The Shiva Linga - Images of Cosmic Manhood in Art and Mythology

Article of the Month - Jun 2003

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This representation of Shiva is known as the lingam. The word lingam literally means a 'sign' or distinguishing mark. Thus says the Linga Purana: "The distinctive sign by which one can recognize the nature of something is called lingam."

There are variations on the birth of this symbol of Lord Shiva, some of which ascribe an esoteric and abstract origin to it. For example when Shiva is visualized as the intangible primordial Creative Power, the lingam is said to be his sign (symbol) which can be worshipped by his followers, who require a concrete entity to focus their prayers on.

Brahma and Vishnu on an Errand of Discovering the Ends of the Jyotirlinga (Illustration to the Shiva Purana)

Another instructive legend describes why the lingam is believed to be one of the most potent emblems in Hindu ideals. It all started with Brahma and Vishnu, who were arguing over their relative supremacy. Their vain arguments were interrupted by a superluminous glow from a strange and blazing pillar, its shape reminiscent of the linga. Both of them sped towards this indescribable flaming light, which grew before their eyes into infinity, piercing the earth and extending through the heavens. Overwhelmed and terrified by the unfathomable vision, the two gods decided to seek the beginning and end of this burning immensity. Brahma taking the form of a swan flew upwards, and Vishnu dove down acquiring the shape of a boar. Both of the gods however, could not fathom the extent of this fiery column at either end, and returned exhausted and bewildered to the level they had started from. At that moment, the central part of the pillar split open and Shiva revealed himself in his full glory. Overawed, both Brahma and Vishnu bowed before him. Thunderous laughter, or the sound of AUM, issued from the pillar, filling the sky.

Primarily, the glowing, flaming linga was a pillar of fire, connecting heaven and earth. It had no end and no beginning, but it had direction, upwards, as does the earthly fire. In metaphysical terms, it was (is), the vertical axis which both holds apart and joins heaven and earth, dividing and uniting them at the same time, an apt symbol of cosmic integrity. Like the Tree of Life, it is both the foundation and support that ensures equilibrium between heaven and earth.

In Vedic hymns, Rudra (an epithet for Shiva) is identified with Agni, who in these sacred texts is deified as the carrier of the sacrificial offerings to the gods for whom they are intended. Hence, Agni is the mediator between men and gods, and acts as a metaphysical bridge between the two, just like the cosmic linga. A pertinent observation here is that every creative process is accompanied by the generation of heat. Hence, Agni, the God of Fire, is eminently suited as a metaphoric emblem of the tejas (creative heat) of Shiva, both metaphysically and physically.

Assembly to Bath Shiva Linga with Dripping Vase for Milk or Water

In this context it is interesting to note that in temples where the linga is worshipped, there is often a conical pot (Skt. Dharapatra), kept hanging over it. At the bottom of this vessel is a small hole, from which water drips continuously. The idea is to cool the 'fiery' linga. Shiva is Bhairava (quick-tempered), but he is also Ashutosh (One who calms down quickly). Indeed, a devotee needs to calm his god before asking for favors.

 Here a parallel is drawn with the uncoiled energy of kundalini, which rises and climbs the length of its path. Indeed the vertical is the direction of the sacred; it is a symbol of ascent, pointing to heaven and transcendent regions. Rising, according to yogic formula, through the subtle channels flanking the backbone, it renders the intellectual faculties more acute. When, by means of mental concentration, it awakens and unwinds its coils, it rises like a column of fire toward the zenith, toward the top of the skull and pierces it to reach the transcendent worlds. Thus is the linga likened to a pillar of light, guiding us to true knowledge.

The Two Images of Shiva

Images of Shiva are of two kinds: iconic (anthropomorphic) and aniconic. The former represents Shiva as a human being while the latter envisages an abstract origin for him. In this manner is Shiva different from other deities. The images of all other deities bestow only sensuous enjoyment since they are invariably represented in an anthropomorphic form, appealing solely to the sense organs. But Shiva grants both enjoyment and spiritual release. As an icon, he has the body of man, but in his aniconic form he is visualized as the cosmic pillar. As an abstract shape, the pillar symbolizes a purely conceptual reality that cannot be sensed in material terms. Also when the time came for Shiva to reveal himself to both Brahma and Vishnu, he did so in the form of a linga. Hence the linga is an object of the greatest sanctity, more sacred than any anthropomorphic image of Shiva. Not surprisingly thus, the innermost sanctuary of all Shiva temples is reserved for the linga, while the outer precincts of the sacred architecture may show him in his human form. Indeed, though his iconic images abound, no such image ever occupies the center of attention in a Shiva temple, this honor being reserved exclusively for his linga.

The Lingaraja Temple of Bhubaneswar Art and Cultural Legacy

According to Stella Kramrisch, the linga of Shiva has three levels of signification, these are:

1). As a sign of Shiva: This is evident in the literary meaning of the word 'linga,' and also in the fact that the linga fell from Shiva's own body. Indeed, God resides in whatever is part of god.

