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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.


The Curse of ShivaAnother 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.

A typical Shaivite shrine has dharapatra above the linga, with a serpent parasol behind.
A typical Shaivite shrine has dharapatra above the linga, with a serpent parasol behind.

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.

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.

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

Shiva 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.





Female Lingayat Virashaiva
Female Lingayat Virashaiva or layperson
(linga banajiga) wearing a silver lingam casket (ayigalu) in modified egg form (gundgurdgi).
Lingam caskets are also worn by men and
women on the left arm or by a
Lingayat Jangam priest on the top of the head
under a cloth cap.






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






Shiva lingam with pilgrim's offerings.
Shiva lingam with pilgrim's offerings.





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.





Ragini Bhairavi




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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