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The Iconographic Genesis of Shiva
The Shiva Linga - Images of Cosmic Manhood in Art and Mythology
Shiva - The Sensuous Yogi

The Iconographic Genesis of Shiva

Shiva, the Mahadeva, represents one of the three visible forms, or the functional aspects of God, namely, the creation, preservation and dissolution, that is, bringing the cosmos into existence, sustaining it and finally withdrawing it from existing. Lord Shiva represents the last of these three aspects, that is, dissolution or destruction of the cosmos. The other two aspects, the creation and the preservation, are represented respectively by Prajapati or Brahma, and Vishnu. Prajapati Brahma and Vishnu are Vedic gods. In the Rigveda, Prajapati and Brahma are mentioned as two gods, though both almost alike responsible for the act of Creation. Hence, in later Vedic literature, they merge into one entity, and are sometimes alluded to as Prajapati Brahma and sometimes as two synonymous terms alternating each other. In Puranic literature, Brahma gets pre-eminence and the term Prajapati is used only as the other name of Brahma to avoid monotonous repetition of the same nomenclature. Initially, that is, in the Rigveda, Vishnu is a subordinate type of god, but later by Puranic era, he attains the status of the Lord of the universe and the principal Vedic god.

Shiva as such, or as Mahadeva, is not alluded to in proper Vedas. The Rigveda, however, frequently mentions a brown complexioned sun-like brilliant and gold-like glowing animal-skin-wearing entity by the name of Rudra, or Ishan, who, as per the Rigvedic description, is synonymous of a violent non-Aryan jungle or tribal god capable of subduing, by his mighty arrows, even the most wild of animals. He did not hesitate even to kill human beings and sought delight in such destruction. Hence, the Rigveda is somewhat critical of his wildness and invokes him for not destroying his devotees, their ancestors, offspring, relatives and horses. It is only gradually and somewhat in simultaneity that the Rigveda softens and sophisticates him into a civil god of Aryan kind and includes him into the Vedic pantheon. The later Vedic literature identifies in Rudra the proto form of the subsequent Shiva. When Puranas perceived the formless God manifest in His triple function, which He performed as the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer, both initially and finally, as well as always, they chose Shiva to represent one of these functional aspects of Him and elevated him to the status of the Great Trinity.

Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, Only the Time-Bound Manifestations of the Timeless God

Shiva, as well as Brahma and Vishnu, do not represent God but only His functional aspects, which manifest in Creation, in sustaining the Creation and, finally, in withdrawing the Creation, which occurs after every kalpa, which is the scheduled age of each Creation. Obviously, after the Creation is withdrawn and the kalpa comes to an end, God's functional aspects too disappear and so does the Great Trinity representing them. Thus, the Trinity, with each of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu having a scheduled life-span, is the time-bound manifestation of the timeless One, that is, the Trinity disappears after its allotted life-span to re-appear when the next kalpa begins, but the Omnipresent God neither appears nor disappears because He is always there before the time began and after its scale has exhausted. In Indian cosmological tabulation, Shiva's life-span is double of the Vishnu's and Vishnu's double of the Brahma's. Brahma's life-span comprises of 120 Brahma years, which are equivalent to 300 million, 9 hundred thousand, 17 thousand and 376 years of human calendar.

Shiva Precedes Trinity-Partners

Pashupati, the Lord of Animals Mohenjo-daro (Indus Valley) circa 2000 B.C
Pashupati, the Lord of Animals
Mohenjo-daro (Indus Valley)
circa 2000 B.C

Shiva, thus different from what the Puranas proclaim, is not Brahma's creation. He rather precedes his Trinity counterparts, Brahma and Vishnu, on time scale. This pre-eminence of Shiva over others as much reflects in their related theological chronology and availability of their iconic representations in visual arts. Brahma and Vishnu have their roots in the Vedas, and not before. Shiva has a pre-Vedic origin, as his worship cult seems to have been in vogue amongst the Indus dwellers, even around 3000 B. C. The excavations of various archaeological sites in the Indus valley reveal two sets of archaeological finds that suggest the prevalence of the cult of worshipping both, his anthropomorphic as well as symbolic representations. This excavated material includes a number of terracotta seals representing a yogi icon and the phallus type baked clay objects, obviously the votive lings, suggestive of some kind of phallus-worship cult of the non-Aryan settlers of the Indus cities. Seated in meditative posture, the stern looking Yogi figure wears a typical head-dress made of buffalo horns and is surrounded by various animal icons, lion, elephant, buffalo-type bull, rhinoceros etc. and the bird forms above.

In some seals, this Yogi figure consists of three heads. That the symbolic phallus icons and the anthropomorphic representations relate to one and the same entity becomes obvious from the iconographic thrust, which defines the Yogi form. One of the most significant cardinals of this Yogi iconography, and perhaps more so than others, is its well erect and emphatically exposed phallus, similar to the Urddh-ling Shiva icons, a cult of Shiva, which dominated Shaivite sculptural art for centuries from around the period of Kushanas. These finds, datable to the period from 3000 B. C. to 1000 B. C. or even later, show the continuity of such worship cult till much after the Vedic era. This is further affirmed by the Rigveda itself. The Rigveda at least twice talks of the phallus worshipping non-Aryan tribes and vehemently condemns the practice.

Shiva in Later Vedic Cult and in The Mahabharata

Bhava Shiva (A Particularly Beneficent Aspect)
Bhava Shiva (A Particularly Beneficent Aspect)






The Vedas, in their later cult, admit into Vedic pantheon the jatadhari holy Shiva with all his manifestations, namely the bow and arrows carrying archer Sharva, the all pervading Bhava, the benevolent Shambhu and the animal-skin wearer Krittivasanah, but do not approve his phallus worship.







