About H. W.

J Foster can be found somewhat left of center and is currently living and working in Nepal.

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Shape)

The second of the six main identifying characteristics in Shaligram interpretive practice is shape. I realize that this might, at least initially, seem relatively self-explanatory but shape, like set and color, is as complex as any other trait. The Puranas, especially, have a wide variety of potential shapes that Shaligrams might appear in. They range from the simple, such as round or triangular, to esoteric, such as cow-shaped, fish-shaped, umbrella-shaped, and layered (meaning that the Shaligram has multiple stacked surfaces).

Shape can also refer to the variety of bumps, rises, and indentations on the body of the Shaligram that form its “markings.” I’ll go into markings more in-depth in another post later but what should suffice to say for now is that shapes that appear in various places on a Shaligram also add nuance to its identification. The most common of these shape-markings are referred to in the texts as “arrows/bows,” “the neck of a peacock,” “gada,” “conch,” and “lotus.” As such, using shape as a characteristic of identifying a Shaligram includes both the overall shape of the shila as well as the shapes that appear on its surfaces.

This is also where Shaligram interpretation starts to get complicated. Most Shaligrams fall into one of some 90 available name-types that determine which deity manifestation is present in the shila but there is also a large degree of room for combinations. What I mean by this is that most Shaligrams have a primary manifestation, such as Lakshmi-Narayan or Krishna or Shiva, but they can then also include other secondary presences, such as Devi consorts, sages, or other figures. All of which is generally determined by reading the shape of the Shaligram and the shapes that appear on the Shaligram.

Here’s a basic example.

The Shaligram below is the deity Anirudda. Anirudda (“The one who cannot be obstructed or resisted by anyone”), is a form of Bhagavan Vishnu (the Supreme God), a son of Pradyumna, and the grandson of Krishna. Along with Pradyumna, Sankarshan, and Vasudev, Anirudda is considered one of Vishnu’s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes or functions of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation.

Anirudda Shaligram

It’s a pretty distinctive Shaligram, essentially determined by it’s recognizable scooped shape (formed by the bivalve Retroceramus) and pointed end. But Anirudda doesn’t always appear alone.

This shila is a Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram. It’s also readily identifiable by it’s single, large, dominating chakra, smooth nodular center, and partially interrupted spiral (at the base). But you will hopefully also notice the presence of Anirudda as well in the impression in the center. This shila is, therefore, identified as a Narayan-Anirudda Shaligram.

Narayan-Anirudda Shaligram

Which then differs from the classic Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram which looks like this:

Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram

But that’s not what most people are thinking when they think “shape.” Generally, what most Shaligram practitioners first learn to recognize is the overall shape of the Shaligram and the ways in which these distinctive forms give us clues to the presence of the deity.

For example, the Matsya Shaligram (the first avatar of Vishnu who appears in the form of a fish) is broadly fish-shaped with at least one, but often two, “fins.”

Matsya Shaligram
Matsya and Matsya Shaligram

The Kamadhenu Shaligram, a manifestation of the “Cow of Plenty” is, unsurprisingly, described as “shaped like a kneeling cow.”

Kamadhenu Shaligram

Less iconic Shaligrams still have significant shapes, though. Sudarshan Shaligrams (manifestations of Vishnu’s discus weapon) are clean and clear spirals. The Trivikrama Shaligram, conversely, has three distinct “steps” on the body of shila* and the Yagnamurti Shaligram (a Shaligram most often used in yajna fire rituals) always has the impressions of two sacrificial sticks (sruk and sruva) along with a wide, flat, body and at least one (but occasionally two or three) large holes or depressions. 

*Trivikrama is a manifestation of Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu and the first incarnation to have appeared in Tretayuga (the third age). The name Trivikrama comes from the giant form Vamana took when he conquered the three worlds – sky, earth and underworld – by taking three giant steps.

Yagnamurti Shaligram

As such, shape, as you can see, is complicated. Most of the time, Shaligram shapes act as key indicators of the deity manifestation within the shila but they also link back to a wide variety of stories, histories, and personalities present throughout Hindu and Buddhist traditions. For this reason, even though the Puranas have set up a relatively standard set of naming conventions and lists of characteristics, Shaligram themselves can be quite unruly. There are nearly infinite combinations of possible forms or patterns that might appear in Shaligram interpretation and hence why this practice is a skill that many specialists hone over years and years of study and experience.

Even now, I am humbled by the varieties and the deep knowledge of so many of the elders I have had the privilege to learn from.

For this reason, allow me to end with a related story about my own journey to this point; an excerpt taken from my second manuscript in-progress:

One of my long-term teachers explained is thusly: “You first look at the shape.” Sriram Bhavyesh placed a Shaligram in the palm of his right hand. “It’s smooth, black, and almost perfectly round, but it has this one chakra on the bottom here which forms a ridge all along the edge. It makes the bottom flat, the top rounded, and there is this little protrusion here on the end, sort of pointed. This is a Mahavishnu Shaligram. Others call it Dasavatara. It is Sri Kurma, the turtle incarnation of Vishnu as you see that it is shaped like a turtle. But you see this indentation here in the center of the shell?”

