What is a Lingam and How Does It Represent Shiva?
The lingam (also spelled as linga) is a sacred object in Hinduism and is a symbol that represents Shiva. The lingam is often found in temples dedicated to Shiva and is the form in which this Hindu deity is most commonly worshipped. The lingam has popularly been considered to be a phallic symbol, with the yoni being its female counterpart, though some has disputed this.
Statue of Shiva at Batu caves, Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia. (bridgendboy / Adobe)
The Sign of Shiva
‘Lingam’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘sign’ or ‘distinguishing symbol’ and therefore the Shiva lingam is literally a sign or symbol of Shiva. According to one interpretation of this sacred object, the Shiva lingam is divided into three distinct parts. Its bottom part is a circular base or peetham referred to as the Brahma-Pitha, on top of which is an elongated bowl-like structure called a Vishnu-Pitha. The third part of the Shiva lingam is a cylinder with a round head in the middle of the bowl and is known as a Shiva-Pitha. Another interpretation divides the object into two parts – the top half, i.e. the cylinder as the lingam and its bottom half as the yoni.
Shiva lingam. (saiko3p / Adobe)
The lingam may be made using a variety of materials. For instance, sandalwood paste or river clay may be used to make temporary lingams for particular rituals, while more permanent ones may be made using stone, metal, or precious gems. Although there are precise rules governing the proportions of the lingam’s height, width, and the curvature of the top, the size of the lingam varies from several inches to several feet high. Additionally, there is an important category of lingams known as ‘svayambhuva’, meaning ‘self-originated’. These are lingams found in caves or on the ground and are believed to have come into existence by themselves at the beginning of time. Around 70 of these svayambhuva lingams are venerated in temples across India.
Symbolism of a Lingam
There are a number of ways in which the symbolism of the lingam has been interpreted. The most common one is that the lingam represents the male aspect of the universe, whereas the yoni it stands on represents the female aspect. Taken together the lingam and yoni symbolize the creative power of the universe. Another interpretation of the lingam is that the object on its own and by extension Shiva is the creative force of the universe. This interpretation views the shape of the lingam not as a phallus but as an egg, from which the universe is generated. A third interpretation states that the lingam represents two cosmic concepts, ‘liya’ and ‘gamya’, which signifies the source and the destination, respectively. In other words, this interpretation views Shiva as the beginning and end of all things.
Ancient Indian temple lingam. (Anton / Adobe)
These interpretations show that the lingam is not merely a representation of Shiva, but also as an exposition of the belief that he is the supreme deity. This may also be seen in the ‘lingodbhavamurti’, an icon that is commonly found in southern India. This icon depicts Shiva emerging from a fiery lingam.
The story goes that Brahma and Vishnu once argued about their importance, each trying to prove his supremacy to the other. While they were doing so, a fiery lingam appeared before them and the two gods were told to seek the beginning and the end of the lingam. Brahma transformed himself into a swan and flew up to the sky, while Vishnu turned into a boar and began digging the sky. Both gods, however, failed in their task and Shiva emerged from within the lingam to claim supremacy over them. Brahma and Vishnu submitted to Shiva and prostrated before him.
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10th century artwork showing the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. (Fae / Public Domain)
Devotees of Shiva Still Worship the Lingam
Archaeologically speaking, short cylindrical pillars with curved tops have been discovered in remains in Harappa, a city of the Indus Valley Civilization. There is, however, no evidence to show that these objects functioned as lingams. The earliest known lingam is the Gudimallam lingam, which has been dated to the 3 rd century BC. Today, the devotees of Shiva continue to worship the lingam in temples devoted to the god throughout India and the sacred object is venerated with offerings of milk, fresh flowers, water, fruits, and leaves.
Shiva. (anastasia567 / Adobe)
Top image: Shiva lingam temple interior. Source: fabio lamanna / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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