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Divine Sexuality; Tracing the Progression of the Lingam and Yoni throughout the History of Hinduism.


In this paper it is my aim to explore the images of the lingam and the yoni within Hindu art including painting, sculpture, an

Hindu Images have always been striking in nature to the Western eye. When one thinks of a Hindu image one pictures many-armed gods, exotic looking figures with blue skin, and sometimes images with sexual overtones, such as gods in each others embrace. What do these images mean? In this paper it is my aim to explore the meaning of the lingam and the yoni images throughout the mediums of painting, drawing, sculpture and natural sites[1] within Hindu art. My goal is to examine the nature of these images, how these images are used, how they have progressed through history, and to try and understand what the total theology is behind the images within a Hindu context.

In art, iconography is the term is often used to describe complex imagery and representative art. The dictionary defines iconography as: The art or representation by pictures or images; the description or study of portraiture or representation.[2] Using iconography a researcher can try and understand elements, messages, and ideologies which are being communicated through the art. Contrary to popular depiction in media people who study iconography do not do so without a related discipline. The most recent misnomer was the "Symbology" Professor in the Da Vinci Code. There is no such science. The most closely related field is semiology, which is the study of signs. Symbolism and iconography, conversely, are used often within academic fields such as Art History, Religious Studies, or Archeology. Unlike abstract art, all of the Hindu imagery being examined in this paper is not designed out of an artistic whimsy; instead the images are designed with the intent of delivering a theological message.

Art has always had the ability to transmit information in this way, and this method of communication can be considered a superior way of transmitting information when contrasted with other mediums. One of these reasons is that art is able to transcend time, since it is a fixed image. While texts, written history and stories can change, once a specific image is made and preserved it does not change but remains frozen in time. Information that is outside of temporal evolution is extremely helpful for understanding history. Art is also able to transcend many learning barriers, such as literacy. This is of major importance, especially for Hindus, because the majority of Indians are still not literate.[3] Anyone can learn from these images, even children, as long as they are taught the iconography of the image. The third major reason why art is important as an information source, and to the Hindu people, is because images can be made of the Gods and Goddeses and used as devotional images. These images are used to meditate on, as a place to focus ones attention; these images are called icons.

If a Hindu practitioner has an icon of Vishnu then they can make a connection to Vishnu through this image. This method of connecting is called darshan. Darshan means seeing, but can sometimes be translated as the auspicious sight of the divine (Eck: 127). The divine sees the devotee through this image just as the devotee sees the god within the image, and they exchange darshan; this magical glance which transmits each others essence. In this respect, the idol is animated and the divine is thought to live within this icon where it gives the darshan to the person while they simultaneously receive it. In Hinduism the sacred is seen as present in the visible world (Eck:129). A western mindset may find this practice odd, but its best to summarize the concept by realizing that the icon, once made, gathers a life-force of its own; gaining the ability to make a spiritual connection with the devotee. Its important to note that the God or Goddess does not live in the icon as if it were trapped inside the image, but through the icon. The icon becomes one of the many manifestations of the God or Goddess. (Eck: 127-30)

These animated and living icons have two main forms or classes, aniconic and iconic. Iconic images are images which have a form. This form may be human, anthropomorphic or theriomorphic.[4] Aniconic images are those which do not take a form; this might be the aniconic instance of a rock or a cave.(Eck: 136-9) The image of the lingam is typically depicted as aniconic, as well as the many images of the yoni, although sometimes the yoni and lingam are depicted as attached to a God or Goddess and then they become iconic because they take a form.

The lingam is a representation of the phallus. Lingam, (occasionally referred to as linga) according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, comes from the Sanskrit root and means sign or distinguishing symbol. The lingam represents the Hindu god Shiva in almost every instance of the image[5]. The yoni is a stylized vagina, which (according to Britannica) means holder. The word yoni has many etymological connections in Sanskrit, relating to the words source, origin and lair. Its derived from the root yu, which is to join or to harness. Interestingly enough, the word yoni comes from the same root as yoga, signifying yogas tie to the feminine principle. The depiction of the yoni commonly signifies the Goddess in many forms of the Devi, and also Shakti, Shivas lover.


