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Shaligram Seminars in Stoke-on-Trent, Courtesy of the Hindu Cultural Society of Staffordshire

Posted by J Foster on May 18, 2017 in Ask An Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

In April of this year, shortly after leaving Nepal, I had the distinct pleasure to conduct a two-day Shaligram seminar for the Hindu Cultural Society of Staffordshire in Stoke-on-Trent, England. They were also kind enough to film the seminar and, though some parts of the workshop portion of it is difficult to see on the video, you can view the entire talk at the links included below.

Shaligram Practices: Day 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nD-qaIKGD0

Shaligram Practices and Identification Workshop: Day 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8U6xsnMYMU

Shaligram Workshop – April 27 2017
Madhusūdana Shaligram Presiding

 
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Shaligram Talk in Kathmandu, Nepal (April 21st, 2017)

Posted by J Foster on Apr 20, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Fulbright Forum – Shaligram Talk

 
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Glimpsing the Divine on the Kali Gandaki River (Mustang, Nepal)

Posted by J Foster on Mar 24, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Kali Gandaki River Valley from Kagbeni Village

 

Kali Gandaki River Valley, Kagbeni and Mount Nilgiri in the Background

 

Kalpvriksha Shaligram appearing in the River

 

A rare Dasavatara Shaligram

 

Half-Surya Shaligram places near a cave

 

Gadadhar Shaligram appearing in the River

 
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Spotlight: Narasimha Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Jan 22, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Description:

As described in the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram, Narasimha, or conversely Narsimha or Narsingh, is an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna who is considered to be the supreme God in certain traditions of Vaishnavism but is also a popular deity in Hinduism more generally. Narasimha commonly appears in early Hindu epics, iconography, and temple and festival worship and dates back to well over a millennium. Narasiṃha’s appearance is particularly distinctive, usually depicted as having a human torso and lower body with the head and arms of a lion. Narasimha is also colloquially referred to as the god of “in-betweens” given his most famous appearance as the ‘Great Protector’ of the devotee Prahlada or as the protector of all devotees in their times of need. For example, when Narasimha appeared to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu, he did so in such a way as to circumvent the demon’s boon not to be killed by any living being created by Brahma, not to be killed at night or by day, on the ground or in the sky, nor by any weapon, human, or animal. Narasimha thus appears as the blending of a man and a lion, at twilight, at the threshold of the courtyard, places Hiranyakshipu on his thighs, and disembowels him with his claws.

The general distinction between the Narasimha Shaligram and its more common counterpart, the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram is in the presence of a “mouth” and “teeth” but without the inclusion of the two visible internal chakra-spirals.

For the most part, Narasimha Shaligrams are sought after for their highly protective qualities. As manifestations of Narasimha, the god who defends his devotees in their times of greatest need, Narasimha Shaligrams are said to bestow protection from theft or the influences of evil or impure persons. These Shaligrams are also said to aid in the healing of mental illnesses, especially anxiety and phobias, and to restore spiritual balance to persons caught in chaotic home situations. In some cases, Narasimha Shaligrams are also included in daily puja rituals for the sake of obtaining divine guidance before undertaking an especially challenging endeavor related to household or marital harmony.

In some Shaiva traditions, this Shaligram is interpreted as the deity Bhairava, a fierce and terrifying manifestation of Shiva associated with annihilation.

Vedic References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 347-348, Skanda Purana, Nagarekhanda, 244: 3-9, Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21), Garuda Purana (Panchanan Tarkaratna, Part 1, Ch. 45), Agni Purana; Bengavasi ed., Panchanan Tarkaratna, Saka 1812, Ch. 46

Vedic Description:

Large opening with two circular marks, glittering to look at (BV).

Mark of a mace at center, circular mark in lower middle, upper middle portion comparatively bigger (G).

