Shiva is glorified as if He is the supreme Lord. When samudra manthan leela is about to take place and the poison comes out, the devatas go to Lord Shiva asking for help, at that time the prayers offered to Lord Shiva indicate that He is the Supreme Lord Himself. But there is also a verse in Padma Purana (PP), which says that if one considers Lord Vishnu and other demigods to be same, he is a pashandi (an atheist). At the same time Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami in Chaitanya Charitamrta quotes from the Vedic scriptures, to say how one who considers Lord Shiva to be different from Lord Krishna is also an offender. Chaitanya Bhagvat also reiterates this point. The PP has many recensions and some of the verses ascribed to PP are not found in some of the recensions. Important point here is that we should not take one verse out of context, emphasize only that and downplay everything else that is said in the scriptures.
The essential message of Vedic literature is achintya bhedabheda. This means that there is simultaneous oneness and difference between Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva and this difference is inconceivable. The inconceivability does not mean that we cannot use our intelligence to understand it but our intelligence cannot understand it completely.
The one absolute truth manifests in multifarious ways to uplift the conditioned souls. When the one absolute truth manifests to control the mode of goodness it is called as Lord Vishnu, for mode of passion- Lord Brahma, and for mode of ignorance – Lord Shiva. Same absolute truth is manifesting in different ways. In that sense there is no difference between Them. This is the abheda (non-difference) part on how three exalted Deities is to be understood. The bheda (difference) part is that They have certain specific and distinctive functions – Lord Brahma is in charge for creation, Lord Shiva for destruction, and Lord Vishnu for maintenance. Because these particular functions are associated with particular modes and these particular Deities look after those particular functions, accordingly they attract certain kind of worshippers. Generally, if someone is in mode of ignorance if they would be attracted to worship someone they would be attracted to worship Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva also dresses and behaves to some extent out of His compassion in a way that will attract such worshippers. He lives in a crematorium, has a snake around His body, apparently drink bhang, and puts ashes on His body. This is to be seen as absolute truth’s compassion to manifest in a form in which Supreme Lord can attract conditioned souls towards Himself.
In Bhagavad-gita (BG) seventh chapter four verses (20 to 23) are critical to understand the complexity and compassion underlying demigod worship. In the seventh chapter, first Krishna mentions about people who do not surrender to Him (BG 7.15). Then from BG 7.16-19 He talks about those people who surrender to Him either with pure devotional desires or with not so pure desires. Then in BG 7.20-23 He talks about those who surrender to one of His manifestations i.e. demigods. And in BG 7.24 He talks about those who surrender to another manifestation of Him i.e. the brahman. He says that those who worship demigods do so out of material desire (kāmais tais tair hṛta-jñānāḥ BG7.20) and since their intelligence is destroyed with material desires, they worship the demigods. Then Krishna describes in BG 7.21, whichever form (tanum) of demigod one worships that faith I only make unshakable (acalāṁ). When a person wants to worship Lord Shiva or Mother Durga, it is Lord Krishna only who makes the faith unshakable. Such worshippers worship such Deities according to their nature.
Krishna makes such faith stable in three ways – (i) as supersoul in the heart He inspires to worship a particular devata (ii) That person is attracted to a particular scripture that glorifies that devata (iii) that particular devata gives the fruits to the worshipper but it is ultimately Krishna only Who is giving the fruit.
Let us try to understand with the help of a story in the Bible. There is a story – prodigal son- that when the son of a wealthy father goes away, the son suffers and comes back home, and the father welcomes him- a sign of great love of father for the son. But the Vedic scriptures describe that the father’s love is so great that when the son goes away, the father not only accompanies him invisibly as supersoul, but also sends his representatives. Let us assume a case in which the father is a king and the son has gone to another kingdom and there he serves a master and suffers, then the king who understands the mentality of the son, sends one of his ministers having certain characteristics which will attract the mentality of the son. The minister meets the son and tells him that you are serving a master and getting so little. But if you work for me I’ll give you whatever you want, why don’t you work for me? The son gets attracted and comes back with the minister to the kingdom. Once he is back in the kingdom the minister offers him the salary and perks which actually are coming from the King himself (mayaiva vihitān hi tān BG 7.22 – but in actuality these benefits are bestowed by Me (Krishna) alone). The son continues to serve the minister, but in this way the son has come back to the father’s kingdom and the son is indirectly under father’s care. Demigods are like ministers of Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu and through the process of demigod worship, Krishna ensures that His lost children come back within the house of the Vedas. When they are in the house of the Vedas, then gradually their wisdom may awaken and they may turn to Krishna directly. We should see the system of demigod worship as a system of compassion.
The minister in this example actually equates with demigods like Surya, Chandra, etc. But in case of Lord Shiva, the minister in this example is like the alter-ego of the king only. Sometimes this manifestation acts like a Supreme Lord, sometimes this manifestation acts like servant of the Supreme Lord. This is mainly because Lord Shiva and Mother Durga are in-charge of the material world. Therefore Lord Shiva fully deserves the title of Vishvanatha. He is the Lord of the Universe and in this capacity He can act as Supreme Lord.
There is a story of Vallabhacharya who was a great devotee of both Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva. At one time he was very distressed with ups and downs of life and went to temple of Lord Shiva and started praying fervently. Touched by his prayers Lord Shiva appeared and asked him his wish. Vallabhacharya was surprised but since he was a pure hearted devotee, Lord Shiva appeared (this happened around 500 year ago). Instead of asking Lord Shiva some material desire he asked – please give me what is most dear to You. Lord Shiva smiled broadly and gave Him Deity of Lord Krishna. Since that time Vallabhacharya became a Vaishnava but never rejected Lord Shiva. In fact, he considered Lord Shiva his guru.
If somebody worships Lord Shiva with a pure desire, Lord Shiva will ensure that person will attain highest liberation either by directing the person to Lord Krishna/Vishnu in this life or at the end of life by chanting the names of Lord Ram in his ears. But if someone worships Lord Shiva with material desires Lord Shiva will reciprocate and fulfill those desires and there will be a gradual process of purification that will take place.
To summarize, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu are simultaneously one and different. They are one in the sense that they are the manifestation of the same absolute truth but for different functions and different characteristics controlling different modes. At the same time the whole principle of demigod worship is meant to elevate the lost conditioned souls. I explained this point with the help of BG verses and the “king-minister-lost son” example.
For all practical purposes at our level of devotion if we are not clear about who is the Supreme, the most important thing that we need to do is whoever the Supreme is we should show the Supreme our sincerity. We can pray if we have some faith in Lord Vishnu, some faith in Lord Shiva, we can pray to both of them, please guide me. Please help me understand what is the best way to serve You, what is the correct understanding. The Lord will reciprocate to our sincerity and He will guide us as it happened in case of Vallabhacharya. If you have any further questions we can discuss further.