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Besides the two components : the ‘ling’ and the ‘pitha’ – the socketed base the ‘ling’ is placed into, a form of ‘yoni’ representing ‘Shakti’, Shiva’s live-force or enlivening Self, manifestly, Parvati, Shiva’s consort, the icon has been conceived also with a large lotus flower offered on its apex, perhaps part of offering. The worship of votive ‘ling’, practised among Indus settlers, predates the Rig-Vedic era by many centuries. Different from his personalized manifestations : Pashupati or Mahayogi forms of Indus or any, that illustrate an act or represent an aspect of his being, ‘ling’ is symbolic of his formless timeless existence out of which all forms evolve, and hence, ‘ling’ is essentially Shiva’s most essential manifestation and his most appropriate form for worship. For a Shaiva mystic Shiva-ling is the aggregate of all forms – manifest or unmanifest, as what appears to be having a form is in reality without a form. To him, formlessness is the progenitor or the mother of all forms.
The most standardized form of the Shiva-ling, this icon consists of a ‘ling’ form enshrining its ‘pitha’, a form of ‘yoni’ installed over a lotus with upwards rising petals comprising the top of a circular two-tiered pedestal giving the image proper : the ‘ling’ and the ‘yoni’, an appropriate height perspective. As an upwards sprouting lotus comprises the top of the pedestal, an inverted lotus comprises its base. Lotus is widely considered as an element of Vaishnava iconography; however, in ‘ling’ icons a lotus form is often used for defining the base of the ‘pitha’. In this icon not merely the pedestal, its base and the top, a large realistic form of a lotus defines the apex of the ‘ling’ proper, obviously a part of offering made during a ritual worship. In Indian iconographic tradition lotus, besides representing three cosmic zones : ocean, earth and sky, is symbolic of Creation. In Shaivite thought the union of Shiva who is ‘Purusha’ – the enlivening Self, and Parvati, who is ‘Prakriti’ – the manifest and unmanifest matter, effects creation which the lotus on the foremost point of ‘ling’ symbolises.
Shaktas, adherent of ‘Shakta’-cult or Shaktism, give to Shakti priority over Shiva. They contend that the desire to create is the attribute of Shakti and such desire in her is incessant. It is she who kindles in Shiva the desire to unite and create and is thus Shiva’s enlivening force. In a Shiva-ling icon this priority of Shakti in creative process is well reflected in the relative dimensions of ‘ling’ and ‘yoni’, the ‘yoni’ being larger than the ‘ling’. Like other standard models of Shiva-ling a ‘tri-punda’ mark defines this icon. ‘Tri-punda’ is denotative of forehead, and further, of an unmanifest face transforming the ‘ling’ into ‘mukha-ling’. The most sacred, this form of Shiva-ling alone is timeless, formless, imperishable Shiva; it is this ‘ling’ which is ‘jyoti’, the column of light without a beginning and beyond an end. All twelve Shaiva ‘pithas’ – the highest seats of worship in the Order, are ‘jyoti-pithas’ and enshrine ‘ling’ icons.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.