(i) With a big opening and two circular marks.
(ii) With a long opening and linear marks resembling the mane of a lion, and also with two circular marks.
(iii) Marked with three dot-prints other things being the same as above.
(iv) Uneven in shape with a mixed reddish colour, having two big circular marks above it, and a crack at the front.
(v) Reddish in colour and printed with several teeth like marks, three or five dot-marks and a big circular mark.
(vi) With a big opening, a vanamala and two circular marks. This type is popularly known as Lakshminrisimha.
(vii) Black in colour with dot marks all over his body and two circular marks on His left side. This also is a variety of the Lakshminrisimha sub-type.
(viii) Printed with a lotus mark on His left side. This also is a sub-type of Lakshminrisimha.
(ix) When any of the above types of Narasimha is marked with five dot prints He is popularly called Kapilanrisimha.
(x) Printed with seven circular marks and golden dots and also having openings on all sides. This type is called Sarvotmukhanrisimha.
(xi) Variegated in colour, having many openings including a large one and marked with many circular prints. This type is popularly called Paataalanrisimha.
(xii) With two circular marks inside the main opening and eight others on His sides. This also is a variety of Paataalanrisimha.
(xiii) Aakaashanrisimha: With a comparatively high top and a big opening and also printed with circular marks.
(xiv) Jihvaanrisimha: Big in size, with two openings and two circular marks. He being the giver of poverty, His worship is forbidden.
(xv) Raakshasanrisimha: With a fierce opening and holes, and also marked with golden spots. His worship also is forbidden.
(xvi) Adhomukhanrisimha: With three circular marks one at the top and two on the sides, having His opening at the bottom.
(xvii) Jvaalaanrisimha: Marked with two circular prints and a vanamala, and having a small opening.
(xviii) Mahaanrisimha: Printed with two big circular marks and a few other linear marks one above the other. (P)

 

Narasimha Shaligram

 
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Spotlight: Lakshmi – Narasimha Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Jan 19, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I think it’s time for another Spotlight series…

Description:

Narasimha, or conversely Narsimha or Narsingh, is an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna who is considered to be the supreme God in certain traditions of Vaishnavism but is also a popular deity in Hinduism more generally. Narasimha commonly appears in early Hindu epics, iconography, and temple and festival worship and dates back to well over a millennium. Narasiṃha’s appearance is particularly distinctive, usually depicted as having a human torso and lower body with the head and arms of a lion. Narasimha is also colloquially referred to as the god of “in-betweens” given his most famous appearance as the ‘Great Protector’ of the devotee Prahlada or as the protector of all devotees in their times of need. For example, when Narasimha appeared to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu, he did so in such a way as to circumvent the demon’s boon not to be killed by any living being created by Brahma, not to be killed at night or by day, on the ground or in the sky, nor by any weapon, human, or animal. Narasimha thus appears as the blending of a man and a lion, at twilight, at the threshold of the courtyard, places Hiranyakshipu on his thighs, and disembowels him with his claws.

As a variation on the Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram, the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram is easily recognized by the presence of a “fanged mouth” at the apex of the primary opening which also reveals the two internal chakra-spirals typically characteristic of the Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram. This “mouth,” then usually contains a row of “teeth” visible either along the outer edge of the upper part of the opening or encircling a second inner opening through the central column forming the end of the primary opening.

As manifestations of Narasimha, worship of these Shaligrams is said to bestow protections from enemies and from attacks on one’s faith.  As such, Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligrams are often sought after by those who live in regions where their particular religious tradition is in the political minority or by those who intend to immigrate to a country significantly outside of their usual cultural mores (such as America or the UK). These Shaligrams are also said to bestow confidence, strength, and righteousness more generally and are considered highly desirable for inclusion in daily puja rituals.

Vedic References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 347, Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21)

Vedic Descriptions: Large opening with two circular marks, glittering to look at, with vanamala mark (BV).

Discussion: This Shaligram bears similar resemblance to the Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram but is identified by the distinctive “mouth-like” structure located at the top of the main opening. This structure is formed by the incomplete wearing of the ammonite shell out of the surrounding shale nodule, which leaves at least one cross-segment of the internal portion of the ammonite still in place as it breaks out of the shell mold.

Lakshmi – Narasimha Shaligram

Lakshmi – Narasimha Shaligram

 
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My Divine Pet Rock: Notes on Gender and Authority in Anthropology

Posted by J Foster on Dec 17, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal, Gender Studies

“Isn’t He just adorable.” Gangadevi laughed, clutching the small Krishna Govinda Shaligram in her right hand. “I have had Shaligrams for many years but He is special, you see. Krishna was my very first Shaligram. The very first Shaligram I ever dressed or offered praśadam to. The first every morning to received sandalwood tilak and water. You know, I call him my divine pet rock.”

Chuckling together, I feigned incredulity. “A divine pet rock?”

“Oh yes!” She replied with glee. “But we wouldn’t use those googly eyes for his face. That would just be cruel.”

