Sacred Symbols – The Shivalinga

Linga worship has an ancient past which goes beyond the geopolitical boundaries of any single nation. Traces of linga worship have been found in Mayan, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indus valley civilisations. The linga, which emanates life and light, can be associated with the Egyptian hermaphrodite. In 1925, O.A. Wall drew a reference which says that in the Zhob Valley, where small farming groups existed before 3000 BC, a carved stone linga was found…’Also, the Greek god Apollo, it is said, stood for the sun’s energy, whose rays had a fertilising and purifying power.

J.M. Allegro records that ‘The erect phallus was also the emblem of the Roman deity Fascinus.” Traces of the linga in its phallic form have been found in northern Europe as well. As Davidson mentioned in his book God and Myths’. ‘According to Adam of Bremen the statue of Freyr in the temple at Uppsala was phallic.’ We also find that in Asia Minor the phallus had a cultic significance in many religions.

The ancient civilisations of Indonesia, Indo-China and China also have several references to the linga. In ancient China, the linga was known as kuei, an oblong piece of jade stone, which terminated in a triangle. J.E. Cirlot in Dictionary of Symbolism noted that The seven stars of the Great Bear are often engraved on the kuei, probably symbolising space and time.’ Another comparable symbol is the Persian Tree of Life whose seeds, it is said, when mixed with water, preserve the fertility of earth.

The cult of linga worship evolved from two basic principles?the cult of the pillar and phallic worship. The cult of the pillar seems to be primarily based on the concept of the Axis of the Universe, which is indestructible and eternally spiritual and which represents cosmic columns in the corridor of space and time. The eternal quest of early thinkers concerned the realisation of the existence of one god. This led to the principle of Divine Support responsible for the sustenance of the Universe.

Reference to phallic worship goes back to early civilisations and seems to be an entirely different concept from the cult of the pillar. Phallic worship highlights the principle of fertility. But according to Dr. B. Patni this differs from the phallic worship prevalent in the Pauranic era. As he says, “Here (in India) it presents a synthesis of the phallic cult and the cult of pillar?a quintessence of these two principles.” According to Swami Vivekananda the Siva linga originated from the famous hymn in the Atharvavedasarnkita, sung in praise of the yupa-stambha, the sacrificial post. Explaining the hymn he said ‘a description is found of the beginning less and endless stambha or skambha, and it is shown that the said skambha is put in place of the eternal Brahman…later the yajna fire, its smoke, ashes and flames, the soma plant, and the ox that used to carry on its back the wood for the Vedic sacrifice, gave place to the conceptions of the brightness of Siva’s body, his tawny, matted hair, his blue throat…the bull of Siva, and so on?just so, the yupa-stambha gave place in time to the Siva linga, and was defined as the high devahood of Shankara.’

The origin of the linga and its worship has been a subject of great controversy amongst scholars. According to Professor N. Gangadharan ‘Some associate the linga cult with that of the phallus. Some hold that linga worship originated from the aborigines of India, while some claim that the association of the Lingatawa with the worship of Siva-Rudrawas alien to the Aryans. ..It has been said that the worship of the tree was later preserved in the form of a stump of the tree (kandu in Tamil) which was later replaced by a stone pillar, which took final shape as the linga.’

The word linga is used in many senses throughout Hindu-Sanskrit literature. But the primary meaning of the word is a mark or symbol, even in the context of the phallus, it indicates only a ‘mark’. This fundamental interpretation of a ‘sign’ has always been identified with Siva as his inseparable symbol as is evident from references in the Vayu Purana, Kurma Purana, Linga and Siva Purana.

The Linga Purana, in conformity with its name, traces the origin of linga worship as well as its merits. In Book I, the meaning of the linga in reference to Siva has been elaborated. It says that the word linga is used in the sense of visible symbol. The absolute form of Siva, which is beyond all visible forms, is therefore called alinga (that which has no visible symbol), and is the basis of later manifestations of any visible form (linga). Professor Gangadharan explains that ‘The first manifestation for the absolute (alinga) is the prakriti or pradhan or avyakta (unexpressed) as it is called in Sankhya. The matter from which all other categories evolve is therefore the first linga. Above that, Siva is the uidmate principle without quality, eternal, indestructible {aguna, dhruvya, aksya) whereas the linga, the visible mark possesses the qualifies of smell and such forth and has come into being from the alinga, Siva/ The Linga Purana also underlines that prakriti is a source of the further manifestation of the linga. It explains that of the Trinity, Brahma represents the seed or bija, Vishnu the receptacle or yoni and Rudra the seedless or nirbija (from which the seed has emerged without a cause), but is the cause of the Universe ( bija). Thus the personal forms of deifies belong to the realm of the linga. Above the linga and the alinga and all the manifest forms, Siva is the ultimate.

