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A lingam (Sanskrit: लिङ्गम IAST: liGga, lit. "sign, symbol or mark"), sometimes referred to as linga or Shiva linga, is an abstract or aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva in Shaivism.[1] It is typically the primary murti or cult image in Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, also found in smaller shrines, or as self-manifested natural objects.[2][3] The lingam is often represented within a disc-shaped platform.[1][4] Lingayats wear a lingam inside a necklace, called Ishtalinga.[5][6]

"Lingam" is additionally found in Sanskrit texts with the meaning of "evidence, proof" of God and God's existence.[1][7][8] Lingam iconography found at archaeological sites of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia includes simple cylinders set inside a yoni, mukhalinga rounded pillars with carvings such as of one or more mukha (faces), and anatomically realistic representations of a phallus such as at Gudimallam.[9][10][11] In the Shaiva traditions, the lingam is regarded as a form of spiritual iconography.[12][13][14]

Nomenclature and significance[edit]

File:ShivaLingam new.png
Lingam as interpreted in Shaiva Siddhanta tradition which is a major school of Shaivism. Upper and lower part represents Parashiva and Parashakti perfections of Lord Shiva.

Lingam, states Monier Monier-Williams, appears in the Upanishads and epic literature, where it means a "mark, sign, emblem, characteristic".[7][13] Other contextual meanings of the term include "evidence, proof, symptom" of God and God's power. [7][7][8] The term also appears in early Indian texts on logic, where an inference is based on a sign (linga), such as "if there is smoke, there is fire" where the linga is the smoke.[7] According to James Lochtefeld, it is sometimes "simplistically called a phallic symbol[by whom?]".[13][15][16] It is a religious symbol in Hinduism representing Shiva as the generative power,[13] all of existence, all creativity and fertility at every cosmic level.[16][15]

The lingam of the Shaivism tradition is a short cylindrical pillar-like symbol of Shiva, made of stone, metal, gem, wood, clay or disposable material.[1][17] According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the lingam is a votary aniconic object found in the sanctum of Shiva temples and private shrines that symbolizes Shiva and is "revered as an emblem of generative power".[1] It often is found within a lipped, disked structure that is an emblem of goddess Shakti and this is called the yoni. Together they symbolize the union of the feminine and the masculine principles, and "the totality of all existence", states Encyclopædia Britannica.[1]

According to Rohit Dasgupta, the lingam symbolizes Shiva in Hinduism, and it is also a phallic symbol.[16] Since the 19th-century, states Dasgupta, the popular literature has represented the lingam as the male sex organ. This view contrasts with the traditional abstract values they represent in Shaivism wherein the lingam-yoni connote the masculine and feminine principles in the entirety of creation and all existence.[16] According to Wendy Doniger, for many Hindus, the lingam is not a "male sexual organ" but of a spiritual icon and their faith, just like for the Christians the cross is not an "instrument of execution" but a symbol of Christ and the Christian faith.[14][note 1]

According to Alex Wayman, given the Shaiva philosophical texts and spiritual interpretations, various works on Shaivism by some Indian authors "deny that the linga is a phallus".[12] To the Shaivites, a linga is neither a phallus nor do they practice the worship of erotic penis-vulva, rather the linga-yoni is a symbol of cosmic mysteries, the creative powers and the metaphor for the spiritual truths of their faith.[19]

According to Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, the lingam signifies three perfections of Shiva.[20][better source needed] The upper oval part of the Shivalingam represent Parashiva and lower part of the Shivalingam called the pitha represents Parashakti.[21][better source needed] In Parashiva perfection, Shiva is the absolute reality, the timeless, formless and spaceless. In Parashakti perfection, Shiva is all-pervasive, pure consciousness, power and primal substance of all that exists and it has form unlike Parashiva which is formless.[22][better source needed]


According to Nagendra Singh, some believe linga-worship was a feature of indigenous Indian religion.[23]

Archaeology and Indus valley[edit]

