“Lord Shiva takes charge of reforming persons who are ghosts and demons, not to speak of others, who are godly; therefore he is the spiritual master of everyone, both the dull and demoniac and the highly learned Vaishnavas. It is also stated, vaishnavanam yatha shambhuh: Shambhu, Lord Shiva, is the greatest of all Vaishnavas.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.2.2 Purport)
Vedic culture is not polytheistic. Visit any Hindu temple or look at any poster found in a typical follower’s home and you would think otherwise. You see many deities worshiped. Even if the temple is dedicated to a single worshipable figure, there are usually at least two people on the altar: one male and one female. What does it all mean? There is Lord Vishnu, but there is also Lord Shiva. Goddess Durga is there as well.
The idea is that people are born with different qualities. This should be obvious to us. Not everyone is destined for a career in the National Basketball Association. Even if you are skilled as a youth, the chances of making it to the pros are very slim. The top performers are gifted; they have skills that are in the highest percentile of the population.
Then there are others who are naturally intelligent. They can figure things out quickly. They remember things after hearing them only a single time. Think of the person who does well in school without having to study so much. On the flip side, there are people who struggle with learning. They are not so intelligent.
For each person there is a system of religion, or dharma, available to them. Vedic culture is all-inclusive. Not everyone will immediately accept the highest truth that an existence is meant for full surrender to God the person. It takes many lifetimes even before knowing the Supreme Lord in truth; such a soul is rare.
bahūnāṁ janmanām ante
jñānavān māṁ prapadyate
vāsudevaḥ sarvam iti
sa mahātmā su-durlabhaḥ
“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.19)
Among the prominent figures worshiped is Lord Shiva. There are many sides to his activities, and also to his worshipers. Some of the greatest fiends in history have been devoted to Shiva, but so have many pious souls. What does this say about God the person? What is significant about Shiva and why is he worshiped?
1. He is the destroyer.
Man has been puzzled by the question of the origin of the creation since as far back as recorded history goes. Yet time is actually infinite in both directions, forwards and backwards. It’s really not so important to know when the creation came into being because eventually it will get destroyed again. The cycle continues perpetually. Lord Brahma takes care of creation, Vishnu maintenance, and Shiva destruction.
This means that Lord Shiva is very powerful. He is not an ordinary living entity. He is Mahadeva, or the great godly figure. If he has the power to destroy the entire creation, he can do anything within that level of destruction whenever he so chooses. It is natural for the less powerful to worship the more powerful; hence the prominence of worship of Shiva.
2. He is charged with reforming the demoniac.
Parents don’t treat their children equally. If one child is constantly lying and getting into trouble, the parents will be stiffer in their punishment. If another child is always honest and happens to slip up one time, they will be more lenient, willing to let the transgression slide.
In the same way, the most demoniac of God’s children get different treatment. Lord Shiva is in charge of reforming them. The demoniac don’t know what is right or wrong. They are so low that they are willing to eat other human beings for flesh. They have no qualms about killing. By worshiping Lord Shiva for material rewards, they get an introduction to religion. At least they are worshiping someone in an authorized way.
3. Though he is in charge of the mode of ignorance, he is above it.
Brahma is in charge of passion, Vishnu goodness, and Shiva ignorance, or darkness. Each individual has a combination of these three modes when appearing in the material world. Darkness is the mode the aforementioned demoniac are in. Just because Lord Shiva is their worshipable figure of choice doesn’t mean that Shiva is himself in ignorance. Though he spends time in crematoriums, wears ashes on his body, and drinks poison, it doesn’t mean that Mahadeva is tainted in any way.
He is spotless in character. He is not attached to his duty of giving out material rewards. One of his many other names is Ashutosha. This means “easily pleased.” Basically, he doesn’t want his worshipers to disturb his meditation. He quickly gives whatever they ask for, since he knows that material benedictions are not so important either way.
4. He is the greatest Vaishnava, and therefore the spiritual master for everyone.
Shiva meditates on Vishnu, who is the personal God. More specifically, he always thinks of the Supreme Lord’s form of Shri Ramachandra, whose deeds are famously described in the Ramayana. So on one side the demoniac worship Mahadeva for material benedictions. Through his association they gradually become reformed.
On the other side the pious also worship Mahadeva. They don’t seek material rewards from him, but rather blessings in the further advancement of devotional practices. Shiva is thus the guru for the entire world. Every aspect of the creation can find something of value in his association.
5. He grants liberation, but in a subtle way.
Vishnu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the detail behind the abstract concept known as God. Vishnu is also Krishna and Rama. The Supreme Lord is never limited to a single personal form. One of Vishnu’s many names is Mukunda, which means one who grants mukti. Mukti is liberation, release from the cycle of birth and death.
Lord Shiva also grants mukti, but in a more subtle way. He arranges for the devotee to get liberation through the favor of the Supreme Lord. It is said that the person who dies in Shiva’s holy city of Kashi gets mukti. This is because when they are quitting their body, Mahadeva whispers the name of Rama into their ear.
This fact gives further evidence of Mahadeva’s status of spiritual master for the whole world. The sound of the holy name is as potent as the person it addresses. It is for this reason that Lord Shiva always repeats the name of Rama. He enables others to hear it as well. When people engage in devotion to the same Rama, Mahadeva is very pleased. It is for this reason that the great god is always favorable to those who regularly chant the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
To destroy world when time to expire,
Acting as spiritual master for population entire.
To demons some good association giving,
For pious blessings for devotional living.
In charge of mode of ignorance though,
Spotless is his character know.
Lord Shiva, in Kashi giving jewel of the ear,
Departing souls name of Rama to hear.
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