The Symbolism of Shiva Lingam
Shiva Lingam is the subtle body of Shiva as Isvara with Shakti as his dynamic force.
Shiv (शिव) means pure and auspicious. Shiva (शिवा) means of or pertaining to Parvathi or Shakti. Thus, Shiva (the god) is the manifested Shiv (Pure and auspicious Brahman), endowed with Shakti (the goddess) or vice versa. In Shakti, Shiv resides as her essential nature. In Shiva, Shakti resides as his essential force. Hence, when we say, "Shiva," we are literally referring to both the god and the goddess, representing one inseparable reality.
Shiv is the unmanifested (avyakta), unformed (Nirguna) Brahman, in whom Prakriti (or Shakti) remains dormant. In this state, the triple gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas), which are responsible for all movements and actions, remain latent in her in a state of equilibrium. Hence, she is known as Adi Shakti, Mula Prakriti or Primal Nature. As the manifested Brahman, in whom Shakti awakens and becomes active, Shiva attains forms and qualities . In this state, Shiva devolves from Supreme Self to Supreme Being or Isvara, the Lord of the Universe. In Shakti, the equilibrium of the gunas becomes disturbed, whereby she becomes the universal, dynamic and transformative force, and the source of all actions under the will of Shiva.
Thus, Shiva is the manifested Brahman, the Being or Purusha (person) with qualities and attributes. He acts as Isvara, the Lord of the universe in the field (kshetra) of Nature. He has no gender because he represents both the male and female aspects of creation. The scriptures extol him as half male and half female (ardha nariswara). As the supreme being who is in union with Shakti, Shiva represents all the dualities and diversity of creation. The duality of Shiv and Shakti are inherent in him, with Shiv as the witnessing Self, and Shakti as his dynamic and inseparable force. Shiv is Purusha, the Cosmic Being. Shakti is Prakriti, Mother Nature. They are also known as kshetrajna (owner of the field) and Kshetra (the field) respectively, the field being the material universe or creation itself.
In living beings, Shiv remains the witness consciousness, taking no part in their existence other than letting Shakti execute her play with the help of the Tattvas (realities), subjecting them to delusion, ignorance, desire, attachments, suffering, rebirth and bondage. In this state, although Shiv and Shakti are in the same field, they remain separate and distinct. The Kundalini Shakti remains dormant in the lowest chakra as a coiled serpent. In the awakened beings she rises to the top and joins Shiv, the auspicious in the Sahasrara.
In the beings, Shiva also represents Aham or the individuality or self-awareness or the ego. "A "means the first letter which represents, Shiv, the Supreme Self. "Ha" means breath, energy or Shakti. "Aham" means the reality (tattva) which represents the union of Shiv and Shakti in the material field. In a liberated being they shine in their own light. In deluded beings, they remained covered up by several impurities. When the impurities are removed, Aham becomes absorbed in pure consciousness. Thus, the word Shiva not only refers to God but also to the pure state of a liberated being in whom Kundalini Shakti is fully awakened and Shiv and Shakti are in perfect union. A self-realized Yogi or Sadhu or Siddha is but Shiva only in human form. Others are Shiva in the making.
The union between Shiv (pure consciousness) and Shakti (energy) is well represented in the iconography as Shiva Lingam (लिङ्ग or Linga). As already stated, Shiva means Shiv (pure consciousness) in union with Shakti (matter or energy). Lingam means the subtle body. Accordingly, Shiva Lingam means the subtle body (lingam) of Shiva. It also referenced as Shiv-Shakti or Chit-Shakti. Shiva is Sat-chit-ananda, the personification of pure being, consciousness and bliss. He manifests when Shiv and Shakti are pure and in perfect union, without the obstructions and impurities of existence namely egoism (anava), attachments (pasa) and delusion (moha).
Thus, Shiva is the god of the earth and the heaven. He is This (the world) as well as That (the Self). He is the One in whom all dualities of existence, including Shiv and Shakti are resolved. This highest ideal of oneness (ekam) is objectified in Shiva Lingam. When you worship a Shiva Lingam, you are but worshipping simultaneously both Shiva and Shakti. Indeed, even if you worship an image or a form Shiva, you are automatically worshipping both Shiv and Shakti. We may use gross materials such as stone or wood to make Shiva Lingams. They are but the objectification of the subtle body of Shiva only. For the worshippers of Shiva, the Shiva Lingam is the most sacred symbol because it represents creation itself.
Shiva is parama shivam, the purest and the most auspicious. In his original and unadulterated State he is Shiv (purity), who is beyond the mind and body and beyond all, even gods. Other meanings of Shiv are friendly, gracious, kind, benign, propitious, lucky, happy, healthy, knowledge (veda), prosperous, and so on. Shiva, as the supreme deity and the lord of the universe, represents all these qualities, and even more. He personifies everything in the universe both as the subject and object. He is also other than them because he has an unmanifested aspect about which none has any knowledge. This is well illustrated in a story in the Shiva Purana in which, Brahma and Vishnu go in search of the upper and lower ends of Shiva Lingam and return without success.