According to Chakrabarti, "some of the stones found in Mohenjodaro are unmistakably phallic stones". These are dated to some time before 2300 BCE. Similarly, states Chakrabarti, the Kalibangan site of Harappa has a small terracotta representation that "would undoubtedly be considered the replica of a modern Shivlinga [a tubular stone]."[24] According to Encyclopædia Britannica, while Harappan discoveries include "short cylindrical pillars with rounded tops", there is no evidence that the people of Indus Valley Civilization worshipped these artifacts as lingams.[1]

File:Dhamekh Stupa, where the Buddha gave the first sermon on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to his five disciples, Sarnath.jpg
A Buddhist Stupa (above) may have influenced the later iconography of the Hindu Shiva-linga, according to Swami Vivekananda.[25][note 2]

The colonial era archaeologists John Marshall and Ernest Mackay proposed that certain artifacts found at Harappan sites may be evidence of yoni-linga worship in Indus Valley Civilization.[27] Scholars such as Arthur Llewellyn Basham dispute whether such artifacts discovered at the archaeological sites of Indus Valley sites are yoni.[27][28] For example, Jones and Ryan state that lingam/yoni shapes have been recovered from the archaeological sites at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, part of the Indus Valley Civilisation.[29][30] In contrast, Indologist Wendy Doniger states that this relatively rare artifact can be interpreted in many ways and has unduly been used for wild speculations such as being a linga. Another postage stamp sized item found and called the Pashupati seal, states Doniger, has an image with a general resemblance with Shiva and "the Indus people may well have created the symbolism of the divine phallus", but given the available evidence we cannot be certain, nor do we know that it had the same meaning as some currently project them to might have meant.[31]

According to the Indologist Asko Parpola, "it is true that Marshall's and Mackay's hypotheses of linga and yoni worship by the Harappans has rested on rather slender grounds, and that for instance the interpretation of the so-called ring-stones as yonis seems untenable".[27] He quotes Dales 1984 paper, which states "with the single exception of the unidentified photography of a realistic phallic object in Marshall's report, there is no archaeological evidence to support claims of special sexually-oriented aspects of Harappan religion".[27] However, adds Parpola, a re-examination at Indus Valley sites suggest that the Mackay's hypothesis cannot be ruled out because erotic and sexual scenes such as ithyphallic males, naked females, a human couple having intercourse and trefoil imprints have now been identified at the Harappan sites.[27] The "finely polished circular stand" found by Mackay may be yoni although it was found without the linga. The absence of linga, states Parpola, maybe because it was made from wood which did not survive.[27]

Vedic literature[edit]

File:Shiva Ling.jpg
Lingam from Angkor period. Discovered in Battambang Province (Cambodia) and is made of Bronze, Quartz and Silver. On display at the National Museum of Cambodia.

The word lingam is not found in the Rigveda,[32] or the other Vedas.[33] However, Rudra (proto-Shiva) is found in the Vedic literature.[8][32][34] The word lingam appears in early Upanishads, but the context suggests that it simply means "sign" such as "smoke is a sign of fire", states Doniger.[32]

There is a hymn in the Atharvaveda that praises a pillar (Sanskrit: stambha), and this is one possible origin of linga worship.[23] According to Swami Vivekananda, the Shiva-linga had origins in the idea of Yupa-Stambha or Skambha of the Vedic rituals, where the term meant the sacrificial post which was then idealized as the eternal Brahman. The Yupa-Skambha gave place in time to the Shiva-Linga, quite possibly with influence from Buddhism's stupa shaped like the top of a stone linga, according to Vivekananda.[25][35]

Early iconography and temples[edit]

File:This Lingam.jpg
Gudimallam lingam (Parashurameshwara temple, Andhra Pradesh) has been dated to between the 3rd and 1st century BCE. The phallic pillar is anatomically accurate and depicts Shiva with an antelope and axe in his hands standing over a dwarf demon.[36]

