Śiva as Liṅgōdbhava

Folio from a Śiva Purāṇa Manuscript: Śiva Manifesting as Lingōdbhava mūrti, within a Linga of Flames, Worshipped by Brahma and Viṣṇu ca. 1828 Rajasthan, Marwar (Jodhpur); VMFA

Śiva is said to have appeared in the form of a blazing pillar of fire of immeasurable size to cull the pride of Brahmā and Viṣṇu. The story, which is almost identical in the Liṅga Purāṇa, Kūrma Purāṇa, Vāyu Purāṇa and Śiva Purāṇa runs as follows:
Viṣṇu, at the end of a Kalpa was slumbering on the deeper abyss of waters; a great illumination occurred near Viṣṇu and from it emerged Brahmā. Brahmā approached Viṣṇu and declared himself as a creator of the whole universe and demanded of Viṣṇu to declare himself, to which Viṣṇu replied that he was also the architect of the universe. Brahmā could not brook the statement, and hence a quarrel ensued.

“The flames emitted by the two weapons of Brahmā and Viṣṇu burned the three worlds. On seeing this imminent untimely dissolution the bodiless form of Śiva assumed the terrific form of a huge column of fire in their midst.”

Śiva Purāṇa

At this juncture Śiva appeared to settle the dispute. Śiva took the form of a great Linga resembling the great cosmic fire with hundreds of tongues blazing out of it. Śiva set for them the task of finding the beginning or end of this Lingaa. Brahmā assumed the form of a swan and set out to find its upper limit, while Viṣṇu assumed the form of a boar, Varāha, and began burrowing into the ground to find the lower end or root. This attempt of both gods proved futile and they discovered the reality of this fiery pillar. They came to realise that it was certainly far greater than themselves, whose top or bottom they could not define. Thus humiliated, they approached the pillar of fire and began to praise Śiva.

While searching for the top of the pillar of fire, Brahma came upon a petal of the kētakī flower and asked it wherefrom it was descending; to this the petal answered that it was falling from the head of Maheśvara. Taking hold of the flower, Brahma descended and light to Vishnu that he had brought the flower from the head of Maheśvara.

Brahmā said, “O Hari, the top of this column has been seen by me. This Ketakī flower is my witness.” The Ketakī flower repeated the falsehood endorsing the words of Brahmā in his presence.

For uttering this falsehood, Brahma was cursed not to receive any worship from men on earth, and the kētakī was thereafter never used to worship Śiva (but is one of the flowers most liked by Śri Kṛṣṇa).

Śiva as Liṅgodbhavamūrti stands in an oval of flames wearing a tall crown and holding his distinctive attributes, the deer and axe. This image combines the aniconic form of Śiva as a Liṅga with the human image of the God. Fire was the source of the original form of Śiva, in the form of the Vedic Rudra-Agni-Stambha equation. Images of Liṅgodbhava are popular in Tamil Nadu and Śaiva temples normally have an image of the God on the exterior of the rear or west wall of the main sanctum.

The liṅgodbhavamūrti (लिङ्गोद्भवमूर्ति) is one of the common icons in Southern India, which according to the Āgamas is required to be placed in the niche in the western wall of the garbhagṛha or the central shrine. In the Aṃśumadbhedāgama is found the following description of the liṅgodbhavamūrti: The figure of Śiva in the aspect of candraśekharamūrti should be carved on the front of a liṅga.

Āgamic texts give a detailed account of iconometrical proportion as to how much space is to be allotted for Śiva who occupies the ellipsoidal recess of the sthāṇu. The Kāraṇāgama enjoins that one fifth of the Liṅgā must be left uncarved on the top and bottom respectively, the remaining allotted for the depression meant for the emerging figure of Śivarūpa or Parameśvara. Regarding the flanking figures, the Kāraṇāgama points out that the swan and boar forms of Brahma and Viṣṇu must be carved on the right top and left bottom respectively. The legs below the knees of the figure of Candraśekhara carved on the liṅga should be invisible, that is, should be left unsculptured. On the right of the liṅga and near its top Brahmā should be represented in the shape of a swan (haṃsa) while Viṣṇu should be carved in the form of a boar on the left at the foot of the liṅga. The figures of Brahmā and Viṣṇu should be sculptured on the right and left respectively of the liṅga and also facing it, with two hands held on the chest in the añjali pose. The colour of the figure of Śiva should be red, that of Viṣṇu black and that of Brahmā golden yellow. Two types of iconographical delineations are recommended for the carvings of the attendant deities: (1) zoomorphic or human forms of Brahma and Viṣṇu, (2) both in human form offering añjali to Śiva.

But in the actual iconographical representations, both human as well as zoomorphic illustrations occur simultaneously. The Kāmikāgama adds few more details regarding the iconometrical formulation of the zoomorphic forms. The size of the bird must be equal to the size of the face of Parameśvara, while that of the boar be double the size of Śiva’s face, thereby suggesting the comparative sizes of the bird and the boar respectively.

Liṅgodbhavamūrti is depicted in the Aruṇācaleśva Temple in Tiruvaṇṇāmalai, one of the Pañcasabhā or “five halls where Śiva is said to have danced”; he is also depicted in the Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, and many other Śaiva temples across Southern India.

Tamil Concept of Liṅgōdbhava

The Tiruvaṇṇāmalaisthala-purāṇam, also called Aruṇācala-purāṇam (16th century A.D.), a work dealing with the Śiva-Liṅgā at Tiruvaṇṇāmalai, glorifies the story of Liṅgōdbhava. Mythologically, the story is a Tamil adoption of the Sanskritic original but it gets localized as a sthalapurāṇa. In commemoration of Śiva’s feat, a grand festival is celebrated in the month of Kārttikai (November-December) on the asterism of Kṛtika (Pleiades). Tens of thousands throng to Aruṇācala to offer worship to the agni (fire), ignited atop the mountain. A darśana or ‘view’ of the dīpa ‘light’ is considered to be auspicious. It is believed that the dīpōtsava or ‘fire festival’ commemorates the day when Śiva stood as a magnificent blazing column with all extending tongues of fire.

