The Western reading of Shivalingam as a phallic symbol is incorrect. For Hindus, Shiva is formless.


EEarlier this week, Christine Fair, a professor in Georgetown University’s Peace and Security Studies program, tweeted calling shivalingamShiva penis.” It was not the first time that a Western scholar had publicly misrepresented Hinduism.

Just recently, Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania Law School made an outrageous comment about Hindus in a podcast. She claimed that the Brahmin women of India learn that they are “better than everyone else because they are Brahmin elites”. A few years ago, Audrey Truschke of Rutgers University’s history department had tweetedin Valmiki’s Ramayana, “Sita basically tells Rama that he is a misogynistic and rude pig”.

The perception and presentation of Hinduism, Hindu texts and traditions in academia are at odds with the reality on the ground. priority Orientalist and the colonial discourse on India maintains a dubious and distorted viewoutsider‘ narrative at the cost of an authentic insider. This perspective has penetrated deep into Western consciousness and manifests itself in academic and popular presentations.

Imagery and iconography are an integral part of Hinduism. While the Vedic rishis (sages) created vivid images of ‘quotation‘ and ‘devastated‘ in their poetry the later Hindus created some of the most exquisite ‘moortis‘ (sculptures) of ishta (Dear).


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Similar or symbolic?

Diana L. Eck, professor at Harvard Divinity School, said in Image Darshan that Hindu images are iconic and aniconic. Iconic images show a ‘likeness’ to our devi-devatas. Aniconic images are symbolic representations of a deity. The shivalingam the presentation of Shiva is aniconic.

There is a fierce debate between Western secular scholars, average Hindus and practicing Hindu scholars about the nature of shivalingam and if it is a phallic symbol.

For the Hindus, there is no ambiguity on this subject. Shiva’s formless presentation bears no resemblance to human anatomy. On September 15, 1927, MK Gandhi wrote in Young India that “It was in a missionary book that I first learned that shivalingam had no obscene meaning. And even now when I see a shivalingamneither the form nor the association in which I see it suggests any obscenity.

For European travelers and missionaries, shivalingam was not only unique and distinctive – it was an obscene and morally scandalous superstition. “It is incredible, it is impossible to believe that by inventing this vile superstition, the religious masters of India wanted the people to render direct worship to objects whose very names, among civilized nations, are an insult to decency.” wrote Father JA Dubois, French missionary, in Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 1906.

Shivalingam is not an isolated case of misrepresentation of Hindu deities. Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, compares Ganesha’s trunk to a soft phallus. She writes, “A baby elephant’s trunk is a metaphor for a soft phallus, candy is a metaphor for oral sex, a mango is a metaphor for asking children to have sex with their mothers. (Hindu)…” (see Paul Courtright, Ganeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, 1985).


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Phallic worship cult

Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at Canada’s McGill University, does not deny the possibility of an anatomically accurate interpretation of shivalingam. However, he attributes such a misrepresentation to the cult of the phallic cult which mistakenly identified shivalingam as a phallic symbol.

Some also cite the “Gudimallam linga” (an ancient lingam from the Parasurameswara Swamy temple in Gudimallam, Andhra Pradesh) to bolster their argument for the shivalingam being a phallic symbol. However, Sharma rejects this argument. In a Linkedin post, Sharma wrote that the Gudimallam linga “is too anatomical in detail not to be considered phallic. However, it should be kept in mind that the literal depiction of Shiva Linga, as a whole, is only conical in shape.

The importance of shivalingam in Hinduism in general and the Shivaite tradition in particular is immense. Diana Eck says that in Shiva Puranatraditional Shaivite literature on Shiva cosmology, legends and lore, shivalingam is described as “a fiery column of light” rather than a resemblance to human anatomy. In the Hindu tradition, Shivalingam is also considered to represent the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.

Like any other language, Sanskrit too has words with many meanings depending on the context. The term “linga” in Sanskrit means “mark” or “sign” as well as “phallus”. The Hindus use the word “linga” in the first sense. As a sign of Shiva, writes Eck, “the linga is honored in the sanctuary of many temples and shrines in India.”

The Hindus look shivalingam in a way that transcends physical and material aspects. On the other hand, Christine Fair’s portrayal of shivalingam borders on what Jeffery Long of Elizabethtown College would call a “Hinduphobic discourse”. It also reinforces colonial and Orientalist stereotypes about Hindus. Ordinary Hindus and Hindu scholars have been trying to free the study of Hinduism from these stereotypes for over two centuries.

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, speaker and activist. Alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Avatans holds a graduate degree in linguistics. Avatans is the recipient of the San Francisco Press Club’s 2021 Bay Area Journalism Award. He tweets @avatans. Views are personal.

(Editing by Zoya Bhatti)

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