What Is a Linga? Learn the Meaning of This Sacred Symbol
Anyone who has visited India or, for that matter, anyone who has wandered through an exhibition of Indian art has seen a linga. This form has been a constant presence in India for more than 5,000 years, and even today lingas can be found not only in the inner sanctum of great temples (such as Vishvanatha in Benares and the Nataraja temple in south India), but also in simple roadside shrines. They can frequently be found tucked at the base of trees throughout India.
Only the imagination limits the materials from which a linga can be fashioned. In the south of India, lingas are commonly shaped from mud for meditation or worship, and subsequently destroyed when the practice is finished. Anthills or boulders resembling lingas are often venerated by rural people. The holy site of Amarnath in Kashmir houses an ice linga formed by water dripping from the ceiling of a cave. Other lingas are found “self-born” in the holy river Narmada in central India. Lingas are often shaped from stone or fashioned out of metal, sometimes with one or more faces of Shiva carved on them. Himalayan peaks such as Mt. Kailash and Mt. Gaurishankar are considered to be lingas and have attracted pilgrims for centuries.
Why has this symbol endured for more than five millennia? What is it about this shape that exerts such a powerful influence on the hearts and minds of spiritual seekers? The simplest answer is that the linga is a universal symbol for Ultimate Reality, a visible expression of the invisible. The esoteric and complex answer, the answer found in yogic doctrine, is that the linga is not simply a visible symbol of invisible Truth; it is quite literally a manifestation of that Truth. The symbolism of the linga is the subject of theology, mythology, and spiritual psychology in Indian literature. On the other hand, the metaphysics surrounding the linga finds its expression in Vedic and tantric texts, specifically in the schools of Srividya and Shaivism, which tell us that the linga is the highest reality, the source and locus of the manifest universe. Symbolism offers justification for worshiping or meditating on the formless, transcendental Truth in a form. The metaphysics of the linga, on the other hand, goes even deeper, helping us penetrate the symbolism and gain direct experience of that which lies behind it.
The name itself, “symbol,” turns the mind away from the object and suggests to us that the linga is actually a metaphor for something else.
A Universal Symbol
According to yoga, God is transcendental Truth and lies beyond the realm of names and forms. But the mind, conditioned as it is by time, space, and causation, has no way of grasping that which is eternal and formless. So the yogis gave us the linga as a means of pointing to the transcendental Reality beyond the physical world—the formless and unchanging Truth outside the realm of the senses. In other words, the linga is a sacred diagram “of that which is unreachable for the mind and words but by whose grace all words shine.”
“Linga” is the Sanskrit word for symbol, or sign. By calling this form “linga,” the yogis set up a dynamic interplay between name and object. At the physical level, the image of a linga points to the unmanifest, causal principle contained in the object. The name itself, “symbol,” turns the mind away from the object and suggests to us that the linga is actually a metaphor for something else. A symbol thus serves as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind, carrying us to unknown realms and helping us to make sense of that uncharted territory. The linga is a particularly compelling symbol, for it can transport us to the ultimate Truth itself.
Any tangible, external object that symbolizes the Divine can be used as the focus for ritual practices. An emblem of the Divine that has been created by nature and left in its pristine state is a fine symbol for this purpose because it carries little cultural baggage. A linga that comes from a riverbed, for example, has been shaped by eons of nature’s meditative work. It enshrines the balanced and tranquil energy of nature, which in her own way brought forth this smooth, symmetrical shape. There has always been universal recognition that the linga is a means of creating a connection with the sacred. This is true not only in India, but throughout the ancient world when human beings lived closer to nature and retained more purity of heart than we do today. Many of the places considered sacred by Native Americans and by the aboriginal peoples of Australia and the South Pacific, for instance, centered around this symbol.
