Shiva-Linga—the Form of the Formless

Shiva-Linga—the Form of the Formless

An Exposition by Oscar Figueroa

A favorite story among Siddha Yogis is the one narrating the origins of Mahāśivarātri, the great night devoted to Lord Śiva, which in the Indian lunar calendar falls on the fourteenth night of the waning moon of the month of Māgha, when the crescent is at its finest. Handed down in various Purāṇas, a Sanskrit corpus of traditional tales, this story gives an account of a forest hunter who stays awake all night hidden in the branches of a bilva tree, waiting for a prey. From time to time while seated on the branches, the hunter inadvertently lets fall a few drops of water from his dried-gourd container and a few bilva leaves upon a Śivaliṅga picture, which happens to be at the foot of the tree. Gradually, as this involuntary act of worship purifies his mind and redeems his sins, the hunter becomes compassionate toward all living creatures. At dawn, the Lord is so pleased that he appears before the hunter to confer liberation upon him.

This story, while ascribing to the liṅga the greatest sanctity—for if this man could obtain mokṣa, liberation, by venerating the liṅga unintentionally, consider how much more someone who does it on purpose and with devotion could obtain!—establishes the origin of Mahāśivarātri in close connection with the worship of this particular form of the Lord: an upright round-topped cylindrical shaft set into a pedestal picture. Indeed, it is primarily in this form that Lord Śiva has been worshipped in the temples and shrines of India throughout the ages. Although other representations of Śiva abound and are also important, it is the liṅga picture that occupies the sancta of his temples. More significantly, no other god but Śiva is worshipped as the liṅga. The other gods are usually worshipped in the form of their icons, that is to say, images that have a recognizable likeness to the deity being represented. In contrast, the liṅga is an aniconic or abstract representation, because although it refers to Śiva, it does so without assuming any kind of likeness, including an anthropomorphic likeness. To some extent, this has to do with its antiquity. The liṅga is a very old symbol of fertility and immortality that goes back to the time when natural objects such as stones and earthen mounds were seen as signals of the Divine, long before the cult images in temples became prominent.

This ancient natural symbolism throws light on the primary meaning of the word liṅga, the “mark,” “sign,” or “token,” that indicates the presence or even proves the existence of that with which the liṅga is closely associated. In Indian logic, for instance, the reason or evidence used to demonstrate the truth of any given proposition is called liṅga. So, according to the classic example, if I see smoke on a mountain, I can infer that there is a fire on the mountain insofar as smoke is the liṅga of fire, the sign that is invariably found together with fire. Now, as a distinguishing mark or characteristic, a liṅga does not necessarily point to the existence of perceptible things. It may also denote the essence or reality of imperceptible things. This latter view underlies the symbolism and sacredness of the Śivaliṅga, literally the “mark or emblem of Lord Śiva.” But how can a round-topped cylindrical shaft be the distinguishing mark of Śiva? In what precise sense does this abstract form evoke his divine presence?

One of the earliest scriptural usages of the term liṅga in connection with Śiva hints at an answer, though perhaps not in the way we may expect. It is this passage from the Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad:

Śiva has no lord in this world above him, nor anyone who rules over him. Moreover, he has no distinguishing mark [liṅga].1

This may sound paradoxical, for as I just mentioned, Śiva is thoroughly identified with his liṅga and, therefore, this is the main form in which he is honored across India. At the same time, however, the paradox is illuminating in that it establishes the specific kind of “mark” appropriate for the highest and transcendent Lord. In the case of Lord Śiva, the liṅga should render in a sign that which admits no sign. Put differently, in the very act of having a liṅga, Śiva is marked as aliga, having no liṅga, for he is by definition beyond any mark or symbol. The Śivaliṅga is the form of the formless.

This is vividly expressed in another favorite scriptural tale on the Siddha Yoga path—precisely about the origin of Śiva’s liṅga (liṅgodbhava). You may recall it from Gurumayi Chidvilasananda’s Message Talk for the years 2004 to 2007: Experience the POWER Within. Kundalini Shakti. Included in the Purāṇas, this story recounts the liṅga’s birth in a hierophany, a physical manifestation of the Divine—in this instance, as a magnificent column of light picture. At the time of cosmic dissolution when the primeval ocean extended all around, puffed up with pride, the gods Brahmā and Viṣṇu started arguing over their relative supremacy, ignoring Śiva. Suddenly, a liṅga of blazing fire and infinite length appeared before them, rending heaven and earth and challenging them to discover its limits. Though Viṣṇu and Brahmā searched for a thousand years, neither could find the light’s beginning or end. Exhausted, bewildered, and humbled, both reluctantly accepted the superiority of this mysterious pillar and returned to the level they had started from.

From the column of light then arose the sacred sound Oṁ, and within the primordial reverberation the seed of this universe was sown. Finally, as darkness was dispelled and creation ensued, the gods beheld Lord Śiva in all his glory within the unfathomable column of light. According to the Liṅga Purāṇa, they bowed to him in reverence and said:

O Supreme Lord who dwells in this liṅga, and yet is devoid of any liṅga whatsoever, if you feel pleased and it is your wish to grant us a boon, please bestow upon us constant and unwavering devotion.2

Śiva granted Brahmā and Viṣṇu the requested boon, and it was thus, concludes the story, that:

Ever since then the worship of the liṅga was well established in this world. The great Goddess is the liṅga’s pedestal picture, while the great Lord himself is the liṅga properly. It is called liṅga because in it all things merge. The wise person who reads this story about the liṅga in front of a liṅga no doubt attains the supreme state of Śiva.3

The account substantiates the paradoxical nature of Śiva’s liṅga. On the one hand, Śiva’s apparition in the column of light confirms that the liṅga does mark his presence and that Śiva does dwell in his symbol. On the other, however, the Purāṇa teaches that this occurs in no ordinary form. The liṅga is Śiva’s most sacred emblem because it reveals his transcendent nature as pure infinite light, “devoid of any liṅga whatsoever.” In its very simplicity and lack of representational qualities, without any likeness, and therefore apparently offering “nothing” to think about, Śiva’s cylindrical pillar thus constitutes for the devotee an invitation to reunite the world of created forms and the uncreated realm of the formless. And such an invitation can only be realized within. The story also suggests this when it gives the traditional etymology of the word liṅga as “that in which all things merge (layana).”

