Śiva is among the most widely worshiped deities in India. With names such as Mahādeva (“the great god”) and Naṭarāja (“the king of dancers”), he is venerated in ancient holy cities like Benares, where Śaivites (as his worshipers are called) devote their lives to him, viewing him as the Supreme Lord.
The fact is, he is supreme. As the scriptures say, “Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is supreme among Purāṇas just as the Gaṅgā is the greatest of all rivers, Lord Acyuta [Viṣṇu] the best among deities, and Lord Śambhu [Śiva] the greatest among devotees of Lord Viṣṇu [vaiṣṇavānāṁ yathā śambhu].” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 12.13.16) According to this and similar statements, Śiva may correctly be considered the greatest—at least among devotees—but among gods the supreme is Viṣṇu. This is made clear as far back as the Ṛg Veda (1.22.20): “The lotus feet of Viṣṇu are the supreme objective of all the demigods. Those lotus feet of the Lord are as enlightening as the sun in the sky.”
Śaivites, however, tend to see Śiva not just as the greatest devotee but as God Himself. There is some basis for this in scripture. In the Bhāgavatam (4.7.50) Lord Viṣṇu Himself says, “Brahmā, Lord Śiva, and I are the supreme cause of the material manifestation. I am the Supersoul, the self-sufficient witness. But impersonally there is no difference between Brahmā, Lord Śiva, and Me.”
In other words, all three divinities are one because they are all avatāras, or descents of the Supreme, for the creation, maintenance, and annihilation of the material world. In this context, they are known as guṇa-avatāras, and they preside over the modes of passion (embodied by Brahmā, the creator), goodness (embodied by Viṣṇu, the maintainer), and ignorance (embodied by Śiva, the destroyer). All three of these avatāras are considered aspects of the same principle of Godhead.
The Mahābhārata too (Anuśāsana-parva 135) says that Viṣṇu and Śiva are nondifferent and even counts the names Śiva, Śārva, Sthānu, Iśāna, and Rudra—names traditionally identified with Śiva—among the thousand names of Viṣṇu. Such identification between Śiva and the Supreme Lord seemingly gives weight to the idea of contemporary Hinduism that all the gods mentioned in the Vedic literature are one.
But a close study of scripture shows that while there is reason to see Śiva as nondifferent from Viṣṇu, there is also reason to distinguish strongly between them. According to Bhagavad-gītā, which is accepted by nearly all classes of transcendentalists in India—including Vaiṣṇavas and Śaivites—Viṣṇu (Kṛṣṇa) is the ultimate Godhead, to whom even Śiva must bow down. This is not a matter of opinion or sectarian prejudice. Kṛṣṇa identifies Himself as the source of all material and spiritual worlds (Bg. 10.8), and Arjuna confirms that Kṛṣṇa is indeed supreme (Bg. 10.12). Kṛṣṇa is “the God of all the gods” (deveśa, Bg. 11.37).
In countless incidents from the Purāṇas, Śiva is clearly seen to be Viṣṇu’s devotee. For example, there is the story of Vṛkāsura, a demon who practiced severe austerities and then asked Śiva for a boon—the power to kill at once any living being whose head Vṛkāsura would merely touch. Śiva granted the boon, but was soon to regret his decision, for Vṛka came after him to try out the newfound power. Lord Śiva ran to all parts of the universe to escape this power-mad devotee and finally ended up at the door of the kingdom of Viṣṇu.
Hearing the words of a frightened Śiva, Viṣṇu devised a plan to help him. Viṣṇu appeared directly before Vṛkāsura and told him Śiva was not to be trusted. “Śiva is fond of joking and even lying,” said Viṣṇu. “I am sure he is not telling you the truth. He was just teasing you. Touch your own head, and you will see that nothing will happen.”
Vṛka, of course, touched his own head and died. But the point of this story, in the present context, is Viṣṇu’s superiority over Śiva, who could not resolve the problem on his own. After racing through the entire material cosmos to escape Vṛkāsura, Śiva sought refuge in Viṣṇu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
To counter this, Śiva devotees cite traditions in which Rāma, for example, is seen as a devotee of Śiva. This would make an avatāra of Viṣṇu subservient to Śiva, and thus support the tenets of Śaivism. But upon closer study Rāma’s worship of Śiva turns out to be a later tradition, not supported in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. Moreover, even these later traditions explain that Rāma became a devotee of Śiva only out of etiquette: Rāma wanted to become a greater devotee of Śiva than the evil Rāvaṇa was, and then ask Śiva for permission to defeat Rāvaṇa.
The Rāmāyaṇa offers many stories about the glories of Śiva—his destruction of Dakṣa’s sacrifice, his marriage with Umā (Pārvatī), his drinking of the ocean of poison, his killing of the demon Andhaka, his cursing of Kaṇḍarpa—but ultimately the Rāmāyaṇa makes the supremacy of Rāma quite clear. Rāma (as an incarnation of Viṣṇu) is supreme.