2). The Linga as Phallus: This is depicted in the tale of the curse of sage Bhrigu, and Shiva's violation of the chaste wives of the ascetics in the forest.

3). The Linga as made up of cosmic substance: Established in the tale of the rivalry of Brahma and Vishnu.

In a different three-fold division, it is believed that the linga contains within itself all the three divinities making up the Indian trinity of Supreme Godhead, namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma abides in the lower part that is hidden inside the earth. Vishnu occupies the middle portion of the linga that is covered by the pedestal, and finally there is Shiva, in the top portion that is visible above the pedestal.

Large Size Four Faced Mukhalingam

The Shiva portion (Rudra-bhaga) is also known as 'puja-ansha,' or the part of the linga that is to be worshipped. The Vishnu part is identified with Devi ('yonis tu jagad-dhatri Vishnu-svarupini). The Rudra-bhaga is said to be masculine, Vishnu part feminine, and the Brahma part neuter. Lastly Brahma, as the creator, represents that primordial unmanifest state which precedes all creation. In this archetypal state there is no perceptible duality, and no distinction of positive and negative forces. Only when there is a tendency to create does the first spark of duality appear in this undifferentiated stratum. This duality has the character of complementary poles of attraction, which is eventually manifested in the whole of creation by male and female characteristics. Hence Brahma, by virtue of preceding the duality inherent in creation, is non-dual, neither male, nor female.

Since the linga is shown to encompass the trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and also all creatures of the earth, it is safely logical to say that those ancient venerables who conceived of this awesome symbol were right in deducing that the entire living world, nay the entire universe, is a part of the lingam of Shiva.

Worship of the Linga

 The sect of Shiva worshippers known as Lingayats are distinguishable by the miniature linga they wear on their bodies throughout their lives. It is kept in a silver receptacle hung around the neck, and is believed to act both as a protective talisman and an amulet to defeat negative influences.

Worshipping Lord Shiva

 The Lingayata's are a unique community who do not believe in the caste system, and are known for their undiscriminating attitude towards all.

 The linga is indeed a great equalizer. Any ordinary devotee will testify to this who has seen worshippers, regardless of sex, caste, or creed, washing and pouring generous libations on the linga, while simultaneously caressing it intimately. Also, the linga is always installed at the ground level, while other anthropomorphic deities remain established at a height, beyond the reach of the ordinary worshipper.

The linga is not just the organ of generation, but a sign of the progenitor and the essence of cosmic manhood manifested in the microcosm. By worshipping it we are not merely deifying a physical organ, but recognizing a form that is both eternal and universal.