To most Hindus, Shiva is the destroyer (Kala) who as Time devours everything. However, this is but one aspect or function of him. All actions arise from him only, as he is one with Shakti. As the Supreme Being, he is the creator, preserver, concealer, revealer and destroyer. Hence, although popular tradition labels him as the deity of tamas (darkness), in Saiva traditions, he is worshipped as Isvar (ईश्वर), the highest, most auspicious and supreme God, who represents eternity, infinity, brilliance and purity (sattva). Since he is the purest, his body is said to be of white (श्वेत) color, unlike the other gods such as Vishnu who are of darker complexion. He also goes by different names which point to his universality and omniscience. He also has innumerable forms and emanations and performs numerous functions as the creator, upholder, concealer, revealer and destroyer.
In mainstream Hinduism, Shiva is worshipped both ritually and devotionally in temples and at homes. Devotees follow various methods and approaches to worship Shiva according to the sect or the teacher tradition they follow. They can broadly be classified into right-hand (parsvachara) and left-hand (vamachara) methods. According to Kularnava and Jnanadipa Tantras, as quoted by Sir John Woodroffe in his book Shakta and Shakti, right-hand methods of worship include four traditional and conventional schools namely Vedachara, Vaishnavachara, Shaivachara and Dakshinachara. They serve an important role as foundational practices which prepare the seeker in self-purification and help them progress on the path. The left-hand methods follow three unconventional and esoteric schools namely Vama, Siddhanta and Kaula. The last one is considered the highest in the Tantra tradition. They are meant for advanced practitioners who are ripe for liberation.
Although in some sects of Shaivism, the path of service (charya) and devotion (kriya) are considered inferior to the path of knowledge (sanmarga), ritual worship is practiced widely in all sects of Shaivism. Devotees of Shiva ritually worship his anthropomorphic and symbolic forms. They may worship him as images or idols, as Yantras or mystic diagrams, as the Pranava or Aum, as silence (between thoughts), as internal sound (nada), as bijaksharas (primal sounds or letters) and as Shiva Lingam. Aum and bijaksharas are mostly used in chanting and meditative practices. Mystic diagrams are used in Tantric rituals and occult practices, whereas Shiva Lingams are used both for ritual and meditative practices.
Because the Shiva Lingam represents Shiva (and Shakti) in all conceivable forms from the highest to the lowest, the most popular form of worship in Shaivism is Lingarchana (the worship of Lingam). In some sects, it is also used as an amulet and worn on the body. The very presence of Shiva Lingam is said to have beneficial effects upon everyone in the vicinity. By worshipping it, one is cleansed of all past sins. The Tantric texts contain detailed information on how to worship the Lingam for best results.
The history of Shiva Lingam goes back to prehistoric times. Many objects that are similar to it were found in the excavations at various Indus sites. (However, some historians do not agree that they represent the later day Shiva Lingams). Thousands of temples all over India are exclusively dedicated to the worship of Shiva in this form. Of them, some are called Jyotirlingas (lingams infused with light) and considered the most sacred.
The Jyotirlinga temples as well as the Shakti temples are scattered all over India. Each has its own mystic, spiritual and historic significance. Because of their sanctity and historicity, each year they attract millions of devotees from faraway places. Most of them are located on the banks of sacred rivers or near water bodies or high in the Himalayas, signifying Shiva’s connection to water, snow, healing and cleansing. The oldest Shiva Lingam to date is found in the Parashurameshwara temple, near Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh which is believed to be in existence since the 3rd Century BC.
Shiva Lingams are of different types, depending upon the material with which they are made. The Pancha Bhuta Lingams, each of which is made of one of the five elements (earth, sky, water, fire and air) are located at Kanchi, Chidambaram, Tirchinapalli, Tiruvannamalai, and Sri Kalahasti respectively. They are also often associated with the sun and the moon,. For example, the temple at Konark, near Jagannath Puri temple is known as Surya Lingam and the one in Bangladesh near Chittagong is known as the Chandra lingam.
The Lingams may be made of wood, stone, precious stones, gold, silver, alloys (dhatus), glass, plastic, earth, rice, flour and clay. Many round and polished stones which are naturally found in the river beds of some sacred rivers such as the Narmada are also used as Shiva Lingams. Shiva Lingams are often found by chance. The places where they are found are usually considered sacred. Some of them may be ancient historic sites. Many temples were raised in the past where Shiva Lingams were unearthed during excavations, digging or ploughing.