Panchanana or Five-Headed Shiva
Panchanana or Five-Headed Shiva


In Brahmanical order, Shvetashvara Upanishad is perhaps the earliest treatise that refers, though not directly, to this aspect of Shiva-worship with some degree of reverence when it calls him the Lord of all yonis, that is, the commander of genital faculties of all living ones. It is, however, in the Mahabharata that his phallus worship has been directly alluded to. The Mahabharata widely follows the Indus perception of Shiva. The Mahabharata, in tune with the Indus Shiva, perceives him as Trishira, or Chaturmukha, that is, having three heads, or four, as Digvasas, that is, without cloth, as Urddh-ling, that is, with upward erect phallus, and as yogadhyaksha, that is, the Lord of Yoga. The Mahabharata goes a little ahead and conceived him also as five headed, four facing the four directions and fifth looking upwards, that is the guardian of the entire cosmos. It is from this five headed Shiva concept that his Sadashiva form seems to have evolved, as these five heads also symbolize five powers- para, adi, icchha, jnana and kriya, that is, all that is perishable, all that is timeless, and the desire, knowledge and act, of which the entire creation comprise.

Vrishavahana Shiva and Parvati
Vrishavahana Shiva and Parvati






Mahabharata's epithet of Pashupati for Shiva is also an adherence to the Indus iconography of Shiva image. The Mahabharata perceives him further as Shardularupa, Vyalarupa and in many other animal forms and as Vrishvaha, or Vrishvahan.







Vishnu as Hayagriva
Vishnu as Hayagriva







The Skand Purana numbers his animal heads as seven, two of which, namely that of the goat and the horse, he had given respectively to Brahma and Vishnu.






Five Headed Hanuman
Five Headed Hanuman

Thus again the number of heads comes to the same five as perceived in the Mahabharata. In visual arts, this Mahabharata iconic vision of Shiva has been widely followed. Shiva's Trishira, Chaturmukha, Yogi, Pashupati, Vrishvaha and Urddh-ling images, whatever their medium, the stone, canvas, metals and so on, are quite in vogue in Indian arts. The animal headed Shiva is a rarity. However, in visual arts, which allow greater scope for imagination to operate, such as painting, Shiva has been depicted sometimes with multiple animal heads, although to avoid inclusion of his human face these heads are planted on the form of Hanuman, who is Shiva's incarnation. Such Hanuman forms have heads of animals that have attained mythical heights, say, the horse-headed god Hayagriva, the boar-headed Varah, the great eagle Garuda, and the jungle monarch lion or Simha. Such five-headed and ten-armed figures not only carry most of Shiva's attributes in these hands but such figures also stand upon the form of Apasamara, one of the most characteristic features of Shiva iconography. This iconographic perception defines, on one hand, Shiva as Pashupati, the lord of animals, and on the other as containing within him the entire animal world.



Shiva Linga Assembly with Dripping Vase for Milk
Shiva Linga Assembly with Dripping Vase for Milk

Shiva's Pre-Aryan Origin

Obviously, Shiva had a pre-Aryan origin but where, when and how he came into being, or say into human perception, is not known. This much is, however, certain that a god like him was the presiding deity of the Indus inhabitants and he was worshipped as both, iconically as well as symbolically, that is, as Pashupati and Mahayogi and as Ling.

This in all certainties seems to the initial form of Shiva. May be, the Indus inhabitants shared their god with West Asian settlers who worshipped a similar god Teshav. Teshav, too, was a bull riding deity like Vrishvaha Shiva. He also carried, like Shiva, a trident, pinakin, the bow, arrows, which shot as lightening, danda, the rod, parashu, the axe, and so on. Incidentally, Teshav's consort was also named Maa and was worshipped as Jaganmata, that is, the world mother. Her name so much corresponds with Shiva's consort Uma who too is worshipped as Jagat-janani, the mother of the world. Jaganmata sounds so much like Indus Mother Goddess. Both, Shiva's consort Uma and Teshav's consort Maa rode a lion. Images of Jaganmata, recovered in excavations, have honeybees hovering around her face. One of the Uma's forms so closely resembles with this honeybee hovering image of Maa. Markandeya Purana alludes to Uma's relation with honeybees, or bhramaris, when it calls her as Bhramaridevi. May be Shiva's consort had some prior tradition of her association with honeybees. It is for such reasons that the known historian Roy Chowdhari, in his Studies in Indian Antiquities, emphatically holds that Rudra-Shiva had some kind of genetic relationship with various gods whose images have been recovered from Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Indus Valley.

Shiva in Vedic Pantheon

Panchamukha Shiva
Panchamukha Shiva

Whatever Shiva's origin, the pre-Aryan or from Brahma's frown, as claims the subsequent Puranic tradition, the all assimilating Aryan culture and Vedic religious cult elevated him into its own Order and placed him always on par with its other two great gods, Vishnu and Brahma, and sometimes even above them.

Later Vedic literature invested him with various attributes and details of his person. He has been conceived as thousand eyed, animal skin clad and as possessed of long hair braided into a crown-like shape, the jatamukuta, blue neck, black abdomen, blood-red back and as containing in him all medicinal herbs and drugs, that is, possessed of the power to redeem every one of all kinds of ailments and the cycle of birth and death. Thus, Vedas perceived him initially as the violent jungle god of non-Aryan kind but later they discovered the other aspect of his being, that is, the well meaning benevolent Shiva. It was this perception of Shiva that seems to have prevailed all after and defined his all subsequent forms, manifestations and visions. Brahmans and Upanishads identify this Vedic perception as Shiva's two aspects, one that of the destroyer and the other of the auspicious benevolent divinity. The Mahabharata identified these two aspects as Ghora and Shiva. Of these Ghora has been equated with fire and Shiva, also mentioned as Maheshvara, has been vested with the deeply spiritual and auspicious saumyarupa, that is, serene and sublime divine being.

Shiva in Myths and Legends

In the course of time, the tradition of faith, both oral and scriptural, and the folk and urbanized, wove around Shiva hundreds of myths and legends and invested his image and visual forms with numerous new dimensions and meaning. The violent jungle god of Vedas and the grim looking horn wearing Yogi of Indus emerges upon the altar of the believing ones, on painter's canvas, in metal casters' mould and in the strokes of hammer and chisel, as the harmless Bholanath, the innocence Lord and the good incarnate, as the supreme auspice, the most formidable of divine powers, the paramount lover and the holiest model of the Vedic family cult. The term Shiva becomes synonymous of the 'auspicious', good and well being and in him alone, India's all-time maxim, 'Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram', that is, he alone is truthful, benevolent and beautiful, finds its true meaning. In his context, love becomes a divine phenomenon and family the holiest institution. He never codifies his conduct nor sets it to any established rule, but he is all the way the most devoted husband, who passionately loves his consort, and a unique father. He marries Sati, the daughter of Brahma's son Daksha-Prajapati against her father's wishes. Daksha organizes a great yajna and to slight Shiva does not invite him.