He turned the Shaligram to show me the small, rounded, impression with a small amount of iron pyrites glittering in the center. “It is golden in color. This is the mark of Mount Mandara where it rested upon Kurma’s back. From here the gods churned the ocean of milk and so this is Sri Kurma Mandar Parvat, the turtle who carries the mountain. This we find in Bhagavata Purana, in Vishnu Purana, and in Mahabharata.”

“Would everyone agree?” I asked. “If I were to take this to another temple, would they say the same?”

Sriram laughed. “I am Sri Vaishnava, so I know it in this way. A Shaiva might say the same. So would a Smarta. They would know that it is Mahavishnu because this is what the scriptures tell us. They would also know that it is Kurma; that can be read no other way. But maybe they would see some other manifestation in the small things. Each tradition is different and different teachers can see different things. It depends on who you are when the Shaligram speaks to you.”

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (Set)

Reading a Shaligram may begin with scriptural texts, but it ends with the final divination of the deity by way of each Shaligram’s unique characteristics. For ritual specialists, interpreting a Shaligram typically follows three general steps: determining the name-type of the Shaligram (from the scriptures at hand), determining the specific deity manifested, and then determining the particular mood or stance (bhava) the deity happens to be in. As I noted in my previous post, Shaligram Interpretive Practice (The Basics), this is accomplished with the observation of six types of characteristics: set (how the Shaligram rests on a flat surface), shape, color, chakra (number and type of spirals), vadana (number and type of “mouths”/holes), and vanamala (number of white lines).

This post will focus on the first of these characteristics: set.

Numerous Puranic descriptions of Shaligrams reference markings that appear on the top, bottom, right or left sides of the shila (stone). But, if one cannot determine which way the Shaligram is sitting, these descriptions aren’t of much use since everything would be completely relative. Set therefore refers to the way a Shaligram naturally comes to rest when placed on a flat, stable, surface. Once the resting position is then achieved, the practitioner can observe where the Shaligram’s top and base are as well as what constitutes the shila’s general point-of-view. More specifically, this involves a sense of how the Shaligram is the most balanced, where it tends to display most of its other surface characteristics, and, sometimes, just where it looks the best.

A devotee paints a tilak on a Krishna Shaligram

This is not meant, however, to imply that all Shaligrams have a clear “face.” In fact, many don’t. But all of this is part of their interpretation and the variations in Shaligram set is typically the first characteristic practitioners look at when reading a Shaligram’s bhava. Many Shaligrams, for example, have very obvious set and these Shaligrams in turn are often described as manifestations who are also solid, steady, and stable. Shaligrams with less defined set are then often described as mischievous, fickle, or harder to please.

To demonstrate what I mean, take a look at this Shiva Linga Shaligram. Among many notable characteristics, one of its most prominent is its strong set. It immediately comes to rest sitting upright, has an even, flat, base, and is difficult to tip over.

Shiva Linga Shaligram

This is a characteristic quite typical of Shiva-type Shaligrams, actually. Look at the Harihara Shaligram (Vishnu-Shiva) pictured below. The Shiva Linga appears on the top of the stone, the Vishnu Sudarshan chakra appears on the bottom, but the set of the Lingam remains upwards-facing, balanced, and secure.

Harihara Shaligram

Even this Shiva-Parvati Shaligram (below) demonstrates an almost uncanny degree of set such that it might make one think it was intentionally carved by a person to look this way. I assure you; it was not! This is one of the Shaligrams that I, myself, found in the Kali Gandaki river during my two years in Nepal. This is precisely how it came out of the water.

Shiva-Parvati Shaligram

This is in quite obvious contrast, on the other hand, to many Krishna-type Shaligrams, who are notorious for having very little, if any, stable set. The most obvious example of this is the Krishna Gopala Shaligram (Krishna as a young child). These Shaligrams (also called Laddu Gopalas for their perfectly round, ball-like, shape) have no set what-so-ever and freely roll about no matter where you put them.

Krishna Gopala Shaligram

Unsurprisingly, other Krishna Shaligrams are similar in this respect. Krishna Govinda Shaligrams (Krishna as Cowherder) are virtually identical to Krishna Gopala Shaligrams except for the fact that they also display a visible white cow-hoof marking.

Krishna Govinda Shaligram

The point here is that Krishna Shaligrams overall have characteristically low set and, as a result, are often described as being playful, naughty, or troublesome in ways that Krishna himself is equally described. This makes set (or, more specifically, their lack of it) one of the defining traits of Krishna Shaligrams broadly as well as for the Shiva Shaligrams above, if for the reverse reason.

A collection of various Krishna Shaligrams

Other Shaligram types then tend to fall along some point of the spectrum in between these two extremes. Sudarshan Shaligrams, for example, tend to face their large, single, chakra upwards (resting on a flattened or even slightly rounded back) but have a notable wobble or spin to them unless sitting on a cushion or pillow. Kurma Shaligrams, on the other hand, rarely wobble and generally sit on a wide, flat, bottom that shows off their turtle-like shapes.

