As stated in Srimad-Bhagavatam, vaisnavanam yatha sambhuh: Lord Shiva is the greatest Vaishnava, and why he is so is explained in Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is considered the ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic scriptures. The glories of Lord Shiva are described in many Bhagavatam chapters, and if we were to discuss all of them, it would take many days. So we are just going to focus on one verse from one chapter of one series of chapters about the glories of Lord Shiva as the greatest Vaishnava. Leading up to where we are in today’s verse, the Pracetas, who were all royal princes, had been doing severe austerities when Lord Shiva came to them to offer them some benediction. And the benediction they requested was to approach the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu. So Lord Shiva was very pleased with their request. They did not ask him for some material boon; they asked for the highest purpose of life, which is eternal service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, which takes one beyond the material world of birth, death, disease, and old age.
In this verse, 30, Lord Shiva expresses his appreciation for the Pracetas as Vaishnavas, devotees of Lord Vishnu, and he also explains why Vaishnavas appreciate him.
atha bhagavata yuyam
priyah stha bhagavan yatha
na mad bhagavatanam ca
preyan anyo ’sti karhicit
You are all devotees of the Lord, and as such I appreciate that you are as respectable as the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself. I know in this way that the devotees also respect me and that I am dear to them. Thus no one can be as dear to the devotees as I am.
PURPORT by Srila Prabhupada
It is said, vaisnavanam yatha sambhuh: Lord Siva is the best of all devotees. Therefore all devotees of Lord Krishna are also devotees of Lord Siva.
COMMENT by Giriraj Swami
In the Padma Purana, Lord Shiva tells his wife, aradhananam sarvesam visnor aradhanam param: Of all types of worship, the worship of Vishnu is the highest. Tasmat parataram devi tadiyanam samarcanam: but even higher than the worship of Vishnu is the worship of Vishnu’s devotees. So, in that context we worship devotees, we worship the spiritual master, and we worship Vaishnavas, including Lord Shiva.
Lord Shiva has another aspect, which is of a demigod, a deva, whom people approach for material boons, like they approach Ganesh, Durga, and others. But we are not discussing Shiva in that inferior aspect—it is the same Shiva, but he plays the part of a demigod for those whose intelligence is a little bewildered or small.
In Vrndavana there is Lord Siva’s temple called Gopisvara. The gopis used to worship not only Lord Siva but Katyayani, or Durga, as well, but their aim was to attain the favor of Lord Krsna. A devotee of Lord Krsna does not disrespect Lord Siva, but worships Lord Siva as the most exalted devotee of Lord Krsna. Consequently whenever a devotee worships Lord Siva, he prays to Lord Siva to achieve the favor of Krsna, and he does not request material profit. In the Bhagavad-gita (7.20) it is said that generally people worship demigods for some material profit. Kamais tais tair hrta jnanah. Driven by material lust, they worship demigods, but a devotee never does so, for he is never driven by material lust. That is the difference between a devotee’s respect for Lord Siva and an asura’s respect for him.
Asura means “demon.”
The asura worships Lord Siva, takes some benediction from him, misuses the benediction, and ultimately is killed by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who awards him liberation.
One example is Ravana. Ravana was a devotee of Shiva, and by the blessings of Lord Shiva he attained immense wealth and power, but he became so maddened with material desires and so intoxicated by his material opulence that he dared to kidnap Mother Sita, and in the end he was killed by the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the form of Lord Ramachandra.
So, we should be very careful not to approach Lord Shiva for material benefit, which is actually demonic. It is demonic because it means that we want to take God’s property—everything is God’s property—and enjoy it for ourselves, in competition with God. Sita is Lakshmi, and Lakshmi is meant to be engaged in the service of Narayana. Demons like Ravana want to take Lakshmi from Narayana and exploit her for their own sense gratification. So, we don’t want to be like Ravana, but rather, we want to be like Hanuman, who rescued Lakshmi (Sita) from the clutches of Ravana and returned her to Rama.
Because Lord Siva is a great devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he loves all the devotees of the Supreme Lord.
This is a very important characteristic of a true devotee: he loves all the other devotees. So in a way, we can assess our spiritual position by how much respect and appreciation and affection we have for the other devotees.
Lord Siva told the Pracetas that because they were devotees of the Lord, he loved them very much. Lord Siva was kind and merciful not only to the Pracetas; anyone who is a devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very dear to Lord Siva. Not only are the devotees dear to Lord Siva, but he respects them as much as he respects the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Similarly, devotees of the Supreme Lord also worship Lord Siva as the most dear devotee of Lord Krsna.
This is a very important point.