Virabhadra, Shiva's Most Trusted Guard
Virabhadra, Shiva's Most Trusted Guard




Sati, in hope to rectify her father's error, goes to attend the yajna, though Shiva does not approve it. Instead of correcting himself, Daksha humiliates Sati also for marrying a tribal brute. Sati, unable to bear her husband's insult by her father, ends her life by immolating herself into yajna-fire. The outraged Shiva, who madly loved Sati, longed to avenge Daksha's act and created out of his frowns Virabhadra, a young warrior endowed with all of Shiva's powers to destroy Daksha's yajna.





Shiva and Family
Shiva and Family



After Virabhadra has destroyed the yajna, entire yajna-bhumi and the capital of Daksha, Shiva retires to forest and wanders in wilderness for thousands of years till Uma, the daughter of Himalaya, and hence also known as Parvati, that is, one born of the Parvata, or mountain, is able to win his love by her long rigorous penance. This time he has in Uma, or Parvati, not a mere consort he loved madly but also the most accomplished woman possessed of paramount beauty, the most caring and devoted wife and as much loving mother. To complete the holy family, they have, or have been conceived with, five sons, two, Karttikeya and Ganesh, the real ones, and three, Vanasura, Virabhadra and Nandin, the adopted ones, though none of the five were born of his consort's womb. Ganesh was born of Parvati's body elements and Karttikeya those of Shiva.



Brahma Chastised and Shiva's Repentance

Shiva, the Supreme Beggar (Bhikshatanamurti) Malla Dynasty, Nepal. 16th century Copper (Height 9
Shiva, the Supreme Beggar (Bhikshatanamurti)
Malla Dynasty, Nepal. 16th century Copper (Height 9")

Indian mythology accounts how Brahma, the creator of all beings and all things, was fascinated by the beauty of his own created Sarasvati, and thereby his daughter. To escape her father's notice, Sarasvati turned herself into a female deer. But Brahma did not fail to take note of it and converted himself into a male deer and began chasing her to have sex with her. The moral being as Shiva was, he did not approve a father molesting his own daughter. He did not fail to notice this immorality of the deer turned Brahma when he saw him chasing Sarasvati disguised as she-deer and to chastise him, he, the great archer as he was, shot at Brahma, the male deer. To save himself from Shiva's arrows Brahma returned to his real form but not before he had incurred some loss. He had lost one of his five heads. Whatever Brahma's immorality, Shiva's act amounted to Brahma-hatya, the sin of killing a Brahmin. As the related legend has it, the sin of the Brahma-hatya rose from where Brahma's head fell and stuck to his wrists. Failing to free himself of it, Shiva sought advice and was suggested to beg and live on begging as repentance till the Brahma-hatya fell down and freed him from its clutches. With the kapal, the skull made of Brahma's dissected head, in his hand, Shiva moved to the Oak Forest and wandered there for many thousand years. Ultimately, the Brahma-hatya separated from his body and fell down on earth. It was thus that his Mahabhikshuka and Kapalin forms evolved.

The Curse of Shiva
The Curse of Shiva

Another tradition has it differently. Deer turned Sarasvati ran to save herself from Brahma and Brahma to save himself from Shiva's arrows hid in the sky amidst planets and yet lie hidden as two stars. Brahma's fifth head was removed, according to this legend, for a different reason. Brahma and Vishnu often claimed their relative priority over the other. Once they set to settle it and decided that whosoever first discovered the end of Shiva's Jyotirling would be acknowledged as his superior by the other.

The Jyotirling descended deep below the earth and rose above into sky and both ends were unfathomable. Brahma proceeded upwards and Vishnu downward but both ends were far from their reach. Brahma, however, connived with a Champaka or Ketaki flower and using it as witness claimed to have reached his end of the Jyotirling. Annoyed by Brahma's falsehood Shiva appeared bursting the Jyotirling and to chastise Brahma for his lie removed Brahma's fifth head by the nail of his thumb.

Shiva, the Bholanath in the Real Sense of the Term

The Emergence of the Ganga on the Earth
The Emergence of the Ganga on the Earth

As he was a moral being, so he was simple, innocent, generous, benevolent and easily manageable, and hence, even the wicked ones often won his favor and boons of invincible powers and sometimes used them even against him. He, however, as readily punished them when he knew their designs and intentions. Ganga was mad in love for him and wished to unite with him by whatever mean, fair or fowl. When Bhagiratha did rigorous penance to bring Ganga from heaven to the earth for his ancestors' death rituals and redemption, Ganga designed to fulfill her long cherished desire of reaching Shiva. She appeared before Bhagiratha and agreed to emerge on the earth but warned at the same time that her current, unless Shiva took her on his head, would cleave the earth. Bhagiratha underwent another round of penance, pleased Shiva and got his prayer granted. But, when Ganga landed on his head and showed her supremacy, Shaiva kept her arrested into his hair till she herself prayed him to let her be released. For long containing Ganga into his hair, Shiva becomes known as Gangadhara Shiva.



Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash
Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash

It was the same with Jalandara, who was caused by Shiva himself. Shiva had opened his third eye for punishing Indra but on Brahispati's intervention let the fire emitting from it fall into the ocean. Out of this fire and from ocean's womb rose a male child. As he rose from jala, the water, he was named Jalandara. Later, when he grew into a gold-like glowing youth, he was married to the daughter of Kalanemi, the founder-father of demon clans. Jalandara was now exceptionally powerful and wished to drive out Indra and his crew from Indraloka. Indra prayed Brahma for help but he was helpless against his might. Vishnu declined to act against him, as, being ocean born, he considered him his brother-in-law. Finally, the great sage Narad incited Jalandara to obtain Parvati, the most beautiful woman in all three worlds, and thus put him against Shiva, as he knew that Shiva alone could destroy him. Arrogant Jalandara challenged Shiva to hand him over his consort and in the process became victim of Shiva's wrath and got killed. Something of the similar kind happened in the case of Ravana, the king of Lanka. Pleased by his penance Shiva blessed him with the boon of immortality. This bred in Ravana vanity and arrogance. This vain and arrogant Lanka ruler wished to have Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva, shifted to Lanka. He went to Kailash and to uproot it began shaking it. His act of uprooting it sent tremors across the Mountain. Shiva perceived Ravana's arrogance and was annoyed. To punish Ravana he pressed the Mountain by the thumb of his foot, but before it crushed Ravana, he prayed for Lord's mercy and the compassionate Lord forgave him. Out of this compassionate nature of Shiva there emerged his Ravananugraha-murti, that is, the form of him who was kind to Ravana.


