Does Shivalinga ‘mean’ phallus? A theoretical dispute

Question: “In the context of puja, does Shivalinga denote or connote anything other than Shiva, in particular “phallus”? A Wendy says “Yes”, a Balu says “No”. For some person, not on this board, there is not a dialog; it is a reading of Wendy, a reading of Balu – how to decide between the two answers, which one represents the truth about Hindus?”

Depending on the patience of the visitor, a number of answers are possible including an identification of the nature of the dispute.

1. In the context of the Catholic mass, do the bread and the wine mean or refer to anything other than the flesh and blood of Christ? The Catholics say ‘yes’ (this is their doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’), the Protestant says ‘no’. How to decide between the two answers and which one represents the truth about the Catholics? Or does one want to say, which one represents the truth about Christianity? Or does one want to say, which one represents the truth about the world? Notice that, in each case, the dispute is not about the meaning (connotation) or the reference (denotation) of the word ‘bread’ and ‘wine’: it is a theological dispute that appears to be about the meaning and reference of words. So, how to decide between the answer in this case? Depends on your theology.

2. In the context of Christian worship, does the word ‘The Bible’ connote or denote anything other than the word of God, in particular a book? One says ‘yes’, the believer says ‘no’. Is this about the meaning or reference of the word ‘The Bible’? In English, the word ‘The Bible’ does not mean ‘a book’. It is a name. What does it name? A book. Any book? No. All books? No. Only books? No, because it could be a scroll too. So, some books, some scrolls and even some ‘recitations’ could all be called ‘The Bible’. Let us go further. Could one use the word ‘The Bible’ to name any of the above in different languages? Well, yes. So, what does the word ‘The Bible’ name? Something that is ‘the same’ irrespective of the language, or the form this ‘something’ assumes. ‘The Bible’ names this. So, what is the dispute about? The one who says that ‘The Bible’ denotes or connotes ‘a book’ is fixated on the physical shape of some book he saw somewhere and somewhen without even thinking his own claim through. So, one does not even have to refer to what the believers believe in order to show this. How to decide between the answers in this case? Depends on your understanding of what language is with respect to its use sociologically.

3. In the context of physics, does the word ‘mass’ denote or connote an invariant or a variable? A Newtonian says an ‘invariant’; an Einsteinian says a ‘variable’. For someone who does not know Physics, there is no dialogue. A reading of a Newton and a reading of Einstein. How to decide between the two readings, which one represents the truth about the physicists? I am sure we can elaborate on these ourselves. What is the dispute about? The truth of the reading has to do not with the community of physicists, not what any group says at any given moment of time, but with what a scientific theory is and how one chooses between competing theories.

These three examples are enough to illustrate the following: what appears as a dispute about the meaning and reference of words can be about things that have absolutely nothing to do with either the denotation or the connotation of the words. This is the first thing one will have to tell someone who is not on the board. Having said this, we can now focus on what the dispute is between a Wendy and a Balu.

4. In the context of puja, does Shivalinga denote or connote anything other than Shiva, in particular “phallus”? Does ShivaLinga ‘mean’ phallus? No, of course not. (‘Linga’ might, but not ‘Shivalinga’. But I will come to this.) Does the word mean ‘the phallus of Shiva’? Yes it does. In what way, precisely? The only way of answering this question is to circumscribe the reference first. Let us assume the existence of an entity ‘named’ Shiva. Let us assume too that he has a phallus. Then Shiva Linga names the phallus of Shiva. However, if it refers to such a unique entity as ‘the’ phallus of Shiva there can be only one such. (Shiva does not have infinite number of phalluses; and Shiva is an entity different from Durga, Ganesha and, say, a mortal called Balu.) So, do we do puja to this unique entity? That cannot be the case: there are finitely many shiva lingas in India and outside. So, what we do puja to is not a unique entity which is ‘the’ phallus of Shiva but a ‘form’ (or ‘representation’) of this unique entity.

What kind of a ‘form’ is this? It cannot connote or denote the ‘material’ of which ‘the’ phallus is made of. Whatever be the material out of which ‘the’ phallus of Shiva is constructed, it cannot be simultaneously constructed out of stone, aluminum, marble and so on. So, it will have to be the ‘shape’ of ‘the’ phallus of Shiva. Therefore, if something is to be a ‘Shiva linga’ at all, it must have a shape of ‘the’ phallus of Shiva and that shape must be invariant across Shiva lingas.

The very same devotees of Shiva, however, do puja to ‘Jyothirlinga’ and ‘Aatmalinga’ too. They are Shiva Lingas as well. Either one denies, pace the above argument, that these two are Shiva Lingas at all, or one has to say that these Lingas have the same ‘shape’ as ‘the’ phallus of Shiva. Neither of these two possibilities is true. The first is empirically false (both synchronically and diachronically); the second is to literally ‘see’ phallus where there is none, in ‘light’.

The only possible conclusion: Shivalinga cannot possibly refer to the ‘shape’ of ‘the’ phallus of Shiva. It is a form, which has little to do with the ‘shape’ of Shiva’s Penis. Thus, for the lack of an alternative (at this stage of the discussion), we have to settle for the following: ShivaLinga is the ‘form’ in which we do Puja to Shiva. Apparently, this mind-numbing (linguistic and philosophical) tour merely tells us what our grandmothers told us in all their simplicity: we do puja to Shiva in the form of Linga.

Of course, one can go further in such a discussion along any number of other lines. It is not my intent and, I presume, neither yours to do so. Hopefully, this goes some way to clarifying the question you raised. The issues and the disputes are not so arbitrary any more than they are merely questions of alternate readings or etymological fights. Other substantial issues are involved and it is not an ‘undecidable’!

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