Lingas are most commonly made of rock, a durable, ubiquitous substance which serves to remind us that God is everywhere (even in non-sentient entities) and helps us to dismantle the wall separating human and non-human, sentient and non-sentient forms. The life-span of a linga encompasses an untold number of human lifespans, thus making us realize that Truth is unborn and enduring. Most lingas are shaped and smoothed by water, just as we ourselves are shaped and sustained by that fluid of life.
The ritualistic manner in which the linga is worshiped is also symbolic. Traditionally, it is propitiated by ingredients taken directly from nature—dirt, ash, water, and flowers—as well as by anything else the worshiper chooses. Nutritious food and poisonous herbs are equally acceptable as offerings; in the linga all diversities, conflicts, and contradictions dissolve. Engaging in the ritual of linga worship is an acknowledgment that embracing the sacred in life requires rising above all conflicts and contradictions, allowing all diversities to find their proper places.
Variations in Form
The linga assumes either a pillar-like oblong or a rounder, egg-like shape. Although all forms convey the same truth, the rounded pillar has become more popular among the general population, while the learned yogis prefer the egg-like shape which the scriptures refer to as a bindu (point). Understanding the symbolism of these two forms can give us a basic understanding of yogic and tantric doctrine and practices.
In pillar form, the linga represents the hub of the universe, from which the created world emerges and to which it eventually returns. It reminds us also of the phallus, the giver of the seed of life—the creative principle. Lingas carved from stone are often fixed in a yoni, a base shaped like a teardrop with a spout off to the side, symbolic of the female principle, the tender aspect of the creative force. Together, the linga and yoni represent the unity of the male and female aspects of life at both the cosmic and individual levels.
Much confusion exists about the significance of the linga in its pillar form because of the tendency to associate this shape with the phallus. The confusion deepens when the linga is fixed in the yoni. Some anthropologists and historians have even developed the theory that the linga was central to a form of phallic worship which, they postulate, once existed among tribal people on the Indian subcontinent. A few historians have gone so far as to refer to the indigenous people of India as “those whose God is the phallus.” The complexities of the Sanskrit language have added to the confusion by making it possible to interpret passages from the ancient texts in a way that lends credibility to these views.
The connection of the linga with the generative organ of Shiva, thus creating an association between this symbol and fertility, procreation, and erotic satisfaction, is not the scriptural view. Rather, the scriptures describe the linga as the symbol of Shiva-as-Pure-Consciousness. According to this view, Shiva is neither person nor deity; Shiva is the non-dual Truth that contains the seed of the entire universe. Vedic and tantric texts set forth a profound system of metaphysics explaining the origin and workings of the universe at the level of both macrocosm and microcosm. An understanding of this philosophical system (mentioned briefly in the Vedas and detailed in the Tantras) is critical to penetrating the mystery of the linga, which is a prerequisite to undertaking the practice of tantra and kundalini yoga.
The conjunction of linga and yoni symbolizes the metaphysical truth that Shiva and Shakti are inherent in one another—are one and the same.
According to the tantric texts, only one Truth exists which is called “Shiva”—limitless light and bliss, with no beginning and no end. And because the light is indescribable, illimitable, and formless, they called it “linga”—the form of the formless—and used a circular form to express it.
Tantric scriptures equate the linga with Purusha, pure consciousness, and the yoni with Prakriti, the creative energy of consciousness. Yoga texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, and the Samkhya Karika, as well as Shaivite texts devote many passages to a careful explanation of the oneness and inseparability of consciousness and the creative energy inherent in it. The conjunction of linga and yoni symbolizes the metaphysical truth that Shiva and Shakti are inherent in one another—are one and the same.
Only one-fourth of the linga remains submerged; the rest rises above the yoni, indicating that only a fraction of the Divine Light has become flesh. This is in harmony with Vedic metaphysics, which holds that only a quarter of Purusha is associated with matter, while three quarters remain uninvolved (Rig Veda, Purushasukta 1-4). Vedic scholars interpret this to mean that in the process of manifestation only a quarter of the energy and consciousness emitted from the primordial source was embroiled in the formation of the universe—the remaining three quarters remained uninvolved. The proportions of the linga are congruent with the hypothesis of modern scientists that 80 percent of the energy and matter emitted by the “Big Bang” is unaccounted for, and that the sum total of the universe consists of the remaining 20 percent.