In Tamil Śaiva conviction, Liṅgōdbhava is widely known as Aṇṇāmalaiyyār (He is the imperceptible-mountain form), an epithet which takes into account Śiva’s infinitude, comprising the entire universe (piramāṇța kōļakai in Tamil – Aruṇācala-purāṇam, “Aruṇācaleśvarar-stuti) . This is the Viśvarūpa-Liṅgā or Liṅgā in cosmic form, a synonym of Mahāliṅgā (Great Liṅgā). The Liṅgā in the central shrine of Aṇṇāmalaiyyār temple for the ‘fire-nature’ of Śiva is known as tējōliṅgā, jyōtirliṅgā or viśvaliṅgā or viśvajyoti. – “the effulgent-linga”.

Bhakti ‘devotional’ literature of 7th-8th centuries AD enumerates the magnified form of Śiva. Tiruñānacampantar (7th century AD) in his Tevāram. hymns speaks of the form in every ninth verse of each patikam or ‘stanza’ (Kalidos 1988: 429). Another Nayanār Tirunāvukkaracar also sings of the luminous liṅgā in every one of the verses (Têvāram: 5: 209) under Ilinkäpurāņat Tirukkuruntokai. Cuntaramūrti Nāyānar (9th century AD) notes Brahma and Viṣṇu as engaged in their expedition to measure the Linga which consisted of the three cosmic fires, ie the Sun, the Moon and the Agni, because it encompassed the entire universe (Tēvāram 7: 67: 4).

A Tamil inscription of Rājarāja Cōḷa (A.D. 985–1014) notes the Lord as ‘Liṅgāpurāṇa-dēvar’, or the lord of Liṅgāpurāṇa.

The Complete Hindoo Pantheon, Comprising the Principal Deities Worshipped by the Natives of British India Throughout Hindoostan: Being a Collection of the Gods and Goddesses Accompanied by a Succinct History and Descriptive of the Idols by E. A. Rodrigues

References to the story of Liṅgodbhavamūrti, Śiva’s appearance as a massive column of light to confound both Brahmā and Viṣṇu are abound in the poetry of Tamil Śaiva bhakti poets like Appār and Tiruñānacampantar. Pallava monarchs ruling from Kanchipuram during this period incorporated depictions of Liṅgodbhavamūrti into their grand temples. For Appār, a 6th century Saint, the imagery generated overwhelming emotion, awe, reverence and adoration. In both poetry and Pallava Era iconographic representation, especially the eighth century Kailaśanātha Temple in Kanchipuram, the Liṅgodbhavamūrti blends the aniconic shaft of light with the emergence of Śiva in that human form that merges aniconic with iconic.

The ultimate goal of bhakti poetry, poetic expression of awe at Śiva’s majestic display of light is the savouring and arousal of emotion — from the erotic to the humorous to the ultimate surrender — this forms the core of aesthetic traditions of bhāva, rasa and dhvani.

Appār frequently evokes references to the Liṅgodbhava. He describes the majestically awe-inspiring sight of the Lord’s column of light, humbling Brahmā and Viṣṇu, transforming both into Śiva’s most ardent devotees.

“I saw in the good city of Nāraiyūr
the father worshipped and praised by Viṣṇu and Brahmā,
who destroyed Yama, who is esteemed in the Liṅga Purāṇa as producing a fire beyond measure;
who is mathematics and the letters of beautiful melodies,
who bestowed grace on three Demons when their city‘s were vanquished,
the Lord who made even a spider king,
and who dances on the cremation ground where the jackals gather.”

In Appār’s ‘Iliṅka Purāṇa tirukkuruntokai’, each stanza refers directly to the coloumn of light. He says that while Viṣṇu and Brahmā search in vain for a vision of the Lord, they wilfully neglect more quotidian forms of worship and reverence, instead of yearning for something far greater:

“They did not meditate, bathing him with milk and ghee.
They did not praise him issuing lies and deceit.
There the two tried to see the Lord in his true form of intensely hot fire.”

“They did not wear rudrākṣa beads or carry skulls in their hands.
They did not blow the great white conch resoundingly.
There the two dug and tried to see the intensely hot form, the embodiment of the universe.”

Appār expresses a feverish search to see Śiva, through ritual worship such as bathing him with milk and ghee — with an intense desire to see the highest form of Śiva, the form that embodies the universe in a blazing column of fire.

”Red-eyed Viṣṇu and Brahmā wandered everywhere, searching for him, but they did not see him.
The embodiment of virtue, his red matted locks flowing,
appeared in the Liṅga and said,
‘I am here!’ “

Only when Śiva’s anthropomorphic form appears — as an ascetic with widely flowing matted locks — does the search by Viṣṇu and Brahmā reach any conclusion. Human effort, and even divine effort are in vain in the face of such an incomprehensible form. The phrasing “I am here!” signals simultaneously the overwhelming complexity and simplicity embodied in the Liṅga that generates both confusion and awe, relief and adoration.


1. Historicizing Emotions: Practices and Objects in India, China, and Japan; edited by Schuler, Barbara

2. Elements of Hindu Iconography, T.A. Gopinatha Rao

3. Iconography of Liṅgodbhavamūrti in South India A Probe into Stylistic Evolution, T. Chandrakumar


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