Note an expansion of this article in the book of David Frawley: Inner Tantric Yoga: Working with the Universal Shakti (Lotus Press, September 2008)
The sexual symbolism of Tantra, like the subject of sexuality in general, has always engaged the human mind. The modern mind seems to be obsessed with it as well. Many people into Tantra, as well as most of the scholars who write on it, seem unable to move beyond the physical suggestions of these symbols to their spiritual indications. This has kept the study and practice of Tantric Yoga at a superficial level in which its deeper cosmic and creative energies remain latent.
There is an inclination to reduce the Shiva linga and Shakti yoni, the two main Tantric symbols of ascending and descending forces – which are often represented by upright conical stones for the Shiva linga and ring stones or basis for the Shakti yoni – to merely the male and female sex organs, which is but one of their representations, and their erotic glorification. There is the tradition of Tantric sexuality of mithuna which uses sacred sex as part of Yoga practice. But it is not the only practice of Tantric Yoga and when done is integrated into a much larger array of practices.
It would be wrong to look at the linga and the yoni only in human sexual terms, just as it would be to see the Deities of Shiva and Shakti as only symbols of sexuality. Sexuality, no doubt, is the strongest of our biological and psychological urges. Yet sexuality reflects greater and higher forces, of which it is a manifestation.
The polarity of forces that we discover in sexuality is mirrored in the great dualities of nature from electricity and magnetism, to the forces of fire and water, the sun and the moon, and the forms of the mountain and the valley. It is this universal duality and polarity that is the basis of Tantric Yoga, working with it, and through it returning to the pure unity behind it. Sexuality is an important force that we must understand in the process, whether we choose to express it in a human relationship or renounce it for a more solitary path of practice.
The Shiva linga is often portrayed in an upright conical form much like the male sexual organ. Indeed, some Shiva lingas are quite phallic in their appearance, but there are many other types of lingas which are not. The linga is the symbol of the universal power, the cosmic masculine force or the Shiva principle. It has many forms in nature.
In the Sanskrit language, the word linga refers to a ‘chief mark’ or ‘characteristic’ of something. As a term, it is not per se a synonym for the male sexual organ, as some would believe. Linga indicates what is outstanding and determinative. In this regard, the male sexual organ can be said to be the distinguishing characteristic or linga of a man at a physical level, but linga in other contexts can have quite a different meaning.
In Yoga philosophy, the term linga refers to the subtle body, which is the dominant principle in our nature over the physical body. The Shiva linga is also the subtle body and can indicate the upper region from the heart to the head. The linga is a place where energy is held, generated and sustained.
The problem is that the modern mind, particularly since Freud, often tries to use sex as the main means of interpreting life, extending even to art and spirituality, which we try to understand according to sexual symbolism or the sex life of the persons involved! This ‘sexual reductionism’ misses the deeper and broader sensitivities and inspirations that people have.
Clearly sexuality is there for most everyone, but real spirituality and genuine creativity are not! Some scholars have gone so far as to try to reduce Hindu Devatas, Gods and Goddesses to sexual symbols, as if a figure like Ganesha, with his head cut off by his father, was nothing more than another manifestation of the Oedipal complex, missing his deeper yogic implications altogether. Of course, such psychological studies have been done on Christianity and Judaism as well. Freud, himself a Jew, tried to reduce Moses to the Oedipal complex, starting off this trend. Such studies do not help us understand what the spiritual path is all about, but get us further caught in our biological impulses as the primary factors of life. Naturally, such efforts to turn a religion into a sexual neurosis is not appreciated by Hindus any more than by Christians and Jews!
Symbolisms of the Linga
The Shiva linga represents the ascending energy of consciousness and life in nature. We see this in such forms as the mountain, the thunder cloud, the tree, and the upright human being. Many lingas like that at Kedarnath – the most important Shiva site in the Himalayas – are rocks in the shape of small mountains. Many other lingas are associated with light, the lingas of the Sun, the Moon and Fire. There are the twelve famous Jyotirlingas or light forms of Shiva at twelve special temples throughout India.
The state of Tamil Nadu has special Shiva linga forms for the five elements with lingas of earth, water, fire, air and ether at special temples in the region. In this regard, each element has its Shiva linga or determinative force. The famous hill of Arunachala, where the great enlightened sage Ramana Maharshi stayed, is said to be the fire linga of lord Shiva.
