A POPULAR HINDU magazine recently ran a two-page color spread on ISKCON's installation of the Panca-tattva deities in Mayapur. I was happy to see that the magazine's subscribers are being blessed by the sight of Lord Caitanya and His associates. Predictably, though, the magazine's editors couldn't adequately describe the significance of the event or correctly explain the identities of Lord Caitanya and the other members of the Panca-tattva.
As Satyaraja Dasa pointed out in our special issue on the Panca-tattva installation, the members of the Panca-tattva represent five aspects of the Absolute Truth. Tattva is a philosophical concept that means "a true principle." In Vaisnava theology, it is used to refer to absolute categories of reality. Most people today, including Hindus and editors of Hindu magazines, have little understanding of tattva. Therefore, when they talk about prominent personalities within Vedic culture devas, rsis, avatars, gurus they can't clearly distinguish their relative status. And, influenced by the philosophy of monism, they often imply, intentionally or not, that everything and everyone is God.
Vaisnava theologians tell us that there are many tattvas and it is important to know who fits where. Four main tattvas, of which there may be subdivisions, are visnu-tattva, jiva-tattva, siva–tattva, and sakti-tattva.
The two most important to differentiate are visnu-tattva and jiva-tattva. In the category of visnu-tattva are God and the expansions of God equal to Him in power. Krsna is the origin of all visnu-tattva expansions, who include such personalities as Lord Ramacandra, Lord Nrsimha, and Lord Narayana. The Upanisads explain that it is the nature of God that even though He is unlimited, He can reproduce Himself unlimitedly without diminishing Himself. Therefore, even though God is one Krsna He has an endless number of expansions equal (except for some unique qualities) to Him.
In the category of jiva-tattva are all the minute souls who expand from Krsna's marginal energy. As Krsna is infinite, they are infinitesimal, and their power is limited. The jivas in the material world inhabit all kinds of bodies plants, animals, human beings, even devas, whom Prabhupada refers to as demigods. Hindus today generally do not differentiate between God (visnu-tattva) and the devas (jiva-tattva). The Vaisnava acaryas teach that the jivas are always subordinate to the one God, or Supreme Personality of Godhead. Even the devas must submit to Krsna's control, whether directly or through His material energy.
The most prominent deva is Lord Siva, or Sankara. His position is unique because he is neither visnu-tattva nor jiva-tattva. He has his own category, called siva-tattva. Lord Brahma explains in his Brahma-samhita that Siva is simultaneously Visnu and not Visnu in the same way that yogurt is both milk and not milk. Lord Visnu never directly touches the material energy. The expansion of Visnu who consorts with the material energy (Maya) is Lord Siva.
Finally, the akti-tattva category includes the ever-liberated associates of the Lord in the spiritual world. Expansions of God's internal energy, they never rebel like we jivas wandering in the material world. By following their example of oneness in purpose with Krsna, we can one day join them in the spiritual world.