Shaivite Hindu Symbols: The Shivalingam

LingamS

An open-air Hindu Lingam from Lepakshi

The shivalingam is probably the most important Shaivite symbol. The symbol may take many forms, most usually a post with a rounded top. This form makes the pouring of sacred fluids such as milk or water easy. Though many shivalingams are man-made, some are natural. Naturally occurring oval stones from the Narmada River are often used in worship. Some temples also have natural shivalinga, among the most famous being the Amarnath temple, which has a natural ice lingam.

There are many symbolic meanings to the shivalingam. The oval shape represents the universe. The shivalinga is sometimes depicted with four faces. This form is known as the Panchamukha, or five faced shivalingam; the fifth face is said to be invisible and looks directly upward to the heavens. The panchmukha Shiva is a form of sadashiva or eternal Shiva.

800px-Lord_Amarnath

The Natural ice Shivalingam at Amarnath temple

To Shaivites the Shivalingam represents the parashiva or formless shiva. The parashiva is equivalent to the Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without qualities) of Advaita philosophy. When we contemplate and worship the shivalingam we contemplate Shiva’s pure form, which permeates the whole of creation. The Parashiva is transcendent and cannot be described in words. Yogis who have experienced Shiva in this form talk of ultimate bliss, the all loving reality, the ultimate cause of the universe.

A nepalise stone Panchamukha linga

A nepalise stone Panchamukha linga

By using the symbol of the shivalingam we can represent the unmanifest as a concrete symbol, just as the murti (devotional statue or icon) represents Shiva’s manifest forms.

The veerashaiva sect of shaivism solely worship Shiva in the form of the lingam. They believe that Shiva has no manifest form, so murtis are not used. They wear a personal linga or ishtalinga at all times. For this reason they are known as lingayatas.

The Nandinatha Sampradaya’s Kailasa Parampara has a large naturally occurring crystal shivalinga,  which will one day be installed at the Iraivan Temple in Hawaii.

What the Shivalingam is not

phal

Since Freud some westerners see phallic symbols in almost anything

The shivalingam is not a phallic symbol. The origins of the shivalinga are as an oval representation of the universe, or as a column without beginning or end.

Westerners were quick to characterise the lingam as a phallic symbol, but the same could be said (and has been said) about church towers, Egyptian pylons and many more things.

The situation is confused by the fact that some left-hand trantric Shakti sets do use the shivalingam as a phallic symbol. It is unclear whether this symbolism was used before Westerners introduced the concept of phallic symbols; certainly in earlier temples they used explicit images rather than symbols.

25 responses to “Shaivite Hindu Symbols: The Shivalingam

  1. Explicit images were not worshipped.They were also not of the dieties[that is of Shiva or Vishnu.They were just sculptures depicting poses.There are also temples which use sculpture to show other human/animal acticvities.,especially on the gopurams.This is one of the most misinterpreted symbols of Hinduism

    • Thank you Sita,
      I did not think that the images were worshipped but did not have any references. I don’t know anything about the left-handed tantric cults except that they reverse all the normal rules (eating meat becomes compulsory as does drinking alcohol, promiscuous sex, etc.) What is a shame is that so many Westerners think of this small cult when they hear about Hinduism. Its as though many people when they hear of Christianity would instantly think of the small cult that reverses their rules; the Satanists with the black mass.
      Namaste
      Chris

  2. To tell the truth,even I don’t know of them.Unless they are the types of charlatan swamis/gurus that come on the news for illegal and irreligious acts.We think of these peoples as criminals,not religious.They thrive on the fear and desperation that people feel due to everyday ups and downs that life brings them.But that kind of people must be there in other religions ,too.but the press does not highlight it unless it is truly barbaric.
    Traditional Hindus ,though believing in Tantra,[astrology is part of that,so is healing] do not indulge in depravity.

  3. Namaste,thanks for your site.

  4. Hi,

    Chris, you wrote this (am quoting a short part):

    ‘What is a shame is that so many Westerners think of this small cult [left-handed tantric cults] when they hear about Hinduism. Its as though many people when they hear of Christianity would instantly think of the small cult that reverses their rules; the Satanists with the black mass.’