They do not worship him as a separate Personality of Godhead. It is stated in the list of nama-aparadhas that it is an offense to think that the chanting of the name of Hari and the chanting of Hara, or Siva, are the same. The devotees must always know that Lord Visnu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that Lord Siva is His devotee.
One of the first of the ten offenses against the holy name is to consider the names of the demigods such as Lord Shiva or Lord Brahma to be equal to or independent of the holy name of Lord Vishnu. As a devotee of Vishnu, Lord Shiva is respected, but he is not to be mistaken to be equal to or independent of Lord Vishnu.
Some years ago, an Austrian scholar came to India and became a sannyasi in the impersonalist Shankara line, accepting the name Agehananda Bharati. And there was a piece by him in the Illustrated Weekly of India, a popular weekly magazine like Life used to be in America. The editor then was Khushwant Singh, and from the editorial policy of the weekly, he seemed to be a demon. “Demon” doesn’t mean having ten heads and twenty arms. Demons can also look like you and me. But they are considered demons because they are against the supremacy of the Lord. So, this Khushwant Singh published an article by Bharati in which Dr. Bharati gave his account of his debate with our Hridayananda dasa, in which he had claimed that Lord Shiva was supreme and advocated the chanting of Lord Shiva’s name.
I could understand that the idea of the article was to make both Bharati and us look foolish—religious fanatics fighting like children over nothing: “Krishna is supreme.” “No, Shiva is supreme.” “You should chant Hare Krishna.” “No, you should chant Shiva Shiva.” So, I wrote Srila Prabhupada what the editor had done, and Srila Prabhupada agreed: “Yes, Giriraj is right. Bharati is a fool, but Singh is a demon.”
The devotees must always know that Lord Visnu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that Lord Siva is His devotee. A devotee should be offered respect on the level of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and sometimes even more respect. Indeed, Lord Rama, the Personality of Godhead Himself, sometimes worshiped Lord Siva. If a devotee is worshiped by the Lord, why should a devotee not be worshiped by other devotees on the same level with the Lord? This is the conclusion. From this verse it appears that Lord Siva blesses the asuras simply for the sake of formality. Actually he loves one who is devoted to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
When Lord Ramachandra was in South India, He worshipped Lord Shiva at Rameswaram, and of course, Lord Shiva worships Lord Rama. So, this apparently contradictory behavior has given rise to speculation that Shiva is supreme. Who is supreme: is Shiva supreme, or is Rama supreme? But Lord Rama’s worship of Lord Shiva is not because Lord Shiva is greater than Him; it’s because the Personality of Godhead likes to worship His devotees. For example, when Sudama Vipra visited Lord Krishna in Dvaraka, Krishna Dvarakadhisa worshipped Sudama Brahmana. Dvarakadhisa personally washed the feet of Sudama Brahmana, and Rukmini, the goddess of fortune herself, was fanning him like a menial servant. But it doesn’t mean that Sudama Vipra is supreme; it just means that the Lord is so kind and affectionate to His devotees that He takes pleasure in worshipping and serving them. So that was the case of Lord Rama with Lord Shiva in Rameswaram.
When I was in Madras, meeting important people in the city, many of them recommended that I meet a well-known religious figure named Mr. Ramakrishna. So I did. And I spoke as Krishna speaks in the Bhagavad-gita, as Sukadeva Gosvami speaks in Srimad-Bhagavatam, and as we heard Srila Prabhupada speak, that Krishna is Supreme Personality of Godhead. Ramakrishna became very agitated, claiming that Shiva was supreme. Now, in a way Shiva is supreme in the material world, because he is the demigod in charge of the mode of ignorance (tamo-guna), and most of the material world is in the mode of ignorance. So there is some truth to that statement, but not in any absolute sense. So, I was saying that Krishna is the supreme and giving evidence from the scripture, and he was getting more and more agitated, and with him becoming agitated, I also became agitated, and he was raising his voice, and I was raising my voice, and finally we both realized we were not getting anywhere and should just stop.
So we stopped, and I left the meeting, which had been quite unpalatable. But I kept meeting people who told me, “Oh, you have to meet Mr. Ramakrishna? He is such a religious man. He’ll like what you are doing.” So, after a few weeks of hearing this, I thought, “Well, maybe I should try again. Maybe that was just bad luck.” I phoned him, and he immediately agreed. I imagined that people were also telling him, “Oh, you should meet the Hare Krishna devotee. They are doing such good work. You’ll really like them.”
So, I went to his home again, and I was very careful and cautious, and he was very careful and cautious. But eventually we came to the same point: who is supreme? He was saying Shiva, and I was saying Krishna, and he was getting angrier, and I was getting angrier. But then I got an inspiration within my heart and said, “Look, I’m just a student, but my teacher, my guru, Srila Prabhupada, is coming to Madras soon. So instead of our discussing, why don’t you discuss with him?” He was very happy with that idea, because he got out of the argument and was going to have a chance to meet Srila Prabhupada.
