While devotees of Lord Shiva and those of Lord Krishna may seem to go their separate ways, the truth of the matter is much more interesting.
By Ramanatha-sukha Dasa
Lord Shiva as the protector of Vrindavan, the rasa-lila, and pure love for Radha-Krishna.
The esteemed author of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, has written an important and well-loved Vaishnava song titled Sri Vraja-dhama Mahimamrita (“The Nectarean Glories of Vraja-dhama”). In this bhajana, one line poetically flows thus: jaya jaya gopishwara vrindavana-majh – “All glories, all glories to Gopishwara Shiva, who resides in Vrindavan to protect the holy dhama.” For his service of divine protection, Gopishwara Shiva is revered as one of the most prominent deities within Chaitanya Vaishnavism. The ancient, unique Gopishwara temple in Vrindavan is glorified in Srila Prabhupada’s books and in many other Vaishnava acharyas’ writings. These spiritual preceptors teach that an aspiring Krishna bhakta cannot fully enter the spiritual realm of Vrindavan without first getting Gopishwara’s permission and benedictions.
Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.30.38:
Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami states in his Vraja-vilasa-stava, “Each day I worship Gopishwara Mahadeva, who was worshiped with deep devotion by the gopis. He quickly fulfilled their desire to attain the supremely precious jewel in the form of the embrace of the son of Nanda Maharaja.”
Shiva Mahadeva is undoubtedly a very mysterious devotee of the Supreme Lord. Understanding and appreciating the intimate relationship between Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva is difficult but very important. Krishna advises us in the Bhagavad-gita not to worship the demigods for material profit, and this would include Lord Shiva, known as Mahadeva, the most prominent of all the devatas. However, the author of Chaitanya-charitamrita relates how Lord Chaitanya, appreciating Lord Shiva as the ideal Vaishnava, regularly visited the Shiva temple of Vishveshvara while staying in Varanasi. Kaviraja Goswami also tells of how Chaitanya Mahaprabhu visited all the prominent temples of Shiva on His journey to South India.
Furthermore, Srila Prabhupada states in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.24.30:
Generally, people go to the demigods for material blessings, as indicated in Bhagavad-gita 7.20: “Those whose intelligence has been stolen by material desires surrender unto demigods.” In the Gita, Lord Krishna condemns approaching Shiva or any other demigod for temporary, mundane gains. At the same time, as exemplified by the gopis and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, approaching Lord Shiva when desiring the service of Radha-Krishna is extolled as a devotional virtue. There is both a wrong way and a right way to invoke Shiva Mahadeva.
Confidential Relationship with Radha-Krishna
One of the best ways to understand this perplexing relationship between Krishna and Shiva is by delving into the mysteries of Gopishwara. This specific manifestation of Lord Shiva has a particularly intimate and confidential relationship with Radha-Krishna. As a five-thousand-year-old shiva-linga deity, Gopishwara has long resided at the very heart of Vrindavan, pulsating with his mysterious energies. Gopishwara is still relevant today and will continue to be so for all future generations of Gaudiya Vaishnavas.
To appreciate Gopishwara Shiva is to recognize that Krishna consciousness is about the development of sacred love. The five chapters describing the dance of divine love known as the rasa-lila are the very cynosure of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Lord Krishna expands Himself into innumerable forms to dance with Srimati Radhika, the quintessential goddess of divine love. And Radharani expands Herself into countless gopis with varieties of personalities, all for the sake of fulfilling the Lord’s endless desire to enjoy loving exchanges.
When arriving at the Los Angeles temple in May 1973, Srila Prabhupada said, “Unlimited happiness can be achieved when you go back home, back to Krishna. Krishna is eternal, and His pastimes are also eternal. Just join with Krishna, His rasa dance, His play with the cowherd boys, His dealing with His father and mother in Vrindavan. So, our, this movement is to join Krishna’s pastimes.”
The Hare Krishna movement embodies a tradition that deeply delves into the various aspects of a personal loving relationship with God. There is no other theology in the world that comes close to explaining the various nuances and subtleties of love for God. A devotee who through the standard practices of bhakti-yoga develops an inclination to go back to the eternal spiritual sky of Goloka Vrindavana to join Krishna and His associates must also appreciate that entrance into this exclusive transcendental realm of divine love requires complete purity of heart. Gopishwara Shiva, as the designated protector of Vrindavan, has the unique service of assisting all sincere devotees in their individual purification.
The story of Gopishwara comes from the Vaishnava text Garga-samhita and is very instructive for all Krishna bhaktas. It is told as follows.
Once upon a time Lord Shiva, in deep meditation while on Mount Kailasa, heard the sweet melody of Lord Krishna’s flute. Absorbed in this extraordinary sound, Lord Shiva went into an even deeper samadhi and was transported to the transcendental abode of Vrindavan.
When Lord Shiva entered that sacred realm, he observed Krishna as Gopinatha preparing for His rasa-lila dance. Shiva, with great excitement, desired to enter that unparalleled event. When he tried to enter the arena of the dance (rasa-mandala) near Vamsivata, however, he was stopped by Yogamaya, an expansion of Srimati Radharani.