Thus, the inner meaning of the Shivalinga is that there is an unmanifest male principle which is static consciousness, and an unmanifest female energy which is the creative force. When these two unmanifest forces embrace with a harmonious intent, the universe evolves in its manifest form. In symbolic terms, linga and yoni are the cosmic equivalent of procreation, the primordial principle of love, known askama tattva or iccha shakti. This is the force that impels Shiva and Shakti, linga and yoni, toward this protogenic configuration. The same process occurs in the manifest world: the principle of love draws the two lovers together and impels them toward a common goal. In the lives of those who are less evolved spiritually, this primordial principle of love (kama) is accompanied by lust (vasana), which is why many actions are motivated by sensual cravings, attachment, and lust. The yogi learns to harness the lust for limited, worldly objects in order to repose in the source of all pleasure—love itself.
The Golden Egg
The seeming duality inherent in the form of the Shivalinga is not a problem in the symbol of the ellipsoidal cosmic egg. Here, male and female aspects are united like DNA in a fertilized egg. Because the ellipse has no point of beginning or end on its rounded surface, it may be seen as the primordial form from which all forms emerge. Just as “Om” is the primordial vibration from which all other sounds emanate, so do all other forms and shapes emerge from the linga. On the rounded linga, any point could represent the eyes, head, or feet of any of the infinite forms that the Universal Being pervades. Just as form and name are inextricably intertwined, so highest Truth has acquired many names and forms.
Popular folklore, documented in the Puranas to some extent, typically relates more stories of the linga in pillar form. The exposition of the oval form, on the other hand, is undertaken by yogis and mystics whose experiences and doctrines are documented in Shaivite and Shakta tantric texts. According to these, the whole universe is a linga. The source of this universe, which is unmanifest and thus invisible, is also a linga. Here “linga” means the state of reality which cannot be described, only hinted at. To indicate this state, yogis used the terms “bindu” (a point), “prakasha” (the light), and “Shiva” (the auspicious one). This, according to yogis, is the ultimate state of Reality: intensely condensed light from which radiates the light that becomes the universe. This light contains the characteristics of its source. Thus, because the form of the primordial bindu is oval light, all that evolves from it is also oval light. This cosmic law applies to everything in the universe. Galaxies, stars, planets, and everything they contain are essentially ovals of light.
When yogis attain a state of Shiva consciousness, their experience is one of limitless light and endless bliss.
From Metaphysics to Direct Experience
When yogis attain a state of Shiva consciousness, their experience is one of limitless light and endless bliss. Inherent in this is the experience of Shakti—the Self-awareness or eternal pulsation of consciousness intrinsic to this light. Shiva and Shakti, consciousness and the vibration of consciousness, are identical—a concept that is conveyed in the term Shaktyanda (Shakti anda), “the egg of Shakti,” the grandest anda. The presiding force inherent in this primordial anda is variously known as Maheshvara, the Great Lord, or Parmashakti, the Absolute Shakti. In this context, Shakti is infinite primordial potentiality, or energy of consciousness, contained within the walls of boundless consciousness, or Shiva. In other words, Shiva is the ground on which Shakti stands, although the relationship between the two is more analogous to that of fire and heat, or sun and sunlight. Just as heat cannot be separated from fire or sunlight from the sun, the intrinsic potentiality of consciousness cannot be separated from consciousness. Just as there is no heat without fire or sunlight without sun, Shakti cannot stand apart from the ground of Shiva. Shakti and Shiva are two words for describing one single non-dual Truth from two different angles.