When Srila Prabhupada came, I invited Mr. Ramakrishna to meet him. He told Srila Prabhupada, “I have been discussing with your disciple Giriraj, and we’ve been arguing over who is supreme—Krishna or Shiva. So, who is supreme?” And Srila Prabhupada was so intelligent that he didn’t answer the question directly; he didn’t get into that controversy. He said, “There are two words: bhakti, or seva, and puja. In puja the worshipper wants to get some result from his worship, but in bhakti the devotee wants only to please the Deity, Krishna, and wants nothing in return. Generally people approach Shiva in the mood of puja, whereas people approach Krishna in the mood of bhakti.” Mr. Ramakrishna responded, “Well, isn’t it possible that one could approach Lord Shiva in the mood of bhakti?” Prabhupada said, “It is possible. Just like someone could go to a liquor shop and have some other purpose besides purchasing liquor. But generally if someone goes to a liquor shop, it is understood that he is going to buy liquor.” Then Mr. Ramakrishna said, “But what if someone did worship Lord Shiva in the mood of bhakti?” And Srila Prabhupada said, “Then it is all right.” In that case, the worship of Shiva would be as good as the worship of Krishna, because Shiva, if approached in that way, he will act as a siksa-guru, as he acted for the Pracetas, and he will guide you how to approach Krishna—and then there’s no dichotomy, no contradiction. So, that should be our mood.
Why is Shiva considered the greatest Vaishnava? One reason, perhaps the main reason, is that he is so merciful. That is the nature of a true Vaishnava—para-dukha-dukhi: he feels sorrow for the sorrow of others, and he wants to relieve their suffering. One very vivid example described in Srimad-Bhagavatam is when the demigods and demons were furiously churning the ocean of milk and a terrible poison was produced and that poison was increasing in volume—it was threatening to become like an ocean that would fill the whole universe and kill all the living entities in the entire universe—so the demigods approached Lord Narayana, and He advised them to approach Lord Shiva, which they did, along with Lord Narayana.
Of course, Lord Narayana could have saved the situation Himself, but He chose not to, because the Lord likes to give credit to His devotees. That is the Lord’s kindness and affection toward His devotees. Lord Shiva is always benevolent toward all living entities, and when he saw that they were disturbed by the poison, which was spreading everywhere, he was very compassionate. So he consulted his wife, Bhavani: “Just see how all these living entities have been placed in danger because of the poison produced from the churning of the ocean of milk. It is my duty to give protection and safety to living entities. It is the duty of the master to protect his suffering dependents. People in general are always engaged in animosity toward one another, but devotees, even at the risk of their lives, try to save them. When one performs benevolent activities for others, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, is pleased, along with all other living creatures. So, let me drink this poison, for all the living entities may thus become happy.” Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.7.41–45) states, “After informing Bhavani in this way, Lord Siva began to drink the poison, and Bhavani, who knew perfectly well the capabilities of Lord Siva, gave him her permission to do so. Thereafter, Lord Siva, who is dedicated to auspicious, benevolent work for humanity, compassionately took the whole quantity of poison in his palm and drank it. As if in defamation, the poison born from the ocean of milk manifested its potency by marking Lord Siva’s neck with a bluish line. That line, however, is now accepted as an ornament of the lord. It is said that great personalities almost always accept voluntary suffering because of the suffering of people in general. This is considered the highest method of worshiping the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is present in everyone’s heart. Upon hearing of this act, everyone, including Bhavani, Lord Brahma, Lord Visnu, and the people in general, very highly praised this deed performed by Lord Siva, who is worshiped by the demigods and who bestows benedictions upon the people.”
This section of the Bhagavatam made me think of many devotees, but especially of Srila Prabhupada, who took such a tremendous risk, leaving India and crossing the ocean at the age of seventy, and having two heart attacks on the way, but still, in that mood of compassion, wanting to relieve people of their suffering in the highest way and in the most permanent way, by giving them Krishna consciousness. In fact, Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.7.39 describes him perfectly: “People in general, being bewildered by the illusory energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, are always engaged in animosity toward one another. But devotees, even at the risk of their own temporary lives, try to save them.” He took that risk, and therefore he has that quality that makes Lord Shiva the greatest Vaishnava—the quality of compassion, of being ready to sacrifice all personal comforts and security for the sake of others.