Kurma Shaligram

But all in all, the larger point of understanding the characteristic of set is in understanding how the Shaligram exists in relation to itself and then, how each of its other defining traits exist in relation to the position of its body. Therefore, when Puranic descriptions simply state where markings may appear on a Shaligram as “top,” “bottom,” “right side,” or “head;” set helps you to determine precisely where that is on any given shila. This is especially important then for devotees who give their Shaligrams painted faces, clothing, and crowns. Adding eyes, tilaks, garlands, hats, and other accoutrements to your Shaligram practice generally means seeking some understanding of how your Shaligram normally sits and in which direction it is actually looking. Otherwise the practice of darshan might be come unneccesarily confusing.

A beautiful Shaligram darshan

Shaligram Interpretive Practice (The Basics)

It recently occurred to me that I haven’t spoken very much about the specifics of Shaligram identification. As such, I think I will start a series here on the basics of Shaligram interpretation. This post will outline the foundations of Shaligram reading as I was taught it in Mustang, Nepal (and to a degree in West Bengal, India). My caveat is, as with all my discussions of Shaligrams, is that I can only convey what I know and what I know is largely drawn from Vaishnava and Smarta Hindu traditions. There are variations to these practices, of course, that I am aware of in Shaiva Shaligram traditions, in Jain traditions, and in Buddhist traditions but, for the most part, what I will lay out for you below comes from the Puranic Shaligram commentaries as they are used by Vaishnava and Smarta Hindus.

Following this post, I will then begin a series of blog discussions related to specific characteristics, such as color, shape, and chakra. But for now, let’s get to the fundamentals.

How do you identify a Shaligram manifestation? It’s complicated, of course. But I’ll take a moment delineate the steps and give you a sense of the process.

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Vasudev Shaligram with notations

There are roughly 90 different name-types of Shaligrams (between 89 – 92 depending on the tradition). From Krishna Shaligrams to Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligrams to Shiva Shaligrams and Devi Shaligrams. But even within these categories, there are variations — each corresponding to a different deity and a different mood (bhava).

As such, learning to identify specific Shaligrams takes quite a long time and involves a complicated combination of texts, oral traditions, and ritual experiences meant to teach you how to recognize specific characteristics.

There are, however, about 6 primary characteristics that we’ll start off with. Set, Shape, Color, Vadana, Vanamala, and Chakra.

(Note: All manifestations, even combination manifestations, are usually subsumed under one of the Puranic name-types. For example, the texts describe “Krishna” Shaligrams. But within that category is a huge variety of Krishna’s manifestations: Krishna-Balaram, Krishna Gopala, Radha-Krishna, etc. Each of which is a different Shaligram. But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post, so let’s start with the most recognizable features.)

Also note that each of these characteristics exists on a spectrum and how a particular Shaligram displays the characteristic is integral to understanding the nuance of its identification.

A large collection of small Shaligrams

SET: Essentially, how the Shaligram sits when placed on a stable, flat, surface. How does the Shaligram naturally come to rest? This then helps you to gauge what is “top,” “bottom,” “front,” and “back” relative to the rest of the Shaligram.

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Shiva Linga Shaligram with very stable “set.”

Some Shaligrams have very good set and it is obvious as to how they should normally be sitting. Others, like the Krishna Gopala Shaligram, have no set at all and roll around freely (which is part of their charm!).

Krishna Gopala Shaligram

SHAPE: Pretty obvious. What is the Shaligram’s overall shape? The variety of shapes possible in Shaligrams is endless, of course, but the general shape of the Shaligram tells you something about its manifestation. For example, the Khamdenu Shaligram is typically in the shape of a cow, while the Matsya Shaligram (below) looks like a fish.

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Matsya Shaligram

COLOR: Most Shaligrams are black, but this is not always the case. The Pitambara Shaligram, for example, is described as being yellow or as having yellow chakras. And the Raghunath Shaligram (below) is always “sky colored.” (Meaning grey or bluish). There are also green Shaligrams and, in very rare cases, red ones which are not suitable for home worship.

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Raghunath Shaligram with “sky coloration”

VADANA: Vadana means “mouth,” and it refers to the type, number, and appearance of openings in the Shaligram. The most popular version of this is the Narasimha Shaligram, which has one large vadana with prominent teeth.

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Ugra Narasimha Shaligram

Other Shaligrams, like this Janardhan Shaligram (below), have multiple vadana.

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Janardhan Shaligram

VANAMALA: Vanamala refers to the sacred thread that sometimes appears as white quartz lines on the body of a Shaligram. As with other characteristics, a Shaligram may have one, none, or many vanamala. This Madhusudana Shaligram has one vanamala around its base.

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Madhusudana Shaligram with white vanamala in a single, contiguous, line around the base of the shila.

Purushottama Shaligrams, however, usually have several.

Purushottama Shaligram with three vanamala

CHAKRA: Last, but certainly not least, is the most popular characteristic of them all: the chakra-spiral. How many? How complete? And in what position do they lay? There are all questions that change the understanding of the Shaligram in question.

The most obvious, and most classic, Shaligram is Sudarshan: the manifestation of Vishnu’s chakra weapon. With it’s single, clear, and complete chakra spiral, it is easy to identify.