References and Further Reading

  • Agrawala, Vasudeva S. Siva Mahadeva: Varanasi, 1984.
  • Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths: Oxford, 2000.
  • Bharati, Agehananda. The Tantric Tradition: London, 1970.
  • Chatterjee, Gautam. Sacred Hindu Symbols. New Delhi, 2001.
  • Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
  • Danielou, Alain. Gods of Love and Ecstasy (The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus): Vermont, 1992.
  • Danielou, Alain. The Hindu Temple: Vermont, 2001.
  • Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
  • Danielou, Alain. The Phallus: Vermont, 1995.
  • Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts: London, 1999.
  • Gokhale, Namita. The Book of Shiva: New Delhi, 2001.
  • Gupta, Shakti M. Shiva: Bombay, 1993.
  • Kumar, Nitin. Shiva - The Sensuous Yogi, Newsletter of the Month
    at Exotic India: April 2002.
  • Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of Shiva: Delhi, 1988.
  • Lysebeth, Andre Van. Tantra The Cult of the Feminine: Delhi, 2001.
  • Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia: New Delhi, 1997.
  • Pattanaik , Devdutt. Shiva An Introduction: Mumbai, 2001.
  • Parthasarathy, A. The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals: Mumbai, 2001.
  • Rao, S.K. Ramachandra. Shiva-Kosha (Vol. I): Bangalore, 1998.
  • Sahi, Jyoti. The Child and the Serpent (Reflections on Popular Indian Symbols): London, 1990.
  • Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
  • Tucci, Giuseppe. Rati-Lila An Interpretation of the Tantric Imagery of the Temples of Nepal: Geneva, 1969.
  • Walker, Benjamin. Hindu World: New Delhi, 1983.
  • Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India: London, 1997.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.
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  • Dear exoticindiaart, This is a great article about the Shiva Lingam we have made a similar video about the Shiva Lingam you can view it on youtube please search on youtube for \'Creating the Universe - Shiva Lingam Mahashivaratri\' Thanks, VMP
    VMP March 03, 2011
  • hi
    naresh December 21, 2010
  • hi
    naresh December 06, 2010
  • I understand while reading vedas and lingha.yoni picture shows,its male and female sex organs,hindu think this world and human being come from shive linga, shiva means god, linga means part of the body(its indicate pennis) and yoni means leady sex organ, and the people come from linga-yoni after sex.othere wise there no human being in this planet in japan there festival they drictly pray for male sex organs (pennis)we can find more clear in you tube. But Hindu prays330 millions gods. linga-yoni one of suprime GOD (pennis-Vigina) kamber
    Kamber Ash August 28, 2010
  • I enjoyed reading this article.. My veiws about the bible doesnt really pertain to what i am reading. how people view religion is up to the person. I think people shouldnt be stuck on just reading the bible But other religious books as well to open their minds. everyone thinks that their religion is better or more right than the other..but there is common ground in all religions..(I.E.)Like treating someone the way you want to treated. I think everyone on here should just take this someone's idea or beliefs. NO God wrote their own book the bible just didnt fall out the sky some man worte is and all the different version of the bible as well....
    Krystal July 25, 2010
  • it is really funny to see that our own com makes fun of god whom we are worshipping, we dont have to believe in all this dirty write ups. it just written by a human being sorry not god, in india and indian can write a lot of things bcse they imagine a lot like Zee tv series. u must protect your culture customs with some good sense of human should learn from others, please. u should not wite like this dirtiest thing about any religion,culture or for any god. these just a lying very dirty lying sorry again this is yr imagiation so just hope that god helps u in yr future life. what a shame on u. it is only yrself how yr brain images. u should not make a image of anything for godsake. human can say lots of things so please again do not make fun of yr own culture, u dont make it really dirty where people can laugh at u.
    rathnam July 03, 2010
  • What EACH AND EVERYONE of you are all forgetting and don't seem to have grasped, is that all of your opinions have come about from what you have read in books over your past life -BOOKS THAT WERE WRITTEN BY OTHER PEOPLE IN THE PAST, WHO ALL HAD THEIR OWN OPINIONS AS WELL !!! None of us can EVER prove our opinions to be true.
    Brian June 20, 2010
  • Lord Shiva's shape Lingam is nothing but the shape of universe and has been misinterpreted by ingnorant and people of other relegions who just do not have even basic common sense, at a place where people worship no one will even think of dirty and naughty things, when people look at Lord Shiva the first thing comes to mind is the entire universe and the word "OM" which has thousands of meaning and one of them is welcome to god, if some one has to compare sexual thoughts and dirty comparisions, EACH AND EVERY MOVEMENTS, THINGS, MATERIALS INSIDE THE BUILDINGS WHERE OTHR RELIGIONS PRAY, SUCH AS BENDING IN DIFERENT FORMS, KNEELING DOWN, THINGS THEY WEAR ON THEIR HEADS (CLOTHING SHAPES) EVEN BOLTS AND NUTS CAN BE COMPARED TO SEXUAL POSES, ITS JUST WHAT'S IN PEOPLE'S MIND, so basically if people of other relegion enters into another relegions temple, I am quite sure they can find and imagine a million things that resembles and reminds sex, I MEAN IF THEY HAVE THIS DIRTY THOUGHT IN THEIR MIND AND ARE DESPERATE TO COMPARE SEX AT HOLY PLACES, YES I BET THEY CAN FIND IT NOT JUST IN OTHER TEMPLES BUT ALSO EVERY THING THEY SEE INCLUDING ALL THEIR RELATIVES, HOME AT WORK, EVERY SINGLE PLACE THEY CAN IMAGINE THINGS LIKE THAT, so I am sure every one who thinks or wirtes bad of other relegion simply are illiterate and with dirty mind, even when they go to thier own shrines they just can not pray, becaue their mind is DIRTY ALL THE TIME, IF YOU ARE CLEAN U WOULD NOT THINK OF ANY BAD THINGS AT ALL. Human
    Human May 26, 2010
  • When will people research and learn. Lingam is not shaped like a penis and does not mean a penis. Linga in Sanskrit means a sign or symbol. When u say Siva lingam it means symbol of an auspicious god. Rama lingam symbol of Rama.
    M January 19, 2010
  • Also consider these are all just stories whatever the scripture or written story or belif faith... stories to point to the unexpressable... To express the unexpressable, to explain the unexplainable... Just anticdotes to lead you to reality, symbols of your own greater consciouseness to unlock itself, tools to unlock and open yourself to the infinite mystery... ways to connect you... it is a game a beautiful game of hide and seek... but not when you get caught up in the rules in the details, you lose the fun the point of it...the play... the joy of life... the joy of dissolving the barrier that prevent us from ourself... dissolving the barriers between us and divine and all that surrounds us... that has us believe a seperateness rather than a union rather than the eperience of infinite, God, Love.... Remember to Remember to experience something beyond your logic beneath your words it is inside and all around you alive it is... we are....take a moment to feel it all else matters not.
    Uma Kumari January 15, 2010