Shiva in Saumya and Raudra-rupas

The Dance of Shiva
The Dance of Shiva



Thus, Shiva's divine perception as well as iconic visualization developed into two directions, one growing out of his serene sublime benevolent Saumyarupa and the other out of his awe-striking Raudra-rupa. Even in his Saumyarupa, contrary to his Vaishnava counterparts, that is, Vishnu, Brahma or even Indra, whom Puranas define using feudal terms and iconography, Shiva is a simpler being, an amalgam of both, the Raudra and the Saumya rupas. In both aspects, jatamukuta is his crown, elephant hide his cloak, lion skin his loincloth, snakes his necklace, yajnopavita and other ornaments, bhang his favored drink and the shade of a roadside tree his castle. He is delighted in dance and dances for both, to create as well as to destroy, and in lasya as well as in Tandava and his Tandava is the Anand-tandava as it aims at re-creating and setting the cycle of creation-destruction-and recreation in motion.





He assists Devas, the gods, in their exploits and battles against demons but unlike them and always differently and in mightier way. Both, the gods and the demons, wish to be immortalized and for obtaining the immortalizing nectar join hands to churn ocean, which contained such nectar. But before the ocean yields nectar, there emerges from it the all-annihilating venom. Even by its vapors it begins to suffocate the entire creation. All, gods and demons, flee to save their lives leaving the creation to its destiny. Shiva comes to rescue. He deposits the venom into his throat and saves the creation from its devastating effect. Stored perpetually in the throat, the venom renders it blue and gives Shiva yet another name of Neelakantha, that is, the blue throated one. It was in consideration to such exploits that in subsequent days the Vaishnavites and Shaivites were seen with daggers-drawn on the question of the pre-eminence of their respective gods. Ultimately the wise ones of both sects had to discover for the votive images the Harihara form, which combined Hari and Hara, that is, Vishnu and Shiva, into one sanctum image and inspired sectarian unity.



In his purer Raudra-rupa, besides what the Vedas and Puranas perceived in it, these aspects farther expand. He is now perceived as Bhairava, Kapalika, Kalabhairava, Mahakala and in similar other terrific forms. He is the presiding deity of cremation ground, which is his loving abode. He rejoices dancing around a burning pyre and as much upon a dead body. The dark nights, when howls of jackals, wolves and other ignominious animals echoed, are his chosen hours to operate. These jackals and other animals living on human flesh are, otherwise too, his best companions. Bhairava wears around his neck the garland of human skulls and around his waist the girdle of dismembered human hands. Now, besides snake ornaments, scorpions make his earrings and ghostly spirits dance around him. The human skull is his cup and ashes of a burnt corpse his talc, with which he smears and adorns his body. In ritual worship, wine and flesh are his chosen offerings.










In these terrific forms of Shiva Kali, Smashan-Kali, Mahakali, Chhinnamasta, Chamunda, Vagulamukhi etc. are his female counterparts, perceived in Puranas often as his consorts.







Raga Bhairava
Raga Bhairava





Bhairava, howsoever terrific his form, has his softer aspects when seated under a canopy or riding his Nandin he represents such beautiful musical modes as the Raga Bhairava, or Raga Kedara.








References and Further Reading

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr. Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.

The Shiva Linga - Images of Cosmic Manhood in Art and Mythology

The Amours of Shiva Parvati




The renowned sage Bhrigu once ventured to the abode of Lord Shiva, wanting to consult him on an important spiritual matter. On reaching, he knocked the door of Shiva's residence. There was no reply. He knocked again, this time a little louder. No avail. The knocking turned to pounding and then to a desperate beating. Finally Shiva emerged, taking his own time. He had his wife Parvati on his left arm.






A Resource for Obtaining a Husband like Lord Shiva

Obviously, the Great Lord had thought it fit to first complete his lovemaking with the goddess, rather than immediately divert his attention to the venerated ascetic. Incensed at the treatment meted out to him, the sage cursed Shiva that henceforth, since he was so fond of making love, he would be worshipped in the image of his organ of generation, rather than his anthropomorphic representation. Thus, to this day, Shiva is worshipped in the form of the male organ of procreation, often alone, and frequently conjoined with the corresponding female organ, which is sculpted as a receptacle to receive Shiva's seed.



Mother and Child


This representation of Shiva is known as the lingam. The word lingam literally means a 'sign' or distinguishing mark. Thus says the Linga Purana: "The distinctive sign by which one can recognize the nature of something is called lingam."

There are variations on the birth of this symbol of Lord Shiva, some of which ascribe an esoteric and abstract origin to it. For example when Shiva is visualized as the intangible primordial Creative Power, the lingam is said to be his sign (symbol) which can be worshipped by his followers, who require a concrete entity to focus their prayers on. This stream of thought however does not negate the phallic connotations of the lingam. Its literal meaning as a distinguishing mark links these two interpretations. Consider a newborn male child. What is the sign which distinguishes its sex?

Thus, the phallus is the lingam, the symbol of Shiva's manhood, and of which the human organ is just a microcosmic reflection.


The Curse of ShivaAnother instructive legend describes why the lingam is believed to be one of the most potent emblems in Hindu ideals. It all started with Brahma and Vishnu, who were arguing over their relative supremacy. Their vain arguments were interrupted by a superluminous glow from a strange and blazing pillar, its shape reminiscent of the linga. Both of them sped towards this indescribable flaming light, which grew before their eyes into infinity, piercing the earth and extending through the heavens. Overwhelmed and terrified by the unfathomable vision, the two gods decided to seek the beginning and end of this burning immensity. Brahma taking the form of a swan flew upwards, and Vishnu dove down acquiring the shape of a boar. Both of the gods however, could not fathom the extent of this fiery column at either end, and returned exhausted and bewildered to the level they had started from. At that moment, the central part of the pillar split open and Shiva revealed himself in his full glory. Overawed, both Brahma and Vishnu bowed before him. Thunderous laughter, or the sound of AUM, issued from the pillar, filling the sky.