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Sudarshan Shaligram

But so is the Surya Shaligram, who’s single chakra appears similarly but in relief.

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Surya Shaligram

And then on to this Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram, with its two complete, internally facing, chakra.

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Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram

Eventually to the Multi-Chakra Shaligrams, like this Trivikrama Shaligram with three chakra in a step formation. (Multi-Chakra Shaligrams can have up to a dozen or so chakra, however.)

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Trivikrama Shaligram

So there you have it. The basics of Shaligram identification. There is, of course, a lot more to say and the near-infinite combinations of Shaligram characteristics can often make identification complicated, especially in cases where more than one deity is present.

Which is why, as much as we can, we should seek to preserve these oral traditions and support ritual specialists. It would be a shame to lose this unique understanding of the world.

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The Shaligram collection of Janakapur Palace in Nepal

My Policy on Identifying and Verifying Shaligrams

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As this blog has grown, I have been getting more and more requests to identify or verify Shaligram stones; to make a determination of their manifestation or their authenticity. This is something I have always been happy to help with. However, the number of requests has grown to such a degree where I have to formalize my policy.

My policy on performing this service is:

  • I will identify or verify one or two Shaligrams for free. It takes about 10-15 minutes per shila to make a full evaluation and I am happy to answer questions when I can.
  • If you would like me to identify more than two Shaligrams, I ask for $5 (US) per identification to cover time and the textual work involved.(Up to 10 shilas).
  • If you would like me to identify more than 10 Shaligrams, we can discuss the amount of time the collection is likely to take and negotiate accordingly.
Mahadevi Lakshmi Shaligram (Left) — Mahadevi Sudarshan Shaligram (Right)

“Shaligrams as Kin”

My newest article, called “Cornerstones: Shaligrams as Kin” will be coming out from the Journal of Religion early next year.

Here’s a preview:

“The courtyard of Dinesh and Sangeeta Khanal’s three-story concrete Kathmandu home was decorated for a wedding. Garlands of marigolds and lotus blossoms were strung across the top of the main gate as well as over every door and threshold. Banners of red cloth were draped over every surface, with gold trim and bangles jingling quietly in the breeze. The courtyard between the main door and a smaller, secondary door to the family’s primary living room was filled with clay pots of rice, yogurt, and curries. Leaf plates piled high with fruit; apples, oranges, and pomelos, had been carefully arranged on the benches along the garden wall. All of the home’s deities and photos of deceased parents and grandparents had been brought down from the third-floor puja room to attend the festivities. The kitchen bustled with activity as everyone took their turns in cooking massive pots of potatoes and dal bhat (lentils and rice) for the wedding feast or in arranging trays of sweets and pastries to lay out before the deities as honored guests. The bride was brought out first and placed in the center of a brightly-colored woven mat at the far end of the marble yard. The women of the household — Sangeeta, her two sisters, Sangeeta’s daughter Meena, and Dinesh’s sister — all rushed out to apply welcoming forehead tikkas using mixtures of red and yellow rice paste. Meena began to wrap a beaded red wedding shawl over the bride’s head and pile garlands of fragrant local flowers around her neck. Sangeeta offered water in a small teapot.

“Tulsi is in the mandap?” [i] A voice cried from the kitchen. “Yes!” Another voice responded. “The bride has come down.” The bride, however, was not just named Tulsi, she was Tulsi.[ii] — a five-foot-tall Tulsi (holy basil) plant growing out of a wide clay pot, the finery of a new bride draped over her leaves and woven around her stems, with gold bangles and earrings artfully arranged on either side of her branches. Her husband-to-be was likewise non-human; an object of devotional reverence rather than a traditional groom. A few minutes later, a great cheer would rise up throughout the Khanal household as the senior men of the family processed from the upstairs puja room, bearing a large silver tray upon which sat the expectant groom, a Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram.

     Shaligrams are a specific type of smooth, black ammonite fossil found in the Kali Gandaki region of the Nepal Himalayas, commonly worshipped by Hindus as a manifest form (murti) [iii] of the god Vishnu. As such, Shaligrams are ritual objects often found in Hindu homes where they act as aniconic deity forms that many devotees consider themselves to be ‘in relationship with,’ particularly denoting various kinds of kinship relationships. To understand then how Shaligrams become kin, it is therefore vital to unravel the complicated webs of relations and interactions that characterize Shaligram social life. To begin, the most readily accessible ways in which to demonstrate the kinship of Shaligram stones is by attending to the actual social relationships themselves. Ethnographically, this is to attend to the ritual events, rites of passage, and life milestones celebrated concurrently with both human and divine persons – Shaligrams participating as involved family members – as well as the ways in which people speak about, speak to, and speak of divine persons in their everyday lives.
     Viewing Shaligram relationships through the medium of kinship is also helpful partly because Shaligram practitioners themselves refer to them in this way. By staging an elaborate wedding between a basil-daughter and a fossil-son-in-law, the Khanal family was creating a kinship bond between their household and the deities they worship. They were making their gods—particularly their primary household Vishnu-Narayan Shaligram —into literal members of their family: a ritual action that will be repeated again and again later through daily care in puja rituals and in the practice of darshan. In many ways these ritualized kinship relationships demonstrate what Marshall Sahlins calls a “mutuality of being;” where human persons and nonhuman persons share family ties apart from genetic relationships, are “intrinsic to one another’s existence,” and who “belong to one another” (Sahlins 2013). Shaligrams as kin therefore expand potential fields of symbols and perspectives regarding personhood, the body, and gender as they inform cultural kinship ideas and practices.”

