The Real Meaning of the Shiva Lingam

Distortions of the Vedic Tradition

The Shiva lingam is probably one of the best examples of how profound ancient principles and practices of the Vedic tradition have been distorted over time. It often pains me to see how the limited or wrong understanding of the ancient practices and wisdom of Vedic times have resulted in such a distorted view of India’s profound heritage and culture.

In recent centuries, the Shiva lingam came to be understood by some to represent the male reproductive organ – a misunderstanding that arose out of the misinterpretation, or rather limited interpretation, of the word ‘linga’. The Sanskrit word ‘linga’ basically means ‘that by which something can be recognized’ or ‘a distinguishing mark’. When a baby is born, there is only one way to find out what its gender is, and that is by looking at the genitals of the child. It was due to this practice that the word ‘linga’ over time became one of the most commonly used words for the male reproductive organ as well.

However, its original meaning was that of ‘a distinguishing mark’, and it is this meaning that refers to the symbol of the Shiva lingam: a symbol that the ancient Rishis chose to represent the consciousness. It shows such a profound understanding of creation: giving people a symbol so that they can give expression to their desire to worship, yet at the same time reminding them that it is just that, a symbol, and that the consciousness that they are worshiping is actually formless, unmanifest and all-pervading.

Symbol for the All-Pervading

It is thus a symbol for the unmanifest consciousness that Shiva represents. Literally, Shiva means ‘the benevolent’, and it refers to the untouched and untainted innocence of our consciousness – the most subtle aspect of our Being deep inside, that can never be corrupted. But how to worship that One Divinity that is all-pervading, omnipresent and omnipotent?

For the mind to be able to worship, for one to be able to direct one’s prayers or offerings, there has to be a focal point – otherwise where will you place the offering, where will you put the flower or lamp? It is this very reason that has led to there being something or other to direct one’s prayers to in all of the religions in the world – even the ones that denounce worship of the Divine in any object or form. Whether it is the scripture in the Sikh tradition or the Ka’aba in certain Islamic traditions, there always needs to be something to direct one’s prayers to or to captivate the devotee’s mind.

The Rishis of the ancient Vedic tradition knew how the mind works, and that is why they gave everyone the freedom to worship that One Divinity in any form or way they felt comfortable. A simple stone was perfect to remind people that it was just a symbol, representing the all-pervading consciousness that is beyond all name and form.