Primarily, the glowing, flaming linga was a pillar of fire, connecting heaven and earth. It had no end and no beginning, but it had direction, upwards, as does the earthly fire. In metaphysical terms, it was (is), the vertical axis which both holds apart and joins heaven and earth, dividing and uniting them at the same time, an apt symbol of cosmic integrity. Like the Tree of Life, it is both the foundation and support that ensures equilibrium between heaven and earth.

In Vedic hymns, Rudra (an epithet for Shiva) is identified with Agni, who in these sacred texts is deified as the carrier of the sacrificial offerings to the gods for whom they are intended. Hence, Agni is the mediator between men and gods, and acts as a metaphysical bridge between the two, just like the cosmic linga. A pertinent observation here is that every creative process is accompanied by the generation of heat. Indeed the sexual act is nothing but the offering of the seed of life into the sacred fire of love. Hence, Agni, the God of Fire, is eminently suited as a metaphoric emblem of the tejas (creative heat) of Shiva, both metaphysically and physically.

A typical Shaivite shrine has dharapatra above the linga, with a serpent parasol behind.
A typical Shaivite shrine has dharapatra above the linga, with a serpent parasol behind.

In this context it is interesting to note that in temples where the linga is worshipped, there is often a conical pot (Skt. Dharapatra), kept hanging over it. At the bottom of this vessel is a small hole, from which water drips continuously. The idea is to cool the 'fiery' linga. In the shrine, Shiva is eternally in embrace of the goddess. By entering the sacred enclosure we are, in a sense, interrupting his amours. Thus water is poured to stifle the hotheaded god's temper. Shiva is Bhairava (quick-tempered), but he is also Ashutosh (One who calms down quickly). Indeed, a devotee needs to calm his god before asking for favors.

Another description of the origin of the lingam gives a more sensuous portrayal. According to this view, there once lived in a forest, a group of hermits with their wives. At some point of time, Shiva ventured their way, resplendent in his naked glory. The virtuous wives, the very epitomes of chastity, lost all their moral qualms, and went berserk with desire at the sight of his tempting body. In addition to their restraint, they also shed their inhibitions, ornaments, and clothes, and embraced this naked stranger in a wild, uncontrolled frenzy.

Mother Earth Pacifies Shiva's Fiery LingaIn one version, the forest sages gave a similar curse to Shiva as Bhrigu above. A second source says that naturally angered by this unabashed display of passion by their better halves, they snatched out Shiva's phallus and threw it on the ground. In a sacred twist to the tale, it is believed that it broke into twelve pieces when it struck the earth, and at each of the spots a pilgrimage center sprung up. These twelve sacred sites are today known as the 'Twelve Jyotirlingas,' and are important destinations in the itinerary of a Shaivite pilgrim. The word jyotirlinga itself means a 'linga of light,' thus further cementing the association of Shiva's phallus with the cosmic pillar of light.

Yet another legend says that the severed linga of Shiva proved to be proverbially too hot to handle. Falling to the ground, it did not come to rest, but moved about, burning anything and everything that came in its way. Even the combined efforts of all the gods could not restrain its fierce fieriness. Finally it was Mother Earth, whom the linga penetrated, who managed to quench it inside her womb.

Nepal: Ithyphallic Shiva, 17th Century, Kathmandu.
Nepal: Ithyphallic Shiva, 17th Century, Kathmandu.






In this regard it must also be stressed here that though Shiva is visualized as an ithyphallic deity, his true message is not a licence to licentiousness.







The Sacred Lingam of ShivaAccording to Agehananda Bharati, Shiva's erect organ connotes the very opposite in this context. It stands for 'seminal retention,' and represents complete yogic control of the senses. Shiva's linga is always vertical, pointing upwards as the phallus of an accomplished yogi, with the semen (Sanskrit. virya) rising up, rather than discharging itself.

Here a parallel is drawn with the uncoiled energy of kundalini, which rises and climbs the length of its path. Indeed the vertical is the direction of the sacred; it is a symbol of ascent, pointing to heaven and transcendent regions. The spermatozoid substance when reabsorbed through sexual abstinence, nourishes the cerebral matter. Rising, according to yogic formula, through the subtle channels flanking the backbone, it renders the intellectual faculties more acute. The Yogi perceives sexual energy as though it were coiled up at the base of the spine, which is why it is called kundalini (coiled) and likened to a sleeping snake. When, by means of mental concentration, it awakens and unwinds its coils, it rises like a column of fire toward the zenith, toward the top of the skull and pierces it to reach the transcendent worlds. Shiva's liberated phallus represents this illuminating power rising heavenward beyond the material world. Thus is the linga likened to a pillar of light, guiding us to true knowledge.

The Two Images of Shiva

Images of Shiva are of two kinds: iconic (anthropomorphic) and aniconic. The former represents Shiva as a human being while the latter envisages an abstract origin for him. In this manner is Shiva different from other deities. The images of all other deities bestow only sensuous enjoyment since they are invariably represented in an anthropomorphic form, appealing solely to the sense organs. But Shiva grants both enjoyment and spiritual release. As an icon, he has the body of man, but in his aniconic form he is visualized as the cosmic pillar. Yet this pillar also evokes his phallus. As an abstract shape, the pillar symbolizes a purely conceptual reality that cannot be sensed in material terms. Visually however, the shape of the cylindrical pillar with a rounded top resembles that of the phallus. Also when the time came for Shiva to reveal himself to both Brahma and Vishnu, he did so in the form of a linga. Hence the linga is an object of the greatest sanctity, more sacred than any anthropomorphic image of Shiva. Not surprisingly thus, the innermost sanctuary of all Shiva temples is reserved for the linga, while the outer precincts of the sacred architecture may show him in his human form. Indeed, though his iconic images abound, no such image ever occupies the center of attention in a Shiva temple, this honor being reserved exclusively for his linga.

According to Stella Kramrisch, the linga of Shiva has three levels of signification, these are:

1). As a sign of Shiva: This is evident in the literary meaning of the word 'linga,' and also in the fact that the linga fell from Shiva's own body. Indeed, God resides in whatever is part of god.