One of the oldest examples of a lingam is still in worship in the Parashurameshwara temple, Gudimallam, midst a hilly forest about 20 kilometres (12 mi) east of Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh.[37] It has been dated to the 3rd-century BCE,[1] or to the 2nd century BCE,[10] and generally accepted to be from the 3rd- to 1st-century BCE.[36] The structure anatomically resembles a phallus, has the figure of Shiva carved on the front with an antelope and axe in his hands.[36][38] He stands above a rakshasha (demon) dwarf.[39]

The Bhita linga – now at the Lucknow museum – is also dated to about the 2nd century BCE, and has four directional faces on the pillar and a Brahmi script inscription at the bottom.[40][41][42] Above the four faces, the Bhita linga has the bust of a male with his left hand holding a vase and the right hand in the abhaya (no-fear) mudra.[41][note 3] The pillar itself is, once again, a realistic depiction of human phallus.[41]

The Mathura archaeological site has revealed similar lingams with a standing Shiva in front (2nd century CE) and with one or four faces around the pillar (1st to 3rd century CE).[44][45]

Numerous stone and cave temples from the mid to late 1st-millennium feature lingams. The Bhumara Temple near Satna Madhya Pradesh, for example, is generally dated to late 5th-century Gupta Empire era, and it features an Ekamukha Lingam.[46][47]


According to Doniger, the Mahabharata is the first ancient Hindu text where the lingam is "unequivocally designating the sexual organ of Shiva".[36] Chapter 10.17 of the Mahabharata also refers to the word sthanu in the sense of an "inanimate pillar" as well as a "name of Shiva, signifying the immobile, ascetic, sexualized form of the lingam", as it recites the legend involving Shiva, Brahma and Prajapati.[36][48] This mythology weaves two polarities, one where the lingam represents the potentially procreative phallus (fertile lingam) and its opposite "a pillar-like renouncer of sexuality" (ascetic lingam), states Doniger.[36]


The Shiva Purana describes the origin of the lingam, known as Shiva-linga, as the beginning-less and endless cosmic pillar (Stambha) of fire, the cause of all causes.[49] Lord Shiva is pictured as emerging from the lingam – the cosmic pillar of fire – proving his superiority over the gods Brahma and Vishnu.[50] This is known as Lingodbhava. The Linga Purana also supports this interpretation of lingam as a cosmic pillar, symbolizing the infinite nature of Shiva.[50][25][35] According to the Linga Purana, the lingam is a complete symbolic representation of the formless Universe Bearer – the oval-shaped stone is the symbol of the Universe, and the bottom base represents the Supreme Power that holds the entire Universe in it.[51] A similar interpretation is also found in the Skanda Purana: "The endless sky (that great void which contains the entire universe) is the Linga, the Earth is its base. At the end of time the entire universe and all the Gods finally merge in the Linga itself." [52] In the Linga Purana, an Atharvaveda hymn is expanded with stories about the great Stambha and the supreme nature of Mahâdeva (the Great God, Shiva).[35]

Other literature[edit]

File:4 Buddha and Shiva Linga Vajrayana Buddhism.jpg
A linga-yoni in Nepal carved with four seated Buddhas.

In early Sanskrit medical texts, linga means "symptom, signs" and plays a key role in the diagnosis of a sickness, the disease.[53][54][55] The author of classical Sanskrit grammar treatise, Panini, states that the verbal root ling which means "paint, variegate", has the sense "that which paints, variegates, characterizes". Panini as well as Patanjali additionally mention lingam with the contextual meaning of the "gender".[56][57]

In the Vaisheshika Sutras, it means "proof or evidence", as a conditionally sufficient mark or sign. This Vaisheshika theory is adopted in the early Sanskrit medical literature.[58] Like the Upanishads, where linga means "mark, sign, characteristic", the texts of the Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy use linga in the same sense.[59][60] In the Samkhya sutras, and in Gaudapada's commentary on Samkhyakarika, the term linga has many contextual meanings such as in verses 1.124.136, 3.9.16 and 5.21.61, as it develops its theory of the nature of atman (soul) and sarira (body, prakriti) and its proposed mechanism of rebirth.[61][62] In the Purva Mimamsa Sutra and the Vedanta sutra, as well as the commentaries on them, the term linga appears quite often, particularly in the form of "lingadarsanac ca" as a form of citing or referencing prior Hindu literature. This phrase connotes "[we have found an] indicative sign", such as the "indicative sign is in a Vedic passage".[63]

