It is the day of Mahashivratri, and you must have observed your parents or grandparents worship the Shiva Linga. They might have even asked you to come to the temple with them sometimes to bathe the linga with water or milk. Have you ever wondered why do we worship the linga? What does it represent? And why is only Lord Shiva worshiped in this form?
There is a great misconception about the linga representing the phallus but the truth is, that except in the Tantrik way of worship, the lingam does not have anything remotely connected with the worship of genitals! The Sanskrit word ‘linga’ means a ‘mark’ or ‘symbol’ and is applied equally to both male and female forms. If you remember any Indian language lessons from school, the male gender is called ‘Pu-linga’ or Purush Linga and the corresponding term for the female gender is ‘Stree-linga’. Also, contrary to the general belief, its not just Shiva who is worshiped in this form but many of the Shakti temples also have the deity as small, conical or oval shaped stones.
So how did the identification of Shiva with the stone lingam begin? The Atharvaveda mentions the ‘Stambha’ or pillar as a manifestation of the eternal Brahman but the real identification with Shiva comes from the Shiva Purana. This scripture tells us the story of the time when Lord Brahma and Vishnu were debating about which of them was actually greater in position. While they were arguing, a massive pillar of fire emerged between them going deep into the earth as well as rising high into the sky. Both of them decided that whoever found the end of the ‘Stambha’ or the ‘Lingam’ of fire, would be accepted as the greater one.
Lord Vishnu took the form of a Varah or Boar and dug deep into the bowels of earth while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew high into the sky. It so happened, that neither of them were successful in their quest to find the limits of that endless cosmic pillar, but Brahma cheated and said that he had found the end. Finally, Lord Shiva emerged from the lingam telling them that he was the origin of the universe and hence greater than both. He also berated Brahma for lying and told him that henceforth he would not be worshiped anywhere on earth.
This particular appearance of Shiva from the cosmic pillar of Fire is known as the Ling-odbhava form which means ‘emerging from the lingam’ and this is how Lord Shiva began to be represented in the form of a lingam. Even the Linga Purana describes this as a symbolic representation of god in the Nirgun or aniconic form.
Once we know the story of emergence of Lord Shiva as the pillar of fire, the worship of the deity with water and cooling substances like milk and Bel fruits also starts to make sense. The Bel is used in many parts of the country to make a drink that can help beat the summer heat and it is clear that its association with Shiva is due to its cooling properties. Shiva is also associated with Bhang that is used in thandai in summer to beat the heat generated in the body. Also, Sandalwood paste is used to anoint the lord in most temples due to its cooling properties.
Before I end this article, let me also mention a very important fact that is relevant for today – it was on the day of Mahashivratri, that the Lord had appeared as the Lingam of Fire! The night of Shivratri also marks the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati and is observed by Yogis by a night long vigil or jaagran. So on this special occasion, go ahead and worship the coolest lord of the Hindu pantheon in the form that he had first appeared, without being sidelined by irrelevant discussions.
Har Har Mahadev and Happy Shivratri!