2). The Linga as Phallus: This is depicted in the tale of the curse of sage Bhrigu, and Shiva's violation of the chaste wives of the ascetics in the forest.

3). The Linga as made up of cosmic substance: Established in the tale of the rivalry of Brahma and Vishnu.

In a different three-fold division, it is believed that the linga contains within itself all the three divinities making up the Indian trinity of Supreme Godhead, namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma abides in the lower part that is hidden inside the earth. Vishnu occupies the middle portion of the linga that is covered by the pedestal, and finally there is Shiva, in the top portion that is visible above the pedestal.

The Shiva portion (Rudra-bhaga) is also known as 'puja-ansha,' or the part of the linga that is to be worshipped. The Vishnu part is identified with Devi ('yonis tu jagad-dhatri Vishnu-svarupini). The Rudra-bhaga is said to be masculine, Vishnu part feminine, and the Brahma part neuter. There is a logical framework behind this identification. Shiva's masculinity is obvious because of his phallic connotations, while Vishnu is often visualized as a woman in ancient mythology. This has its origin in the incident, when to deprive the demons of the nectar of immortality, Vishnu took on the form of a woman, aptly named Mohini (one who bewitches). Lastly Brahma, as the creator, represents that primordial unmanifest state which precedes all creation. In this archetypal state there is no perceptible duality, and no distinction of positive and negative forces. Only when there is a tendency to create does the first spark of duality appear in this undifferentiated stratum. This duality has the character of complementary poles of attraction, which is eventually manifested in the whole of creation by male and female characteristics. Hence Brahma, by virtue of preceding the duality inherent in creation, is non-dual, neither male, nor female.

The Sensuous Path to BlissMost commonly, in the sanctuaries where it is worshipped, the lingam is represented surrounded by the female organ of generation, the yoni. The yoni grasps the lingam, and indeed it is only when the phallus, the giver of semen, is surrounded by the yoni that procreation can take place. From the relation of linga and yoni, the whole world arises. Everything therefore bears the signature of the linga and the yoni. Each individual linga that enters a womb and procreates is a harbinger of divinity, and engaging in a sacred act.

Brahma has for his cognizance, the lotus. For Vishnu it is the discus; and Indra has his thunderbolt. But we ordinary mortals do not carry any of the distinguishing characteristics of these gods. On the other hand, each of us does have either a linga or a womb. Hence all creatures of this world are but a part of the composite image of the Shiva linga, grasped by the womb of the goddess.

Since the linga is shown to encompass the trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and also all creatures of the earth, it is safely logical to say that those ancient venerables who conceived of this awesome symbol were right in deducing that the entire living world, nay the entire universe, is a part of the lingam of Shiva.

Worship of the Linga

Shiva Linga




The sect of Shiva worshippers known as Lingayats are distinguishable by the miniature linga they wear on their bodies throughout their lives. It is kept in a silver receptacle hung around the neck, and is believed to act both as a protective talisman and an amulet to defeat negative influences.





Female Lingayat Virashaiva
Female Lingayat Virashaiva or layperson
(linga banajiga) wearing a silver lingam casket (ayigalu) in modified egg form (gundgurdgi).
Lingam caskets are also worn by men and
women on the left arm or by a
Lingayat Jangam priest on the top of the head
under a cloth cap.






The Lingayata's are a unique community who do not believe in the caste system, and are known for their undiscriminating attitude towards all. Not surprisingly, a Lingayat woman menstruating continues to keep the linga on her body near her heart. This is in contrast to orthodox thought where women traditionally do not associate themselves with sacred imagery during their periods.






Shiva lingam with pilgrim's offerings.
Shiva lingam with pilgrim's offerings.





The linga is indeed a great equalizer. Any ordinary devotee will testify to this who has seen worshippers, regardless of sex, caste, or creed, washing and pouring generous libations on the linga, while simultaneously caressing it intimately. Also, the linga is always installed at the ground level, while other anthropomorphic deities remain established at a height, beyond the reach of the ordinary worshipper.





Ragini Bhairavi




The linga is not just the organ of generation, but a sign of the progenitor and the essence of cosmic manhood manifested in the microcosm. By worshipping it we are not merely deifying a physical organ, but recognizing a form that is both eternal and universal.







References and Further Reading

This article by Nitin Kumar

Shiva - The Sensuous Yogi

Nitin Kumar

There once dwelt in a dense forest a group of hermits engaged in the most difficult of austerities. The hermitage had a large number of knowledgeable and mighty sages, but they were for the most part ritualists, more involved in the actual process rather than appreciating the symbolic significance behind the liturgies they performed.

Lord Shiva in his role of an ascetic mendicant once approached this group of recluses to beg for alms. The force of Shiva's tapas or meditations glowed forth form his auric body. Combined with the spectacular flicker in his eyes, it presented him as extraordinarily handsome. This comely young ascetic, his naked body smeared with ashes, exerted a powerful influence upon the womenfolk of the hermitage. The wives and daughters of the sages rushed out to greet the naked yogi. The hermits were utterly shocked at the sight of this unclad monk who drove their well-born wives and mothers to a demented level of desire. The women came with offerings of fruits and flowers. When they approached Shiva the sensuous yogi, they shed all restraint, taking hold of his hands, pleading for his attentions. They shed away their inhibitions, their ornaments, their clothes, and embraced the naked stranger with the skull in his hands.

Shiva LingThe saints were left speechless. Their years of solitude and penance and the hard monastic life were all repudiated by the inexplicable aberrations of their noble wives. Confused, pained, bewildered and also very angry, the sages asked the stranger for his name and identity. Shiva greeted their queries with a silence. Driven to a level of frenzy the same as their chaste women, these sages in their uncontrolled outrage tore off Shiva's organ of generation from his body. But Shiva, the first amongst yogis, remained supremely unaffected both by the women's adoration and the sages' anger.

As soon as Shiva's organ fell to the ground it assumed a gigantic proportion, making everyone aware of the divine status of this handsome ascetic. Thus is said to have originated the emblematic worship of Shiva's organ, popularly known as the Shiva linga.