We find in Abhinavagupta, the great eleventh-century master of Kashmir Shaivism, the clues to go deeper in our understanding of the Śivaliṅga. Explaining the difference between the external liṅga and the inner or “unmanifested liṅga” (avyaktaliṅga), Abhinavagupta refers to the same etymology. The unmanifested liṅga to which the outer form points, and of which it is ultimately an expression, is the “supreme heart of repose in which all things merge.” And such a liṅga, Abhinavagupta adds, “is experienced as abiding within in the form of pure divine Consciousness,”4 acting thus as a gateway that connects the immanent and transcendent aspects of the Lord. Endowed with “constant and unwavering devotion,” a person can thus transform the worship of the liṅga into an experience of absorption in the fullness and indivisible oneness of God’s supreme Consciousness, which permeates the world of forms and at the same time transcends all forms and symbols. This is what the liṅga is truly a “sign” of.

Similarly, the scriptures that describe the subtle body tell us that running from the base of the spine to the crown of the head is a spiritual channel, which Gurumayi often refers to as a golden column of light, echoing Śiva’s supreme liṅga as described in the Purāṇas. Known as the suṣumnānāḍī, this channel is the axis of a network of myriads of conduits that supply life force to the physical body, and is also the path followed upward by Kuṇḍalinī Śakti, God’s spiritual energy. Once awakened by the Guru’s grace, Kuṇḍalinī Śakti ascends through this golden column of light, purifying our understanding and finally granting the experience of oneness with the absolute Consciousness.

Just like the inner liṅga of light embodies the union of the highest Lord and his spiritual energy, the external liṅga personifies symbolically this union by means of its two main parts, the vertical shaft, representing Śiva, and the horizontal base or pedestal, called pīṭha, representing Śakti picture. In addition, the shaft of the liṅga is often said to have three sections—the lowest, buried in the ground and associated with Brahmā, the deity of creation; the middle, encased inside the pedestal and associated with Viṣṇu, the deity of sustenance; and the topmost representing Śiva properly as the deity of dissolution.

In India, these sacred thresholds between the immanent and the transcendent are found in many places and classified in various ways. One of such classifications divides the liṅgas in two classes: cala, “movable,” and acala, “fixed.” The former are the liṅgas taken in procession during festivities or kept in one’s home. They can be made of several materials, including stone, clay, precious stones, metals, and even wood. The acala, “immovable,” liṅgas are the ones permanently installed in the sancta of temples. Usually, they are made of stone.

Another way of classifying the liṅgas is as akṛtrima (“natural”) and kṛtrima (“man-made”). Having come into existence without human intervention, natural liṅgas picture are regarded as particularly powerful and holy. These can be stones smoothed into shape by the waters of a river, or natural formations in the open or in caves. Sometimes, due to its shape and connection with Śiva’s mythology, even complete mountains can be venerated as liṅgas, as in the case of Mount Kailāsa picture, in Tibet, considered to be a true axis mundi.

To underscore their sanctity, some of these natural liṅgas are called svayambhū, “self-existent,” in the sense that they are direct manifestations of the Lord. To this category belong the twelve celebrated jyotirliṅgas, “liṅgas of light,” located in popular places of pilgrimage. Thus, the liṅga formed of ice at Kedarnāth picture in the Himālayas is said to have been granted by Śiva himself as a boon. At Amarnāth, in Kashmir, the Lord is also worshipped in an ice liṅga picture formed by water that drips from the ceiling of a cave. And at the southern tip of India, the Rāmanātha temple at Rāmeśvaram houses a liṅga said to have been worshipped by Lord Rāma himself.

Besides sites renowned for their powerful specific liṅgas, others are famous for being the home of a great number of them in a single place. For instance, the sacred river Narmadā, which runs across central India, is the abode of hundreds of natural liṅgas made of a smooth type of quartz. These bāṇaliṅgas, or “liṅgas of fire”picture as they are often called, are considered so special that they can be worshipped without any rite of consecration. Another sacred repository of liṅgas is the Valley of a Thousand Liṅgas along the river Śālmalā, in the southern state of Karṇāṭaka. According to history, the liṅgas picture that can be seen on the stones all around, when the flow of the river recedes, were carved at the end of the seventeenth century under patronage of the Swadi dynasty. Far away from there, in Northwestern Cambodia, is another holy River of a Thousand Liṅgas picture. Located near the historic site of Angkor amid a deep jungle, this enchanting water stream is the home of myriads of small liṅgas picture neatly carved into the riverbed in a grid pattern layout. They date from the eleventh century.

There are many gateways indeed, to reach the foundation of this entire universe, as well as the goal of spiritual practice—the infinite light of Consciousness. As we celebrate Mahāśivarātri, the great night on which, it is said, the fruits of worship performed to the Lord multiply a thousandfold, may we all, with the Guru’s grace, merge in the divine formless form and come to know it as our own true Self.

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1Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, 6.9.
2 Liṅga Purāṇa, 19.5–6.
3 Liṅga Purāṇa, 20.15–17.
4 Tantrāloka, 5.112–113.