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In This Article Liṅga and Yoni

  • Introduction
  • Mythology
  • Pilgrimage and Sacred Geography
  • Epigraphical Evidence
  • Primary Sources and Translations

Hinduism Liṅga and Yoni
by
Benjamin J. Fleming

Introduction

The liṅga (meaning mark, sign, phallus) is best known as the emblem of the Hindu god Śiva, most often rendered today as a cylindrical form, set into an oval, round, or square base. Liṅgas feature prominently in Śaivite myths, rituals, sacred sites, and pilgrimage, as well as in South and Southeast Asian art and philosophy. The yoni (meaning vulva, womb, source) is less prominent in the primary sources, and it has been most often studied in connection to the liṅga, as well as related issues such as sexuality in religion, goddess traditions, and Śiva’s śakti or female counterpart. The category of “liṅga and yoni” evokes the sexual union of the divine couple Śiva and Pārvatī, with the liṅga as the phallus of the god, and the yoni as the vulva of the goddess, perpetually in divine copulation. Scholars have long interpreted the setting of the cylindrical liṅga into its base in such terms, often with little regard to the primary sources. In the epics and purāṇas, for instance, one finds surprisingly little precedent for the pairing of liṅga and yoni (see Mahābhārata, 13.14.230–3, and Śiva Purāṇa, 4.12.17–53). Even in later ritual sources, the base is more typically assigned the mundane label of pīṭha (base), albeit at times interpolated as Śiva’s śakti or female consort. Thus, it remains unclear whether the liturgical object worshipped by Śaiva Hindus is consistently understood in this way, when this interpretation originated, and whether it reflects the perspectives of a limited set of ritual specialists or more widely diffused beliefs among practitioners. Although little has been done to explore such questions, the sexual nature of the iconography has been widely assumed in the West, and the category of “liṅga and yoni” has had a disproportionate place within Western scholarship on Hinduism since colonial times. Accordingly, this article begins with the historiography of the topic, with special attention to the reification of the category within Western scholarship. The majority of the article is geared toward pointing readers to the relevant primary sources (e.g., iconographical, mythological, ritual, philosophical, epigraphical), in the hopes of facilitating further study that may open up new perspectives.

Scholarly and Other Approaches

Hindu ideas about the liṅga are richly attested in Sanskrit and other South Asian sources, including mythological, ritual, and philosophical literature. References to the pairing of liṅga and yoni, however, are surprisingly rare. Also relatively rare, and understudied, are discussions of the yoni in its own right; it is unclear, for instance, the degree to which the term is an emic concept akin to the liṅga. Nevertheless, the category of “liṅga and yoni” has been common within Western scholarship on world religions since at least the British colonial scholarship of the 19th century, and it has had an influence on the manner in which Hinduism has been received in the West, particularly in the popular imagination; the sexual overtones asserted by 19th-century British scholarship were popularized particularly by early occultists and, more recently, New Age traditions. The pairing of the liṅga and the yoni was also pivotal for late-20th-century attempts to recover the significance of divine femininity and sexuality within religions, as pursued within the framework of gender studies, often reinterpreting earlier ideas about phallic religion and sex worship in psychological terms. Parallel to these developments, there has been a steady stream of historical studies on the origins and development of the liṅga, oriented toward the problems posed by specific material and literary data from ancient and medieval periods.

LAST MODIFIED: 06/26/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0115

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