There are many common forms of the lingam and yoni. Lingams are sometimes shown with a single face, other times four or five faces. Each of these heads is presumed to convey a particular characteristic of the deity such as wrath, beauty, ascetic power etc. (Blurton: 78-9). However the lingam is usually fashioned as a plain standing pillar which is circular. They are usually carved of stone, but can be made of almost any material, such as large rock formations, stalagmites or other natural features. Sometimes the lingam can even be made temporarily, such as out of sand on a shore (Blurton: 94-8). The simplest example of the yoni is the downward pointing triangle, and the lingam at its simplest form is the upward pointing triangle. This specific image has been used conjoined as well as in a hexagram to represent the everlasting sexual conjunction between Shiva and his Shakti. Their sexual union is thought to maintain the existence of the Universe. (E.R.) The most common depiction of the yoni is as a round base in which the lingam cylinder sits, projecting outward and upward from it, not penetrating it. Another Hindu image which relates to the yoni is the yantra. Yantras are geometric designs which are used by some in the worship of the Goddess and they are often made of rock or crystal. They are the visual versions of aural mantras and are thought to embody supernatural power. The symbols on them are generally a series of circles, most commonly two, surrounding a triangle with the triangle inside representating the vulva (Blurton: 97-106). These icons can be dressed with garlands and flowers, and are sometimes bathed in sweet things such as milk and honey.

Why are these sexual organs depicted in Hindu art as objects of worship? Are Hindus worshipping sexuality? These are questions that many people asked when confronted with Indian art. Actually, many people throughout history have found these sexual images offensive. We have written records of the Aryan invaders complaining that the Indus Valley gods has a penis.(E.R.) More recently, the British invaded India in 1498 for resources, and occupied it for many centuries. During this time the European-Western mindset of sexuality conflicted with the Hindus depiction of the yoni and lingam, and the British found these depictions obscene.(E.R.) The British invaders were not able to perceive these images without finding them shocking, likely because of their religious background of Christianity. The Christian religion has a split between the spiritual and the body, regarding the body as unholy; while Hinduism does not immediately view the body as unholy. In fact in some traditions within Hinduism the body is incorporated into religious practices in order to reach the divine. Although it is exceedingly difficult to generalize on sexual views within an entire religion or country, especially Hinduism, given its diverse nature, I feel its fair to say that the majority of Hindu traditions have a less repressed and more liberal view of sexuality than British Christians of that time. However, the real question is not how tolerant Indian society is of overt sexuality, but rather can sexuality in an image represent something other than itself? There is a tendency within the human being to associate the symbolic phallus with the physical phallus, as well with the symbolic vagina to the physical vagina, but maybe they are not just mere representations of our organs.

Hinduism is not alone in its representation of sexual symbolism. Sexual organs, especially the phallus, have had religious significance throughout many different traditions. An example of this would be the Greek mythos such as when Chronos castrated his father and threw the phallus into the sea, resulting in the birth of Aphrodite. Another example is with the Egyptian myth of Set destroying Osiris. He cut up Osiriss body and Osiriss allies were able to find all the pieces to put him back together, except for his phallus, which was eaten by a fish. He couldnt be brought back to life until Isis made him a new phallus out of clay and gave it life through magical incantations. Only then was his power renewed. Much of this religious sexual imagery may be simply be referring to base level sexuality, such as reproduction, fertility, and prowess but perhaps there is another level to it. Within the Greek and Egyptian myths the phallus functions as a creative source of life and spiritual creative power. Is this what the lingam and yoni mean within Hinduism?

Before I further investigate these sexual symbols however, a context needs to be formed. An understanding of an images historical progression is a central factor to consider when interpreting context. Jitendra Nath Banerjea, a scholar on iconography states Iconography doesnt just mean the mechanical description and identification of an image but also requires a study of the various processes, mental and social, which lead to the growth of a cult or of a particular iconic type. So, in this paper I will try and examine the historical growth of the yoni and the lingam through time in order to frame them properly and understand their meaning more correctly.