The Mahaparinirvana Tantra declares that installing Shiva Lingam in a temple or in a house in itself is highly beneficial, which is equal to performing 10,000 horse sacrifices or digging a water tank in an arid region. Those who engage in it are cleansed of all sins. All the deities, including Brahma and Vishnu reside in the area where it is installed. Those who live in its vicinity are also purged of all sins which they committed elsewhere.
However, devotees are advised not to take liberties with Shiva Lingams. They are expected to live virtuous and pious lives when they are near Shiva Lingams, or when they install them in their houses. Because of the sanctity attached to them, they are not meant to be used for ornamental and vain purposes or as a show off. It is said that while they cleanse the worshippers of their past sins, any sins which are committed in the vicinity of a Shiva Lingam, be it a temple or a house, stick to the sinners and strike them with the force of a thunderbolt. Hence, one of the popular beliefs is that one should not keep a Shiva Lingam in the house unless one wants to worship it according to established procedures and lead a virtuous life. Another belief is that one should not worship a broken Shiva Lingam or a broken image of Shiva.
Shiva Lingam has a lot of symbolic significance. As described before, the Lingam is the symbolic representation of Shiva in his subtle and formless aspect as Isvara, in association with Prakriti, his dynamic force. The Shiva Lingam represents their eternal and inseparable union, from which manifests everything. Linga in Sanskrit means, subtle. Hence, the literal meaning of Shiva Lingam is the formless, subtle body of Shiva in perfect union with Shakti. As the Bhagavadgita declares, creation happens when Purusha becomes established in Prakriti.
The Shiva Lingam represents that state. Since they are forever united, it represents both the duality and nonduality of existence. Shiva and Shakti are indistinguishable in their purest and highest aspect, but become differentiated in the lower planes of creation to make possible the continuity of life through death and rebirth. The ultimate reality is nondualistic, but the apparent reality is dualistic due to the illusion or delusion caused by the power of Maya or Shakti.
In other words, although Shiva and Shakti outwardly seem to represent different realities, at the highest level they represent but one, ultimate reality. The Shiva Lingam objectifies not only their eternal union but also their unitary aspect, besides affirming the Advaita Vedantic (nondualistic) belief that although Shiva and Shakti seem to be outwardly different, at the subtlest level they are but one. By worshipping it, a devotee simultaneously worships both the deities.
The blessings of both Shiva and Shakti are needed for liberation. Although Shiva’s grace (anugraha) is essential to achieve liberation, the cleansing and preparation is done by Shakti only. Hence, Sri Aurobindo used to advise his followers that one had to propitiate both, but surrender to the Mother and let her do the cleaning. Self-transformation should not be an egoistic effort. It has to happen with divine intervention for which one has to seek divine help. The Shiva Lingams offer us the easiest way to worship them both at the same time and earn their grace.
Since the Shiva Lingam personifies the formless Shiva containing within himself the dynamic Shakti, scholars consider the worship of Shiva Lingam not the same as idol worship. In idol worship you worship the images or idols (murthis) of a deity whereas when you worship the Shiva Lingam, you worship the formless (amurtha) Shiva and Shakti. Hence, worshipping Shiva Lingam is considered superior to any ritual worship in which images and idols are used. The Mahabharata concurs with this opinion. The epics and Puranas state that even divinities such as Rama, Krishna, Parvathi and Ganesha worshipped Lingams to propitiate Shiva.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Shiva Lingam contains in itself the sky and the earth. The upper part represents the heaven or the sky, and the lower one (the base), the earth. Since it is practically difficult for humans to worship the sky and the earth, one can accomplish the same by symbolically worshipping the Shiva Lingam. The Skandapurana states that the Shiva Lingam is eternal and uncreated. It was intact during the end times, and was also witnessed by Brahma and Vishnu in the beginning of creation as preexisting. The Shiva Purana also states that Aum is the heart and soul of the Shiva Lingam (pranavatma), and worshipping it similar to chanting Aum.
The commonest symbolic interpretation of Shiva Lingam is that it represents the union between Shiva and Shakti from the highest plane to the lowest. Everything in the universe, from the highest to the lowest, owes its existence to their union. The lower part (linga vedi) represents Shakti and the upper part (lingam), Shiva. At the subtle level, the upper part represents Shiva as consciousness and the lower one Shiva as Shakti or energy. Together, the Shiva Lingam embodies the union of Purusha and Prakriti as chit-shakti (consciousness infused with energy).
In a living being or embodied soul (jiva), the Shiva Lingam represents the union of Shiv and Shakti as the mind and body or the soul and body or prana and apana or knowledge and ignorance or purity and impurity and so on. The soul is Shiva, and the body is Shakti. The subtle body is Shiva and the gross body is Shakti. Thus, each living being, especially a human being, is a walking and breathing Shiva Lingam. As the round object and the seat of consciousness, the head is Shiva, and as its support or base, the physical body is Shakti.