There is persuasive evidence in later Sanskrit literature, according to Doniger, that the early Indians associated the lingam icon with the male sexual organ.[64] For example, the 11th-century Kashmir text Narmamala by Kshemendra on satire and fiction writing explains his ideas on parallelism with divine lingam and human lingam in a sexual context. Various Shaiva texts, such as the Skanda Purana in section 1.8 states that all creatures have the signs of Shiva or Shakti through their lingam (male sexual organ) or pindi (female sexual organ).[64][65] However, the Sanskrit literature corpus is not consistent. A part of the literature corpus regards lingam to be sexual and the phallus of Shiva, while another group of texts does not. Sexuality in the former is inherently sacred and spiritual, while the latter emphasizes the ascetic nature of Shiva and renunciation to be spiritual symbolism of lingam. This tension between the pursuit of spirituality through householder lifestyle and the pursuit of renunciate sannyasi lifestyle is historic, reflects the different interpretations of the lingam and what lingam worship means to its devotees. It remains a continuing debate within Hinduism to this day, states Doniger.[64] To one group, it is a part of Shiva's body and symbolically saguna Shiva (he in a physical form with attributes). To the other group, it is an abstract symbol of nirguna Shiva (he in the universal Absolute Reality, formless, without attributes).[64] In Tamil Shaiva tradition, for example, the common term for lingam is kuRi or "sign, mark" which is asexual.[64] Similarly, in Lingayatism tradition, the lingam is a spiritual symbol and "was never said to have any sexual connotations", according to Doniger.[64] To some Shaivites, it symbolizes the axis of the universe.[66]

In the Dṛg-Dṛśya-Viveka (Seer & Seen), an Advaita text attributed to Adi Shankara and others and translated by Swami Nikhilananda, the Subtle body is referred to as "lingam, because it enables the Jiva or the embodied being to realise Brahman." (p. 17)[67]

The term Linga also appears in Buddhist and Jaina literature, where it means "sign, evidence" in one context, or "subtle body" with sexual connotations in another.[68][note 4]

Muslim rule[edit]

After the 11th-century invasion of the subcontinent by Islamic armies, the iconoclast Muslims considered the lingam to be idolatrous representations of the male sexual organ. They took pride in destroying as many lingams and Shiva temples as they could, reusing them to build steps for mosques, in a region stretching from Somanath (Gujarat) to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) to Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu), states Doniger.[69][70]

Orientalist literature[edit]

The colonial era Orientalists and Christian missionaries, raised in the Victorian mold where sex and sexual imagery were a taboo subject, were shocked by and were hostile to the lingam-yoni iconography and reverence they witnessed.[16][71][72] The 19th and early 20th-century colonial and missionary literature described lingam-yoni, and related theology as obscene, corrupt, licentious, hyper-sexualized, puerile, impure, demonic and a culture that had become too feminine and dissolute.[16][73][74] To the Hindus, particularly the Shaivites, these icons and ideas were the abstract, a symbol of the entirety of creation and spirituality.[16] The colonial disparagement in part triggered the opposite reaction from Bengali nationalists, who more explicitly valorised the feminine. Vivekananda called for the revival of the Mother Goddess as a feminine force, inviting his countrymen to "proclaim her to all the world with the voice of peace and benediction".[73]