The first time I related this story, I was conducting a fieldwork presentation to a room full of colleagues, students, and peers some three months after returning to the United States in the fall of 2012. It had always struck me as a particularly humanizing and fun anecdote from my fieldwork in India, one that demonstrated the multiple, and sometimes humorous, ways in which people engaged with their religious traditions and sacred objects. Gangadevi’s use of the term “divine pet rock” was also particularly fascinating because it helped her not only to explain her beliefs and actions to someone not otherwise familiar with them (me) but allowed her to interact with her faith in compliment with her ebullient and jovial personality. In fact, I had many such stories from Gangadevi, several of which included joking renditions of ritual failures told with animated delight or notations on the amusing tales she loved to tell her grandchildren about the occasional slap-stick exploits of God in the world. It was therefore to my surprise when my tale was suddenly met with harsh criticism.

“You shouldn’t mock your informants.” An older, male, professor warned sternly. “You need to take your work seriously. Poking fun at your research isn’t going to be viewed lightly.”

“Yeah!” A male graduate student interjected approvingly. “You should watch your tone if you want to present this at a conference.”

The women in the room looked at the floor.

Negotiating authority and respect both in the field and in academia is nothing new to female scholars. As an anthropologist who works in religion, I am often deeply cognizant of the ways in which I interact with my research informants, often in terms of what I say; especially in cases where women are not allowed to fully participate in certain practices (as is the case in some types of Shaligram worship) or are not considered to be capable of holding expertise in esoteric subjects. But my use of humor also uncovered the deeply troubling truth about negotiating authority and respect in academia as well; where, ostensibly, my advanced PhD candidate status and extensive fieldwork in South Asia should equalize my claim to a seat at the scholarly table. Or, at least, as I had assumed, earn me the benefit of the doubt.

This was not the first time something like this had happened. Once, while teaching an undergraduate class in the Anthropology of Religion, a male upperclassman repeatedly and disruptively challenged my description of a particular ritual drawn directly from my own ethnographic work. Later on, while we discussed the incident in office hours, he admitted to knowing nothing himself about the ritual in question but simply shrugged and said “You didn’t sound like you knew what you were talking about.” Even in my course evaluations, which are generally positive overall, I am apparently constantly swinging between “should be more nurturing” and “acts entitled to use complicated words.” I have also faced down my fair share of peer reviewers and conference participants who’ve rejoined with some variation on “you should be more scholarly.” Nothing specific to the content of my research or the quality of my analysis, just the presentation of my character. Apparently, as long as I maintain a “mind-to-be-reckoned with/take-no-prisoners” attitude, I can enjoy the derision of one side who feels that my demeanor is arrogant and inaccessible and the policing of the other who is sure to let me know exactly what it means to be “professional” and “academic.” What is not lost on me, or really any other women for that matter, is that these critiques largely come from men. The critique and engagement of my female mentors, while strict and to a high standard, have never taken this form.

Balancing wit and wisdom is often difficult for even the cleverest scholars, but it has become clearer to me over the years that the icons of the venerable sage and the irascible raconteur are images largely reserved for men. In short, we as a culture don’t quite seem to know how to interact with women who don’t obviously fit the role of the “loving, maternal, guide” or the “power-hungry, frigid, bitch.” The former, of course, being highly regarded for supporting their students and academic departments under a load of uncompensated emotional labor (see especially Bellas’ “Emotional Labor in Academia: The Case of Professors” and Guy and Newman’s “Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor”) and the latter being the ivory-tower elitist everyone just loves to hate. If the only way to demonstrate my knowledge is to be mean about it, it starts to feel an awful lot like having to be mean to the guy constantly asking you out on a date, because if you’re nice he doesn’t get the message.

The worst thing about it all, sadly, is that the majority of my male colleagues have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, and when I bring it up, they shake their heads and throw up their hands. “Well, I’ve never seen it. Maybe it was something you said.”

But it wasn’t about what was said. It was about who said it. They use humor and crack wise all the time, to no detriment (rather, they are usually lauded for it). Their students don’t write out class evaluations complaining about their emotional distance or about not feeling sufficiently cared about. Their colleagues don’t remind them to watch their tone otherwise people won’t take them seriously. But my female colleagues know it all too well, nodding their heads in silent solidarity each time someone sees fit to pipe up during a roundtable and call out the woman presenting for how she presumes too much, takes herself too seriously (or not seriously enough!), how “stuck up” her tone is. How “condescending.” How “ ‘splaining.”

It was a really funny story about a pet rock though. Or maybe you just had to be there.