Indian society has its roots in the Indus Valley Civilization, which occurred c.2500bce to 1500bce. Scholars say that elements of Hinduism may be traced back to this period (Flood: 256). although just which elements is a highly debated topic.(Lec.) The Indus Valley civilization was an agriculturally based society and has been called a Goddess-centric society by theories based on speculation from the remains. One of the most well-known artifacts is the seal of the seated Shiva-prototype which features a figure who is in a yogic-looking posture with an erect penis. There were also stone replicas of the phallus about two feet in length, ringstones which were round rings depicting the yoni, and other artifacts such as the many terracotta mother Goddess figures. Some researchers think that these artifacts are prototypes for Devi and Shiva but the language which the Dravidians used is mute so it is not certain specifically what these figures may mean for certain. (Lec.)

Around 1500bce the Indus Valley civilization declined and an Aryan civilization rose in its place which gave rise to the Vedic period which lasted until 500bce. With the Vedic period much more information is known about Hindu culture because the Vedas provide written records of Hindu society (Flood: 300). There were no temples during the Vedic period (E.R.) so any instance of yoni or lingam in a temple dates to after this period. Within my own research I didnt find information about the yoni or lingam for this time period. It is likely that the worship of the yoni or lingam was discouraged by Brahmanical powers at this point in time.

Although there may not be many instances of yonis and lingams at this time, a timeless image of the yoni is the cave. The beginnings of yoni worship in a cave might have been practiced during the Vedic period as practices could be kept more discreet given the secluded nature of caves. A famous instance of a cave being representative of the yoni is in the area of Assam, at the shrine of Kamakhya Devi where there is a natural cleft in the rock that is said to menstruate once a year. This period of menstruation coincides with the primary festival of the Goddess.

After the Vedic period, the next period in Indian history was the Epic and Puranic period. This was from the time of c.500bce to 500ce in which the Epics, Puranas, Shaivism and Shaktism arose (Flood: 284). This is one of the most important periods of time for the development of the icons of the yoni and the lingam because Shiva became intensely associated with the lingam, while his Shakti, and the Devi in general, was associated with the yoni. An interesting point is that until this time the yoni and the lingam were depicted individually, but at (and after) this period the yoni and lingam were almost always worshipped together as representative of Shiva and his Shakti.(Lec.)

Shiva means the good hearted or the kind (O Flaherty:312 ). He is one of the three main gods of the Hindu pantheon; the others being Vishnu and Brahma. Shiva is the god of destruction of those who are ignorant and of what is impure. He can also be an infinite beneficial force as he often removes avidya, the shroud of ignorance which produces sufferance (OFlaherty: 312). Shiva is the god of yogis and renunciants who wish to transcend samsara and achieve moksha. He lives as an acsetic hermit in the Himalayas and is often depicted when not in the lingam form as sitting on a tiger skin with snakes coiled around his neck with a crescent moon in his hair. Although he can take on this iconic form, the form of Shiva most commonly seen is the aniconic lingam. The lingayats, a Shaiva sect, acknowledge no human icon of Shiva and instead carry a linga in an amulet box with is hung around the neck (Blurton: 84). In a temple it is common to find a single linga although sometimes there are rows of them, especially in groups of 108, which is a number that is sacred to Shiva (Blurton:85).

Shiva is not an all-powerful God without his counterpart. His counterpart, Shakti, is sometimes attributed to different Goddesses. Sometimes to Kali, sometimes Parvati who is his wife, but most commonly to Devi, which is a wide term that just means mother Goddess which includes all Goddesses.(E.R.) This variation of attribution of the specific Shakti comes with different branches of Hindu thought. Shivas Shakti constitutes half of his body. He is thought to be powerless without his Shakti. In the Saundaryalahari[6] it says, "Only when Shiva is united with Shakti does he have the power to create." Shiva is thought to be the unchanging consciousness called nirguna, that which has no form or shape. This unchanging consciousness becomes saguna, with form, when his Shakti joins with him. So the yoni, Shakti, manifests the intangible power of Shiva, the lingam, grounding it and giving it to the adherents of Shiva.