According to Wendy Doniger, the terms lingam and yoni became explicitly associated with human sexual organs in the western imagination after the widely popular first Kamasutra translation by Sir Richard Burton in 1883.[75] In his translation, even though the original Sanskrit text does not use the words lingam or yoni for sexual organs, and almost always uses other terms, Burton adroitly avoided being viewed as obscene to the Victorian mindset by avoiding the use of words such as penis, vulva, vagina and other direct or indirect sexual terms in the Sanskrit text to discuss sex, sexual relationships and human sexual positions. Burton used the terms lingam and yoni instead throughout the translation.[75] This conscious and incorrect word substitution, states Doniger, thus served as an Orientalist means to "anthropologize sex, distance it, make it safe for English readers by assuring them, or pretending to assure them, that the text was not about real sexual organs, their sexual organs, but merely about the appendages of weird, dark people far away."[75] Similar Orientalist literature of the Christian missionaries and the British era, states Doniger, stripped all spiritual meanings and insisted on the Victorian vulgar interpretation only, which had "a negative effect on the self-perception that Hindus had of their own bodies" and they became "ashamed of the more sensual aspects of their own religious literature".[76] Some contemporary Hindus, states Doniger, in their passion to spiritualize Hinduism and for their Hindutva campaign have sought to sanitize the historic earthly sexual meanings, and insist on the abstract spiritual meaning only.[76]

Iconography and worship[edit]

Linga-yoni worship in different ways; Left: river, Right: temple.

The traditional lingam rituals in major Shiva temples includes offerings of flowers, grass, dried rice, fruits, leaves, water and a milk bath.[1] Priests chant hymns, while the devotees go the sanctum for a darshana followed by a clockwise circumambulation of the sanctum.[1] On the sanctum walls, typically are reliefs of Dakshinamurti, Brahma and Vishnu. Often, near the sanctum are other shrines, particularly for Shakti (Durga), Ganesha and Murugan (Kartikeya). In the Hindu tradition, special pilgrimage sites include those where natural lingams are found in the form of cylindrical rocks or ice or rocky hill. These are called Svayambhuva lingam, and about 70 of these are known on the Indian subcontinent, the most significant being one in Kashi (Varanasi) followed by Prayaga, Naimisha and Gaya.[1][77]

The historic lingam iconography has included:

  • Mukhalingam, where the lingam has the face of Shiva carved on it.[78][79] An Ekmukha lingam has just one face, Chaturmukha lingam has four faces in the cardinal directions, while a Panchamukha lingam has a total of five (the fifth is on the top) and represents Sadashiva.[80][81] Among the mukha-lingam varieties, the four face version are more common.[82]
  • Ashtottara-sata linga, where 108 miniature lingas are carved on the pujabhaga (main linga) following certain geometric principles.[83]
Lingam iconography exists in many forms, and their design are described in the Agama texts. Left: a 5th-century Mukha-linga (with face), Right: a Sahasra-linga (with 1001 carvings).
  • Sahasra linga, where 1001 miniature lingas are carved on the pujabhaga (main linga) following certain geometric principles (set in 99 vertical lines, 11 horizontal).[84]
  • Dhara linga, where lingas have five to sixty four fluted facets, with prime numbers and multiples of four particularly favored.[85]
  • Lingodbhavamurti, where Shiva is seen as emerging from within a fiery lingam.[1] On top of this icon is sometimes a relief of a swan or goose representing Brahma, and a boar at the bottom representing the Varaha avatar of Vishnu. This reflects the Shaiva legend describing a competition between Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, as to who has priority and superiority.[1]

A lingam may be made of clay (mrinmaya), metal (lohaja), precious stone (ratnaja), wood (daruja), stone (sailaja, most common), or a disposal material (kshanika).[17] The construction method, proportions and design is described in Shaiva Agama texts.[17] The lingam is typically set in the center of a pindika (also called yoni or pithas, symbolizing Shakti). A pindika may be circular, square, octagonal, hexagonal, duodecagonal, sixteen sided, alliptical, triangular or another shape.[86] Some lingams are miniaturized and they are carried on one's person, such as by Lingayats in a necklace. These are called chala-lingams.[17] The Hindu temple design manuals recommend geometric ratios for the linga, the sanctum and the various architectural features of the temple according to certain mathematical rules it considers perfect and sacred.[87] Anthropologist Christopher John Fuller states that although most sculpted images (murtis) are anthropomorphic or theriomorphic, the aniconic Shiva Linga is an important exception.[88]

According to Shaiva Siddhanta, the linga is the ideal substrate in which the worshipper should install and worship the five-faced and ten-armed Sadāśiva, the form of Shiva who is the focal divinity of that school of Shaivism.[89]

