Its All Bull

Indian Mythology 29 Comments

Published in Devlok,  Sunday Midday,  August 08, 2010


I recently visited a brand new modern Shiva temple complete with a neon sign post and a billboard. The patron of the temple wanted me to see the USP of his temple: a gigantic Nandi bull placed in the courtyard facing the main shrine. Nandi is the mount of the hermit-god. The statue made of concrete was an impressive one. As I walked around it, I asked the patron, “Is this a bull or an ox?” “It is Nandi,” he replied. So I clarified myself, “Is Nandi a bull or an ox?” This baffled the patron. It dawned on me he did not know the difference between a bull and an ox. A true blue city-slicker, with no understanding of animal husbandry practices, he was!

I had asked the question as I noticed that the scrotum (the bag of skin containing testicles) of the gigantic Nandi bull could not be seen at the back. In any traditional Shiva temple, one is often shocked by the importance placed to Nandi’s scrotum. It hangs down prominently and some devotees, including the priest, make it a point to touch it before entering the shrine of Shiva. Modern images of Nandi, made using concrete and marble and plastic and plaster of Paris, shy away from doing so. “Because,” explained one craftsman who I interrogated, “people feel embarrassed by it. They find it very vulgar. So we don’t show it anymore. Some even assume Nandi is a cow!”

We are becoming an increasingly prudish people. Prudishness laced with ignorance is a dangerous combination. Showing the scrotum of Nandi is critical. The point is not to titillate. The point is to inform all devotees that Nandi is male (not a cow) and that he is not castrated (not an ox or steer or bullock). This means he is not domesticated. Nandi cannot be used to pull ploughs or carts. He is no beast of burden. To show Nandi without his scrotum is to take away his identity.

When I explained this to the temple patron, he came up with an ingenious answer to save face, “Actually the scrotum is there, hidden under his body.” I smiled as no one can make a bull of concrete stand up.

There is a reason that Shiva’s mount, the bull Nandi, is not an ox. A bull is a useless animal; he is wild, and cannot be used to do any work. But he can do one thing that an ox cannot do: he can make cows pregnant. And unless a cow gets pregnant, and delivers a calf, she cannot give milk. So the milk of the cow depends on the intact scrotum of a bull. Farmers typically castrate all bulls and turn them into oxen, except one or two. These bulls, known as Nandi, are allowed to roam free in the streets and temples. These are dangerous temperamental creatures that one has to be wary of. It is this bull that the Matador in Spain fights.

In mythology, Shiva refuses to get married and be a householder. In other words, he refuses to get domesticated. But the Goddess appeals to him to marry her. Unless Shiva participates in worldly affairs, unless he serves her as a husband, children cannot be conceived and the world cannot be created. Shiva reluctantly agrees. He becomes the groom of the Goddess, but he is never the head of her household. He lives with her but is not the bread winner. He fathers children, but is not father to the children. Shakti becomes the autonomous matriarch. She becomes the cow, nourishing the world with her milk. He remains independent in spirit, refusing to be fettered by the ways of the world. This aspect of Shiva is what Nandi portrays as he sits benignly at his master’s doorstep.

  • ravi torne

    very interesting. Farmers in Maharashtra celebrate a”Bulls Day” called POLA on Shravan month’s last day i e Amavasya.Lately it was celebrated on 8th Sept.10. it is their way to express gratitude to the Bull.

    • ravi torne

      sorry for mistake!
      it is not bull’s day but bullocks’ day. Bullock has been avery useful in ploughing fields and carrying bullock carts etc.

      • shashi thakur

        To correct you it is not Bullock’s Day but Bollock’s Day :P

        • ravi torne

          i beg to differ sir, It is bullocks day only.

  • Rashmi

    Two thought processes here :

    1] No wonder men got the aspect of ”not being attached” and remaining independent in spirit without bothering much!!!

    2] Increasing prudishness and hypocrisy in accepting the natural facts in today’s society.

    Inspite of being evolved and forming so many cultures through the centuries, we as humans have been unable to bridge the gap between the value systems of the societies and natural acceptance of facts and happenings!!!

    • Ramdas

      Shakti becomes the autonomous matriarch.

    • Anil Satram

      Yet again, I agree absoultey with your thughts that Nandi traditionally represented symolically the independent spirit and unattached with the external world. What makes me laugh is that people today who follow rituals blindly touch the scrotum devoid of any knowledge of its relevant and significance.

      I’ve been always critical about rituals being undertaken today without much understanding of its real significance to our lives (Saririk, Mansik, Atmic or Baudhik.

      My 2p thought – you see its “my belief”.


  • i enjoy reading you. it does provide a lot of insight into various aspects of life via mythology.

    However a question arises : the way you explain the mythology…would it have been created with those thoughts or it is your positive imagination that you are able to attach such meanings to the stories and symbols???

    • Devdutt

      You will never know :-) what came first, the observer or the observation?

      • Anil Satram

        But, in the observation process the observer perceives in totality the observed when the observation, the observed and the observer become ONE. I would say from that point only ONE (trinity of observer, observed and observation) remains and no question of what comes first. For our manipulative mind we attach rational that the observer (the power) comes first but…the perception just happens in true observation.