Sankhya philosophy states that the linga signifies both prakriti and vikriti According to the various Puranas and the Saivagams, the linga symbolises the Supreme Being which stands for god himself and is the seat of entire creation and its dissolution.

Dr. B. Patni has analysed the manifested and unmanifested forms of the linga in his celebrated commentary on the Siva Purana: ‘The self-existing unmanifested principle manifests himself and again merges back into the eternal unmanifested form at his own will.’ He further comments that the linga symbolises the endless process of the cosmic circle of creation and dissolution of the Universe or the micro-cosmic birth and disintegration as seen among innumerable living beings.

In the Siva Purana we find that Siva has a dualisdc character, on the one hand he is Sakti (power) and on the other he represents Purusa (Supreme Being), but they are in a singular form of Niskala Brahman (Supreme Being) which manifests itself in the universe and is known as Sakala (formed one).

The other question is whether the linga is formless or does it have a form. The Lingavirbhava throws some light on this and claims that although the linga has a visible form yet it is called formless. The mysticism justifies the transcendental nature of the linga.

From Pauranic sources, we gather that there were at one time different types of lingas. Prof. S. Dange has recorded this lost part’ in his celebrated book Encyclopaedia of Pauranic Beliefs and Practices. The five main types of lingas are: the svayambhu-linga, which shows itself in a natural way; the bindulinga, which is as one contemplates it; the pratishta linga, which is installed through proper mantras; the cara, which is also termed abhyatmika’, and the gurulinga, which is the idol of Shiva.

According to the Linga Purana, lingas are made of different materials. It is believed that they were made by Viswakarma and offered to many gods. However, the six main kinds of lingas are those made of stone or rock or the sailaja linga, those made from jewels or the ratnaja linga, ones made from metal or dhatuja, made of wood or the daruja linga, the mntika linga made of clay and finally the ksanika linga which is made on the spot from any material. Each of these six kinds are further subdivided and when all are calculated the total amounts to forty-four types of lingas.

Interestingly, the Linga Purana lists the various prescriptions for worship for the different castes. While discussing the cam or abhyatmika nd its subtypes, Prof. Dange mentions that the rasa-linga is meant for the Brahmins; the bana (arrow) linga for Ksatriyas; svama (golden) linga for the Vaishyas; sailaja (stone) lingafor the Sudras; while the sphatika (crystal) linga is for all the varnas.

Apart from these, special lingas are prescribed for women. Those whose husbands are alive should worship stone lingas, while the crystal or rasa linga is recommended for widows. However, the Purans maintain that women of all ages should worship the clear, crystal linga.

Worship of different types of lingas yields different results. The ratnaja linga yields prosperity and gives glory, the sailaja linga the achievement of perfection, saruasiddhL The dhatuja linga helps to accumulate wealth, the daruja linga yields enjoyment, while the lingas made from earth help in acquiring all perfecdon. Afurther division of baked and nonbaked clay is also found. As the Puranas maintain, ‘the linga made from clay and baked is said to be superior to the one that is non-baked.

Prof. Dange referring to the Puranas mentions that ‘the rock-made (linga) is said to be the best; of middle value is one made from metal; the others come after these.’ Amongst the various kinds of lingas the natural white stone or bana linga is counted as the most auspicious. Bana lingas are small elliptical stones with a natural polish that results from the action ofriverwater. They are mostfrequently found in the bed of the Narmada River, one of the seven most sacred rivers of India.

Furthermore, the Linga Purana, Chapter 1 (18.19-22) mentions that various lingas are worshipped in the various months of the Hindu calendar. The vajralinga (a linga made
from a jewel called vajra) is worshipped in the month of Vaishakha; inJyestha the linga made of marakatta (?); a pearl linga in Asadha; in Sravana the linga made from nila (a blue jewel); in Bhadra one from a redjewel, padmaraga’, in Ashvina, one made from the jewel gomeda’, in Kartika a coral or pra-uala linga; in Margasirsa one from vaiduryan’, in Pausa the pusparaga in Magha the one made from suryakanta (the sun-jewel); in Phalguna the one of crystal. There is no mention, however, of the linga for the month of Chaitra.

