Ever since man first lighted fire and used it to his benefit, he has tried to become the master of his own destiny. Right from the beginning, fire was considered an important gift to man from nature and was revered by him as the terrestrial manifestation of Brahman (Isvara or God). Among the ancient Hindus, the fire deity was known as Agni (the nourisher or generator of life and the destroyer) and they even had several scriptural (Vedic) hymns dedicated to him. For example, in the Rig Veda (the most ancient Hindu scripture composed several millenniums ago) the first hymn (RV, book 1: hymn 1.1) is to Agni, "I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice, The hotar, lavishest of wealth".
Moreover, it used to be a common Vedic practice (including during the Ramayana) to seek assistance from Agni while proving one's innocence (such as during Agni-pariksha or the fire test) or even asking for forgiveness. Thus a ritual fire would be ignited (invoking Agni) during such situations and people would pray and use it as a witness to their statements (including innocence). Note for example the following hymn from the Yajurveda (Kanda 1, Prapathaka 8, Hymn i.8.3.d): "O Agni...each fault done in a village or in forest, in society or mind, each sinful act that we have committed to Shudra or Vaishya or by preventing a religious act, even of that sin, you are the expiation..."
As people came to realize that God was functionally and phenomenally limitless and not confined just to the terrestrial regions related to Agni, He was revered in other ways too. They called him Indra in the midair and Savitar in the heavens, for example. Though the list of names for God was endless according to his attributes, worship of a deity (even other than Agni) would almost always involve a sacrificial fire. Thus, whether the deity was Indra, Savitar or Varuna, the yajna (worship involving a sacrificial fire and dedicated usually to Agni) would always be performed offering libations into it to that particular deity.
Note that the fire used to be ignited long ago by using sticks of special materials and rubbing them against each other. Lighting a fire afresh thus used to be a difficult task. It was a time-consuming and laborious process requiring a great amount of effort and energy. Such difficulties in obtaining a flame would be quite serious during religious and ceremonial rituals requiring fresh fire. Note, in this regard, a prayer in the Rig Veda (Book 1: hymn 94.3), "O Agni, may we have power to kindle thee," implying the need for a healthy person to ignite a ritual fire. To overcome these difficulties in igniting the fire and make their life easy while worshipping, people started making use of an image of flame (called 'ling' or 'linga') in place of the actual live fire. This was carried out by choosing a linga drawn or sculptured roughly in the shape of a live flame symbolizing the fire in a yajna.
Agni (the terrestrial manifestation of Brahman) in the male aspect is known as Shiva (the auspicious, signifying perhaps the beneficial side of Agni) and as female Shakti. Shiva is sometimes also identified with Agni-jwala (flame). The long and stubby lings (solid symbols) representing the fire of Agni usually depict Shiva and Shakti, respectively. Shiva and Shakti also generally appear together, perhaps due to their common association with Agni. Agni, in addition to being the giver or enhancer of life, is probably also the biggest destroyer. Thus Shiva and Shakti are considered the life-givers as well as the life-destroyers. Furthermore, Shankra is known as the fiercest among Rudras (destroyers). Thus Shiva (through his association with Agni as the great destroyer) is also sometimes considered (at least in his destructiveness) as Shankra (the greatest Rudra). Note that Agni, in addition to being the basis for Shiva and Shakti, probably is also the cause of a number of other dark colored gods, where their darkness symbolizes the black ash in the yajna.
Thus the solid ling or linga (symbol, image) representing sacrificial fire during the worship of Agni was created originally as a duplicate of yajna flame. The ling or Shiv-ling made the worship of Agni (Shiv or Shiva) possible anywhere anytime by using it in place of live fire and pouring oblations over it. The tradition of smearing the Shiv-ling with ash indicates that it has close ties to fire (Agni) worship. When the Shiv-ling is placed under a pitcher (containing libation) from which the liquid slowly and continuously drips over it, there is a semblance of celebration of an uninterrupted yajna even when there is no worshipper present. Solid ling (or Shiv-ling) in that case represents the live fire (in yajna) and the pitcher (with dripping libation) symbolizes the worshipper pouring oblations into the fire. It is a simulation of the Vedic yajna even without lighting a fire; and it involves basically the worship of a ling (Shiv-ling) representing the deity Agni (as related to a yajna). This substitution of the solid image (ling) for a real flame long ago transformed various rituals and worships making them quite simple and easy. Moreover, it is clear that fire -- in actual form (as a flame) or symbolically (as a ling or image of flame) -- has been an integral part of Vedic (Hindu) yajnas (worships) for a long time whether or not the service is dedicated to Agni.