[i] A Hindu wedding booth

[ii] Ocimum tenuiflorum or Holy Basil

[iii] A word typically translated as “image” and relating to any number of different types of sacred icons and images.

It’s Book Release Day!

Firstly, a sincere thank you to everyone who has helped to make this work possible. It’s been years in the making. But today is the day, and “Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas” has now officially been released!

(Links to read a preview of the book below)

You can read a Preview of the book (TOC and Chapter 1) HERE!

Or, order on Amazon HERE!

Order from AUP! Available to order via https://www.aup.nl/en/book/9789463721721/shaligram-pilgrimage-in-the-nepal-himalayas; and in the US via http://shop.btpubservices.com/Title/9789463721721.

In Honor of Ganesh Chaturthi 2020, the Ganesh Shaligram!

In honor of the upcoming Ganesh Chaturthi festival in just two days time, today’s Shaligram discussion will be a re-visitation of the Ganesh Shaligram! One of my favorites, not only for the meanings behind it but because, honestly, it’s just so cute!

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Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinayaka, is one of the best-known and most worshipped deities of the Hindu pantheon. The characteristic image of the elephant-headed god is found throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, and it is not uncommon for a variety of Hindu traditions to worship him regardless of other deity affiliations. Devotion to Ganesha is also widely diffused among Jains and Buddhists.

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Ganesha emerged as a distinct deity in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, during the Gupta period, although he inherited traits from a number of Vedic and pre-Vedic precursors. He was formally included among the five primary deities of Smartism in the 9th century and was later elevated to the status of supreme deity by the Ganapatya sect. The worship of Ganesha is generally considered complementary with the worship of other deities, however, Hindus of all traditions often begin prayers, important undertakings, and religious ceremonies with an invocation of Ganesha.

The “worship of the five forms” (pañcāyatana pūjā) system, which was popularized by Adi Śaṅkarācārya, invokes the five deities Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Devī, and Sūrya and is still common throughout South Asia today, particularly in Nepal.

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Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, as a patron of arts and sciences, and as the god of intellect and wisdom. As the god of beginnings, he is often honored at the start of rituals and ceremonies and is invoked as patron of letters and learning during classes or in academic conferences. As such, the Ganesha Shaligram is used similarly; as a gift during weddings or other festivals and as a focus of worship prior to the undertaking of new endeavors in school, business, or life in general.

More broadly, Ganesh Shaligrams are associated with an ability to face challenges, resolve conflicts, or surmount difficulties in life and are most often included in household altars that make a point to collect Shaligrams of the “five forms” worshipped in the household.

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While not typically included in Puranic lists of Shaligram categories, the Ganesh Shaligram is widely sought after and is often included as a variation of other Shaligram name-types, particularly Shiva and Shiva-Parvati Shaligrams.

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The Ganesh Shaligram bears the distinctive shape and markings of an elephant’s head, either turned sideways (with “trunk” curling downwards as in photo 1) or forward (with the “trunk” splitting the śila down the center as in the above photo).

In rarer variations, the Ganesh Shaligram combines a series of features, including “ears” of the Bivalve (Retroceramus) – similar to the Anirudda Shaligram — and additional markings indicative of a seated man with a rotund belly.

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“But What Is It Really?” – Notes on Science, Pseudoscience, and Religion in Fossil Folklores

“Yes, but what is it really?” The man pressed. “A fossil, or God?”

Sitting in the domestic airport in Kathmandu, Nepal waiting on the day’s flights into the Himalayas was, I found, often fertile ground for impromptu research discussions. Since I was usually on my way to Mustang, where I was carrying out fieldwork on Shaligram stones; the sacred fossil ammonites revered by Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos the world over, it was not uncommon for trekkers or religious pilgrims to strike up conversations with me on the strange combinations of puja (ritual worship) paraphernalia and high-altitude hiking gear I typically carried.

“I mean,” the young Indian traveler went on to say, “the Vedas say that they (Shaligrams) are gods, but that’s just because they didn’t know what they actually were, right?”

For anyone who spends any amount of time working with sacred fossils, especially Shaligram stones, they will quickly come to understand that in actual ritual practice, the categories of “fossil” and “deity” are not mutually exclusive, as might be anticipated in more Euro-American religious philosophies. In other words, that Shaligram practitioners do not necessarily see the fossil “being” of a Shaligram, along with the immense geological and temporal processes that go with it, as a challenge to the divine nature also present in the stones once they manifest in the Kali Gandaki River. In short, that Shaligrams are equally fossil and god and that these two categories are seen as complementary to one another rather than exclusionary.

