“Vishnu is beyond the range of the material manifestation, and He is not within the control of the material energy. He is the supreme independent Personality of Godhead. This is even admitted by Shankaracharya: narayanah paro ‘vyaktat (Gita-bhashya).” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 20.311 Purport)
The Shrimad Bhagavatam lists Lord Buddha as an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, meaning that He is identical to God Himself. This is interesting considering what Lord Buddha taught. In the Vedic tradition He is not worshiped in a formal way. Indeed, Buddha started His own religion: Buddhism. Similarly, there are other great personalities of spiritual life who are not necessarily known for the practice of bhakti-yoga. Upon further study, we see that there is actually no contradiction.
There is the concept of time and circumstance. You can’t teach everything to all people at all times. It is something like that of instructing children in the alphabet before moving on to grammar. You teach basic addition and subtraction before introducing higher concepts like calculus. In this way we can see the need for variation in systems of religion, even though the ultimate objective is always the same.
sa vai puṁsāṁ paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokṣaje
“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.6)
The Shrimad Bhagavatam says that the highest dharma, or system of religion, is that which teaches love for God. Love is directed at a person, so this means for the religion to qualify it must acknowledge the personal aspect to the Divine. Love is also selfless, wanting more for the object of affection than for yourself. Therefore the qualifying dharma must be free of outside desires, such as for material gain, renunciation, and mystic perfection. Lord Chaitanya puts all outside desires into three categories: bhukti, mukti and siddhi.
‘hetu’-śabde kahe–bhukti-ādi vāñchāntare
bhukti, siddhi, mukti–mukhya ei tina prakāre
“The word hetu [cause] means that a thing is done for some motive. There can be three motives. One may act to enjoy the result personally, to achieve some material perfection, or to act in such a way that one may be liberated.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 24.27)
The same Shrimad Bhagavatam goes into detail about the form, qualities and pastimes of Shri Krishna. He is non-different from God as well. Krishnas tu bhagavan svayam means that Krishna is Bhagavan Himself. Bhagavan is the full realization of God, superior to that of Paramatma and Brahman. God is a person full of opulences. He takes to activities beyond the neutrality exhibited by the Supersoul. He is more than the undifferentiated spiritual energy that is Brahman.
The purpose of the Buddha avatara was to stop the degraded system of animal sacrifice prevalent in Vedic culture. To effect this change, He had to reject the Vedas, teaching almost a kind of atheism. Lord Shiva descended as Shankaracharya centuries later to diminish the influence of the atheism of Buddhism. Then other famous acharyas followed who worked to invalidate the impersonalism taught by Shankaracharya.
Ramanuja and Madhva fearlessly propagated the philosophy of dualism, wherein the living entity and the Supreme Lord are identical in spiritual nature but also different based on quantification of potency. Ramanuja worshiped Narayana, or Vishnu, as the Supreme Godhead. So did Madhva. Those following in Ramanuja’s line tend to worship Narayana in His incarnation of Rama, who is accompanied by the eternal consort Sita. In Madhva’s line, the worship is typically of Shri Krishna, who is accompanied by Shrimati Radharani.
Lord Chaitanya later taught that Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead, with Vishnu being an incarnation. His philosophy is achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which also describes simultaneous oneness and difference. Does this mean that Ramanuja and Madhva were wrong? Were they fools for accepting Narayana as the Supreme? Did they not know the glories of Krishna?
In reality, there is no contradiction. The difference is merely in mood of worship. Lord Chaitanya gave emphasis to madhurya-rasa, which is worship in the mood of sweetness. Previous acharyas shed light on other rasas, but not so much on madhurya. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of their work cannot be denied. No effort in devotional service, bhakti-yoga, ever goes in vain. There is no loss or diminution on that path, and it saves one from the greatest fear.
pratyavāyo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya
trāyate mahato bhayāt
Whether one accepts Vishnu, Krishna, or Rama as the Supreme, if there is pure devotion then the result of continued association with God is guaranteed. Some worship Lord Shiva, who is almost like God Himself. Shridhara Svami, the famous commentator on Shrimad Bhagavatam, though a worshiper of Vishnu in His form of Narasimhadeva believed that ultimately there is no difference between Shiva and Vishnu. There is benefit even from realization of Brahman and Paramatma only. The rule is that the worshiper gets the association of the object of their worship. Those who worship Narayana go to His realm, where there is a specific kind of interaction. Those who worship Krishna go to His planet, where they can engage in several different moods of worship, all the way up to madhurya.
One person Narayana supreme taking,
Another offerings to Shiva-linga making.
Worship of both Vishnu and Shiva there,
Of contradictions in shastra aware.
Difference just in the mood to know,
Determining destination future to go.
With Vishnu or avataras devotion to exist,
Service in mood of choice forever to persist.