The various styles of lingam iconography are found on the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.[90][91]


File:Necklace with Shiva's Family LACMA M.85.140.jpg
A necklace with linga-containing pendant is constantly worn by the Lingayats.[92]

Lingayats, a sect of the Shaivite religious tradition in India, wear a miniaturized linga called the istalinga.[93] Initially known as Veerashaivas (heroic worshippers of Shiva), since the 18th century adherents of this faith are known as Lingayats.[94] This tradition originated in Karnataka around the 12th-century.[5][95] Lingayatism is derived from the term linga and suffix ayta.[96] The term Lingayat is based on the practice of both genders of Lingayats wearing an iṣṭaliṅga (also called karasthala-linga) contained inside a box with a necklace all the time. The istalinga is a personalized and miniature oval-shaped linga and an emblem of their faith symbolising Parashiva, the absolute reality and their spirituality.[96][97] It is viewed as a "living, moving" divinity within the Lingayat devotee. Everyday, the devotee removes this personal linga from its box, places it in left palm, offers puja and then meditates about becoming one with the linga, in his or her journey towards the atma-linga.[98]

Pilgrimage sites[edit]

An ice lingam at Amarnath in the western Himalayas forms every winter from ice dripping on the floor of a cave and freezing like a stalagmite. It is very popular with pilgrims.[99]

Left:Spatika (quartz) lingam illuminated by laser at Kadavul Temple in the United States (left); Right: Lingam in the cave at the Amarnath Temple, Kashmir.

In Kadavul Temple, a 700-pound, 3-foot-tall, naturally formed Spatika(quartz) lingam is installed. In future this crystal lingam will be housed in the Iraivan Temple. it is claimed as among the largest known spatika self formed (Swayambhu) lingams.[100][101] Hindu scripture rates crystal as the highest form of Siva lingam.[102]

Shivling, 6,543 metres (21,467 ft), is a mountain in Uttarakhand (the Garhwal region of Himalayas). It arises as a sheer pyramid above the snout of the Gangotri Glacier. The mountain resembles a Shiva lingam when viewed from certain angles, especially when travelling or trekking from Gangotri to Gomukh as part of a traditional Hindu pilgrimage.[citation needed]

A lingam is also the basis for the formation legend (and name) of the Borra Caves in Andhra Pradesh.[citation needed]

Banalinga are the lingam which are found on the bed of the Narmada river.[citation needed]

Bhuteshwar shivling is a natural rock shivling in Chhattisgarh whose height is increasing with each passing year.[103][104] Sidheshvar Nath Temple's shivling is also a natural rock lingam in Arunachal Pradesh. It is believed to be the tallest natural lingam.[citation needed]


See also[edit]


  1. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the cross is thus a sign both of Christ himself and of the faith of Christians. In ceremonial usage, making a sign of the cross may be, according to the context, an act of profession of faith, a prayer, a dedication, or a benediction."[18]
  2. This view is shared by K.R. Subramanian, who writes that some Buddhist stupas have been worshipped by Tamil Saivites because they believe it is a Shivalinga, and some ancient stupa sculptures from Amaravati and Jaggayyapeta look so much like a linga that anyone would mistake them for one.[26]
  3. This linga is likely a dedication memorial stone according to the inscription which states, "The Linga of the sons of Khajahuti, was dedicated by Nagasiri, the son of Vasethi. May the deity be pleased."[41] Bloch objected to "Linga of the sons" interpretation, stating it made no sense. Other scholars maintain that to be a cryptic epigraphic reference to "worshipped by", given the mention of "deity" later in the inscription.[42][43]
  4. Examples of this usage include the Lankavatara sutra in Buddhism, and Sukhlalji's bhasya on Tattvartha sutra in Jainism.[68]


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External links[edit]

  • for a serious discussion of the profound meanings of linga worship, see Swami Karpatri & Alain Danièlou: Le mystère du culte du linga, Ed. du Relié, Robion 1993. (Elst 1999)