But the question of “what are they really?” was a common one. At first, I took it as a revelatory question that demonstrated, for many people, a desire to be seen as modern and rational over superstitious and potentially backward. This was because people questioning me about my work wanted to know not only how I saw the Shaligram stones themselves but how I, and other Americans, saw Shaligram practitioners. For example, questioning whether or not non-Hindus and non-Buddhists could truly understand the divinity of the stones came up routinely as did questions about whether or not Americans thought that Indians and Nepalis were ignorant for “seeing God in the stone.” But then, as I began to think on it more and more, I came to realize that the core of the question, the true underlying implication of the word really, had less to do with fears of appearing uneducated and everything to do with the relationship between Shaligrams as scientific objects of study (i.e., ammonite fossils), as religious objects of worship (i.e., Shaligram deities), and as targets of pseudoscience. Essentially, just as the boundaries between “fossil” and “deity” had become blurry and indistinct, so too were the boundaries between “science,” “religion,” and “myth.” My subversion here of the “real” concepts of fossils and “non-real” concepts of gods and magic is also intentional because the boundaries between the two are what is ultimately at stake in conversations of pseudoscience.

Scholars often refer to the religious use of fossils, both historically and in contemporary periods, as fossil folklores (van der Greer et al, 2008). Generally, fossil folklores tend to refer to the use of otherwise ostensibly scientific phenomena; the preserved remains of prehistoric creatures in this case, for mythical or superstitious (read: fictional) ends. For example, the ways in which Young Earth Creationists and some fundamentalist Christians view the fossil record as devilish trickery rather than as products of deep geological time (IBSS 2019) or how “crystal magic” includes the occasional trilobite or bit of petrified wood along with various rare-earth minerals and salts. But in most cases, author’s, even religious authors, tend to take the overall position that their work is in conversation with the study of fossils and that “fossil” remains the default label. This is to say that, in the literature, they are really fossils first and divine second. But despite what we might argue in terms of taking ethnographic narratives seriously or how we might view this issue through competing cultural ontologies, my goal here isn’t to argue whether or not one side is ultimately correct over the other. Rather, what I note is a growing shift in public discourse from folklore to pseudoscience that is, at its core, a shift in models of knowing. Where myths and folklore once played important roles in social narrative, meaning-making, identity, and experience, they’ve now become the focal point for ontic reality and scientific positivism. Which is to say, that the boundaries between folklore and pseudoscience have been transgressed when the point of inquiry and discovery is no longer “what does it mean?” but “what is it really?” [i]

Crystal Magic and Saffron Science

In his book, The Philosophy of Science and the Occult, Patrick Grim argues that the role of pseudoscience, especially as it related to America and Europe in the Victorian Age, was as a label used to place social constraints on the creation and understanding of what constituted reality (1982: 131). In other words, that by calling something “pseudoscience,” one enacted a kind of cultural authority over an idea so as to regulate it to the fringes of acceptable discourse. To proclaim it “not real.” In modern America, I would argue that many academics continue to use the term similarly (for good and for ill) in what Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry call the “demarcation problem” (2013); a philosophical debate about the division between seeking the empirical reality of an object versus understanding the ways in which we think about the object (2013: 1). But this generally Western scientific approach tends to leave out some important other considerations especially as it relates to religious practices in South Asia. And that is the growing problem of saffron science.

Saffron science, according to Meera Nanda, is the “appropriation of modern scientific concepts and theories for the glories of the Vedas.” (2016: 2). Put another way, it is the drive to view all modern scientific discoveries, from robotics to nuclear physics to genetics and evolution, as having their true origins in Hindu sacred texts. This results, not surprisingly, in a fair amount of pseudoscientific thought designed to align the authority of scientific inquiry with right-wing political ideologies that claim India as an intrinsically Hindu homeland. In the US, many teachers and professionals will likely recognize very similar underlying political threads in the problem of Atlantis, Ancient Aliens, and Biblical literalism.

Shaligram stones are, unfortunately, not immune to either of these problems. I have encountered these rare fossils in a variety of contexts outside of their ritual ones, including in debates about their “true belonging” to specific Hindu traditions (and which proves these tradition’s antiquity and spiritual authority) over the claims of other religious groups as well as in New Age rock shops and in pagan-themed stores in the US and the UK where they are prized for their “magic” characteristics along with various amethyst and quartz crystals or other polished minerals. As such, what was originally a type of divine manifestation rooted in the landscapes of the high Himalayas and the creation stories of a variety of South Asian peoples has transformed into a pseudoscientific community in both America and South Asia that is more concerned with two particular problems. Firstly, that Shaligrams are really fossils (rather than aniconic deities) and secondly, that they are possessed of mystical properties that can bestow blessings on their owners. In other words, what was once a search for meaning in the narratives of the stones has become a debate about their ontological existence. The root of the problem has become, “but what are they really?” Regardless of your ultimate position on this subject, in the end, the point that I want to emphasize here is that science, pseudoscience, and religion are not quite so separate and exclusive as we like to believe. They are deeply, inextricably, intertwined.

What Can We Do?

