What Is a Linga? Learn the Meaning of This Sacred Symbol
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.
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.linga-meaning OF sacred symbol