Devi is the great mother Goddess, who is worshiped under many forms. Any female deity can be brought under the fold of Devi. The lingam is depicted as rising up out of the yoni, not penetrating it; and the yoni is seen as symbolic of the divine womb which is associated with the Earth. In the Earth the seed transforms into fruit or grain; in the cave/womb of the earth death transforms itself into life and in the womb of a woman the male and female sexual fluids transform into a human being.(E.R.) The Hindu conception of the womb is commonly thought of as the originator of life and death and this concept is elucidated with the Hindu saying, Again birth, again death, again sleep in the mothers womb.(E.R.)

Moving along to the medieval period of Hinduism, c.500ce to 1500ce, the development of the lingam and yoni became even more expansive. This is mainly because of the birth of the Bhakti movements of Shiva, Devi, and Shakti. Much devotional poetry was written during this time period. It was also the beginnings of Tantra. Some examples of the yoni at this time were in seventh and eight century temple sites, such as the one at Alampur. Here sculptures of the goddess in partly-human form are shown with her thighs widely spread and displaying her genitals.

This sculpture is thought to be symbolic of fertility which is emphasized by her head being replaced with a lotus blossom another symbol of fertility. People would make long pilgrimages just to touch this idol in order to try and gain some of her fertility (Blurton: 162). The Bhakti movement within Hinduism emphasized personal relationships with dieties and encouraged people to petition dieties for help with their common problems such as health, fertility, or good fortune.(E.R.)

The Bhakti movement was a radical movement which became wide spread throughout India. Its emphasis was on individual dedication and love to a chosen God or Goddess. Its first appearance was in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna had a personal relationship with Arjuna. It resulted in individuals being able to officiate their own religious practices, as opposed to the previous era when religious practices were determined by the Brahmanical upper class. This movement was open to all castes and gave birth to multitudes of devotional hymns and poetry which were written in the vernacular, therefore being approachable by more people. Through this movement, deities became more sagunic where they had previously been nirgunic.(Lec.) Bhakti gave birth to the growth of public temples, many of which featured lingams and yonis as well as altars in homes that featured many instances of the yoni and lingam.

The Tantric movement also arose during this time period. Tantras aim was to extend knowledge beyond the restrictive teachings of the Vedas, which ended up subverting the Brahmanical social order. Some Tantric adherents used sexuality as a means to attain liberation,(Lec.) and this is where the imagery of the lingam and yoni become most literal. Tantra has never been a mainstream Hindu practice, but a movement where some people employed these practices. In mainstream Hinduism the adherent to Shiva or Shakti would not hold a literal view of the lingam or yoni. Instead most would see the lingam and yoni as a representation of Shiva and Shakti (Blurton:164 ). Blurton outlines this best:

"For the many the upright standing pillar is not a sexually charged image. The reverse does, though, appear to have been the case originally. For instance an enshrined linga today will be lovingly garlanded and attended by young women and elderly matrons alike, but without any overt suggestions of sexuality. In traditional Indian society, the linga is rather seen as a symbol of the energy and potentiality of the God. (Blurton: 164).

Tantra centers on the concept of the union of Shiva and his Shakti, or the union of the lingam and the yoni. This union may be taken symbolic or literal. Sexuality is seen as a powerful union within tantric philosophy, and this union is seen to be the creative energy that sustains and destroys the Universe. Tantric ritual seeks to harness and use this power, as a means to spiritual liberation as well as a means to worldly benefits like wealth, and supernatural abilities. Sexual union is utilized in some traditions as one method to awaken and harness this power; but it is not the only way to harness the power. (E.R.)

Some may find the imagery of an erotic ascetic as contradictory. The ideals of an ascetic are typically those of restraint and denial of comfort. But the Tantric sees sex as a cure for desire (OFlaherty: 312). The reason for utilizing sexual practices was to remove the conflict between sexual and ascetic behavior by equating them, and using sexuality in a yogic way. In stories Shiva is known for having an insatiable lust, which he quelled by partaking in sexuality in a controlled form. The solution for Shivas sexuality is to satisfy him instead of imposing chastity on him (OFlaherty:314-18). This information can be translated to our study of the lingam and yoni as symbols. Lingam and yoni worship is a way that Tantric Hindus can unite with their sexuality so as to not be consumed by it, and utilize its power in a transformative way.

