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viṣṇuḥ sthitau kratu-patir dvija-dharma-setuḥ
rudro ’pyayāya tamasā puruṣaḥ sa ādya
ity udbhava-sthiti-layāḥ satataṁ prajāsu
In the previous verse the Supreme Personality of Godhead was described as ādi-kartā, the original person responsible for the creation, maintenance and annihilation of the material world. According to Śrīdhara Svāmī, ādi-kartā, or “the original doer,” implies subsequent creators, maintainers and annihilators. Otherwise there would be no meaning to the word ādi, or “original.” Therefore this verse describes that the Absolute Truth expands Himself into the guṇāvatāras, or incarnations who carry out the creation, maintenance and annihilation of the universe through the modes of passion, goodness and ignorance respectively.
It is significant here that although this verse mentions creation through the material mode of passion and annihilation through the material mode of ignorance, it does not mention maintenance by Viṣṇu through the material mode of goodness. That is because Viṣṇu is viśuddha-sattva, or existing on the platform of unlimited transcendental goodness. Although Lord Śiva and Lord Brahmā are somewhat affected by their prescribed duties as superintendents of the modes of nature, Lord Viṣṇu is viśuddha-sattva, completely beyond contamination even by the material mode of goodness. As described in the Vedas, na tasya kāryaṁ karaṇaṁ ca vidyate: the Lord has no occupational duty. Whereas Lord Śiva and Lord Brahmā are understood to be servants of the Lord, Viṣṇu is completely transcendental.
According to Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, Viṣṇu, described in this verse as kratu-patiḥ, the Lord of sacrifice, is understood to have appeared in a previous age as the incarnation Suyajña, the son of Prajāpati Ruci. Whereas Brahmā and Śiva faithfully engage in service to the Supreme Lord, Viṣṇu is the Supreme Lord Himself, and therefore His activities of maintaining the brāhmaṇas and religious principles, as mentioned in this verse (dvija-dharma-setuḥ), are not occupational duties but līlā. So in addition to being a guṇāvatāra, Viṣṇu is also a līlāvatāra, according to Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī. The Mahābhārata (Śānti-parva) describes the birth of Lord Brahmā from the lotus flower emanating from Viṣṇu and the subsequent birth of Lord Śiva from the angry eyes of Lord Brahmā. Viṣṇu, however, is the self-manifested Personality of Godhead who enters the material universe by His own internal potency, as stated in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (3.8.15):
tal loka-padmaṁ sa u eva viṣṇuḥ
In conclusion, Lord Viṣṇu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the supreme controller whose personal form is full of eternal existence, knowledge and bliss, who is beginningless but is the beginning of everything, who is known as Govinda, and who is the original cause of all causes, as stated in Brahma-saṁhitā. Still, that same eternal Lord manifests Himself as Brahmā and Śiva in the sense that the primeval controllers Brahmā and Śiva manifest the potency and supreme will of the Lord, although they themselves are not supreme.