    In fact that was the reason why I asked you to write about the different Shaivite Hindu Symbols…especially the Shivalingam. Because I simply was not able to believe (identify worship of Shiva with irreligious acts – what certain small cults do -, that are very very very far from purity. But unfortunately many people with Western cultural background, who do not look beyond the surface, tend to believe it, and so I had a (friendly) debate on this topic with a friend of mine. I began to search facts about it and simply wished to hear its origin as ‘authentic’ as possible.

    I have some other questions as well, not related to symbols but to Hindu faith, I will write it in a separate comment a bit later.

    Your posts help to answer many of my questions, so thank you for them!

    Greetings,
    Erzsebet

  5. To tell the truth,even I don’t know of them[i.e. the left handed Tantra practitioners].Unless they are the types of charlatan swamis/gurus that come on the news for illegal and irreligious acts.We think of these peoples as criminals,not religious.Also ,what they practice is also neither has religious or social sanction..They thrive on the fear and desperation that people feel due to everyday ups and downs that life brings them.But that kind of people must be there in other religions ,too.but the press does not highlight it unless it is truly barbaric.
    Traditional Hindus ,though believing in Tantra,[astrology is part of that,so is healing] do not indulge in the kind that passes for it[ i.e.depravity].
    I thought what I wrote earlier would need some clarification,as it seemed ambiguous.
    Many evangelists use such false swamis to denounce Hinduism;the evangelists also write stuff that is the diametric opposite of what is the real thing .For example,they have said that in the story about the advent of Swami Dattatreya, the Trinity of Brahma,Vishnu and Shiva had misbehaved [they used a less euphemistic word] with Anasuya,while none of our Puranas say such a thing.They purposely misrepresent Hindu scriptures to tell people that they should follow Jesus.
    When I told my husband that the Linga could not be a Phallic symbol,that hinduism was misrepresented,he said,”So what if it was a Phallic symbol ?”[BTW,He is a man of intergrity,pious,saying Rudram /Chamakkam and One who observes ‘Pradoshams ; in short a pukka Shaivite/smartha]’
    This made me question “Am I believing in something because X,Z or Y told this as truth,or is it ” I believe it is the truth because I have Found this to be true?” Who is to say[determine] “this is wrong”. Worshipping even a phallic symbol is OK as long as we don’t my our Phallus the be-all /end-all of our existence.
    I feel ,we Shaivites/Hindus must stop being defensive of our religion.

    • Sita,
      Thank you for a thought-provoking response. Another Hindu once told me that the left-handed tantric sects try to use tantra to avoid the consequences of their karma and gain pleasures in this life. She compared them to someone who paid a monthly credit-card bill by getting more money from the card. They might delay the consequences but are turning a small problem now into a much bigger one later.

      I agree with you that many of these are just charlatans. I was amused once by a card that had been left on the windscreen of my car when I was in the mandir. It offered “discreet services using secret mantras and tantra to make your fortune, make someone fall in love with you or cure any disease”. Under the phone number and email address it said “Muslim blessings for wealth, love and happiness also available”. Obviously faith was not the most important thing on this guy’s agenda.

      Chris

  6. Yes it is true that some Tantric sects worship Lord Shiva and think that Lord will help them, but they are just FOOLS to do such wrong things.
    Lord Shiva is a Maha Yogi and not even closely related to tantric “yogis”.
    Regarding Lingam as phallic symbol, why to be angry,sad or amused?
    Isnt reproduction (read Creation of LIFE) done by phallic organs?
    I know that many “modern” Hindus and westerners may feel sad because of use of word lingam with phallus.

    Thanks to Chris for explaining the true,deeper meaning.

  7. “discreet services using secret mantras and tantra to make your fortune, make someone fall in love with you or cure any disease”. ”
    Yes ,It is people who advertise for such things whom we should be wary about.

