What is the meaning of Linga?
Linga is derived from the Sanskrit root Lika which means to sculpt or to paint, so Linga means one that sculptures or paints. God being the Sculptor of the Universe, He is known as Linga, and this word has become ultimately to mean any form or symbol that represents Him. It has become in a later stage to mean any sign or symbol, in a general sense, and it is in this sense the word is used now.
Shiva Lingam is explained at great length by Shiva Agamas and several Puranas; and the Vedas themselves could be found to have their own explanation of Shiva Lingam.
What does the Shiva Lingam represent?
The ancient and mysterious symbol, the Shiva Lingam, sacred to Shaivism, is an eternal embodiment of unification. God is formless, infinite and omnipresent, therefore it is said that God entered into the Shiva Lingam which is neither form nor formless but rather an abstract symbol. The Shiva Lingam is the representation of a phallus, the lingam, inserted in a vagina, the yoni. The union of lingam and yoni represents the “indivisible two-in-oneness of male and female, the stillness and action from which all life originates. It symbolizes all of creation. The phallus of Shiva is erect because it is raised to full consciousness, and in full consciousness it penetrates the universe. The vulva of Shakti is open because in full consciousness she lets the entire universe penetrate her.
The Shiva Lingam represents the cosmic marriage of opposites, male and female, yin and yang, matter and Consciousness. It stands for the unity-in-diversity that is the nature of Consciousness.
Abhinavagupta tells us that the lingam represents knowledge power (jnana shakti), while the yoni represents action power (kriya shakti).
The Story of Shiva’s Supremacy
According to Puranas, once the other two of the triads of Hindu Gods, Brahma and Vishnu were fighting over each other’s prowess. Horrified at the intensity of the battle, the other gods asked Shiva to intervene. To make them realize the futility of their fight, Lord Shiva assumed the form of a flaming Linga in between Brahma and Vishnu and challenged both of them by asking them to measure the gigantic Linga (phallic symbol of Lord Shiva).
Awestruck by its magnitude, Brahma and Vishnu decided to find one end each to establish supremacy over the other. Lord Brahma took the form of a swan and went upwards while Lord Vishnu assumed the form of Varaha – a boar and went into the earth towards nether land. Both searched for thousands of miles but neither could find the end.
On his journey upward, Brahma came across Ketaki flower. Exhausted and bewildered with his search to find the uppermost limit of fiery column, Brahma made Ketaki assent to lie that he had seen the top of the column where the flower had previously resided. Accompanied by his accomplice, Brahma confronted Vishnu and asserted that he had indeed discovered the origin of the cosmic column.
At this point, the central part of the pillar split open and Shiva revealed himself in his full glory. Both Brahma and Vishnu bowed before him accepted lord Shiva’s supremacy. Lord Shiva also explained to Brahma and Vishnu that both of them were born out of him and that the three were then separated out into three different aspects of divinity.
However, Lord Shiva was angry with Brahma for making a false claim. The Lord cursed Brahma that no one would ever pray to him. (This legend explains why there is hardly any Brahma temple of significance in India.) Lord Shiva also punished the Ketaki flower for testifying falsely and banned her from being used as an offering for any worship.