Celestial Seeks Itself In SensuousThe rapture of love, the moment of euphoria in which we forget everything else (reason, wisdom, prudence, social rules, human interests etc), is but an image of the mystical bliss. The lover ceases to be himself and becomes one with the object of his/her desire. Indeed, for an instant, he/she ceases to exist as an individual, merging with the other being in totality. The sole reality at that defining moment is the voluptuousness of desire that unites them: "Just as in the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the entire world, all that exists within himself and without, so in union with the Being of knowledge, he no longer knows anything, either within or without" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.3.21).

Concocting BhangFor an instant, one achieves one's true goal, forgets one's own interests, ambitions, problems, and duties, and participates in that feeling of bliss that is one's true and immortal nature. Mystical rapture is a marvelous feeling of pleasure, similar to the effect produced by bhang, the Indian hemp and favorite drink of Shiva.

In order to be genuine, love and rapture of pleasure must be absolutely irrational. They must not be "useful," "normal," or according to law." They must not be a mere procreative act used to beget children for the continuance of our house, to look after us and defend our property. They must not be the outcome of marriage, which stabilizes our social position and represents a communion of interests. True love must be wholly useless and disinterested, far from any idea of family, progeny, or social order. Only then it is pure, true love. This is why the mystical poets sing of illicit love, the love of what does not belong to you (parakiya) and not of what you already possess (svakiya). Loving a wife, or someone who belongs to us, is part of what binds us to the world of forms and not of what can free us from it. According to Alain Danielou, only adulterous, abnormal love can be considered pure and truly free from all ties, and only it can give us some idea of the mystic experience - it is absurd, disinterested, and destructive of all that is human.

Thus we should not wonder at the fact that representations of human love - the search for voluptuous pleasure - recognize none of the limits that social ethics wish to impose.

Hence the conduct of the virtuous ladies in the hermitage though shocking at first sight, is perfectly understandable from the above viewpoint. In fact the story also brings our attention to the fact that these women were more spiritually advanced than their men folk, who were engaged in endless itineraries of rituals whose symbolic significance they were unable to fathom and were thus far away from the true import of these spiritual pratices. The ladies on the other hand were more intuitively fine tuned to appreciate the true nature of physical desire, sprung naturally from their archetypal inner being and in harmony with their primordial nature uncontaminated by man made constructs, including both social and moral.

The canonical iconography of Shiva further shows him with certain characteristic attributes which emphasize his sensuous nature, while retaining his essentially yogic profile. Some of these traits making up the character and personality of Shiva are:

The Dance of Shiva

It is said that man danced before he spoke. He certainly danced before he painted and sculpted reliefs on his walls. All cultures of the world have given dance a ritual status before any formal ritual or liturgy was codified in texts, or recreated through relief or paint.

The Dancer



Yoga, like dance, is much more than a mere physical exercise. It is a holistic way of relating to the body that involves an increasing awareness on all levels: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. Yoga unites the functions of each of these aspects of our personality. This is true for dance also. Certainly any successful dance performance is characterized by a balanced harmony between the body and spirit. What is suggested here is that dance, like yoga, is a conscious attempt at integrating all the tiers of our existence. It does not negate but on the contrary affirms the sensual nature of our objective physical
being, and treats it as fundamental to any attempt at spiritual awareness as our subjective intangible soul.

Dance is thus a spiritual channel, an opening of both metaphysical and sensuous doorways.


Antiquated Nataraja





Whirling his limbs, gracefully carved as if a woman's, Shiva as Nataraja gyrates to the rhythms of his essentially fleshy dance - an outpouring of sensual stimulation in free and unrestrained exuberance. His dance is both supremely sexual and sublimely spiritual.

Shiva as Nataraja






He is the god of destruction, his dance too is thus essentially of a similar nature. A ring of flames encircles him.





Shiva DancingThese are the cremation fires which are ultimately going to consume our mortal bodies. But on the other hand dance is also an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and transforms the perpetrator into a higher realm of reality and personality. Thus the forces gathered and projected in his frantic, ever-enduring gyration are both of creation and annihilation. According to Clarissa Estes, in her book 'Women Who Run With the Wolves':

"To make love. we dance with Death. There will be flowing, there will be draining, there will be live birth and still birth and yet born-again birth of something new. To love is to learn the steps. To make love is to dance the dance".

Shiva, King of Dancers (Nataraja)


Applying the same criterion, we observe that Shiva's dance of death and regeneration is nothing but the recreation of the sexual act itself, which is composed of an interplay of desire, sensuality, highs and lows, and of course an overriding sensation of ecstasy, all an integral part of Shiva's dance.

A poet has beautifully described dance as "nature struggling to express itself, in terms of the joy of the dance." Hence by extension, in the frenzy of the actual physical act of mating can be discerned the ultimate truth of all manifested existence. This truth is that of birth and inevitable death. These are the defining qualities of Shiva's dance, as also of the sexual act, both of which communicate through an exhilarated appreciation of the body, for its own sake.



Lord ShivaThe Hair of Shiva


Shiva's tresses are long and flowing, and dark as the night is.

Supra-normal energy, amounting to the power of magic, resides in such a wildness of hair untouched by the scissors. The celebrated strength of Samson, who with naked hands tore asunder the jaws of a lion and shook down the roof of a pagan temple, was similarly said to reside in his uncut hair.


Meditating Shiva






Shiva's hair also supports a crescent moon, a symbol of the female reproductive cycle.






Laughing Buddha


Indeed much of womanly charm, the sensual appeal of the Eternal feminine, is also in the fragrance, the flow and luster of beautiful hair. On the other hand, anyone renouncing the generative forces of the vegetable-animal realm, revolting against the procreative principle of life, sex, earth, and nature, to enter upon the spiritual path of absolute asceticism, has first to be shaved.



Buddha shaves His Hair




He must simulate the sterility of an old man whose hairs have fallen and who no longer constitutes a link in the chain of generation. He must coldly sacrifice the foliage of the head. This is most significantly evidenced in the first act carried out by the Buddha when he renounced the royal palace. He severed his long and beautiful hair with his princely blade.

Meditating Shiva






But though the spiritual and even earthly rewards of this ascetic attitude are high, Shiva does not shave or shear his hair, said to be "sweet with many a pleasant scent." Refusing to take advantage of the symbolical and potent devices of self-curtailment and deprivation, the arch-yogi is forever the unshorn male.

Shiva thus accepts the essentially sensual nature of the manifested world. He makes us aware that we can free ourselves from our attachments through the very attachments themselves and not otherwise. According to the Kama Sutra "those that seek liberation achieve it thanks to detachment, which cannot occur except after attachment, since the spirit of humankind is by nature attracted by the objects of the senses."


Nandi the Bull of Shiva

Nandi - Shiva's Escort


The vehicle of Shiva is a bull (vrishabh or vrisha in Sanskrit). He is the great sprinkler of the seed, and represents the fecundating energy of Kama the God of love.

The bull which wanders about, anxious to find a mate, is taken as the embodiment of the sex impulse. Most living creatures are governed by their instincts; they are ridden over by the bull. They are merely the appendage of their reproductive powers.


Lord Shiva's Wedding


But Shiva is the master of lust. He rides on the bull. Only those who are masters of their own impulses can ride on the bull. Thus the image of Shiva atop his bull represents the sexual drive brought under control, though not weakened, through asceticism. As Mahayogi, the god is master of the bull. This is true even when he is with his shakti, and his images therefore often represent him sitting upon its back, poised gracefully and fully in control.

"Among those who have mastered the bull you are the bull keeper.
O Lord! Riding on the bull, you protect the worlds.

--- Lingopasana-rahasaya


A primary aim of yoga is to transform our mighty sexual potency into spiritual power. Yogis believe that sex energy is the very energy that man can utilize for the conquest of his own self. The sexually powerful man, if he controls himself, can attain any form of power, even conquer the celestial worlds. On the other hand, men of weak temperament are unqualified for great adventures, physical or mental. The sex impulse must therefore never be denied or weakened. Yoga thus opposes exaggerated austerities. According to Zimmer, noted Indologist, a deity's animal mount is the manifestation of the god's divine essence. Indeed the man of strong powers is the vehicle of Shiva, through whom the deity reveals his own virile nature and powers. The bull of Shiva is hence also called the joyful (Nandi), correspondingly Shiva himself is known as the lord of joy (Nandikeshvara).

Kundalini and the Marriage of Shiva

Bhole Nath



The metabolic energy called Kundalini is symbolized as Parvati. She is conceived as the serpent power which lies coiled in the lowest chambers of the human body. Kundalini when properly quickened, unfolds her vibrating hoods and by an upward sweep enters the spinal cord and then the brain, and finally unites above the head with Shiva. In mythology, Shiva's wedding with Parvati is the entrance of this serpent power into the Higher Mind which is compared to the snowy mountains of Kailash. Kailash is the symbol of the highest mind and Shiva has his abode on this mountain where silence reigns eternally.

The analogy is between a human wedding which releases the highest ecstasies of the flesh, and the wedding of Kundalini with Shiva, which is a symbol of the highest bliss attainable by an individual soul.



Our body is the instrument of our destiny. Our intellectual mechanism and spiritual being are not independent of the body that shelters and nourishes them. If we wish for success in anything whatever, we must take care of our body: cherish, satisfy, and content it. Yogis condemn abstinence, just as they condemn excess, since both cause imbalance in the physical and intellectual being. A healthy, vigorous, satisfied body, one that is pleasant to inhabit, is the best vehicle and instrument for human and spiritual accomplishment. Eroticism and pleasure in all its forms are vital for man's intellectual and physical balance. Life is transmitted through the sexual act, and the giving of life is a duty, a debt to be discharged by whoever has received it. Besides its practical utility, however, physical pleasure plays an essential role in our inner development. It is the image of divine bliss and prepares us and aids us to attain it. A man who strives to be chaste and who fears, condemns, and thwarts physical love can never free himself from the prison of the senses. He weaves around himself a web of obscure frustrations, which will hinder him from realizing his transcendental destiny.

On the other hand, the man who has tasted all kinds of sensual pleasure can gradually turn aside from them, finding greater sensual pleasure in union with the divine. This is no longer renunciation, but liberation. In discovering the divine, the realized man gradually loses interest in earthly things, virtue, honor, vice, and pleasure. He considers the human act of love in the same way that he breathes the perfume of flowers or listens to the song of birds.

Indeed the remark of the saint who said "I have never renounced any vice: it is they who have left me" summarizes the message of Shiva.

Shiva Shakti


In the Puranas, which collect the most ancient mythological and historical legends, Shiva appears as a mysterious and lascivious deity of the primeval forest. He is naked, and his beauty seduces all beings. The sages practicing austere asceticism are disturbed by the charms of this unconventional god. His virile power is described as limitless. Wandering through the forest, the symbol of the cosmos, always ithyphallic, he scatters his seed. From his seed are born plants, metals, and precious stones.

God of eroticism, Shiva is also the master of Yoga, which is described as the method used to sublimate virile power and transform it into mental and intellectual power. He is therefore the "great Yogi." Fittingly therefore, the Kama Sutra designates the various positions adopted in the act of love as asanas, the same term used to describe the postures of Hathayoga.

Although both Shiva and his goddess Shakti are creator deities, the true scope of their union is not procreation, but pleasure and voluptuousness (ananda). A whole world of legend and myth narrates their love. The two opposites, the positive and the negative pole, acquire reality only in their relations with each other. They exist solely in what unites them, in the spark of pleasure that jumps from one to the other. In other words, the immanent cause of the universe, substance, and creation, is voluptuous desire.

The Curse of Shiva

The spermatozoid substance placed in the female has a fecundating action, but the same substance, when reabsorbed through sexual abstinence, nourishes the cerebral matter. Rising, according to yogic formula, through the subtle channels flanking the backbone, it renders the intellectual faculties more acute. The Yogi perceives sexual energy as though it were coiled up at the base of the spine, which is why it is called kundalini (coiled) and likened to a sleeping snake. When, by means of mental concentration, it awakens and unwinds its coils, it rises like a column of fire toward the zenith, toward the top of the skull - the image of the heavenly vault - and pierces it to reach the transcendent worlds inhabited by Shiva. Shiva's liberated phallus represents this illuminating power rising heavenward beyond the material world. Thus is the linga likened to a pillar of light, guiding us to true knowledge.



References and Further Reading

Article by Nitin Kumar, editor, Exotic India

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