By Vinaya Kurtkoti Dec. 13, 2016
I had seen a Shiva ling before and thought I knew what it symbolised. What fascinated me was how little we know about it.
When I was growing up, a little friend of mine would stop every time we walked past a temple. She would fold her hands in reverence, close her eyes, and start muttering a prayer under her breath, right there on the street. Every walk with her became a series of pious pit stops. Growing up, I observed this devout behaviour in other kids my age. When we’d be given prasad for instance, my friends would pop it into their mouths and then round off the motion by wiping their heads, as though to avoid missing out on any residual blessings.
Sometimes I’d visit friends whose parents had just performed poojas and their little in-house temple would have a ₹500 or a ₹1000 note lying in front of the gods. “What do you do with that money?” I’d ask them. “Nothing,” I’d be told, “it’s auspicious because it’s been used for pooja.” All that cash in front of them and off-limits for Coke or candy. My friends really must have mastered the art of self-denial.
I’ve grown up since then, but these little religious acts continue to confound me. Every time my friends bow their heads while passing a temple in a car, I get all awkward and start looking to change the conversation. It’s not like I resent religion or its display – I just find this whole unquestioning attitude to our rituals, our symbols and idols, a bit at odds with the rest of our beings.
As straight-thinking, often liberal, people, we’ve learnt to question everything from the government’s scheming to the media’s motives. How do we reconcile this straightforward acceptance with our personalities? Why do we rarely extend this line of critical enquiry to religion? Why is our belief system the final, unbreachable frontier, where unequivocal compliance is confused with piety?
Maybe my own upbringing is to be faulted here. I was raised a Hindu, but I was also raised to question everything and religion was not outside the realm of reasoning. I’d often ask my parents what “Dattatreya’s claim to fame was” or “who Durga was”, and my parents would indulge my blasphemous curiosities. It’s only when I started interacting with other religious kids that I realised that children are not usually allowed to question religion and that talking about god in a nonchalant way is considered sacrilege. Paap chadhega and all that.
But because my parents did not expressly forbid me from questioning the existence of God, I gradually became uninterested in the notion that he or she might exist at all. They always made his or her existence sound unrealistic, for fear that I may start believing him to exist and want him to take care of all my homework for me, without any help from me.
At that walk, I could see the level of mirth experienced by children in temples. The kids knew they were praying to a phallic idol.
The first time I visited all the temples in Pune was when I went for a culture walk. With that secular bent of mind in a religious setting, I decided to add a layer of academic rigour to my budding curiosity about myth and ritual. I had seen a Shiva ling before and thought I knew what it symbolised. What fascinated me was how little we know about it. It’s like none of us have considered what it really is – not even devout self-proclaimed Shiva bhakts.
At that walk, I could see the level of mirth experienced by children in temples. The kids knew they were praying to a phallic idol. “Hee hee, look at Shiva’s dong. It’s so hard and big,” I heard a few of them giggle. (Yes, little kids these days can be relied upon to make TWSS jokes in temples.) A few years prior, I’d visited a flower show with my family, where one artist had made a huge floral Shiva ling leading me to ask myself the obvious question: If this was indeed Shiva’s schwanz, where was the rest of it? Was it circumcised?
No dick has ever been this fascinating to me. If the Shiva ling isn’t circumcised, where is the foreskin? Is it invisible? Or like the emperor’s new clothes, is it visible only to those who believe in its power?
I decided to ask some Shiva fans – only to realise that most of them have gleaned all their knowledge from the Amish Tripathi trilogy, which seems to have shed no light on this aspect of Shiva’s greatness. My brother-in-law, although not an ardent Shiva fan, brought an anthropological lens to the debate. He said that circumcision was prevalent in areas where there was a lot of sand, for hygienic reasons. So Shiva’s depictions originating in the sandy parts of the subcontinent might have shown him circumcised.
A copyeditor friend hypothesised that the Shiva ling was like a synecdoche, i.e. one part stands for the whole. She also warned me against getting my anatomy lessons from Hindu idols, because that might mean I’d start believing that humans could be blue or survive facial transplant with elephant heads. Another erudite friend maintained that most Shiva lings were found in nature, and since nature cannot come up with anatomically correct lingams… She also believed that this phenomenon can be attributed to pareidolia, which is when the mind seeks out familiar patterns where there are none.
My mom, of course, rubbished the notion that Shiva was circumcised. But she does believe that it is a representation of male strength and fertility that made Shiva powerful. That made sense until I made a shocking discovery: Apparently, the Shiva ling might not be a phallic symbol at all! Some theories believe it to be an ellipsoid, a doorway to the beyond. When built “properly” it’s supposed to be a storehouse of energy, and sitting in its presence makes you feel a rush of divine vitality.
It’s an energy I have never felt. I suppose that’s a privilege accorded only to unquestioning religious folks – not heathens like me.
Vinaya Kurtkoti is anti-mohmaya, except when shopping online for tribal jewellery. And books. And glittery art supplies. To prove her true blue anti-mohmaya credentials, she now wanders from village to village listening to people's stories. She considers herself 'location independent'.