Pseudoscience is never position neutral. It has an aim, even if that aim seems obscure. This means that combating pseudoscience in the classroom and in public discourse is going to have to take into account that many proponents of these kinds of theories are not necessarily arguing from either a position of good faith or from ignorance, but rather from an ideological or political position seeking social power and cultural control. In the classroom, I often translate this dynamic not into questioning a student’s particular faith-based ideal but into helping them uncover the motivations behind the belief. Where does this belief come from? Who does it serve? What is it about science that is being mistrusted here? And why? Pseudoscience is also not unique to Western discourses or even to Euro-American scientific models. It plays a role in political and social conflicts the world over. This means that an understanding of culture and belief systems, both ours and others, are integral to combating the desire to make into empirical reality what was once faith, community, and meaning. For all of us, it’s time to better ask the question, “what does it mean?” and not “but what is it really?”

Bibliography

Grim, Patrick. 1982. Philosophy of Science and Occult, 1st Ed. SUNY Press.

Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies (IBSS). “The Bible and Science: How Old is the Earth.” Accessed 6/9/2019. https://www.bibleandscience.com/science/ageofearth.htm

Nanda, Meera. 2016. Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science. Three Essays Collective.

Pigliucci, Massimo and Maarten Boudry eds. 2013. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press.

van der Geer, Alexandra and Michael Dermitzakis and John de Vos. 2008. “Fossil Folklore from India: The Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata.” Folklore, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Apr., 2008), pp. 71-92. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.


[i] I am reminded, here, of the debate between Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who argued similarly.

Getting a Fake Shaligram, Intentionally

So, I got a fake Shaligram. But don’t be indignant on my behalf, it was on purpose.

One of the most pervasive fears many Shaligram devotees (or would-be devotees) have is ordering a Shaligram online, typically from an established seller, and receiving a fake stone. But unfortunately, due to both profiteering and scarcity, it’s not an uncommon problem.

Ordering Shaligrams over the internet is a contentious topic among numerous practitioner communities for a variety of reasons. This is mainly because finding one’s own Shaligrams on pilgrimage is the ultimate religious ideal. But, sadly, a great many people are unable to reach the high Himalayas in order to do so (for economic, health, and political access reasons). As a result, choices are often limited in terms of getting a Shaligram in other ways. If possible, the second option for many devotees would be to receive one as a gift or acquire one from a temple collection. This is because placing monetary value on sacred stones is explicitly forbidden in many Hindu traditions and, for that reason, Shaligrams are never supposed to be bought or sold (to do so is a karmic sin). Barring that, getting one from another devotee in exchange for some other spiritual object or service is also considered to be an acceptable form of Shaligram mobility. The last resort however, when all other previous avenues have been exhausted, is then to look online, where any number of sellers and shops exist (from Amazon, to Ebay, to Etsy) to cater specifically to Shaligram practitioner’s needs.

Unfortunately, many of these sellers are less than reputable when it comes to the origin, quality, and authenticity of their stones. Aside from that, even trusted sellers tend to price their ritual Shaligrams out of reach of the average devotee and can sometimes ask as much as several thousand dollars for a particularly rare or unusual deity. “Average” Shaligrams are then still relatively quite expensive, at several hundred dollars apiece plus shipping. Finally, very small or low quality Shaligrams round out the bottom of the list at roughly between $50 and $100 depending on the clarity of their chakras (ammonite shell spirals) and overall appearance of the stone. The price, in these cases, is therefore supposed to represent compensation for the seller’s travel, time, and trouble in getting the stone from Mustang and not, as might be the more pessimistic interpretation, the cost of the stone itself.

Even so, stories of receiving fake stones abound.

There are generally three well-known ways to fake a Shaligram. The first involves taking broken pieces of a real Shaligram and gluing them together in a kind of facsimile of a whole, unblemished, stone. This method is also sometimes used to add additional chakras to otherwise “unimpressive” Shaligrams or to repair a damaged ritual stone and sell it off rather than return it to the Kali Gandaki or to the care of a temple (as is the typical tradition). For the most part, glued piecemeal stones are reasonably easy to spot by their surface seams and cleavages but such things can be easily hidden in webpage photos for the unsuspecting buyer who cannot otherwise inspect the Shaligram on their own time.

Real Shaligram broken into pieces and re-glued

The second, and far more popular, way of faking a Shaligram is to mold or fabricate an entirely new stone out of M-Seal industrial epoxy or concrete. M-Seal versions of Shaligrams look the best in photos largely due to the smooth, shiny, black exterior of the resulting plastic nodules, which superficially resemble the appearance of a real Shaligram just out of the river or just following ritual bathing (abishek). Some sellers will even take this further by attempting to press or stamp “chakra” shapes into the false stone and I have seen some impressive instances of such sculpted Shaligrams. Sadly, many of these fake stones tend to fool even the relatively practiced eye of long-time devotees, depending on the skill of the fabricator. This is because, while a significant number of devotees have tremendous experience with sacred objects, not many have much in the way of familiarity with invertebrate fossils. Meaning, they aren’t always quite so savvy in recognizing imprinted shapes that wouldn’t be found in nature and thus, which couldn’t be formed by a petrified ammonite.