    “Another Hindu once told me that the left-handed tantric sects try to use tantra to avoid the consequences of their karma and gain pleasures in this life. She compared them to someone who paid a monthly credit-card bill by getting more money from the card. They might delay the consequences but are turning a small problem now into a much bigger one later.”
    She does have a point.The key words are” to avoid the consequences of their karma and gain pleasures in this life”. I,personally use prayers/slokas/ to help get by my everyday mundane tasks,too.Would one call me a ” lefthanded Tantra practitioner”?I do ask God wealth ,Health,Knowledge and Longlife.What is wrong is not asking for them,as that is what Life needs to Live.What matters is whether we are being Greedy or not;and Only God and The person involved knows about whether it is Greed or not.So it is subjective.Many of the SthalaPuranas about the Ancient Temples and the stories of their origins talk of Devas and Rishis comming to such a place to do Penance to wash their sins and to get relief from its consequences.The aim of such stories is “Shiva helped this devotee here with this kind of problems :He would help you ,too,if you are sincere in your prayers.”So does the Vedas on how we must use Artha[materials] and Kama[Desire/wish] both governed by Dharma, in seeking Moksha.We believe ,the troubles we face are the result of wrong actions/sins ,done in the past.When we are in the midst of difficulties ,we don’t realise,it is due to wrongs in the past.;later when in spite of all efforts,we could not change the situation,our hearts remember God and seek his Help;if we had “paid for our sins”[Christian terminology,I know,but could not find the right words to translate my thoughts into English],then things start going in the way our difficulties are reduced or removed.We feel that our Prayers are answered;We must not forget that it is God’s Grace that we survived through our troubles.{This is also the reason people get swayed to leave Hinduism for other religions;the Evangelists make use of this tendency of people to get converts}
    * note God= Ishta Deivam.
    So crux of the Question is how sincere are we in our prayers.Is our prayers Dharmic/righteous.?

  8. Correction:

    “I do ask God wealth ,Health,Knowledge and Longlife.What is wrong in asking for them,as that is what Life needs to Live.”

    what I meant was ,why shouldn’t we ask for these things,when we pray?

  9. I had one thing to add here, I don’t know anything about Tantra, but Lord Shiva is seen in many form and of them as Tantric form. I dont know much about Kashmir Shaivism but that philosphy evolved in kashmir and Adi Shankracharya came to Kashmir form down south to feel it. Also Abhinav Gupt was the one who discovered it in Kashmir.

    Why I am talking of Kashmir Shaivism is because of some references to Tantra in that philosphy though not much. There are facebook groups on Kashmir Shaivism as well as you can get info from google if you want to know more.

    • Namaste Radha,
      I don’t know much about tantra, but my understanding is that the big difference between the right hand path (Dakṣiṇācāra) and the left hand path (Vāmācāra). The left hand path is the small minority that reverse the normal Hindu rules, and encourage drinking alcohol, eating meat, promiscuous sex and so on. The right hand path has more of an emphasis on tantra than most Hindu lines, but really tantra (in the form of mantras, japa, and ritual) forms part of all branches of Hinduism, and indeed all religions. Unfortunately when people think of tantra they often think of the “left hand” practices, not the use of sound in ringing bells, incense, mantras and yantras.
      Aum Shivaya
      Chris

  10. Namaste Chris ,
    thanks a lot for explaining the lefthand aspects.Truly ,I have not come across even that information.I think in Hinduism,aspects that do not conform to the general Dharma are ignored,in practice.Maybe it is same in other religions also.
    Hari Om.

  11. Hi,

    I appreciate your curiosity in Hinduism and your efforts in understanding it. It’s a shameful truth that even Hindus themselves won’t have in-depth knowledge about their religion and can’t say anything authoritatively on any of the practices. Hinduism is too mythical and a bottomless abyss, the result of it is a religion that is too obscure.
    There isn’t a single authoritative source about the religion and there are multiple interpretations of the holy texts.
    But the one who digs deep as yourself will sure emerge with valuables.

    There are several texts in hinduism written by great sages that even experts find difficult to interpret to a language that layman can understand, “Thirumanthiram” by sage Thirumoolar is one such important text on shaivism. This work is considered as a basic text on shaiva aghama(rules
    by which the statues and temples are built). It contains descriptions on yanthras(something like shatkona you described), but couldn’t be properly interpreted as the text is in poetry form.

    Coming to Linga, it’s very easy to conclude that it’s a phallus image but it’s a grave mistake. Some say the linga represents the “chitta” or soul and others say linga represents the unification of soul with God.

    As a hindu, the following is the source of hindu thoughts which I consider the most authentic – http://www.sssbpt.info/english/sss.htm . Due to the absence of such authoritative interpretations, even the most interested/well-read are susceptible to misinterpret the teachings of hinduism. I hope you’ll find them useful.

    All the best.

  12. Hi,

    I have some questions, related to this topic, to which I would like to get clear answers if possible.

    1) Is the Shivalingam in fact not a phallus, only not well-read people in the West associate / identify the Shivalingam with that?

