Abstract

A dispute about the symbolism of the lingam, a cylindrical votary object that represents the Hindu god Shiva, has been going on for many centuries: is its meaning inexorably tied to a particular part of the physical body of the god, or is it abstract, purely spiritual? This essay will trace the history of this dispute, considering both icons made of carved stone in India that may or may not represent lingams and images made of words in Indian texts that refer to lingams in contexts that are sometimes ambiguous but often quite clear. Underlying this particular debate is the more general problem of the ambiguity of the symbolism, particularly the religious symbolism, of the body and of forms that represent the divine body. The history of interpretations of the lingam in India reveals the ways that the actions of the state-in this case, the presence of foreign powers, Muslim and British, who viewed the lingam negatively-have deeply influenced native Hindu perceptions of the body of their own god.

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