The modern period from c.1500ce to present day sees the origin of India as a nation unto-itself and it also sees the Hindu renaissance. Hinduism as a global religion developed as a reaction to colonialism and Christianity, which tries to discover its ancient origins and reformulate Hinduism (Flood: 285). This reaction is partially characterized by the rejection of icon worship that is regarded by Christians to be idolatry (Flood: 287). The rejection of the icon within Global Hinduism is an immense loss as it excludes and rejects thousands of years of cultural and spiritual evolution. However, icon worship is still heavily practiced in personal homes and in temples, through India and in North America and Europe. With the lingam and the yoni in particular, attempts have been made to de-sexualize the images, although the West seems to want to sexualize Hinduism, specifically with Tantra, more than Hindus themselves do (OFlaherty: 289-93).

Since Shiva and Devi do not function simply as fertility gods, the icons of the lingam and yoni must not be solely used to depict sexuality, or fertility. Blurton outlines this point by saying, This [fertility or sexual interpretation] is by no means necessarily the case, for in Shaiva doctrine concerned with yoga, great emphasis is laid on the importance of chastity and the retention of seminal fluid, rather than its expulsion. The lingam and yoni then symbolize the denial of purely sexual energy, and the transmutation of this sexual energy into a divine energy. Blurton goes on to say, In traditional Indian society, the linga and yoni are rather seen as symbols of the energy and potentiality of the God.

In summary, the lingam and yoni represent creativity on many levels. In the Indus Valley Civilizations artifacts, the focus is thought to be more associated with fertility. Later on the symbols of the lingam and yoni melded into representing Shiva and Shakti in their sexual union. Some took this imagery literally using the image of the lingam and yoni and sexuality as a means to liberation, while other saw the lingam and yonis union as symbolic of divine creation and destruction. Still other Hindus feel that the lingam and yoni in conjunction function as being apotropaic (warding of evil) and are placed on the exteriors of temples to protect the temple and its people, (Blurton: 81-4) in this protective instance they are thought of as creating a sacred space for the people. The lingam and yoni in conjunction have also been seen as having the power to confer blessings of fertility or wealth. The lingam and yoni stand for [many forms of] creativity biological, psychological, and cosmic. They are symbols of the creative seed which flow into creation that can be restrained, transmuted and absorbed.(E.R.)

Although most Hindus would agree with the meaning of the lingam and yoni as being creativity on many levels, Hinduism has no one specific direction or belief system. There is no one way to do or perceive anything within Hinduism and this diversity, inherent within Hinduism, gives many diverse meanings attributed to the icons of the lingam and the yoni. The meaning of the yoni and lingam has transcended and evolved through history and will continue to evolve; functioning as repositories of human knowledge and ideas transmitting their information for many generations to come.





Blurton, Richard T. Hindu Art Harvard University Press. Cambridge Mass. USA 1993. Pp.78-85, 163-165. (Blurton)

Eck, Diana L. Darsan; Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd edition, Columbia University Press, New York, USA, 1998. Pp.123-45 (Eck)

Flood, Gavin. An introduction to Hinduism

Cambridge University Press: 1996. United Kingdom. Pp.254-301 (Flood)

Electronic Encylopedia. Encyclopedia of Religion.

Macmillan Publishing, Macmillan Inc: 1995. Electronic Ed. Infobases Inc. Provo, Utah, USA. (E.R.)

O Flaherty, Wendy D. Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford University Press Inc. Boston, M.A. :1982  Pp.123-324 (OFlaherty)

Lectures From Queens University. Hinduism Rels-222. Fall Term: 2003. Kingston, Ontario, Canada. (Lec.)


[1] The most preserved of these mediums is that of stone or metal. (E.R.)

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica.

[3] According to UIE Literacy Statistics Organization at the beginning of the 21st century India's literacy rate was 5.3%.


[4] An image that is thought of as having the form of a beast, usually of a deity. (Eck: 321)


[5] This has exception with only a few instances of the symbol. (Lec.) The lingam depicted the sun in pre-Vedic times. Another example of an exception is in the Naruda Purana; in this text the linga is representative of Vishnu. (Biswal: 81)


[6] A tantric literature attributed to Sankaracarya.


A typical Stone YoniLingam. India. circa 1200.

2004 - Ama Marie