Shiva-Lingam: What is It

published on February 20, 2009


by Stephen Knapp





One thing you may be questioning is
why Lord Shiva is so often represented as a lingam. Linga basically means a sign or
symbol. So the lingam is essentially a symbol of the shapeless universal
consciousness of Lord Shiva. “Shiva” also means that in which the creation lies
dormant after the annihilation. So, one explanation is that the lingam is
a representative of the dormant universal consciousness in which all created
things rest after the cosmic annihilation. It also represents the
pradhana, the potential but unmanifest ingredients of the material world.
Another explanation is that Shiva means auspicious. So the linga is the
shapeless symbol for the great god of auspiciousness. It is intended to bring
the shapeless unknown into our attention.



       The yoni upon which the
lingam often sits represents the manifest universal energy. From the
unmanifest comes the manifest energy, through which all other things are
created. The yoni, which is a symbol of Shakti, combined with the
lingam, is a symbol of the eternal union of the paternal and maternal
principles, or the positive and negative, or the static and dynamic energies of
the Absolute Reality. It is the communion of the eternal consciousness and
dynamic power of the Shakti, the source of all actions and changes. It is also
the symbol for the creation of the universe through the combination of the
active energy of Lord Shiva and his Shakti. This is how Lord Shiva and Durga are
considered the parents of the universe. The symbolism of the lingam and
yoni also represents the base of the spine, meaning the Muladhara
chakra, upon which the kundalini is resting, waiting for
awakening.


       There are a few versions
according to the Puranas of why Shiva is worshiped as a lingam and
how this happened, of which I will relate one. There was a great sacrificial
ceremony that was going to take place many hundreds of years ago. The great sage
Narada Muni was invited to it and asked who would receive the effects of the
sacrifice. No one could answer, so the sages who were present asked him who
should receive it. Narada said that Sri Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva were all
eligible, but they would have to find out which one had the most patience and
purity to be the receiver of the sacrifice. So he chose the great sage Brighu to
learn the answer.


      Brighu had many mystic powers and was
able to travel to the domain of the demigods. So first he went to see Lord
Brahma
, but Brahma was preoccupied and did not notice Brighu’s presence. Feeling
insulted, Brighu cursed Brahma, “You are so proud of your power of creation, you
did not notice my arrival. For this you shall have no temples on earth.” Thus,
there are very few temples of Brahma on earth. Next, Brighu went to see Shiva in
Kailash, but Shiva also did not notice Brighu’s arrival. Brighu, again feeling
offended, cursed Shiva to be worshiped only as a lingam on earth. This is
the reason why Lord Shiva is primarily represented and worshiped as a
lingam on this planet.


       Then, to continue the story,
Brighu went to see Lord Vishnu, who also did not recognize Brighu’s presence.
Brighu was so angered that he went forward and kicked Vishnu’s chest. Lord
Vishnu
apologized if He had hurt Brighu’s foot and began praising Brighu. Brighu
immediately felt pleased and could understand that Vishnu was actually the most
qualified to receive the offerings from the sacrifice. However, Lakshmidevi, the
goddess of fortune and Lord Vishnu’s wife, was very displeased by Brighu’s
action and, therefore, does not bestow much mercy on the brahmanas who, as a
result, are often without much money.


       To explain the shape of the
lingam, a Baana linga is egg-shaped and is meant to show that
Ishvara has neither beginning nor end. The Lingobhavamurti is said to be the
prime manifestation of the form of the formless, which Shiva is said to have
manifested exactly at midnight on Shivaratri. This is why everyone stays up
until midnight and then worships that form during the Shivaratri festival. A
representation of the Lingobhavamurti can often be found in a niche on the
outside wall of the sanctum in any important Shiva temple.


       The lingas in the
temples are often formed in three parts. The lowest part is the base square
called the Brahmabhaga or Brahma-pitha, which represents the creator Brahma. The
next part in the middle is the octagonal Vishnubhaga or Vishnu-pitha, which
signifies Lord Vishnu the sustainer. Both of these parts form the pedestal. The
top cylindrical portion is the Rudrabhaga or Shiva-pitha, which is also called
the Pujabhaga since this is the worshipable part. The top portion is also meant
to symbolize the projecting flame of fire. This flame also represents the
destructive aspects as well as the preserving power of God.



       There are twelve important
Jyotirlinga temples scattered across India. They are found in Kedarnatha, Kashi
Visvanatha, Somnatha, Baijnath, Ramesvare, Ghrisnesvar, Bhimasankar, Mahakala,
Mallikarjuna, Amalesvar, Nagesvar, and Tryambakesvar. The five Pancha Bhuta
Lingas in India are located at Kalahastisvar, Jambukesvar, Arunachalesvar,
Ekambesvara at Kanchipuram, and Nataraja at Chidambaram. The temple of Lord
Mahalinga at Tiruvidaimarudur (Madhyarjuna) is also a great temple in South
India.


       The reason Lord Shiva is often
worshiped by pouring Ganges water over the lingam is that it represents
the Ganges descending from heaven on to Shiva’s head. The legend is that when
the Ganges first began to flow to the earthly planet from the heavenly region,
the force of it would have destroyed the earth. To prevent this, Lord Shiva
agreed to let the river first fall on his head before forming into a river. It
is also explained that when worshipers pour milk or Ganga water on the
linga, it represents the pouring of ghee on the sacred fire in the fire
ceremony, or yajna. It is the symbolic offering of ourselves to
God.


       One story in connection with
the Shiva linga is found in the Linga Purana. It describes that
once Lord Brahma, the god of creation, and Lord Vishnu, the God of protection,
engaged in an argument on who was greater. When those two great gods were
fighting between themselves, Lord Shiva appeared as a huge pillar of fire that
spread across the universe. He told Brahma and Vishnu that whoever finds the
head or foot of his form of flame would be considered greater. Then Brahma took
the form of a swan and set out to reach the top of the flame. Vishnu took the
form of a boar to seek out the foot of the fire. But in spite of their efforts,
they could not succeed in finding the limits. They realized their mistake and
the peerless greatness of Lord Shiva. This shows how Shiva cannot be approached
through ego, but responds with love to those who surrender to him. In this
pastime, Lord Shiva appeared in the form of the fiery lingam for their
benefit. So they were considered blessed with additional insight for worshiping
that oldest form of him. This form of Shiva who appeared from the flame is
called Lingodbhava. This story is found in the Shiva Puranaand other
texts.


       This further helps to show how
the lingam is not formless nor really a form, but a symbol for the
divinity of Lord Shiva. In Sanskrit, linga means “mark”. It is a symbol
of Lord Shiva in the same way that large puddles of water are an indication of
heavy rains. It is an inference for something else, like the form of that which
is formless and omnipotent.

[This article is found on
www.stephen-knapp.com]

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