“If you want to take part in the rasa-lila,” Yogamaya informed him, “you have to first take permission from Vrinda-devi.”
Yogamaya then took Lord Shiva to see Vrinda (also known as Tulasi), who then instructed him that because he was in a male form, he could not take part in the rasa dance. She explained that only females – gopis – are allowed to participate in this most exclusive pastime. Lord Krishna is the supreme enjoyer, or purusha, and He alone enjoys the rasa dance with the female (prakriti) gopi expansions of Srimati Radharani. Being in a male form, Lord Shiva naturally had the attitude of an enjoyer, unlike the gopis, who maintain the pure devotional attitude of being perpetually enjoyed by the supreme enjoyer, Lord Krishna.
Shiva asked Vrinda-devi, “What must I do to get the form and mood of a gopi?”
Vrinda-devi, taking the role of Shiva’s provisional guru, knew exactly what was needed. She brought him to Mana-sarovara Lake, where she instructed him to bathe. Dipping into the sacred waters, Shiva mysteriously emerged in the form of a beautiful gopi adorned with jewelry and mascara and dressed in an attractive sari. Vrinda-devi then took Lord Shiva in that alluring gopi form to a corner of the rasa-lila arena, where he/she stood and sincerely prayed to Radha-Krishna for pure prema-bhakti. (This prayerful attitude exemplifies the mood of a sincere devotee when chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.)
In Srimad-Bhagavatam the rasa-lila is the quintessential pastime of the Supreme Lord. A devotee under the mentorship of a qualified guru gradually comes to the Tenth Canto and learns of this exalted dance of divine love. Devotees are warned not to prematurely jump to the Tenth Canto and read about the loving affairs of Krishna and the gopis as if these pastimes were mundane love affairs. The gopis have no tinge of desire for exploitive personal sense gratification. Only a mood of selfless service to please Krishna is found in their hearts.
When Radha-Krishna and the gopis are dancing in the alluring moonlit forest, an aesthetically pleasing devotional atmosphere is created. The mood of divine love needs such a provocative ambience. On this occasion, Shiva in his gopi form was able to sneak in seemingly undetected and blissfully danced with Lord Krishna just as the other gopis were doing. (The regulated chanting of the Lord’s holy names can be perceived as a kind of sound representation of that sacred dance of love.)
After some time, Krishna took a short break. While resting, He said that He was not getting as much enjoyment as before. He told the gopis it seemed a strange man was in their midst.
Krishna requested Lalita-devi, “Could you please look and see if any man is somehow here?”
During this particular enactment of the rasa dance (which goes on repeatedly, eternally), the Supreme Lord knew something was out of the ordinary.
Lalita-devi started checking every gopi, but she could not detect that any man was present. She went back to Krishna and told Him that as far as she could see, there was no man present but there was a new and very attractive gopi who had three eyes.
“Please bring that gopi to Me,” Krishna said.
When He saw the three-eyed gopi, He erupted into laughter.
Questioning Lord Shiva in his gopi form, Krishna asked, “O Bholenatha [“lord of simple people”], what are you doing here?”
Krishna was thoroughly delighted to see Shiva as a gopi and kept laughing at the sight of him – the epitome of masculinity – manifest as a female.
The Lord then calmed down and told Lord Shiva, “O Gopishwara [lord of the gopis], actually I am very happy to see you in the form of a gopi. I give you the blessing that all the other gopis will offer you their respect and worship.”
After hearing this, Srimati Radharani, whose contrary nature is most pleasing to Krishna, became angry and told Him, “Who is this strange new gopi? You have never before called Me Gopishwara! But now You are calling this unknown girl Gopishwara and offering her Your benedictions. This is a great insult! I now want to immediately leave You and the rasa dance!”
Lord Krishna caught Radharani’s hand and said to Her, “Don’t be upset. This new gopi is actually Shiva Mahadeva in disguise. He has entered the rasa-mandala to enjoy loving exchanges with us. I hereby offer Gopishwara the position of dik-pala, the sacred protector of Sri Vrindavan-dhama and the rasa-lila. All of you should daily worship Sri Gopishwara to achieve the highest perfection of pure prema-bhakti.”
Directing His attention to Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna told him, “Now that you have taken part in the rasa-lila, I have a very important service for you. As the dik-pala for Vrindavan, you will guide all aspiring devotees to become free from their false ego and their male/purusha enjoying spirit. Your unique service is to be stationed at the gateway of Vrindavan as a transcendental security guard for the rasa dance. Many unqualified yogis, pseudo devotees, and mental speculators will want to join the rasa-lila, but you must protect its purity and sanctity. Such ineligible persons may be able to physically enter the holy land of Vrindavan in India, but only on an external level. Your service will be to allow selfless pure devotees to mystically enter spiritual Vrindavan.”