Other Shiva lingas are associated with gold or crystal, the light powers in the metal kingdom. The Shiva linga is often described in terms of light, crystal or transparency. Shiva himself is said to be pure light or light in its primal undifferentiated state, Prakasha matra.
The Shiva linga is connected to the upward pointed triangle, which is also the symbol of fire. The linga is present in the male sexual organ both in plants and in animals. But we should not ignore its other forms in recognizing that. The worship of the linga is connected more generally to a worship of pillars, obelisks, standing stones and pyramids. Tantric linga worship is connected to Vedic pillar worship (the Vedic stambha, skambha, dharuna), which has parallels throughout the ancient world and in indigenous cultures in general who can still perceive the spiritual powers behind the formations of nature.
The Shiva linga is often a pillar of light. In special Vedic fire rituals, the fire could be made to rise in the shape of a pillar which could also then take the shape of a man! In fact, the term Dharma originally refers to what upholds things and can be symbolized by a pillar. The Shiva linga is the universal pillar of Dharma. The pillar is also an inner symbol indicating the erect spine and concentrated mind.
In terms of our human nature, there are several lingas or characteristic marks. The force of Prana is the linga or pillar force upholding the physical body according to the currents that emanate from it. This is the inner ‘Prana Linga’. Our deeper intelligence or Buddhi provides us the power of insight to discern higher realities, the ‘Buddhi Linga’. The Atman or higher Self is the ultimate linga or determinative force of our nature that remains steady and elevated (transcendent) throughout all of our life experience, the ‘Atma Linga’.
The linga and the yoni always go together, first of all on the level of opposites, as the upward and downward pointed triangles. The linga with the yoni below it, the standing stone and the ring base, show the union of male and female energies, not just in sexuality, but also as electro-magnetic forces.
In addition, the linga in its movement creates a yoni, just as a point in its movement can create a circle. We can see this in the circular movement of the stars, planets and nebulae, as well as many other diverse phenomena in the world of nature. The central luminary is the linga and its field of revolution is the yoni. The planets form a yoni or circle as they revolve around the Sun as the linga, of the solar system, its central principle or axis. Yet the Sun itself is revolving around other stars and creating a yoni or circle of its own.
Stonehenge, and other similar sacred sites that have standing stones formed into great circles, show the union of the linga and the yoni, the cosmic male and female or Shiva-Shakti principles. The linga and the yoni are also united in the chakra or the wheel, with the linga as the axis and the yoni as the circumference. The Hindu usage of chakras in ritual and in art also reflects these two powers. Each chakra of the subtle body shows the union of the Shiva and Shakti energies operative at its particular level of manifestation.
The Shiva energy is the upward current running through the spine or Sushumna and the Shakti energy is the horizontal current through which it travels, forming the various lotuses of the chakras. Together they form a spiral of forces. Both forces are necessary to create this dynamic motion.
The experience of the Shiva linga in Yogic meditation is an experience of a pillar of light, energy, peace and eternity, expanding the mind, opening the inner eye and bringing deep peace and steadiness to the heart. From it radiate waves, currents, circles and whirlpools of Shakti spreading this grace, love and wisdom to all. To concentrate our awareness in the linga is one of the best ways of meditation, calming the mind and putting us in touch with our inner Being and Witness beyond all the agitation and sorrow of the world.
In Ayurvedic healing, the creation of the Prana linga or concentration of Prana at a subtle level is what allows deep healing and rejuvenation to occur. In Vedic astrology, the Shiva linga represents the power of light behind the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. In Vastu Shastra, the Shiva linga is used to stabilize the spiritual and vital energy in a house, as a conduit of cosmic forces.
To understand the ultimate secrets of life we must be able to look at the primal powers of existence, including the needs for sex and food, according to their broader connections and universal implications. Human sexuality is only one of the many manifestations of the cosmic forces of duality, of a greater Divine sexuality as it were, which transcends all creaturely existence.
We must learn to see the cosmic energy behind human sexuality rather than try to reduce spiritual polarities to our own physical and emotional inclinations. This is another aspect of Yoga in which we must look beyond human psychology to the universal consciousness.