Note that Agni (the nourisher and the destroyer) is Isvara (Brahman manifested) and it is represented by Shiva in the form of a Linga or Shiv-ling. The Sanskrit word Linga can be split as Lin + ga, where Lin (or its equivalent nasal lim) corresponds to the second (object) case singular form of Li (meaning breakage, loss or destruction) and ga means 'to go'. Thus Linga implies the remover of loss and signifies Shiva (the auspicious or propitious) as the benevolent aspect of Agni. This leads Shiva (or Shiv-linga) to be that aspect of Brahman which restores the broken (or dridra) to their original and complete form. Perhaps this quality of Shiva indicates the ability of Agni (fire) to fuse together and restore the cracked or broken objects. Note, Shiva (as the restorer) and Visnu (as the preserver) complement each other and with these analogous attributes even appear interchangeable.
It is worth noting that some of the practices involving worship these days relate closely to the original fire sacrifice. For example, lighting of lamps and candles during present rituals may symbolize the original yajna fire. Similarly, the use of incense these days indicates the aroma given off by the burning oblations (soma etc.) poured into the ancient fire. In fact, the present day Hindu Aarti (prayer to alleviate suffering) is itself a type of ancient yajna. For example, the bhajans (songs in local tongues) and mantras during an aarti these days represent the chanting and singing of Sanskrit hymns during the ancient Vedic yajna. Similarly, igniting the camphor (or lamp, candle) and using the incense in a plate nowadays corresponds to the ancient yajna fire which also used to give off aromatic fumes due to the burning of oblations.
Note that the unfortunate confusion of Shiv-ling as a phallus is probably due to the similarity in their shapes and nothing more. Note that the former represents only the Agni symbol (flame or jwala in a yajna) and at no time it should be confused with the latter. Same thing applies to the linga-pedestal. Due perhaps to its crude and mistaken depiction, it is misinterpred and even wrongly glorified (in some songs and literatures) as an image of yoni (female sex-organ). Note that in reality it is not so. The pedestal holding a ling is nothing more than an ordinary base intended to keep the ling (Shiv-ling) pointing upwards so that it represents a live fire (flame) properly. Moreover, the pedestal is shaped in such a way (with an orifice on its side) that it is able to collect the oblations (liquids) poured on the ling and discharge them through the orifice into a pitcher placed underneath.
The pedestal for Shiv-ling should neither be confused as symbolizing yoni nor is to be considered an essential part of the Shiv-ling. Moreover, even when attached to the Shiv-ling, the pedestal does not in any way depict a male-female sexual or reproductive union. Note that when and where the ling can stand on its own -- such as when protruding out of ground -- no extra pedestal (base) is required or superimposed to hold the ling, indicating that this base (pedestal) is not essential to the Shiv-ling. This includes examples of Mount Kailash etc. (considered natural lingas) which have no pedestals or anything similar underneath them. They simply rest on the ground and people still revere them as the true lingas (symbols for Shiva). In a related story from the Ramayana involving Rama, when he was to embark on a journey to Lanka to fight Ravana and free Sita from his prison, Rama worshipped in a hurry the Shiv-ling made from sand. This worship involved a linga (made from sand) to substitute for the actual fire (as in a yajna). As can be understood, Rama's intention in that case was to simply and quickly worship Brahman (as Agni or Shiva) by using the sand-linga symbolizing a fire (yajna) rather than a phallus. This shows that the Shiv-ling basically relates only to fire (yajna) and nothing else.
- Seva (Dr. Subhash C. Sharma)
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