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On the Symbolism of the Shiva Linga

On the Iconography of the Shiva Linga

"The worship of the Linga as Siva arises from the worship of phallus according to most scholars, especially from the west. There are both ancient sculptural representations as in the case of Gudinallam linga, and literary references that justify this assumption. This view cannot be held wrong. But it seems it is wrong to ascribe all linga worship as worship of the phallus as held by some."

- R. Nagaswamy, Vedic Roots of Hindu Iconography, Chapter -Linga Worship, Kaveri Publications

I have come across nervous laughter among many of my Hindu friends unable to explain cohesively the concept of Shiva lingam. Several instances in literature have focused on its phallic representation as the central identity and many of us are uncertain how to react or explain this to ourselves or to others. In fact, you will notice several books and articles quoting some recurring examples to justify this. They will call out the ancient Gudimallum lingam near Tirupati, discovered and explained at length by T.A. Gopinatha Rao in his book, "Elements of Hindu Iconography '' and the Bhita Lingam (now in Lucknow Museum) as significant examples. Creationism is an essential process and there are some puranic stories to justify this but there are more significant references that explains the symbolism more accurately.

The story of Lingodhbhava (described in my previous post here) is considered the origin of Linga (Sanskrit: symbol) worship in several references in Hindu iconography. Shiva appears as a flame of light to dispel the Ahamkara (individuality) of Vishnu and Brahma, reminding them of the futility of infighting since the underlying substratum is the same amongst them all. With some variations you will see the same story highlighted in many sources. There is another reference to a Jyothi in the Sauptika-parva of the Mahabharata where Shiva appears in response to Ashvatthama's prayers as a golden altar (vedi). According to Prof. S.K Ramachandra Rao in Indian Temple Traditions, the Ajitagama, describes linga as "pillar of light" or jyothi-sthamba. Since the shape of the flame has form and yet no form (vyakta-avyakta), it is considered closest to the nameless reality. The twelve Jyothirlinga Temples, while each have a different sthala purana at their core represent Shiva as the very source of Vidya or enlightenment.

Naturally forming Banalinga from Narmada on a man-made yoni-peeta

Several aniconic versions commonly sighted in sanctum-sanctorum of temples are not shaped as a pillar or column and cannot be attributed having any sexual connection. The lingam in several places (sthalas), for e.g. Kedarnath (swayambu or self-manifesting) are found in the shape of rock or a small mountain of natural origins. Other nishkala (having no parts) forms that are naturally sourced are bana lingas obtained from places like Sri-Saila, and the riverbeds of Narmada. None of these resemble a phallus in any manner.

"The problem is that the modern mind since Freud tries to use sex as the main means of interpreting life, extending to art and spirituality, according to sexual symbolism or the sex lives of the persons involved! This ‘sexual reductionism’ misses the deeper and broader sensitivities and inspirations within us."

- David Frawley, The Shiva Linga and Its Meaning

I attribute my most comprehensive understanding of this subject from Dr. Nagaswamy's book "Vedic Roots of Hindu Iconography''. Per Dr. Nagaswamy, 96 different types of lingas are mentioned in the Makutagama which are based on different ideologies conferring different benefits. For the sake of worship or even lack of access to resources, temporary (kshanika) lingams can be made out of sand, cooked rice, sandalwood paste, jaggery amongst others. For e.g. Chandesa, a staunch devotee of Shiva, created a linga of sand that he had at his disposal as a focal point of his worship.

Tamil Nadu, home to the ancient Panca-bhuta temples pays obeisances to five basic elements, prithvi (earth), jala (water), vayu(wind), agni (fire) and akAsa (space) that is said to compose this universe (prakriti). Here the elements themselves are worshiped and this has nothing to do with the phallus, so we have to understand what the creator or sculptor of the temple intended before resigning to simplistic and convenient interpretations. The Agamic texts that dictate the worship processes also bear no references.

In Shaivism, Shiva is regarded as supreme, and many temples were built in his honor when the Bhakthi movement gained prominence. During the construction, the consecration of Manushya (man-made) Lingas were cylindrical in shape. Here the stem called lingam, the flat container called yoni (or gauri-patta) and the pedestal called pItha, together formed a composite lingam. The stem itself is composed of a square part called Brahma-bhaga, octagonal part called Vishnu-bhaga and circular part called Rudra-bhaga standing for the three aspects of evolution, creation, protection and dissolution according to Stapathi V. Ganapathi (The Form of the Lingam, Indian Sculpture & Iconography: Forms & Measurements).

They were called mukhalinga when faces (Sanskrit: Mukham) were sculpted on them. A prominent example is the Mukhalinga in Pashupatinath, Kathmandu where four of the five divine aspects of Shiva i.e. Sadyojata, Aghora, Vamadeva and Tatpurusha are represented. This is not just limited to Shaivism, as you can find mukhalinga in Cambodia where the four faces of Brahma, Vishnu, Siva and Buddha are sculpted. In fact, Cambodia has several examples with a dual representation of Shiva and Vishnu on the linga.

A final example indicating a different intent of the sculptor is that of pallipadai temples which were commonly built during the Chola era. In Shaivism, a devotee is said to merge with the divinity (i.e. Shiva himself) upon dying. Their relatives, especially if they are of royal lineage, established pallipadai temples in their honor where a linga is established over their interred ashes and an enclosing temple was constructed. One such example is the temple Raja Raja Chola built for Arinjaya Chola at Melpadi in Tamil Nadu.

In conclusion, I am motivated to recall TA Gopinatha Rao's words in Elements of Hindu Iconography, that as generative principles of the universe, Shiva-Shakti or Purusha-Prakriti, symbolized briefly in the form of the linga and yoni have nothing obscene accorded to them. We have been worshiping them for over two thousand years earnestly but to reiterate Dr. Nagaswamy's words, limiting them to just these symbols is nothing short of pedestrian.

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