 
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Field and Distance

Posted by J Foster on Nov 26, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

In just a few short weeks I will be returning to the U.S. for Christmas break. Upon my return, however, I will be gearing up for my third and last pilgrimage into the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal for this research field project. It’s hard to believe that I have already spent nearly 6 months in Nepal and 12 months total in the field working on Shaligrams. With just 5 more months to go, I’ve begun planning, and in places drafting, the final ethnographic work that will result from more than 17 months of research.

For the past few weeks I have been engaged in textual translation in order to ensure that I include all possible primary Sanskrit, Hindi, and Nepali sources. I have also had the pleasure of working with early adventurer logs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, mainly in French and German, where local Shaligram practices were recorded (albeit briefly and not very well) and described. Combined with direct accounts by modern Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims as well as long conversations with Shaligram practitioners in their homes on and off since 2012, my hope is that the resulting monograph will be as useful to Shaligram devotees themselves as it is for social scientists and the lay public. But if this is going to be the case, now is the time for hard questions.

Part of my initial drafting of a book on Shaligrams is to see what I am missing. By plugging information into a tentative framework of chapters and sub-sections, I can get a better idea of where the overall work is heading, how the narrative is shaping up, and what inconsistencies I have yet to address. Needless to say, hunting your own work for flaws is not always the most pleasant exercise, but it is a vital one. And the least for which is because this research isn’t just about Shaligrams themselves but the people, places, and cultural ideals that make them unique.

Recently, a friend of mine here in Kathmandu mentioned that my research seems to be on par with a body of research called “fossil folklores.” While I had heard this term before, I was intrigued and asked her to explain more. Fossil folklores are, in fact, a fascinating thread of inquiry within the Humanities typically undertaken by literature specialists, historians of science, and the occasional intrepid paleontologist. Fossil folklores asks questions of the relationships between people and fossils and analyzes the ways in which various cultures have used the fossil record to explain cultural myths and legends, especially religious ones. This should come as no surprise to us really, as even today in the US, fossils remain a contentious topic between Young Earth Creationism and Science and Education.

But the difference between my own work and the typical perspective of fossil folklores that I see is one of ontology. By this I mean that I have chosen not to assume a stronger “truth” to the scientific discourse of evolution compared to Shaligrams as manifest deities. This does not mean that I am setting out to deny science in anyway here, but that I am holding two competing forms of knowledge on equal footing and at a distance from one another to better see how they interact in this specific context. In other words, I ask, Is Shaligram a Fossil?

In all likelihood it will take a lifetime of publications and hundreds of pages to answer that question. Even then, the answer may not be all that satisfactory. But here in the field still, all things are possible. The ritual world is close and the Shaligrams immediate. It won’t be until later, when I am far away from Nepal and a fair degree of time has passed, that distance will help me see the field yet again, in another way; as a whole composed of parts which is comprised of smaller workings and somehow still manages to transcend them. The emic and the etic at last. Such is the conundrum of Anthropology.

 
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Happy Diwali (Deepawali) to All!

Posted by J Foster on Oct 30, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

A bright and happy Diwali (Deepawali) to all! May the festival of lights chase away all darkness and usher in a new and grander time of peace, prosperity, and joy.

(Morning Shaligram puja to the Maha-Shakti Devi, the Goddess of life and prosperity)

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

 

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

Mahashakti Devi Shaligram Puja conducted on the morning of the third day of Diwali

 
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Om’s Home (Reflections on Life in Kathmandu)

Posted by J Foster on Oct 28, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

That Wooden House
Audience in public
From what today
And that whacked the entrance
I am the mansion thorn
I am that there are
The sense of master
You’re cole and left
Haven’t you got a rug
Not the hypocrisis to gateways
The sense of master
A Saxophone’s tones guillotined
Developed by an eye on Springfield
Movie Stars that you love and hate
To another home, that wooden kate
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops
Turtles, Busters in China
A refugee on angina
Donald Amy, Set Whinfield
The guards described, the guards that yield
Coconut, Tetris and raft
A hustler smokes what is left
The director has enough to read
Write miseries on sheet
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops
It’s the entering thief
That wooden house and a lob
Bring the jewelry to the railway cops