      • @ devdutt – thats a smart reply. :)


        would request you to go through my essay on evolution of god on my blog.
        “Why God Exists? ~ an atheists anthropological narration”
        I assure it would not be a waste of time.

        do share your response if you happen to read it.

        i must also acknowledge that Business Sutra series had a lot of impact as far as aligning my thoughts on belief systems is concerned.

  • Yps

    I loved the article not because of highlighting the importance of Nandi but pointing out how today’s city slickers and our future generations do not know the difference between bull, ox and bullock. :)
    It also points out the reason why certain societies are matriarchal.

  • as always, love reading your insights into mythology.

    i’ve always believed Hinduism symbols to be well though of and well executed. though after many centuries they have lost their original meanings, like you pointed out.

    it is interesting, that in Hinduism, Gods can have negative or somewhat negative qualities as well. Shiva being married and yet not taking part in running the household is only one of them. but the beauty is, even then there is a moral in the story, even with a negative quality, He has something to give…

    thanks for sharing.

  • As always, Extremely interesting…

    thank you for sharing this..


  • Fantastic! How ignorant we are of the significance of the rituals we follow blindly.


    quite interesting and informative
    not heard before

  • thanx for “enlightment” again , like always…

  • “enlightenment” is helpful thanks .

  • Kaveri Kumar

    Enlightening and a pleasant read. I look forward to your posts always.

  • george

    hypocrisy is present in all religions with passage of time. while michael angelo.s paintings in nude were very much appreciated in renaissance period , subsequently some lessor painters at the instance of the church have dressed them robing of those paintings of its original meanings

  • The devotees who visit Lord Shiva Temple also have the practice of having Darshan of Shivalingam keeping their two fingers on the two ears (forming a diamond shape ) and the practice of whispering something into the right ear of Nandi installed in front of the Shivalingam.

    Can you bring out the significance of these rituals please.

    • Amritha

      Nandi the bull is Shiva’s vehicle, Nandi is found sitting in front of the sanctum sactorum in every Shiva temple facing the image and looking at him all the time. In fact no one is allowed to see the chief deity in a Shiva temple without paying homage to the setaed Nandi looking a Shiva from afar through the space between the ears and the top of his head.

  • pankaj

    i like your thoughts as u stress more upon being spiritual & not ritual.
    but i have one thing to ask:do u really believe that epics and all other scriptures once happened on earth or they are just stories to direct man to good civilization?
    plz reply

  • sir, i have been following ur books and blog for about an year now and i must accept that i am still amazed.

    i have just one question that is it the interpretation of the stories that matters more or should the story as it is should be kept sacrosanct. A single story whether it be related to Lord Shiva (in the “Decoding the Phallus” symbol) or any other for that matter can be interpreted in a number of ways. The moral of the story can be interpreted to satisfy the selfish needs of some segments of the society (here I am telling about a general phenomenon common among societies and religions) or just to “make the point”.

    Somewhere it is said that Duryodhana was awarded the heaven because he kept his Karma (because he was evil and he never deterred from it) while somewhere else it is said that he chose to serve in heaven first and then in hell, but the truth remains that he was in heaven when Yudhishthira went to heaven with Yama.

    The only doubt that sometimes haunts me is that while trying to explore our mythology (or any other mythology for that matter) is it the personal interpretation that matters more or the general interpretation that is “obvious”.

    Please clarify.

    In any case I am quite underqualified to rate you but till I must say I am already ur fan and will continue to be for the simple reason that in the glitters of today u give one more reason to look back to my country and be proud of my past.

    Thank You.

  • Nonyameko Afiya

    As always, I’m amazed at how you write your stories. I have been following you for almost six months. I love every article you write.

    As African American who lives in the US, I can certainly use these stories and articles in my every day life.

    I truly hope to meet you one day when I visit India. (Will be in Kanyakumari, India on Nov. 14-21, 2010)

    Many blessings to you.

    Nonyameko Afiya

  • Satheesh


    Let me add here that the ritual of touching Nandi before entering a Shiva temple is considered a wrong practice by learned people. The reason is Nandi being Shiva’s vehicle and himself a highly accomplished baktha of the highest order, is immersed in dhyana of his master. Any activity that disturbs his dhyana would be wrong and thus you can bow before him, but do not touch him.

  • mk

    let me share an interesting and amusing anecdote as why nandi sits in front of Shivaś lingam and why we all touch his scrotum….In the jungles of Ratnagiri, a folktale talks of lore long forgotten, there is tribe that sings the lore every shivrathri. it lore goes as below…

    Shiva after getting married to Parvati was enjoying his blissful wedded life. Parvathi after some time felt longing to visit her parents place and decided to go. after many years still she did not return. Shiva it seems was very lonely and could not continue to control his urge of sex. Lo as his phallus became stiffer, he decided to use Nandis help. Nandi allowed shiva to ravage his body on a condition that he would do once shiva has finished his urge. Once Shiva was over with his appetite, he ran away from nandi and sat in a small room turned himself into a phallus thus avoiding nandi. nandi could not the small room sat outside waiting for shiva and thus has been seating ever since.

    Since then, all devotees of shiva touch nandiś scrotum before we worship shiva as a reminder to nandi of shivaś promise.. so goes the tale.

    I have heared this story myself among the tribals of western ghats when trekking near these remote places. So whether you guys rebuke me or not the story made every sense for me as to why touch Nandiś balls everytime

  • editorrid

    bull is a useless animal? what is your worth idiot pattnaik? anti-Hindu on the payroll of a jewish lobby.