Just as every egg contains a yolk consisting of numberless cells, this primordial egg contains an infinite number of universes. In Vedic and tantric literature, each universe is called Brahmanda (Brahama anda), the egg of the universe. Brahma, loosely translated as “the creator,” is the presiding force of each Brahmanda.
The sheer will of the primordial Shakti initiates an outward vibration of consciousness in the primordial Shaktyanda that results in the manifestation of numberless universes. By the same token, the sheer will of Brahma, the unmanifest potential energy in each Brahmanda, also manifests as a universe containing galaxies, stars, and planets—each of which in turn is a jagadanda (jagat anda), “the egg of the world that rotates.” In the jagadanda, the linga, or light, heretofore formless and imperceptible, takes a tangible shape and can be perceived by the senses, although it retains the oval shape in which it had its source. Numberless entities issue from this egg. They take two principal forms: sentient beings (pindanda) and non-sentient entities (sthanu). Thus, according to this model of evolution, everything in the manifest world—including the human body—is a linga, the form of the formless. That is why the scriptures say, “Deho devalayh . . .” (“This body is a temple and the consciousness residing therein is Shiva.”)
The human body itself consists of numberless lingas in the form of cells, which in turn contain numberless lingas in the form of molecules. What we call evolution is only a manifestation of a fraction of those lingas contained within the primordial, infinite, unmanifest light of the Shaktyanda. Every molecule in the human body is pure light, as is every atomic and subatomic particle in the universe. All that exists is light—the linga—and within that light is only light. It is an endless stream of lingas within lingas, light within light. That is why when the yogis attained direct experience of that light they perceived that it was without beginning or end. All is boundless light consisting of numberless particles, each of which is a universe, in itself containing numberless universes. Hence yogic literature, especially literature pertaining to tantra and kundalini, depicts the human being as an oval of pure light, a vibratory field of consciousness within which the physical body floats.
In its highest sense, the purpose of yoga sadhana is to permit us to gain direct experience of this living Shivalinga which is the essence of our being. This requires learning to penetrate the physical sheath (which, due to ignorance and karmic impurities, has become dense and opaque), in order to find the light which is eternal and all-pervading. Thus, aspirants on the path of yoga learn to locate and meditate on the internal linga rather than on a form in the outer world. A common metaphor in the scriptures is that the body is a temple and each building block is a Shivalinga. Just as people do not worship the temple itself but the divinity enshrined within it, yogis turn their minds inward, enter the temple of the body, and meditate on a specific linga there as a means of attaining the state of oneness with the presiding force of that linga.
If meditation on the internal Shivalinga is possible only for those who are already “there,” then how does an aspirant reach that place?
According to kundalini yoga, the first center of consciousness is located at the base of the spine. A sleeping serpent known as mahamaya or kundalini shakti is wrapped around the linga in the center of this chakra, and until this serpent awakens, uncoils, and rises, an aspirant cannot experience the glory and brilliance of the linga residing in the first chakra. To awaken the serpent we must gain access to that linga, but this is possible only if the veil of ignorance has been lifted from consciousness and the pathway to the center of that chakra is illuminated. The source of illumination is the linga itself. In other words, as long as the sleeping serpent, mahamaya, is blocking the light of the linga, we are groping in darkness. Only when the kundalini has awakened and moved to the higher chakras can we find the doorway to the inner sanctum, meditate on the linga of pure light, and attain a state of oneness with it. That is why the scriptures say, “Shivo bhutva shivam yajeta.” (“Only after one is transformed into Shiva can one worship or meditate on Shiva.”)
If meditation on the internal Shivalinga is possible only for those who are already “there,” then how does an aspirant reach that place? This is where the external symbol comes in. Either we can find a linga made of stone or another substance and offer it our love, homage, and respect as befitting a representative of the Truth, or we can visualize that symbol in one of the centers of consciousness within our body and use it as an object of meditation.
