“The example is given that small lamps may become agitated by a little breeze, but the greatest lamp or the greatest illuminating source, the sun, is never moved, even by the greatest hurricane. One’s greatness has to be estimated by one’s ability to tolerate provoking situations.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 34)
The sages hearing the report from Bhrigu Muni were astonished to learn that Lord Vishnu couldn’t be angered by what seemed to be the greatest offense committed against His transcendental body. The anger aroused in Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva resulting from similar unkind behavior shown them was certainly understandable; such information wasn’t shocking in the least bit to the sages discussing Vedic philosophy. Indeed, who among us wouldn’t become agitated upon being offended, especially if our position was that of an object of worship? Based on the reactions of Brahma and Mahesha, Vishnu’s behavior firmly established His superior position as the almighty spiritual sun, the one entity incapable of being supplanted or removed from His position. Due to His causeless mercy, the same unwavering determination is bestowed upon His greatest lovers, those who know no other business in life except bhakti.
The Vedic tradition identifies Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu as the three presiding deities of the material universe, figures who are essentially the face of Hinduism. Just as we see different species in this world who each behave differently, the activities of the human being can take on various degrees, or modes. We can think of the three modes of nature as classes of activity: first class, second class and third class. Since every life form is equal on a constitutional level, the distinctions between modes relate to the temporary and destructible outer coverings assumed. First class activity is that which leads to higher knowledge, second class activity leads to a neutral state after much endeavor and third class engagements result in further ignorance and misery.
“From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, greed develops; and from the mode of ignorance develop foolishness, madness and illusion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.17)
The human being is unique in its ability to choose which mode to enter. The animal species is completely in the third class category; their potential for intelligence is zero. A fish doesn’t even know that it is wet, and a pig is satisfied rolling around in its own stool. Though the human being generally takes part in the second class mode, it can jump from one mode to the other. Since there is an opportunity of advancement for the members of the different classes within one lifetime, or even many lifetimes, there are different deities, or spiritual objects of worship, tailored to each class of human being. For those in the third class, the mode of ignorance, the worshipable figure is Lord Shiva. Known as Mahadeva, Lord Shiva takes on a strange appearance, wearing ashes on his body and hanging around crematoriums. He is also known as the destroyer, for the end of creation is ignited by his efforts.
Though Mahadeva is the deity for the man stuck in third class behavior, he is not tainted by any of the flaws found in the mode of ignorance. In fact, he always worships the deity of the mode of goodness, Lord Vishnu. Nevertheless, Lord Shiva is also known as Rudra, so he has a penchant for anger and agitation. He doesn’t bother anyone, but others are always asking him for benedictions. Since he only wants to meditate on Vishnu’s lotus feet, he quickly grants whatever boons an individual asks for, provided that the gifts relate to material nature. Because of the speed in which he delivers rewards, Shiva is known as ashutosha, or easily pleased.
Lord Brahma is in charge of second class activity, the mode of passion. Most of us live in the mode of passion, so it is the easiest to understand. We take to some activity with a desired benefit in mind. The common trait of passionate activity is that the desires relate to the outer covering of the soul, the temporary and perishable body. The mode of passion is compared to activities which bear fruit, actions which are akin to planting a seed for the purpose of enjoying the plant and its flowers. Passionate behavior is considered second class because the individual is ultimately left in the same position after all the work is performed. For example, say that we spend hours preparing an elaborate meal in the kitchen. Much effort is taken to find the necessary ingredients and cook them in just the right way. But once we finish eating the meal, we’re essentially right back where we started from. The stomach was satisfied and our time was spent in constructive activity, but the end result is a position of neutrality.
“My respectful obeisances are unto You, O Lord, whose abdomen is marked with a depression like a lotus flower, who are always decorated with garlands of lotus flowers, whose glance is as cool as the lotus and whose feet are engraved with lotuses.” (Queen Kunti speaking to Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.8.22)
Lord Brahma is known as Svayambhuh, or the self-born. He took birth from the stem of the lotus-like navel of Lord Vishnu. From him the entire world was created, including all the creatures. Hence Brahma can be known as the great father, the grandsire of humanity. Since sex life, which leads to reproduction, is the quintessential act of the mode of passion, Lord Brahma is the perfect person to manage this mode. He too is a great devotee of Vishnu, for he has on many occasions offered very kind prayers to the Lord. Those in the mode of passion worship Brahma for various boons, and depending on the nature of the reward sought, Brahma will grant it. Since he is involved in creating life and giving benedictions, Brahma still sometimes can get shaken from his firm position as servant of the Lord.
Lord Vishnu is considered above Brahma and Shiva because He is a non-different form of the original Personality of Godhead. There are in fact many different Vishnu forms, each responsible for a different aspect of the spiritual and material worlds. Lord Vishnu is in pure goodness, so He is incapable of mixing with the material world, which represents a manifestation of the Supreme Spirit’s external energy. Vishnu’s position of managing the mode of goodness, first class activity, is aimed at elevating the worshiper to the highest platform of understanding, the position where they comprehend that they are constitutionally spirit souls meant to be in the loving company of the original, personal spiritual entity.
Though Vishnu’s supremacy is mentioned in many Vedic texts, including the Ramayana - a poem which highlights the exploits of one of Vishnu’s most famous incarnations to appear on earth, Lord Rama - sages will still hold debates as to which deity is superior. Such was the case a long time ago when a collection of brahmanas gathered around and discussed how to properly decipher which of the three presiding deities was the most pure. They decided that whoever would tolerate the greatest offense without becoming agitated would indeed be the deity most fixed in goodness. Bhrigu Muni, one of Lord Brahma’s sons, decided to administer the tests by approaching each of the three deities. Though it may seem like these experiments were tightly controlled, they actually weren’t. The levels of offense weren’t equal, as Vishnu was offered the greatest offense, one committed by the body. Bhrigu Muni failed to offer his respects upon meeting Brahma, and he verbally insulted Lord Shiva, but when he met Vishnu, he kicked the Lord in the chest.
Brahma and Shiva were angered by Bhrigu Muni’s behavior, but Vishnu was not in the least bit. He apologized to Bhrigu for possibly hurting his foot, as Vishnu’s chest is very hard and powerful and the muni’s foot must have been very soft. The Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown jewel of Vedic literature, in describing this incident points to the example of how a small lamp can be faded out by a strong wind, but the powerful sun can never be bothered by anything. In the same way, Vishnu, as the Personality of Godhead, can’t be agitated by anyone, especially a brahmana, one who is devoted to Him in thought, word and deed. A brahmana engages exclusively in first class activity, wherein they study the Vedas, teach Vedic wisdom to others, perform sacrifices, teach others how to perform sacrifices, and accept charity.
More than just an order supplier and source of pleasure, God’s position is that of best friend of every living entity. He is incapable of being angered, offended, hurt, punished, etc. His position is fixed forever; there is no shaking Him. Whether we love Him or not, His promise of providing shelter to the surrendered souls never expires. Whether Vishnu is insulted or praised, His deep love for His devotees never wanes. From this information we can understand that the only worthwhile spiritual activity is to lovingly engage in the service of such a sweet and caring Person. All other manifestations of spirituality, be they of the formal religious variety or something as simple as meditation, are meant to elevate one to the stage of pure loving service, which is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. If Vishnu’s position never changes, then the ideal yogi’s position will be similarly as sturdy. Therefore it is not surprising to see that the greatest lovers of God can never be cajoled into renouncing their vow of performing divine service to the exclusion of all other engagements.