ProL H.H. Wilson wrote in 1862 that in the worship of Siva, the linga is almost the only form in which that deity is revered. In the Keddar Kalpa of the Nandi Upa-Purana, Siva says: ‘I am omnipresent, but I am especially in twelve forms and places. ‘ These twelve forms, thejyotirlingas, are situated in twelve different places. According to Dange, ‘ these jyotirlingas are various aspects of the “columns of light” that is said to have erupted from the ocean between Brahma and Vishnu as they quarrelled.’ Thus it is believed that the jyotirlinga paved the path ofjyoti and played the role of universal sustenance.

Somnath (Lord of Moon), the first of the twelve sacred shrines, is situated in Saurashtra, in the city of Somnath Rattan. The idol, which was a linga, was destroyed by Mahmud ofGhazni. A passage from the contemporary source Raurnt us Safa alludes that The temple in which the idol of Somnath stood was of considerable extent, both in length and breadth, and theroofwas supported by fifty-six pillars in a row. The idol was of polished stone, its height was about five cubits, and its thickness in proportion; two cubits were below ground. Mahmud having entered the temple broke the stone Somnath with a heavy mace; some of the fragments he ordered to be conveyed to Ghazni, and they were placed at the threshold of the great Mosque.’

The second is Mallikarjuna or Sri-Saila (The Mountain of Sri) located in the mountains along the banks of the river Krishna.

Mahakalais situated in Ujjain.. According to Wilson when Altutmish captured Ujjain in 1231 AD, this deity of stone was carried to Delhi, where it was broken up. A contemporary source Tabkat-i-Akban records that this shrine was then three hundred years old.

Ornkara is the shrine, probably of Mahadeo, at Ornkara Mandhattaon the banks of the Narmada river.

Amaresvara (God of Gods) is also in Ujjain. Dr. Hunter in the nineteenth century records this fact. This is an ancient temple of Mahadeo situated on a hill near Ujjain.

Vaidyanatha (Lord of Physicians) is located at Deogarh in Bengal. The temple here is a celebrated pilgrimage spot.

Ramesa or Rameswara (Lord of Rama) is on the island of Rameswaram where in the Ramayana yuga, Rama built the famous setubandha, the line of rocks, between India and Sri Lanka.

Bhimasankara is situated in Dakini India. It is in all probability the same as the Bhimesvara linga worshipped at Dracharam in Rajamahendri, Rajamundry district.

Visvesvara (Lord of All) has been for many centuries the chief object of worship atBanaras. Prof. Wilson recorded that ‘Banaras, however, is the peculiar seat of this form (linga) of worship; the principal deity Visvesvara is a linga and most of the chief objects of the pilgrimage are similar blocks of stone. Forty-seven lingas, all of pre-eminent sanctity, form part of the pilgrimage.

Tryambakais one of the principal twelve forms where Siva resides on the banks of the Gomati.
Gautamesa (Lord of Gautama) has also been named in the Nandi Upa-Purana, but the place is not identifiable.

The twelfth and final shrine is at Kedaresaor Kedarnath, which is situated in the Himalayas. This has been the foremost centre of pilgrimage throughout the ages. The deity here is represented by a shapeless mass of rock.

Sometimes memorials were made in the shape of lingas. Prof. K.C. Pandeyhas enlightened us in this direction. He said that the custom of erecting linga memorials dates back to the time of the Bhasa dynasty. Amongst the few memorials whose names figured in the Mathura Pillar were Upamitacarya, Kapilacarya. In this context, Prof. Pandey wrote that ‘these lingas had the portrait of the teachers earned in them, seems to find support from the fact that there are two lingas with portraits of Lakuli sculpted in front One of these is in the temple of Naklesvara and the other is that of Rajarajesvara, both at Karvan in Baroda state. Thus, the custom of combining a linga with a portrait of the person in the memory of whom it was put up, seems to have been prevalent among the followers ofLakulisa.’

Devotees of the various Saivite sects are identified by the symbols of Siva they wear on their bodies. They mark their foreheads with the tnpundra diak, carry a trishula, smear bhivooti and wear rudraksha beads. Adi Sankara, who advocated the worship of Siva, also covered himself with the characteristic symbols of Siva.

Among the many sects the Vira Saivites are generally known as Lingayats. This sect was founded by Basava in 1167 AD. Historians claim that ‘They identified the life (prana) with the linga so that they refused to part with it (which) meant parting with life.’ Thus Lingayats wear a prototype of the linga on their neck until they die.

The linga thus symbolises transcendental power which is identified as Brahman, and is the centre of Saivite philosophy. Siva is represented in beautifully sculptured forms as well as by the symbolic linga. The linga thus has many dimensions and interpretations. Yet it remains a unique spiritual symbol which does not restrict itself to any one religious order, but is a part of the Hindu way of life.

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