    2) Is there some other form of Shiva different from that of Shivalingam, in which He can be worshipped?

    3) What is (if there is) the connection between the practice of Shiva-faith and that of Tantraism?

    4) Is Shiva and Vishu the different facets of the One God?
    (As the RigVeda says, ‘God is One, only the sages call him by different names’)

    I would be happy to get right answers to these questions. 🙂

    Thanks in advance.
    Erzsebet

    • 1) It is true that people in west associate it with phallus,which it is not.

      2.) Yes,Lord Shiva’s image or murti can be worshiped(if u want to worship that way)
      One can perform Dhyana and imagine and concentrate on Lord in mind

      3.)No connection. Tantrics in their ignorance worship Him thinking they will get boons.
      But also remember that Lord sees the bhakthi of an individual to shower His blessings.
      Karma should be Good to get blessings

      4.)Yes Lord Vishu=Lord Shiva=ParaBrahmana=we ourselves!

      Lord’s energy is within us too.It is equal in quality but not in quantity.
      Like a drop of water is same as Ocean, but ocean is vast while drop is minuscule!
      Meditation,Yoga,Bhakthi are ways to improve and channelize our energy towards Lord.

  13. I know I am very late to the party here, but I hope you’ve come to learn more about Tantra. You and the commenters here seem to be confused by the charlatan aspects of Tantra, not taking Tantra on its own merits. It is actually a legitimate form of Hinduism that offers a solid path to the Divine. It may be ‘less orthodox’, but it is not less legitimate or more depraved.

    From my scholarly studies my understanding is that Tantra see itself as the path for the these times, for the Kali Yuga. It is a path that sees enjoyment of existence and embodiment as a good thing, that by turning taboos on their heads we realize how those taboos are just as much of an illusion as the harsher sects claim our physical enjoyments are. (Hm, awkward sentence.) Alcohol, sex, meat, etc are usually only consumed in ritual settings. There are also right-hand Tantrics, not all of Tantra is left-handed. Perhaps I ought to write a post on the left-hand path, since I seem to be on it.

    • Thanks myownashram,
      I understand that there are right-hand tantric elements in almost all paths of Hinduism, in fact in almost all religions. Only the purist vedantist would see japa as only a practice for the spirit and giving offerings to the Devas as only symbolic. As soon as you believe that your ritual actions have an affect beyond this physical plain then you have tantra, and I would include the “folk Christian” belief in baptism as protecting the spirit of a child and a cross warding against evil.

      I would be very interested if you write an article on the left hand path, as this is seen as something to be avoided by most Hindus.

  14. i’m so glad for watching this information of hinduism . thankyou thank you so much …….om nama shivaye

  15. thanks for clearing the widespread misinformation spread about sivalinga

  16. i think tandava u should edit wikipedia page (bcoz ur english is better) on shivling which relates it to phallus .

    • I have done what I can without getting it reverted, I am user Q Chris in the article history. What I have done is put the correct explanation first, and made it clear that this is what most Hindus believe, and given references so that it is unlikely to be reversed. I have not been able to remove the following section – it would just be reinserted.

      The problem is that Wikipedia has a Western bias, in that references from Western scholars are seen as more valid than others. This means that whereas all Hindus might know that something is incorrect, if a Western scholar has said it then the article will reflect the Western scholar rather than common belief. A lot of the referenced articles are from the anti-Hindu Wendy Doniger. She uses the “technique” of not writing about what the scriptures say but “psychoanalysing” them and writing her own sexual interpretations (or fantasies). A good article exposing her dishonesty is “Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong!”, in Outlook India. It is interesting to note that in 1977 a magazine in the UK was convicted of blasphemy for publishing a poem by Pofessor James Kirkup which gave a sexual interpretation of the Christian New Testament, though this law was repealed in 2008. She has not subjected the bible or the Qur’an to the same “psychoanalytical” study. I think that the best you could say about Doniger is that she was cursed by being born with a very strong animal emotional mind and a powerful intellect, but little spiritual insight. At worst this could be seen as a deliberate attack to discredit Hinduism.

      Anyway, though it would be better to show that the other explanation is really minor, I don’t think it will be possible to do that unless a well-renowned scholar publishes something to that effect. If you know any references then I will try to remove the section or add a refutation.

  17. This Video is also good explanation ..of Shiv Lingam [Tandava: in line video replaced with link] http://goo.gl/Y8YMo

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