Do Hindus worship the phallus?

Devdutt Pattanaik
Devdutt PattanaikAug 15, 2016 | 14:29

Do Hindus worship the phallus?

How you can answer, calmly: No, they don’t. That is like asking do Christians worship dead bodies and torture instruments since images of a dead Jesus nailed to a cross, or the cross itself, which was a Roman torture instrument, are found in every Catholic Church. Every Catholic sees these images as images of the saviour who died for his or her sins. A non-Catholic sees something else. Who sees the image correctly? The believer, or the non-believer? Most Hindus do not see the Shiva-linga as a phallus. Some academicians do. Whose view is correct? To understand the mystery of the Shiva-linga, we must appreciate the difference between a symbol and a sign.

The Shiva-linga has nothing to do with fertility. In fact Shiva is called the 'destroyer'.

A symbol has multiple meanings and a sign has a single meaning. A symbol’s meaning depends on context and needs to be understood in the context of ritual and story as well as by comparing and contrasting it with other symbols that may complement or contrast it.

In Hinduism, two concepts are very powerful: yonija and a-yonija. Yoni means womb. Yonija means one born of a womb. Such a creature has a past life: it is the fruit of a seed. Ayonija means one not born of a womb. Such a creature does not have a past life: it is not the fruit of a seed. It is self-born, swayambhu.

Yonija are part of samsara and the karmic cycle: they take birth and they die, bound by rules of space and time. Ayonija or swayambu are not part of samsara or the karmic cycle: they exist always, unbound by rules of space and time. Shiva-linga is a representation of that swayambhu.

The dripping water-pot above the Shiva-linga and trough around it collecting the water embodies the yoni-patra or Shakti-pitha, the seat of the goddess, the world of birth and death.


Thus the Shiva temple symbolically communicates the two fundamental principles of Hinduism: the time-bound recurring world of matter (prarkriti, shakti, maya) and the timeless still world of the soul (purusha, shiva, brahman). These ideas are found in the Vedas, elaborated in the Upanishads and given shape and form in the Puranas, the Tantras and the Agamas.

Phallic worship is common in many mythologies. And it is typically associated with fecundity (more children, more crops, more fruits, more cows, more horses, more sheep). It is also used to ward away troublesome spirits, frighten them, very much in the way many people use sexual swear words involving the penis. In ancient Egypt, Min was a fertility god depicted with an erect phallus. In ancient Greece, images of Hermes and Pan with erect phallus were used as boundary markers in farms. Even today, if you travel to Bhutan, you will find penis statues being sold as good-luck charms and bad-luck-warders on the street.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Hindus worship the phallus and Shiva is an erotic god, or a fertility god because in many Puranas, the Shiva-linga is described as the aroused manhood of Shiva. The worship of Shiva-linga, especially on Mondays, is popular among young unmarried girls searching for husbands.


And Shiva is said to be the source of the Kama-sutra and in the Kumara-sambhava, Kalidasa’s Sanskrit poem on the birth of Shiva’s son is rather erotic.

For Western scholars – conditioned by an unmarried Jesus, a virginal Mary, and a God who has no consort - this image of a God who is erotic and visualised allegedly as a phallus can be quite titillating. But it reveals a rather superficial understanding of the symbol that is not aligned to the larger Hindu philosophies. For Shiva is also the great ascetic, associated with celibacy and continence.

This dual personality makes us question the simplistic phallus-fertility correlation.

The Shiva-linga has nothing to do with fertility. In fact, Shiva is called the "destroyer". We must ask the question: why did Hindus choose to visualise a "destroyer" using a "phallic" symbol which is traditionally used for fertility? To qualify Shiva as a fertility god reveals an inability to grasp refined philosophies.

Traditionally, Hinduism has two paths: the outward path (pravritti) and the inward path (nivritti). The outward path belongs to the householder and the inward path belongs to the hermit. The householder marries and the hermit does not.

The householder sheds his semen in the womb, the womb being both literal (of his wife) and symbolic (of his society). Thus he creates. The hermit does not marry and through the practice of celibacy and tapasya does not shed his semen, in fact he "reverses the flow of semen" according Tantrik texts, which is called urdhva-retas, symbolised as a hermit with erect phallus but eyes closed.

So he is aroused but not by external sensory stimuli but by inner wisdom and power. Shiva is the hermit who is being encouraged by the Goddess to participate in the household. Hence Shiva Purana describes his marriage to Sati and Parvati, and his tryst with Ganga, and the birth of his sons, Kartikeya (Murugan, in Tamil Nadu) and Ganesha. This idea is presented in the Shiva-linga with its yoni-patra.

Unmarried girls who worship Shiva-linga on Mondays hope that like Parvati they too will be able to transform a hermit into a householder, and get a good husband, one who is as accommodating, loving and benevolent as Shiva. Monday is associated with the moon, the graha (celestial body in astrology) associated with emotions and love.

The world of Shakti is the world of nama (name) and rupa (form). Shiva is outside name and form. He embodies atma, and so has no attribute. He is formless or nirguna. How do you worship the formless? So the rishis of yore simply picked up river-stones, given shape by the flowing water (symbol of time), and worshipped it by placing it erect in the ground, or simply creating a mound of sand on the river bank.

This was the Shiva-pinda or the Shiva-linga. The form of the formless, the linga of the a-linga. This is what the devotee sees. And that is what matters.

Last updated: February 13, 2018 | 12:06
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