“This material nature is working under My direction, O son of Kunti, and it is producing all moving and unmoving beings. By its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.10)
When addressed by name, Ishvara is the Supreme Controller. He is the person to whom everyone and everything must answer. All that we see around us comes from Him originally. Though we are ishvara within the present body, eventually the laws of nature will force us to take another body. Indeed, at present the body itself is always changing; nothing remains fixed. At the time of death, the larger change of getting a brand new body takes place.
dehino 'smin yathā dehe
kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
dhīras tatra na muhyati
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
Ishvara is not subject to such changes. It is His material nature to begin with; it operates under His direction. It produces all moving and nonmoving beings, and under its rule the manifestation gets created and annihilated, repeating in cycles. Ishvara is not subject to time or karma. He is the greatest god, the person whom the other gods worship.
His relationship to the other gods is different in more ways than one. Just as there are many ways to describe His supremacy, there are many ways to see how He stands out amongst the many empowered living entities of this universe. For this discussion one does not have to accept the fact from the Vedas that there are many thousands of divine beings operating in different capacities across different planetary systems. If this fact seems too much to grasp, if it too much resembles mythology, then the same concept can be understood in other ways.
In our present dealings we meet people who are ishvara-like to varying degrees. There is the teacher. They are the controller of the classroom. There is the local government, which has jurisdiction over how homes are built, over where roads are placed, and over how much citizens pay in taxes. There is the ishvara at the office, who guides the ship known as the company. There is the controller in the home known as the father, who gets support from the mother. That father has his own parents, and the entire population is under the protection of the head of state.
Then there are subtle ishvaras; entities to whom the relationship doesn’t seem so obvious. We make payment to the cable and satellite television companies. Without this payment, there wouldn’t be service. The same goes for the supermarket, the gas station, and the online retailer. The relationship is one where things of value are exchanged. One party has something that is needed, and the other party pays the necessary price to get that something.
The relationship to the many gods of the universe is very similar. Take your god of choice. You will make the decision based on what you want. If you desire to do well on an upcoming examination, worship the goddess of learning. If you want a good husband, worship the destroyer of the universe, who takes on other roles as well. If you want good rainfall to increase the bounty of the upcoming harvest, worship the person responsible for sending clouds to their respective places. This person has the cloud of universal destruction at his disposal as well.
“As the director of different kinds of clouds, Indra called for the samvartaka. This cloud is invited when there is a need to devastate the whole cosmic manifestation. The samvartaka was ordered by Indra to go over Vrindavana and inundate the whole area with an extensive flood.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 25)
Just as when we make payment to the online retailer we expect to get our items, when we worship these divine figures properly the result is supposed to arrive. Just as the store can only give us what they have in stock, the divine figures can only grant what they are empowered to. With so many worshipable divine figures, you can achieve the full breadth and scope of material benedictions. Indeed, with the nature of the material world, it must be this way. You have to be able to get whatever you want that is temporary in some degree or another. You can try for it through your own effort or you can ask someone in a position of power to help you.
With this understanding, we shift the discussion to the supreme controller, the ishvara who stands above all. One way to define Him is to say that He is the lone God who will sometimes fail you, intentionally. Other gods can fail, but it is due to limitation in ability. For instance, if I ask for immortality, the divine figure doesn’t have that for themselves, so how can they grant it to me? Also, if I ask to get the job I applied for, others can ask for the same reward. The god of choice might give out the reward to someone else first, which means that there is scarcity in the things I ask for.
Ishvara will intentionally deny my requests, even though He can grant anything. The whole universe operates under His direction, so He is never incapable. The word “impossible” has no meaning with Him. So why would He deny requests? Why would He punish His worshipers in this way? Ah, the answer is that His mercy is unlike anything else. The online retailer isn’t really nice to us when they send us a package. They’ve only given us something after we’ve given them something. The divine figure only gives out the reward after they have been worshiped. And if you fail to worship them just one time, they might get offended and try to do you harm.
Ishvara looks at the situation first. He sees whether or not the thing asked for will actually benefit the person. He is not bound by the rules of any position. No one inserted Him as Ishvara. Nothing will happen to Him if He fails to deliver. His oversight is considered mercy because it helps the individual break free of the material mentality. The spiritual is where their true interests lie. The self-interest of the living entity, along with the long-term interest, is served by being a devotee of Ishvara, who is more accurately described as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
He is the supreme amongst all the controllers, and He is a personality, a distinct individual. He substantiates His supreme standing in many ways, including with the display of His transcendental attributes. By employing discrimination with the prayers of His devotees, He shows that He operates with intelligence. He is not like a part of an assembly line, which must do the same thing at allotted intervals. He looks out for the welfare of the devotees, and for this reason one who approaches Him is considered very fortunate. Ishvara is the god who might fail me on occasion, but whatever He does is for my overall benefit. Therefore I am wise to always seek out service to Him through chanting His names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
All the Supreme Lord Ishvara hail,
The god who will sometimes fail.
Not that in ability He can’t,
Just my wish might not to grant.
For my welfare looking out,
Knows that some things better without.
No other god this mercy to give,
So in devotion to Him I’ll live.