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Lingodbhava Symbolism - Shiva In Linga Form To Settle Dispute Between Vishnu And Brahma

There is a very popular story in Hinduism in which Brahma and Vishnu attempts to find the beginning and end of Shivling. The story in plain sight might suggest the superiority of Shiva but there is deep symbolism attached to the story.

The Story

Once there was a tussle between the Lord of Creation, Brahma, and the Lord of Protection, Vishnu. Brahma maintained that since he was the creator, without him there would be nothing to protect, therefore he was the mightiest. Vishnu contested this, saying that since nothing created could remain without his acts of protection, he indeed was the greatest. This developed into a heated argument. As the situation deteriorated, the Maheshwara Shiva decided to intervene and he decided to appear before them as an infinite column of light (Shivling).

Maheswara suggested to the contenders that they might resolve their argument by taking part in a contest of trying to find either end of the column of light, and that whosoever succeeded could indeed be declared the winner. Since both of them were, in their own minds, superior to all others neither of them could identify the newcomer, and so agreed to this fair way of settling the issue. Vishnu took the form a of a boar and went digging down in the earth to trace the bottom end of the column, and Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up to seek the top end of the column. Even after a long time neither was successful. Vishnu got tired of the venture and realized that the new entrant was obviously mightier than himself and therefore he was not in a position to boast of being the mightiest. Having learnt his lesson, he retired from the contest.

Meanwhile during the flight upwards, Brahma saw a screw pine flower (ketaki or thazhambu) floating down from above, and invited it to be a witness as to his having sighted the top of the column, after convincing it with the argument that “if something comes from above, there is a top and it had been seen.” When Brahma went down along with the flower, Maheswara realized the trick being played by Brahma and cursed him, saying that he would never be worthy of worship and that there would therefore be no temples dedicated to him. It was also ordained that, for having been a false witness, the ‘ketaki’ would be prohibited from use in Siva pujas. Thus both the gods were shown that they were not the mightiest.

This event is depicted in all Shiva temples in South India, in the form of Lingodbhava, installed on the peripheral pradakshina route directly secure to the wall behind the temple of the main idol of Siva in a temple complex.


The lesson from this story is that, in a given situation, one is expected to play one’s role and to respect the responsibilities that others have. That is, there is as much independence as there is interdependence. Realization of these moral precepts benefits any community. Now, what about the possibilities of other lessons? Also, suppose that there is a reversal of roles of the two gods in the above event. For instance, could Vishnu have gone upward instead of Brahma, and Brahma downward in place of Vishnu? This is most unlikely and quite unnatural.

Why so? Just like any person is driven by their own vasanas so it would be natural to presume that the gods too have their own tendencies, as long as they see different gods instead of the only One. Our mythological descriptions of the gods attribute protection qualities to Vishnu, and that includes creation of wealth. That is the reason for the goddess Lakshmi being his consort. Likewise, the generation or procreation aspect of Brahma include ideas and the learning of new methods and procedures. Is this why the goddess of learning Saraswati is Brahma’s consort? Against this background, let us consider the process and the result of the tussle.

Protection of anything or anyone presumes material stability. It starts with having some infrastructure including land, buildings, etc., and proceeds further with the creation of wealth in some form or other in order to engender a feeling of security. Businessmen tend to understand this better than others; although when taken to its extreme ends by the avaricious, it can lead to the exploitation of people. Lakshmi, also known as Sridevi, being one consort of Vishnu the other one is known to be Bhudevi, who has a direct relationship with the earth and thus the world. Thus, anything worldly, wealth-related, down-to-earth tends to be related to the source of wealth, so it is no wonder that Vishnu went digging through the earth to find the base of the column of light.