So, Lord Shiva took that huge ocean of poison and drank it. And it stayed within his throat and turned his throat a bluish black color, which from a certain point of view could be considered a blemish, but actually devotees worship that coloration of Lord Shiva’s throat because it was a manifestation of his great compassion for the living entities. And because of the coloration of his throat, Shiva became known as Nilakantha, “blue throated.”
That quality of compassion makes Lord Shiva the greatest Vaishnava, and that quality is something that we are all meant to develop. This is what we can learn from Lord Shiva, how to be ready to take any risk, make any sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others, relieving them of their fears and anxieties and sufferings.
Another manifestation of Lord Shiva’s mercy is the way he looks. Shiva is actually an expansion of Vishnu. The Brahma-samhita (5.45) explains that just as milk in contact with some acid turns into yogurt and the yogurt is the same as the milk but also different from the milk, similarly Lord Vishnu, when He comes in contact with the material nature, becomes transformed into Lord Shiva who is the same as Vishnu but also not the same as Vishnu. The milk can become yogurt, but yogurt cannot become milk.
ksiram yatha dadhi vikara-visesa-yogat
sanjayate na tu tatah prthag asti hetoh
yah sambhutam api tatha samupaiti karyad
govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami
“Milk changes into yogurt when mixed with a yogurt culture, but actually it is constitutionally nothing but milk. Similarly, Govinda, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, assumes the form of Lord Siva [Sambhu] for the special purpose of material transactions. I offer my obeisances at His lotus feet.”
Lord Shiva is beyond the modes of material nature, but out of his mercy he dresses as we see, with snakes and with ashes from the crematorium. He looks quite ghastly, but he does that out of mercy to people in the mode of ignorance who are attracted to those things. He doesn’t have to dress like that or appear like that, but he does it so they’ll feel comfortable. “Like attracts like.”
I think of our wonderful godbrother Sridhar Swami. Once, on an airplane flight, I met one of his best friends from his earlier life, and his friend told me that in their youth on the weekends they would get drunk and for fun they would punch each other and fight. And Sridhar Swami himself told me that when he first met the devotees in Berkeley, California, they had a table with books and incense and pictures and posters. So, there was a poster of Krishna, and Sridhar Swami—then John Colcleugh—who had really long hair, said to the devotee at the book table, “Who’s that?” The devotee replied, “That’s God—Krishna.” “Oh yeah, that’s God? Well, what if I take that picture and tear it into pieces, what would you do?” And the devotee said, “I think I’d have to kill you.” And when Sridhar Swami heard that, he was very impressed. “Okay. These are the type of people I can mix with.”
Lord Shiva takes on his ghastly appearance out of mercy, so that people who are attracted to those lower modes will feel comfortable with him. And he gradually elevates them, and his ultimate desire is that they should become devotees of Krishna.
So we offer Lord Shiva our respects as a Vaishnava, and we pray to him to help us attain the favor of Krishna, which we can do by imbibing his quality of mercy and compassion, of being ready to make any sacrifice for the sake of helping others, which can be expressed in the best way by making sacrifices to help others come to Krishna consciousness, like Srila Prabhupada did.
As I said, we could discuss the glories of Lord Shiva for days, but we have time constraints. Still, we could take one or two questions.
Devotee: What about Lord Shiva in his form when he is not yet . . . what’s . . .
Giriraj Swami: Oh, yes, there is Sadashiva. He exists beyond the material world, but he is not exactly the same as Vishnu, though he is an expansion of Vishnu. There are so many expansions of Vishnu. He also has an expansion called Sadashiva. And Advaita Acharya, who we say is an incarnation of Maha-Vishnu, is also said to be an incarnation of Sadashiva. And he too was full of compassion for the fallen souls.
I should just mention there is one verse in which Lord Shiva tells Parvati, “I am always chanting the name of Rama, and my mind is fully enchanted by the name of Rama. Three names of Rama is equal a thousand names of Vishnu.” Once, Lord Shiva wanted Parvati to join him for honoring prasada and she wouldn’t join him because she had to chant her Vishnu-sahasra-nama, “Thousand Names of Vishnu.” So, he said, “Don’t worry—just chant three names of Rama; that equals a thousand names of Vishnu.”
rama rameti rameti
rame rame manorame
“[Lord Siva addressed his wife:] ‘O Varanana, I chant the holy name of Rama, Rama, Rama and thus enjoy this beautiful sound. This holy name of Ramacandra is equal to one thousand holy names of Lord Visnu.’ ” (Padma Purana, 72.335, quoted as Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 9.32)
So, let us chant three names of Rama in the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and we will have chanted a thousand names of Vishnu—Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
[A talk by Giriraj Swami on Shiva-ratri, March 2, 2014, New Dvaraka, Los Angeles]