Krishna further told Shiva, “Only devotees who have no tinge of personal enjoyment, who are completely free from false ego, and who are ready to serve in all circumstances can be allowed to enter the circle of the rasa-lila.”
Lord Shiva happily accepted this service and benediction. As the topmost Vaishnava, his desire is to perpetually assist all variety of devotees in achieving their particular eternal perfection in relation to Radha-Krishna.
Following in the footsteps of a pure spiritual master, sincere devotees learn how to approach Gopishwara when traveling to Vrindavan. Devotees may be able to enter and stay in Vrindavan-dhama, but their ability to relish this transcendental realm will depend on how much they have conquered false ego. Shiva Mahadeva, being in charge of the mode of ignorance, specializes in all issues related to ahankara, or material ego. As the lord of destruction, he mysteriously helps devotees destroy the tendency towards illusory materialistic enjoyment. For a devotee to achieve the eternal, real ego identity in relation to Lord Krishna, annihilation of the false ego is necessary.
In modern Vrindavan, the ancient Gopishwara shiva-linga is worshiped as a male in the morning, and then in the afternoon and evening he is dressed in a sari and wears cosmetics and jewelry. This unique form of Shiva that is both male (Shiva) and female (Sakti) is known as Ardhanarishwara. Gopishwara teaches the metaphysical lesson that whether male or female, a devotee learns to be selfless and free from ahankara to develop pure love for God.
Prayers to Gopishwara
The great Vaishnava acharya Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura has written a relevant prayer to Gopishwara Shiva, chanted by many pilgrims:
vrindavanavani-pate jaya soma soma-
prema prayachcha nirupadhi namo namaste
“O gatekeeper of Vrindavan! O lord of the gopis! O Soma,* all glories to you! O you whose forehead is decorated with the moon and who is worshipable by great sages such as Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana (Kumara brothers) and Narada Muni! O Gopishwara! Desiring that you bestow upon me pure love for the lotus feet of Radha-Krishna, who perform joyous pastimes in Vraja-dhama, I offer my obeisances unto you again and again.”
Srila Rupa Goswami in his Mathura-mahatmya has advised a two-step procedure for entering the holy dhama. Before entering the town of Vrindavan, a sincere pilgrim seeking spiritual entrance should first offer prayers and respect to Bhuteshvara Mahadeva in the nearby town of Mathura. Along with Gopishwara, this ancient deity is said to have been established five thousand years ago by Vajranabha, the great-grandson of Lord Krishna.
Srila Rupa Goswami quotes from the Adi-varaha Purana, where Lord Krishna Himself lovingly refers to Bhuteshwara Mahadeva:
For many centuries, Krishna devotees on pilgrimage to the sacred land of Vrindavan have followed Srila Rupa Goswami’s two-step procedure – a visit and prayers to Bhuteshwara in Mathura and then to Gopishwara in Vrindavan. All serious pilgrims to Sri Vrindavan-dhama are advised to follow this sagacious advice by Srila Rupa Goswami. Without the mercy of Lord Shiva, a devotee may be in the holy dhama but may experience it more like a tourist than a devotee-pilgrim seeking the intense sacred experiences that only Vrindavan can offer.
The process of Krishna consciousness is about purification of the heart to deepen one’s love for the Supreme Lord. Lord Chaitanya advises us to worship and serve not only Lord Krishna but also devotees of Sri Krishna. Shiva as Gopishwara mystically helps aspiring devotees perceive their shortcomings and then guides and inspires them to ever new heights of loving reciprocation. This is why Gopishwara in Vrindavan will remain a most important temple for the Hare Krishna movement.
Beautifully worshiped Radha-Krishna deities throughout ISKCON are inviting us to join Them in Their eternal divine love dance. Krishna’s sweet flute-playing is His charming way of calling us to come back home, back to Godhead and engage in the eternal dance of life, the dance of love. The essence of the rasa-lila is to experience the spiritual wealth of perpetual love and awareness of Lord Krishna and His limitless love for us. Material wealth becomes insignificant when compared to the ever-deepening spiritual wealth of pure love for Radha-Krishna. Such continuously expanding love is to be found in the simple but profound practice of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra with a pure heart.
As a crucial part of Lord Chaitanya’s bhakti movement, Gopishwara Mahadeva will continue to help devotees intensify their appreciation of Goloka Vrindavana, Radha-Krishna, and Their endless rasa-lila dance of divine love. Knowing Gopishwara Shiva as the guardian-protector of Vrindavan, visiting devotees can take a moment to stop and pray, “O Gopishwara! Desiring that you bestow upon me pure love for the lotus feet of Radha-Krishna, who perform joyous pastimes in Vraja-dhama, I offer my obeisances unto you again and again!”
*From sa + uma (“with Uma”), this name refers to Lord Shiva as the husband of Uma (Parvati).
Ramanatha-sukha Dasa was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1974 at the Atlanta temple. He lives in London, where he serves as a mentor and gives seminars for the London College of Vedic Studies and the School of Bhakti. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.