Likewise, creation not only belongs to the realm of physical growth but also to that of the development of ideas which generate the seeds of thinking, contemplation, and such similar traits. They generally tend to elevate a person. Ideas form the core of learning, and are characteristic of something essentially nebulous and fuzzy like thought, which can take shape only when given physical form. Until then it has a cloud-like character, with no specifically definable form or shape. This aspect has more to do with the logical nature of things. That is why we describe a person as being in a cloud when engaged in thinking. Thus, anything that is related to knowledge or learning, and associated with being up-in-the-clouds, is the purview of Brahma who, being the consort of the goddess of learning, went up towards the sky in order to establish his supremacy. Hence reversal of the roles of these two gods would not have been natural. Now, let us look at the progress and the fruits of the efforts of these two gods.

Vishnu persisted with his efforts, and at some point he realized the futility of his work. He was able to see clearly that there was a greater power than his. He returned and surrendered as a loser to the infinite. Is not surrender what is expected of anyone who is able to see clearly the finiteness of oneself? What is the general experience of any person who is very wealthy, but is struck by a tragedy? He not only learns that all his wealth cannot get him what he needs, much less the happiness that he desires so much. He begins to see the futility of belongings and eventually develops detachment from things that are not ultimately useful.

On the other hand, what was the experience of Brahma? He saw a flower falling from above, his intellect started working in a very logical way, and he coached the flower to be a false witness buttressed by a convincing argument. He returned with this witness and strived to get himself declared the winner. How could it ever have happened to the consort of the goddess of learning? Obviously, there is a lesson here for us. If the pursuit of knowledge is not undertaken in the right spirit and is confined to ephemeral things, there is always the danger of it becoming a double-edged sword. Intelligence can become perverted, in Sanskrit ‘yukthi becoming kuyukthi’, and that marks the fall of a person. Knowledge usually picked up through worldly senses and things must progressively and ultimately graduate to that of knowing oneself. If that does not happen, then there is always potential for trouble. It will make a person argumentative and cunning, ready to coax others into colluding in what is believed to be the only right way of behaviour, but actually is immoral. This is what possibly has been illustrated by Brahma’s experience.

Action is needed to develop one’s well being. It starts with the development of comfort for living, initially in order to meet the basic needs and later on, develops into a yearning for more comforts and luxuries. Even when this goes unchecked and may develop into avaricious ways, a sudden shock may come to the person in the form of some event, usually in the nature of a tragedy. At that point, the futility of all the material things acquired thus will become apparent. For the majority of people, this seems to be the way; except that it may take a long time to reach that stage of maturity and the acquisition of real knowledge. But that is the safest path, as it starts with certain ground realities. In the pursuit of that path, knowledge and understanding develop and the mind is prepared for the ultimate action of surrender. The path taken by Vishnu is representative of this trajectory.

However, knowledge of the finite and the infinite, if not properly backed up by maturity of mind, can be dangerous. When that knowledge develops in a person having the right state of mind, there is the possibility of instant realization of the Self, as they say, by the time the second leg is placed after the first one while mounting a horse, as in the example of King Janaka. In spite of this quick result, knowledge can work like a double-edged sword, as has been shown in the case of Brahma. Further, it must be realized that this type of knowledge is only at the intellectual level and, at that level, one can only ask questions of oneself. The answers that are received must again be regarded as intellectual and hence ephemeral. The right answers will evolve by themselves to the questioner, as and when he is ready to receive them as experiences. At that point, it is said by seers that there may neither be Brahma nor Vishnu!

Has the Brahma-Vishnu tussle then got one more lesson for us? Vishnu, symbolic of the path of karma, and Brahma, symbolic of the jnana path, both start with a handicap, namely their individual egos. During the competition, Vishnu realizes this, and ultimately surrenders.

Does it mean that the karma path, however arduous and long, has the benefit of mellowing and maturing a person even when he is not so ready to begin with? The subtler method of the jnana path is more direct, but one must be aware of the consequences of wrong leads that the self-assumed or arrogant intellect may provide. Does a fall such as the one that happened to Brahma await a person, who continues to look for answers on the intellectual plane? 

All these show that the mythological descriptions and associations have packed in them a lot of associative information. When earnestly tapped with the right state of mind, they can offer new perspectives on spiritual endeavors. 

Source January 2008 Jayanthi Issue of Mountain Path Magazine of Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram page 49 to 54. The article written by S. RAMAN.