Kundalini yoga is a purely internal meditation. It involves no imagination or visualization, but it can begin only after the mind has turned inward and found the light there. Visualizing the linga internally, however, is a means of preparing for the practice of kundalini yoga. This approach (which is for meditators who have an intellectual understanding of the dynamics of energy in the human body but who do not have direct access to this energy) trains the mind to turn inward and engenders a longing for the direct experience of that light. The practice of visualization falls somewhere between purely internal meditation and external, ritualistic practices in the sense that it requires no external object even though the primary object of focus has characteristics (such as shape and color) of an external form. The scriptures call visualization manas puja (mental worship). Because of its mixed nature, it is called mishra sadhana and is described in the tantric texts belonging to the mishra school; the external ritualistic practices are described in kaula literature; and the purely internal practices are found in the samaya texts.
Although there are numberless lingas in the human body, the concentration of consciousness in the chakras causes the linga to shine more brilliantly there, making them suitable centers for meditation. The lingas that are most commonly the focus of meditation are the swaymbhuvalinga at the root chakra, the itaralingaat the center between the eyebrows, and the banalinga at the heart center.
The root chakra is the center of the earth element and governs the primitive forces of our psyche, including hunger, thirst, and fear, as well as the dark, heavy tendencies of the mind. Meditating on this linga is difficult, for in order to reach it, even in imagination, we must confront these forces within ourselves. According to the scriptures, meditation on this linga is possible only when the aspirant has received the grace of its presiding force, known as Ganesha, the destroyer of obstacles. Although he is loving and compassionate, Ganesha’s association with the forces that surround him make his external appearance terrifying, and even the experience of receiving his grace can be devastating. This is why mostsadhakas are not able to reach this center.
Meditating at the third linga, the center between the eyebrows, is also difficult because access to this center is gained only through the grace of the guru—and finding a sadguru (an accomplished master) requires exceptionally good karma. In most cases, a meditator becomes sensitive to the itaralinga only after meditating on his or her mantra for a long time.
The linga at the heart center is the best place to start. In fact, most of the scriptures discuss only practices at this center for mental worship (manas puja). There are several methods of gaining access to the banalinga—among them are visualizing, and systematically meditating on the linga that shines there. But because none of the sources, most of which are in Sanskrit, give complete descriptions of these practices, instruction must also be received from a teacher who has learned them from the tradition.
Seekers explore a multitude of possibilities in their search for the sacred. They try to find it in their day-to-day existence, in their natural surroundings, in the sky and the space beyond, in the inner sanctum of a temple, or within their own body and mind. The mind is the main medium for this search and, as we have seen, the mind can comprehend the Divine only if it has a form. Therefore, even those who have attained the experience of transcendental Truth are bound to express it through a symbol that can be recognized and understood by others. Images of fire, such as a candle flame, as well as such images as the Star of David, the cross, and complex mandalas are dialects of the sacred language of spiritual symbolism. However, all of these symbols carry at least some religious connotation and accordingly may not be equally meaningful in all cultures and in all times and places.
But the yogis, who have no interest in the material form of the linga, devote themselves to attaining union with the inner linga—the light of transcendental Truth. For them the linga is not a symbol; it is an experience.
The symbol of the linga, on the other hand, is relatively free from cultural connotations insofar as it is a form found in nature. The linga can be understood from three different perspectives: as a material object in the external world, as a means of moving from the external to the internal, and as the Light itself. Thus, the linga can serve as a sacred symbol of the Divine for those seeking spiritual revelation in the external world—just as other symbols do. But the yogis, who have no interest in the material form of the linga, devote themselves to attaining union with the inner linga—the light of transcendental Truth. For them the linga is not a symbol; it is an experience.
Most of us are somewhere between the laity and the yogis. We are searching for a spiritual meaning in the inner world but have not yet freed ourselves from an attraction to and belief in symbols and sacred images. For us, meditation on the linga as a symbol can be a means of transcending the limitations of mind and senses in order to enter the realm which lies beyond all symbols and images.
Chris Germer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and coordinator of the Sri Premananda Center of the USA.