The gopis of Vrindavana, the female cowherd residents of the sacred town, embodied and exemplified the highest form of spiritual practice this earth has ever seen. Around five thousand years ago, Lord Vishnu, in His original form of Shri Krishna, descended to earth to enact wonderful pastimes. Vishnu has four hands and is opulently dressed, so He is the ideal object of worship for those in the mode of goodness seeking to connect with God. Krishna is all-attractive, so He is perfectly suited for those bhaktas desiring transcendental sweetness in their spiritual activities. The gopis, though “uneducated” women who essentially worked for a living, loved Krishna with all their hearts. Just as the sun is never agitated by a hurricane, the gopis could never be swayed from the mood of bhakti, even when urged to do so by Krishna Himself.
“I cannot repay your continual love for Me, even throughout the lifetimes of the demigods in the heavenly planets. It is impossible to repay you or show gratitude for your love; therefore please be satisfied by your own pious activities. You have displayed exemplary attraction for Me, overcoming the greatest difficulties arising from family connections. Please be satisfied with your highly exemplary character, for it is not possible for Me to repay your debt.” (Lord Krishna speaking to the gopis, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 31)
On a few occasions, Krishna asked the gopis to stop loving Him. Most of them were young married girls, so their intimate connection with Krishna was against the established codes of conduct. Plus, Krishna did not want them to love Him so much if He was unable to return the favor. So what did the gopis do? Did they stop loving Krishna? Did they devote themselves to dharma, or established religiosity, in lieu of bhakti? The gopis love for Krishna is so strong that not even Krishna can take it away from them. Ordinarily, when the object of our affection starts to behave in ways that are unpleasant to us, our love gets severely tested. Indeed, if we loved our spouse very much and they one day decided to leave us for another partner, our love would gradually diminish. After all, the object of our affection has committed a great offense and proved that they no longer love us.
In pure bhakti, there is absolutely zero expectation of reciprocation. Lord Chaitanya, the beautiful, kind, supremely knowledgeable and most merciful preacher incarnation of Godhead, prayed that Krishna could do whatever He wanted to Him, but that He would never stop loving Krishna. Indeed, this was the method of worship subscribed to by the gopis. This level of devotion is very nicely explained by Goswami Tulsidas, a favorite Vaishnava and exalted poet. In his Dohavali, Tulsidas describes his devotion to Lord Rama, another incarnation of Vishnu, by pointing to the behavior exhibited by the Chatak bird towards its beloved raincloud. The Chatak only drinks rainwater, so it constantly stares at the sky, with its eyes and beak pointing directly at the dark blue raincloud, which has a complexion identical to the bodily hue of Shri Rama, and Krishna and Vishnu too for that matter. Tulsidas says that the Chatak’s love for the raincloud cannot be accurately measured because the Chatak completely ignores any and all faults of the raincloud. Continuing with the comparison, the celebrated poet says that for the Chatak, or pure devotee, it is actually better if it doesn’t rain too often, for then the transcendental lover might become spoiled and feel that the raincloud is offering its rain in reciprocation of the attention shown it.
The Vishnu-bhaktas on the highest level of consciousness always love the Lord no matter what. Whether Krishna provides immense riches or leaves the attentive onlooker standing poor, the level of affection shown does not decrease. It is for this reason that the association of the Vaishnavas is considered the greatest possible benediction one can receive in their lifetime. The sun is all-powerful and the giver of life, and similarly, the Vaishnava is the empowered servant of the Lord and the giver of eternal spiritual life, a system of worship which reawakens the sublime consciousness that is currently lying dormant within the heart and just waiting to be made active and set free. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the golden sun for the people of this age, inaugurated the sankirtana movement and specifically empowered one prayer to grant supreme bliss and ecstasy to anyone wise enough to memorize and recite it. Whether one is engaged in third, second, or first class activity, by chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the spiritually enriched life experienced by Tulsidas, the gopis of Vrindavana, and countless other Vaishnavas can be quickly had. The fixed position of Vishnu and His bhaktas is the beacon of light for the fallen souls of the mundane world.