~The Wooden House, by Pierre Rausch

Kathmandu is a lot like an old house. These deep internal supports, centuries old or more, overlaid by the patchworks of time. New cement walls painted with bright pinks and yellows, jarringly brilliant blues, and all wrapped precariously around 18th century brick-work and 12th century woodcarvings. Intricate Naga snake-women and ancient Vedic, Tantric, Buddhist, and animist deities overlooking sliding glass windows, rooftop water tanks, and an accumulation of about eight decades of creative electrical engineering. Is it any surprise that there’s only about 6 hours of electricity per day? Kathmandu is a city that shows its wear and misuse, its wealth and its poverty; in short, its life, in so many ways. Finger-stained door jams, trash discarded in the streets, kumkum and sandalwood powder caked on roadside shrines, the constant bustle, screech, and hum of streets filled with taxis, buses, cars, people, stray dogs, meditating sadhus, and cows. People hanging out on balconies overhead, women attending to the washing beneath alleyway waterspouts, beggars crying out for alms, fruit sellers plying their trade from rickety carts and bicycles, children running after a toy or a pet bouncing down the road. It’s a city in perpetual decay, with the veneer of life constantly building on top of it. Kathmandu is rotting underneath, but as the people of Nepal will tell you; this is how the soil of life is made, from which the wildest flowers grow.

 
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Fighting with Fieldnotes

Posted by J Foster on Oct 18, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Today marks, roughly, the half-way point of my long-term fieldwork. I have been in Nepal now some five months (with three months previous to this a year ago, and another three months previously in India) and will remain in Kathmandu until the spring, when I leave once again for the Kali Gandaki River valley of Mustang. This is the point of ethnographic fieldwork where one is generally advised to take stock, review everything collected so far, and consider what gaps might remain outstanding that can be addressed in the coming months. It seemed like such a simple task at first.

My fieldnotes are already, and some might say miraculously, somewhat organized. My primary notebook, which is sadly starting to show its mileage at this point (thanks Duct Tape!), is replete with colorful tape flags and Post-Its marking areas of specific interest or categorizing certain discussions for certain chapters. I also have a sense of an overall framework already in the works and have been plugging in information to relevant sections as I go along. This drafting stage for the final book isn’t specifically to just “get it all done,” so to speak, but to help me see what might be missing or what might not be as clear as it first appeared. This way, when I conduct more interviews or sit-in on a few more pujas and festival celebrations, I’ll know what it is I need to ask. But this still leaves me with something of a conundrum. A large portion of my fieldnotes are in drawings.

As I discussed earlier, many of these drawings (which are mainly drawings of specific Shaligrams) will be incorporated into the final piece of the larger work as a kind of “field guide.” But this still leaves out many other drawings that don’t quite fit the needs of such a chapter nor does it address the countless jottings and annotations covering almost every inch of two additional notebooks, two sketchbooks, some pilgrimage pamphlets, and a quick-access field book. I am certainly not the first ethnographer to encounter these problems. As such, there are even books and classes on just this problem; each with their own perspectives. How to fight with fieldnotes, and win.

There is never more poignant a day when you have to sit down with everything you’ve collected and try make some sense out of it. In my case, the metaphor of the museum collection is rather apt. I have a pile of objects in front of me (both notebooks and literal fossil stones) and now I need to arrange them in such a way as to tell the right kind of story. To construct some kind of coherent narrative out of the bits and pieces of encounters and conversations and observations made over more than a year of research. It’s at this point that the academic truly begins to struggle: how do I craft a narrative out of this that will both do it justice and be readable? How am I supposed to decide what is what, when half the time my research participants couldn’t even decide that!? Am I doomed to failure no matter what I do?

In the end, I have decided that the best route is to combine drawing and writing, photography and textual references, so that this research can focus more on the process of drawing out analytical connections from my informants’ multiple threads of narrative and experience. This is because Shaligrams truly do evolve over time (double-meaning intended). As I start now to sit down and write out these narratives, I will continue to try to preserve the numerous voices and perspectives of Shaligram practitioners themselves as the core of my ethnographic and theoretical discussions. As one Shaiva sādhu explained, sitting outside the gates of Muktinath as he had off-and-on for some twenty years or so: “The beauty of Shaligram is that it can be many things to many people. This doesn’t mean that you should not learn to read them properly, but that whatever Shaligram is to you may not be what Shaligram is to me. And that is ok, because Shaligram always is what it must be.”

While at the time I took him to mean that the nuances of Shaligram interpretation may sometimes be left to individual perceptions or insight, I later began to understand that what he was really referring to was a far-reaching sense of the formlessness of the divine: where the superficial nature of the material object and of the narrative was meant only to lead one to deeper understanding, not to be that understanding in and of itself. He contentedly assured me a few moments later that because of this, whatever it was that I would write couldn’t be completely correct no matter what I did, but that it would be enough, for the right person who could read it properly.

Having already experienced some of the challenges of the academic peer review process, I take a strange comfort in that.

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