M-Seal Shaligram with stamped “chakras”

Recognizing these kinds of faked Shaligrams, unfortunately, often requires physical handling; which is another reason why being in the actual presence of a Shaligram is so vital to receiving one. Not just from a spiritual sense, but a practical one as well. M-Seal Shaligrams tend to feel “plastic-y” to the touch and are far lighter than a real stone would be. Additionally, if scratched with a fingernail or sharp implement, they will indent and furrow in the way that epoxy does when damaged, rather than powdering like black slate. Concrete Shaligrams work similarly, but in that scratching them reveals their underlying sandy composition or simply chips the paint (since most concrete can’t be made to look like smooth black shale when dry). They also tend to fracture more readily than either M-Seal or a real stone and will often fall apart with little more than a firm tap.

M-Seal Shaligram from Ebay

Finally, one of the more bizarre ways to fake a Shaligram is to simply substitute another fossil in for the Kali Gandaki ammonite. I’ve seen trilobites advertised as “Ganesh Shaligrams,” other kinds of ammonites obviously from elsewhere in the world claimed to be from Nepal, as well as fossilized plants, crinoids, and insects. As I have discussed previously, none of these fossils are Shaligram owing to the fact that they have not undergone death and re-formation in the sacred landscape of Muktikshetra and have not been born from the waters of the sacred river (one of the key parts of the process to becoming Shaligram).

Trilobite “Shaligram” from Ebay

As a side note, this problem has resulted in a variety of methods for determining the authenticity of a Shaligram; involving everything from keeping the stone in a pile of rice (to see if the rice increases or decreases), to spinning them with the tip of a finger, to scratching them with gold, to seeing if they float in water (which a real Shaligram wouldn’t do, but then again, neither would a concrete one.)

But again, most of this relies on general ignorance of geological and fossil processes and anticipates that people who are buying Shaligrams online are not otherwise in contact with these types of sacred stones often enough such that they would readily be able to recognize a fake one.

My new fake Shaligram is of the second variety: an M-Seal nodule smoothed and shaped to look like a real stone. Mine, unfortunately, does not have any chakra impressions or other “markings” and probably wouldn’t be broadly appealing to a devotee looking for a puja-worthy stone anyway but my reason for getting it has nothing to do with veneration. Rather, I’ve long wanted one so that, whenever I am giving talks on Shaligrams or conducting workshops on identification, I can use it as an educational example for what to be wary of. It is also the reason it was given to me by a devotee I’ve known for a long time and whom I have worked with previously in combating the spread of false Shaligrams. In the end, I would actually like to build a collection of such manufactured Shaligrams for this purpose.

My M-Seal “Shaligram”
Compare to, for example, this real Shaligram from the Kali Gandaki
(Would you be able to tell the difference from a photo if I hadn’t already told you which one was genuine?)

Thus far, my collection of gaffes includes a black trilobite, a broken Shaligram re-glued, and now, an M-Seal imitation. At some point, I would then like to also acquire other M-Seal or concrete Shaligrams with cut or tooled markings or one that has been molded wholesale from an impression. I am, however, not keen on spending the hundreds of dollars many sellers ask for such obvious (to me) fakes and I can only imagine what a grant application would look like that had a provision in it for paying out that kind of expense on what amounts to chunks of plastic and cement. I’m also not especially enthusiastic about attempting to fake one myself. I’m confident my sculpting skills are up to par in this regard but I’m not entirely sure this is the kind of relationship I really want to cultivate with my research at this given moment.

In the end, the practice of falsifying sacred stones is an opportunistic one. Like many instances of people seeking to profit from the misfortunes of others, fake Shaligram sales are driven by the increasing inaccessibility of Mustang (for pilgrimage) as well as the challenges of ritual-object practice in the Diaspora; where communities have less in the way of established home temples, gurus, or Shaligram specialists. As a result, the dilemma many young Shaligram practitioners face is to potentially receive a fake stone (while losing a large amount of money in doing so) versus never being able to have a Shaligram stone at all. And if the latter continually comes to pass, many fear that the tradition itself will be in danger of disappearing as sons and daughters no longer learn the stories, pujas, and mantras from their elders or just never encounter a real Shaligram in their lives.

On a personal note, I’m often asked to identify new Shaligrams and I hate having to tell someone that a stone is fake. In many cases I can, thankfully, do so from an image before the item has been purchased but more often than not, it involves questions someone has regarding a stone they’ve had (and sometimes worshipped with) for years. Ultimately, faking fossils has a pretty long and gory history all over the world (both paleo-anthropology and paleontology, for example, have some pretty spectacular instances of this) but now we can add another version to the concerning line-up of spiritual fossil fakery. Not in the better-known Creationist sense this time, where the fossil record is intentionally altered and re-interpreted to fit fundamentalist Biblical narratives, but as a way of subverting darshan (the ritual viewing of and interacting with deities in many South Asian religions) into less a relationship with the material Divine and more a commodified form of tourist religion that blurs the lines between “icon” and “souvenir” even more so than usual.

What do you think about this one? Real or fake?

Buyer beware, indeed.