In popular tradition and public opinion, Shiva Lingam is a reproductive symbol or a symbol of fertility, representing the sexual union between Shiva and Parvathi. The upper part represents the male sexual organ and the lower part, female sexual organ. This interpretation is supported by both archeological and literary evidence. In some of the oldest temples, as shown in the image above, Shiva Lingam are carved in the shape of a penis. However, it would be preposterous to conclude that Shiva Lingam is just a phallic symbol. The symbolism coupled with some of the questionable practices of Tantra have often been used by critics to deride Hinduism. The truth is that the sexual aspect of Shiva Lingam is one of the many interpretations. It is popular because it is easier to understand and perfectly represents the functional and essential aspects of Shiva and Shakti as the husband (pati) and wife (patni)of creation.
Shiva and Shakti are not merely sexual objects. Their union does not produce sexual pleasure only. They are the highest and ultimate realities which are hidden in the whole existence and everything. As the supreme universal deities, they have many gross and subtle aspects. They are inherently and universally present in all. The Shiva Lingam perfectly represents their immense, outward diversity and hidden, inward unity in all aspects of creation. Technically, every object in existence is a Shiva Lingam. It does not have to be round. It does not have to possess life or consciousness. It can be any object or phenomena in which Nature has its presence as matter and energy, with Shiva as the pervasive and supporting reality.
Everything in existence is sacred because everything is Shiva and Shakti or Shiva Lingam. Creation itself is a huge Shiva Lingam, which is made possible by the union of Shiva and Shakti only. Hence, Shiva lingam can be compared to every aspect of creation. For example, you may compare the upper part of Shiva Lingam to the sun, sky, breath (prana), intelligence and mind, while the lower part to the mortal world, elemental world, materiality, gross body, etc.
The symbolism of the lower and upper parts of Shiva Lingam is shown in the following table. Some of the interpretations are based upon the author’s intuitive knowledge. You may not find them in any Saiva text or scripture. Further, some Shakta traditions may not accept much of the symbolism which is discussed here, since they hold different beliefs about Shiva and Shakti. For example, some of them regard Shiva as an aspect of Shakti and envision her as the supreme being. They may also look upon her both as pure consciousness and energy combined, and Shiva as a passive witness in a subordinate and insignificant role, serving almost as a pole or a stake in the sacrificial ritual of life. For example, the Yogini-hridaya-tantra extols Shakti thus, “Obeisance to Her who is pure Sachhidananda (being, consciousness and bliss), who as Shakti (power or force) exists in the form of Time and Space and all that is therein, and who is the radiant illuminator in all beings.”
|Upper Part||Lower Part|
|Shiva (God)||Shakti (God power)|
|Nirguna Shiva||Adi Shakti (primal Nature)|
|The sky||The earth|
|Higher worlds (lokas)||Lower worlds (talas)|
|Consciousness||Matter or energy|
|Subtle body||Gross body|
|Pure Consciousness||Purest (suddha) Sattva|
|Upper body||Lower Body|
|Breath||Nadis or breath channels|
|Atma (Soul)||Atma Shakti|
|Samadhi||Sambhog (sexual union)|
|Speech||Organ of speech|
|Nada (divine sound)||Hearing|
|Pure light||Impure light|
|Sacrificial Fire (Yagagni)||Sacrificial pit (Yajnakund)|
|Reality (sat)||Illusion (Maya)|
|Sarvam (all)||Idam (here)|
|That (asmi)||This (etat)|
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Symbolism of Hindu Concepts, Gods and Goddesses
- Symbolism and Significance of Vibhuthi in Hinduism
- The Symbolism of Purusha and Prakriti
- The Symbolism of Mahishasura Mardini
- Ganesha As Mahat Tattva, Supreme Intelligence
- Aspects of Lord Shiva
- Nataraja, The Lord of the Cosmic Dance
- Shiva the Unconventional God of Opposites
- The Panchanana Aspects and Forms of Shiva
- History of Shaivism, Lord Shiva in Vedic Literature and Recorded History
- Significance of Lord Shiva
- Tantra and Tantric Rituals of Hinduism and Buddhism
- Mahanirvana Tantra the Tantra of the Great Liberation Chapter Index
- Sex and Spirituality In the Upanishads
- Concept of Death, Hell and Afterlife in Hinduism
- Goddesses of Hinduism, Their Symbolism and Significance
- Moksha or Liberation in Hinduism
- Good and Evil in Hinduism
- Hinduism - The Role of Shakti in Creation
- Hindu God Lord Shiva (Siva) - the Destroyer
- The Symbolism of Snakes and Serpents in Hinduism
- Ten Reasons Why You Should Worship Shiva
- The Ten Amazing Benefits of Pilgrimages in Hinduism