Earlier this week, Christine Fair, a professor in the Peace and Security Studies Program of Georgetown University, tweeted calling shivalingam “Shiva penis.” This wasn’t the first time a Western academic has publicly misrepresented Hinduism.
Just recently, Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School made an outrageous comment about Hindus in a podcast. She claimed that the Brahmin women of India are taught that they are “better than everybody else because they are Brahmin elites.” A couple of years ago, Audrey Truschke from Rutgers University’s history department had tweeted, in Valmiki’s Ramayana, “Sita basically tells Rama he’s a misogynist pig and uncouth”.
The perception and presentation of Hinduism, Hindu texts, and traditions in academia are at odds with the ground reality. The overriding orientalist and colonial discourse about India fosters a dubious and distorted ‘outsider’ narrative at the cost of an authentic insider one. This perspective has permeated deep into the Western consciousness and manifests in academic and popular presentations.
Imagery and iconography are part and parcel of Hinduism. While vedic rishis (sages) created vivid images of ‘devis’ and ‘devatas’ in their poetry, later Hindus created some of the most exquisite ‘moortis’ (sculptures) of ishtas (cherished).
There was a time when Dasaratha's sons could handle criticism from Sita. You should hear what she said to Rama during the agnipariksha, and her unseemly accusations against Lakshmana when he hesitated to go after Rama in the golden deer incident. https://t.co/x97QQ9slhl #Ramayana
— Dr. Audrey Truschke (@AudreyTruschke) April 19, 2018
Similar or symbolic?
Diana L. Eck, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, says in Darshan of the Image that Hindu images are iconic and aniconic. Iconic images show a “likeness” to our devi-devatas. Aniconic images are symbolic representations of a deity. The shivalingam presentation of Shiva is aniconic.
There is a fierce debate between the Western secular academics, and average Hindus and practising Hindu scholars about the nature of shivalingam and whether it is a phallic symbol.
For Hindus, there is no ambiguity on this topic. The formless presentation of Shiva has no likeness to any human anatomy. On 15 September 1927, M.K. Gandhi wrote in Young India that “It was in a missionary book that I first learnt that shivalingam had any obscene significance at all. And even now, when I see a shivalingam, neither the shape nor the association in which I see it suggests any obscenity.”
For European travellers and missionaries, shivalingam wasn’t just unique and distinctive—it was an obscene, morally outrageous superstition. “It is incredible, it is impossible to believe, that in inventing this vile superstition, the religious teachers of India intended that the people should render direct worship to objects the very names of which, among civilized nations, are an insult to decency,” wrote Abbé J.A. Dubois, a French missionary, in Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, 1906.
Shivalingam is not an isolated case of misrepresentation of Hindu deities. Wendy Doniger, a professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, compares Ganesha’s trunk to a limp phallus. She writes, “a baby elephant’s trunk is a metaphor for a limp phallus, that sweets are a metaphor for oral sex, that a mango is a metaphor for asking children to have sexual intercourse with their (Hindu) mothers…” (see Paul Courtright, Ganeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, 1985).
Cult of phallic worship
Arvind Sharma, the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at Canada’s McGill University, doesn’t deny the possibility of an anatomically accurate interpretation of shivalingam. However, he blames such misrepresentation on the cult of phallic worship that mistakenly identified shivalingam as a phallic symbol.
Some also point to the ‘Gudimallam linga’ (an ancient lingam at the Parasurameswara Swamy Temple of Gudimallam, Andhra Pradesh) to bolster their argument in favour of the shivalingam being a phallic symbol. However, Sharma rejects this argument. In a Linkedin post, Sharma wrote that the Gudimallam linga “is too anatomical in detail not to be considered phallic. However, one needs to keep in mind that the literal representation of Shiva Linga, by and large, are only conical in shape.”
The significance of shivalingam in Hinduism in general and Shaivite tradition in particular is immense. Diana Eck says that in Shiva Purana, the traditional Shaivite literature on Shiva cosmology, legends, and lore, shivalingam is described as “a fiery column of light” rather than any likeness to human anatomy. Within the Hindu tradition, Shivalingam is also considered to represent the Hindu trinity — Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh.
Like any other language, Sanskrit also has words with many meanings depending on the context. The term ‘linga’ in Sanskrit means ‘mark’ or ‘sign’ as well as ‘phallus.’ Hindus use the word ‘linga’ in the former sense. As the sign of Shiva, writes Eck, “the linga is honoured in the sancta of many temples and shrines of India.”
Hindus look at shivalingam in a way that transcends physical and material aspects. On the other hand, Christine Fair’s depiction of shivalingam borders on what Jeffery Long of Elizabethtown College would call a “Hinduphobic discourse”. It also reinforces colonial and orientalist stereotypes about Hindus. Both ordinary Hindus and Hindu scholars have been trying to liberate the study of Hinduism from such stereotypes for over two centuries.
Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. An alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Avatans holds a graduate degree in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient of the 2021 San Francisco Press Club’s Bay Area Journalism award. He tweets @avatans. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)