The differences between Śiva and Viṣṇu should be further underlined. As Śrīla Prabhupāda says (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.9.16, purport),Of the three principal agents controlling the three modes of material nature, Viṣṇu is the Almighty; even though He is within material nature for the purpose of maintenance, He is not controlled by the laws of material nature. The other two, Brahmā and Śiva, although almost as greatly powerful as Viṣṇu, are within the control of the material energy of the Supreme Lord.
Śiva is superior to Brahmā, who is an empowered soul (jīva), but Śiva is not quite on the same level as Viṣṇu. It is therefore said that Śiva is a unique living being who merits his own category, known as śiva-tattva.
To clarify Lord Śiva’s position, the Brahma-saṁhitā (5.45) offers an analogy: “When milk is transformed by acids into yogurt, the yogurt is neither the same as nor different from the milk. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda [Kṛṣṇa, Viṣṇu], of whom Lord Śiva is a transformation for performing the work of destruction.”
Though milk and yogurt are essentially nondifferent, yogurt is a product of milk. One can use milk to make ghee, cheese, ice cream, or yogurt, but one cannot turn yogurt into milk. Clearly, then, Śiva’s divinity is intimately connected with, even dependent upon, his relationship to Viṣṇu.
This is made clearer still in the Bhāgavatam (3.28.22): “The blessed Lord Śiva becomes all the more blessed by bearing on his head the holy waters of the Ganges, which has its source in the water that washed the Lord’s lotus feet.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda comments, “Lord Śiva is important because he is holding on his head the holy Ganges water, which has its origin in the footwash of Lord Viṣṇu.
“In the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, by Sanātana Gosvāmī, it is said that anyone who puts the Supreme Lord and the demigods, including Lord Śiva and Lord Brahmā, on the same level at once becomes a pāṣaṇḍī, or atheist. We should never consider the Supreme Lord Viṣṇu and the demigods to be on an equal footing.”
So, theologically, Śiva is both God and yet different from God as well. Because of Śiva’s intimate contact with the quality of ignorance and with matter (which is innately ignorant), the living beings in this world cannot receive the same spiritual restoration by worshiping him as by worshiping Viṣṇu.
And yet they try. As mentioned earlier, the worshipers of Śiva are second in number only to the worshipers of Viṣṇu. Śaiva Siddhānta, a form of Śiva worship found mainly in South India, is a force to be reckoned with, and Vīra Śaivism (or Lingāyatism), another form of the religion, is popular in the South Indian state of Karnataka.
There are other forms of Śiva worship as well, but the only authorized form comes down in the Rudra Sampradāya, also known as the Viṣṇusvāmī Sampradāya, an authorized Vaiṣṇava lineage in which Śiva is worshiped as the greatest devotee of Viṣṇu. Its adherents say that ultimate liberation comes from devotion to Viṣṇu. And Śiva, they say, showed how to be the perfect devotee. Even Śiva himself confirms that one can achieve the supreme destination only by the mercy of Viṣṇu. Lord Śiva says, mukti-pradātā sarveṣāṁ viṣṇur eva na saṁśayaḥ: “There is no doubt that Viṣṇu is the deliverer of liberation for everyone.”
Satyarāja Dāsa is a disciple of Śrīla Prabhupāda and a regular contributor to Back to Godhead. He has written several books on Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He and his wife live in New York City.
The Birth of Lord Śiva
The pastime of Lord Śiva’s birth is described in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (3.12.7–13): “Although Brahmā tried to curb his anger, it came out from between his eyebrows, and a child of mixed blue and red was immediately generated. “After his [Śiva’s] birth, he began to cry: O destiny maker [Brahmā], teacher of the universe, kindly designate my name and place. “The all-powerful Brahmā, born from the lotus flower, pacified the boy with gentle words, accepting his request, and said: Do not cry. I shall certainly do as you desire. “Thereafter, Brahmā said: O chief of the demigods, you shall be called by the name Rudra by all people because you have anxiously cried. “My dear boy, I have already selected the following places for your residence: the heart, the senses, the air of life, the sky, the air, the fire, the water, the earth, the sun, the moon, and austerity. “My dear Rudra, you have eleven other names: Manyu, Manu, Mahinasa, Mahān, Śiva, Ṛtadhvaja, Ugraretā, Bhava, Kāla, Vāmadeva, and Dhṛtavrata. O Rudra, you also have eleven wives, called the Rudrāṇīs, and they are as follows: Dhī, Dhṛti, Rasalā, Umā, Niyut, Sarpi, Ilā, Ambikā, Irāvatī, Svadhā, and Dīkṣā.” Śiva and Pārvatī, as his wife is also known, have their abode in Śiva-loka, between the material and spiritual worlds (see Brahma-saṁhitā 5.43). This description is of how Śiva appeared in the material world.