To the Western mind, the first encounter with a shiva lingam may well be mystifying if not discomfiting.
Descriptively speaking, the shiva lingam is a ellipsoidal shaped object that rises out of a circular base or platform. Linga may be made of stone -as those commonly found in temples throughout India, earth, occur spontaneously as shapes in the natural world, or fashioned as temporary structures for worship out of rice or seeds, sand, cooked food, river clay and countless other substances.
In Sanskrit, the word lingum itself means symbol, mark, sign or inference, and already points to multiple possibilities for interpretation.
On the first, perhaps most obvious visual level of understanding, the shiva lingam represents the phallus, while the circle from which it arises, represents the yoni or vagina. Associations of fertility, procreation and sexual intercourse naturally follow.
Many people from across the spectrum of religious and cultural sensibilities argue that this is a base understanding of these sacred symbols; some scholars and teachers of yoga, including Swami Sivananda, hold that it is a mistake to consider the lingam a phallic symbol, while others contend that to reduce the lingam to the aspect of sexual love is to miss out on its deeper mysteries. In ceremonies still celebrated today, the lingam is understood as a representation of the formless principle of Shiva - the eternal, infinite and endless principle that underlies all reality. As such, the shiva lingam may be represented as a pillar of fire, light, or water, evoking the cosmic nature of divinity that resides in all forms. As a form that can be seen by the eye, it is said to represent that point of creation that arises out of nothingness and subsides back into it, mysterious and unfathomable.
Like Hinduism itself, the shiva lingam contains and sparks a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations. Just as Hinduism itself represents not one religion, but rather an expansive array of approaches and understandings of the Divine principle, so too, the shiva lingam may be understood and contemplated from many perspectives and levels. As in all things, our understanding and experience of the shiva lingam will depend on our approach and intention. If we approach it with humility, releasing our expectations, assumptions and projections, and a genuine desire to know, we create the opening to experience its meaning for ourselves.
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Author: Lila Galindo
references: http://www.ishafoundation.org/blog/yoga-meditation/demystifying-yoga/linga-a-doorway-to-no-thing/; http://www.mahashivratri.org/shiva-linga.html;http://hinduism.about.com/od/lordshiva/a/What-Is-Shiva-Linga.htm;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingam