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.”
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!
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
I don’t think I have ever done the Keshav Shaligram yet for my occasional “Spotlight” series. So, let’s do that one today! Because there is much to say about this multi-vocal Shaligram both in interpretation and in practice.
According to Adi Śankara’ s commentary on the Vishnu Sahasranama (of which Keshava is the 23rd and 648th name of Vishnu), Keshava has a variety of meanings:
1. One whose kesa or hair is long, uncut, and beautiful 2. The lord of creation, preservation, and dissolution (Vishnu). 3. Krishna who destroyed the demon Keśī 4. One who is endowed with the rays of light spreading within the orbit of the sun. 5. One who is himself the three: Kah Brahma; Ah Vishnu and Isa Shiva.
According to the Padma Purana, however, the name refers to Krishna’s long, beautiful, unshorn hair. Additionally, in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna uses the name Keshava for Krishna a number of times, referring to him as the ‘Killer of the Keśī demon’ (Bhagavad Gita 1.30).
The demon Keśī, in the form of a horse, was sent by the demon-king Kamsa to kill Krishna but was overpowered and slain (Vishnu Purana 5.15-16).
Associated primarily with the sun (kesa also meaning the sun’s rays), Keshava Shaligrams are said to ward any and all uses of Nazar Dosha (the evil eye) and to protect devotees from all who might think badly of them.
Worship of this Shaligram is also said to bestow wealth, social status and respect, and to facilitate worldly material comforts. Lastly, as one of the “sun” Shaligrams, the Keshava Shaligram is particularly useful for devotees seeking to “illuminate” their proper path in life.
Identification of Keshava Shaligrams is reasonably straight-forward. These śilas are typically “shakha” or conch-shaped overall with a single, large, chakra on their flattened upper side.
The chakra should have clear, highly defined, ridges and striations (the kesa) that radiate outwards from the central spiral though, in all likelihood, the full chakra spiral will not be visible (which would indicate a Surya/Suraj Shaligram like the one below).
In some variations of this Shaligram, more than one chakra will be visible on the outer body of the śila but the entire Shaligram should generally sit flat with its main chakras facing upwards.
One thing I love about Shaligram interpretive practices is how extensively narrative they are. As in, not only does each specific ammonite fossil invoke stories about the geological origin of the world, they also link to mythographic histories of people.
This is something that I have spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about as I now begin work on my second manuscript dedicated to discussing Shaligram interpretation (my first book on Shaligram pilgrimage will be out next year). I am still having some issues working out a format, however. On some level, the current work already looks something like a “field guide:” a short chapter introducing the methods of interpretation and reading Shaligrams (as one might a text) followed by separate, dedicated, pages for identifying each type of Shaligram currently in practice. But I still worry that this format leaves something to be desired. How, for example, do I ensure that the nuances of interpretation are clearly expressed? Or the variations between different Hindu, Buddhist, and Bon traditions? Or, even just attempting to boil down the multiple linkages and complexities of a single set of stories as they are expressed in a particular Shaligram without seeming tragically reductionist.
Take the Vasudev Shaligram, for example (shown below). Vasudev carries a wide variety of meanings depending on the particular Hindu tradition in question. To start with, in Indian epic poetry, Vasudeva is the father of Krishna.
He was also the brother of Nanda Baba, the chieftain of the cowherder tribe, who was a Surasena (an ancient region corresponding to the present-day Braj region in Uttar Pradesh, India) who also became the foster father of Krishna.
His sister Kunti was married to Pandu, both significant figures in the Mahabharata, but in other interpretations, Vasudeva was a partial incarnation of Rishi Kashyapa (a famous Hindu sage) as well as one of Vishnu’s four vyuha avatars who received specific attributes of Vishnu but not his entire incarnation (See also the Anirudda and Pradyumna Shaligrams, which figure similarly). Additionally, following the advent of Bhagavatism in the 1st millennium BCE, the patronymic Vāsudeva (with long ā) has also remained a popular name of Krishna. So, even in this short explanation, “Vasudev” acts as a kind of short-form for a wide variety of possible interpretations; none or all of which might be in play depending on the Shaligram or, for that matter, the interpreter.
According to many Shaligram traditions, on the other hand, the Vaasudev Shaligram is marked by both Śesha (Ananta), the eternal serpent who appeared to protect the infant Krishna as Vasudeva carried him across the river during his flight from the demon Kansa and Kalpvriksha, the sacred tree along the river banks. Typically, these Shaligrams are identified using their long oval shapes and the appearance of a central spiral opening representative of the serpent Śesha.
Ideally, they will then also contain a tree-like marking of grooves or lines somewhere else along the outer surface (which are more pronounced in the Shaligram below).
In practice though, Vasudev Shaligrams are more commonly associated with the stories of Krishna’s father than with Vishnu specifically. As such, they are said to grant enormous physical strength to devotees in times of trial and to encourage all practitioners in their vicinity to adopt stout hearts and minds whenever troubled. This “never give up” atmosphere of ritual veneration also makes them especially popular as gifts to those who are ill or who have recently suffered tragic circumstances in their lives.
For this reason, Vasudev Shaligrams are primarily identified through a combination of features relating to the story of Vasudev and the infant Krishna’s flight from Kansa rather than many of the other possible meanings of the term. Specifically a round or oval shape (a basket), a central spiral opening with two chakras (spirals set one above the other), and other grooved markings representative of tree roots or branches (Kalpvriksha) – or conversely a central, grooved, ring representing Ananta, the serpent: the presence of all such characteristics indicating the Shaligram’s association with this particular tale.
But, as you might imagine, this is a lot of information to fit onto a single page of an ostensible field guide. There is simply so much information and so many linkages within so many traditions, I could, in all honestly, spend a lifetime writing a separate book for each Shaligram. What a voluminous set that would be!
Maybe my original idea of setting up a kind of database with scans and links wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Alas! If only there were more hours in a day…
This second part on the birth of
Shaligrams is meant to briefly demonstrate the concrete links between the
sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most
commonly carry out. In other words, given the mythic histories of Shaligrams
(previous post), how does one then actually experience the birth of a Shaligram
and how do practitioners prepare them for ritual use in their homes and
Puja is, first and foremost, the main method for venerating Shaligrams. Initial pujas are generally conducted when a Shaligram is born out of Kali Gandaki (often, right on the river bank using the water of the river to welcome them into their new families) and may be performed again and again over the course of the Shaligram’s lifetime. It is also common to include Shaligrams during pujas held for the births of children as well as at weddings and funerals or any other instance of a meaningful or profound change in an individual’s or family’s life. Pujas specific to Shaligrams are also most often performed during the festival celebrating Tulsi Vivah; the marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Vishnu).
The first puja for a Shaligram is almost always done as a welcome for them to their new home or temple following their birth and their long travels, just as puja is done for honored guests and great teachers. Subsequent pujas after that are much the same as any other kind of ritual care for a household’s deities and very commonly mirror the typical activities of daily life, such as mealtimes, bedtimes, bathing, and morning awakening. The final puja is then done to honor the passing of the dead, where a particularly important Shaligram may accompany the body of a deceased loved one into the cremation fire and carry their spirit into the presence of the Divine before being reborn back into the world (out of the river once again) in their place. Conversely, any Shaligram which is passed down/inherited and not sent to the funeral pyre will have a similar welcoming puja carried out, as it is once again a new member of a new family. And thus, Shaligrams continue to live out multiple karmic lives, returning again and again into the material world, so that they may guide souls along the path to moksha.
However, as far as religious stricture goes, it is important to note that there is no central Scriptural authority detailing the worship of Shaligrams in either Hinduism or Buddhism. Instead, most Shaligram practitioners take a variety of texts to be authoritative when it comes to Shaligram worship; be they a combination of the Vedas, Puranas, Shastras, or other commentaries. The scriptural rules which govern Shaligram veneration also do not establish a set of rigid boundaries delineating the correct performance of rituals for Shaligrams. Rather, they speak of Shaligrams in more general terms and leave many of the specifics up to long-standing oral traditions or other ritual descriptions. As such, real Shaligram practices function like the banks of a wide riverbed, much like the Kali Gandaki itself, within which streams of traditional and practical variation may appear, meander, and merge as they move through time and space. While the river may then slow to a trickle or come flooding out of the mountains, break up or reconverge, or even occasionally overflow its banks, it nevertheless carries onward in whatever way is necessary for the moment.
Lastly, there is no standardized doctrinal consensus among Shaligram practitioners as a whole, and specific individuals may perform or participate in Shaligram rituals reflective of any range of traditions, be they Buddhist, Hindu, animist, specific to one’s guru lineage, or related to a local deity or practice-style. Even secular, agnostic, and scientific atheists have been known to take part in Shaligram ritual veneration. But, for the most part, Shaligram devotees tend to acknowledge that Shaligram worship follows a few short, easily definable, steps.
As self-manifest deities, Shaligram require no rites of invocation, such as the prana pratistha. When they arrive home, they are greeted as living deities and are usually kept in a common section of the household, wherein they are able to view and participate in the normal activities of the family.
An active Shaligram within a household is usually cleaned with clear water to begin with, and then rubbed with oil to keep them smooth and unblemished. This oil can be from any number of sources but is usually made from sandalwood, flower extracts, or incense. Essential oils derived from fragrant plants are especially popular for this purpose.
Shaligrams then reside in whatever prepared puja mandir, platform, or shelf that has been set aside for them. Many devotees also provide them with small pillows or seats to rest on, crowns or clothing as befits other murti in the household, or any other small items they wish to offer or which may be specific to the Shaligram deity present (i.e., sweets for Krishna or coins for Lakshmi).
The two main offerings generally considered to be vital to Shaligram practice, however, are water and tulsi. Pilgrims to Mustang will often return with water taken directly from the Kali Gandaki for this purpose, but Ganga Jal also works well or any other purified water in the event that none other is available. Tulsi can be grown in the home (and often is) or purchased from Indian groceries if one’s climate is not suitable for growing.
Shaligrams are typically worshipped without any
prathisthana (installation ritual; as
is done while installing man-made deity icons), since Vishnu is already present
in the Shaligram of his free will as a revelation to the devotees. The Śālagrāma-Kosha enumerates this by explaining that: “In the
worship of Salagrama, no initiation is required; there is no special hymnology
or specific procedure of worship, nor any need for a qualified priest or master
of ceremonies. Worshipped anyhow, it will bestow the benefits; and there is no
error of any kind.”
Note: In South India, it is more common for Shaligrams to be
put away in a box or puja mandir
while not actively engaged in ritual, while in North India and Nepal,
Shaligrams tend to remain in the open.
Sri Shaligram Shila Stotram (Prayer)
(Given by Krishna to Yudhishthira,
King Yudhistira asked
“Shree Dev Dev devesa Devarchanamutamam
Tat sarbam srotaumichhami Bruhime Purushotamam / 1/
My dear Supreme Lordship Purushotam, I request you know the significance of the
Shree Bhagavan Uvacha – The Lord Replied
“Gandakyam Chotare Tire Girirajshchya Dakshine
Das Yojan Vistirnam Mahachhetra Vasundhara //2//
“Saligramo Vabet Devo Devi Dwara Bati Vabet
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //3//
“Saligramo Sila Yatra Yatra dwara Bati Sila
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //4//
The mountains known as the Himalaya are situated on the bank of river Gandaki.
In the south of this Himalaya is the land where Shaligram shila appear. This is the place where Devi Dwarabati begins. This
place is called by those who know, Sri Muktikshetra.
Shaligram shilas found here are very
precious and significant. These shilas
are considered to be directly Lord Vishnu Himself and the person who worships
or even keeps in the house or bathes the Shaligram and drinks water or pour
those waters on their head, that man becomes free from all sin and it prevents
from untimely death. That person becomes free from all sin and all material
disease. The most feared sin of Bramahatya (killing of a Brahmin) is also
washed away simply by worshiping the Shaligram.
That person who does snan (bathing)
of Shaligram with chakra everyday get
gets rid of all sin like Bramahatya, and if he drinks such water daily gets the
equal boon of a thousand havan (fire
sacrifices) of Lord Vishnu.
“Naivadyayuktam Tulsim cha Misritam Vishesta Pada Jalen Vishnu
Yoshnati Nityam Purato Murari Prapnoti Yazya Uta Koti Pundyam //10//
The person, who worships Shaligram with Tulsi leaf daily, gets the boon of a million
Khandita Sphutita Viina Vandi Dakdhya Tathi Va Cha
Saligram Sialyatra Tatra Dosho Na Vidyate//11//
Even if a Shaligram is damaged or broken, all shila are good to worship
Namantra Pujanam Naiva Natirtham Na cha Bhabanaa
Na stutir Na uppachars cha Saligram Silar cha ne //12//
Bramha Hatya Dikam Papam Manobak Karya Sambhamam
Shirgram Nachyati Tatsarvam Saligram Silrchana//13//
Without worship, without offering any sweets or without any pilgrims – only
chanting this Shaligram mantra is enough to wash away all sins and is the
fulfillment of all desire.
“Nanabarna Mayam Chiva Nana Bhogena Vestitam
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam //14//
“Narayanorbhabo Dev Chakramadya Cha Karmana
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam//15//
There are various kinds of size and shape of Shaligram in which Lord Vishnu is
situated representing all the different incarnations.
“Krishane Sila Taneyatra Susmam Cakram Cha Drisyate
Saovagyam Santatim Dhatye Sarva Sakshaym Dadhaticha//16//
Good Luck increases and one gets satisfaction from children, and in every way
in every aspect, all good enters one’s life by worshipping Shaligram black in
color with little chakras.
A person who gets the chance to see the Vasudev shila, that person he became free from sins. Shreedhar, Sukar,
Vamanadev, Harivarna,Varaha, Kurma and lots of other type of Shaligram are
available also. Some Shaligram has marking of cow’s foot marks and some that of
Narshimha Avatara (half lion half man).
“Pitavarnam Tu Devanam Rakta Varnam Vayabhaham
Narashinho Vawet Devo Mokshadam Cha Prakrititam//19//
Sankha Chakra Gada Kurma Sankho Yatra Pradisyate
Sankha Varnaschya Devanaman Vame Devaschya Lakshanam//20//
“Damodarm Tatha Sthulam Madhya Chakram Pratisthitam
Purna Dwarena Sankrina Pita Rekha Cha Drischyate //21//
“Chhatrakare Vabet Rajam Vartule Cha Mahasreeya
Chipite Cha MahaDukham Sulagretu Ranam Dhrubam//22//
A yellowish Shaligram is as auspicious as the Lord Himself (Pitambara) but a reddish Shaligram is
considered to bring fearful situations and is dangerous to worship. The sacred
symbols of Shankha (conch), Chakra (disc), Gada (club), and Kurma (tortoise)
are printed on the Shaligram stones. Shaligram with a Shankha (conch) sign is
considered to be Vamanrup (Vamandev) of Lord Vishnu, whereas chakra in the middle is considered as
Damodar Shaligram. Shaligrams of different shapes; round, umbrella shape which
has white lines are also available; worshipping this kind of Shaligram gives
wealth and reputation in society. Flat shaped Shaligram creates sorrow in a
family and Shaligram with sharp front side creates war, fighting, and tension
“Lalate Shesha Vogastu Siropari Sukanchanam
Chakrakanchanavarnanam VamaDevaschya Lakshnam//23//
Vamaparbe Cha Bai Cakre Krishna Varnas tu Pingalam
Laxinarshimhadevanam Prithak Varnastu Drisyate//24//
Shaligrams which have a chakra around
the head or in the forehead but the rest of its parts are clean and smooth is
considered very auspicious and this type is to be considered as Vamandev shila. Yellowish or black in left side
with a chakra is considered as
Worshipping a long shaped shila
creates poverty, and Shaligram having lagna
(rising) chakra create long term
chronic diseases, even death.
Padom Dakamcha Nirmalyam Mastake Dharayet Shada
Visnor Dristam Vakshitabyam Tulsi Jal Misritam//26//
Kalpa Koti Sahasrani Vaikunthe Basate Sada
Saligram Sila Vinur Hatya Koti Vinasanam//27//
Any person who offers a Tulasi leaf while worshipping the Shaligram gets
salvation and can stay at Vaikuntha (Heaven) for a million years.
Tasmat Sampujayet Dhyatwa Pujitam Chapi Sarvada
Saligram Silas Trotram Yah Pathecha Dijotam//28//
Sa Gakshet Parmam Sthanam Yatra Lokeshworo Hari
Sarva Pap Binir Muktwa Vishnu Lokam Sa Gashati//29//
Therefore always worship Shaligram, and chant Shaligram Stotra which is very
beneficial for mankind. We can get one a higher position on Vishnu Lok
(Vaikuntha) simply by doing so. All sins will also be destroyed and it is
guaranteed that one gets to Vishnulok simply from this process of worshiping
There are various types of descriptions available for Lord Vishnu’s ten primary
incarnations (Dasavatara) and also the Lord’s incarnation in Sri Shaligram’s worship,
the Prayer to the Shaligram and drinking the Lord’s bathing water wash away
sins of million lives and one gets great prosperity, wealth and reputation
through this, so everyone everywhere the Shaligram should be worshiped.
The most common and most basic form of Shaligram puja is the daily simple puja, which only requires that the devotee offer water, tulsi leaves (or flowers/fruit if none available), and a short prayer to the Shaligrams each day. In many cases, the simple puja is also favored among practitioners who travel or who are actively on pilgrimage since it is possible to bring one or two important Shaligrams along and to perform the puja as a kind of morning or evening prayer even under the most difficult circumstances. In many households today, simple puja is the standard, with more elaborate pujas performed on special occasions or at certain times of year.
As a corrective to modern concerns about the potential spiritual dangers of keeping Shaligrams, many gurus also now recommend the simple puja, elaborating that it is more important to give what an individual is capable of giving in order to keep Shaligrams in the home (and the tradition alive) than the alternative of never interacting with Shaligrams at all. In other words, as one of my teachers explained, “Shaligrams are not monsters. They are here for us, to help us. If simple puja is what you can offer. Offer that. The rest will come in time, when it is time.”
If a Shaligram is to be formally worshipped in
a temple context of the Sri Vaishnava tradition, all the details of worship
must be carefully observed. Additionally, Shaligrams are also often strung
together in the form of a garland using metallic casings made of silver and
placed on the moolavar – the Dhruva bera (main temple deity) deity in
Vaishnava temples. (108 in number representing the nine planets comprising the
27 stars and its four navamsa
divisions – 27×4 = 108). Large Shaligrams (typically the larger than a man’s
hand) are also routinely made into iconographic murti (Lord Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, etc.) and worshipped in temples
and Vaishnava mutts.
Depending on the religious tradition in
question, the ritual protocols for Shaligram worship vary considerably.
However, the most commonly referenced method of Shaligram puja comes from the Sri Vaishnava tradition, where there is a more standardized
procedure for the every-day worship of Shaligrams for temples, mutts, and home
shrines. Generally, Shaligrams are almost always worshipped using tulsi leaves.
The Yagna (Yaga) Samskaram also prescribes procedures for the Bhagavad Aradhana
(Aradhana is a method of worship, a Sanskrit word meaning an act of
glorifying God or a person) of Sriman Narayana -Vishnu or His manifest form of
There are two forms of Aradhana: Bahya
(External) and Manasika (Internal). Shaligram puja in a temple context usually
begins when the attendant pujari or brahmacharya initiates the Samskaram
through Sanskrit verses. The following protocol is translated into English by
Anand K. Karalapakkam:
“After Achamanam (sipping and swallowing
water two or three times during which the twenty-four names of Vishnu are
repeated), wearing Oordhvapundram, prostrating to the Lord (Sriman Narayana),
sit in a seat. After pranayamam
(yogic control of the vital breath), perform japam (repetition of Lord’s name) with Dhyana slokas (divine hymns-Ashtakshara, etc). Later, worship the
Lord Sriman Narayana residing in one’s heart (Manasika Aradhana). Then with
water from the vessel placed left of Sriman Narayana (Shaligram), sprinkle
water on flowers and other materials for worship and vessels for arghyam (offering of rice, etc.), padyam (offering of water for washing
the feet), etc. From water in an arghya
vessel, sprinkle water on flowers etc. (for worship) and also on
“After welcoming the Lord, offer arghyam, padyam; Achamaniam and
give Abisheka (ritualistic bath).
Then offer cloth, Yajno Pavitha
(sacred thread), sandal paste, flower, incense, and light, in that order. Offer
Achamana, honey and again Achamana. Later offer food comprising of
pudding, rice, vegetables, water, pan-betel etc. After prostration, restoring
status quo is the procedure of worship of Vishnu.”
Thus, the sishya
(disciple) learn to perform Bhagavad Aradhana (prayer of the divine) to Sriman
Narayana’s archa-avatara as a Shaligram. Additionally, since the food a Sri Vaishnava eats should only consist of the remnants of food
offered to Sriman Narayan, Saligrama Aradhana is considered to be especially
important. Additionally, among Sri Vaishnavas, the
Saligrama Aradhana is typically performed only by the male members of the upper
three varnas (Brahaman, Kshatriya and
Vaishya). In this tradition, women are prohibited from touching or performing
Aradhana of a Shaligram, though this prohibition is not universally shared.
However, even in these cases, women have an important role of assisting the
performance of the ritual by making the necessary preparations for the worship
including cooking the food for offerings to the deity. Women may also be
responsible for arrangements in terms of preparing food, gathering and making
flower garlands, or gathering and directing the participants as the ritual
progresses. In general, however, most practitioners consider the participation
of the entire family in Shaligram puja
to be vital to the health and prosperity of the household.
Protocols for puja as set out by ritual specialists at Pashupatinath Mandir
(from principally Shaiva and Smarta traditions) in Kathmandu, Nepal incorporate
a slightly different sequence: In Puja
Vidhi, Shaligram is worshipped in the same way as one worships Lord
Vishnu. Normally tulsi is used and also a conch shell (Shankh) is kept near the
Shaligram. Daily worship with purity of heart and body is required to get full
benefits from Shaligram. (Ref.: Shrimaddevi Bhagwat and Pashupatinath Mandir).
To perform puja of the Shaligram which you have
selected to install in your altar of worship, you will need the following ‘samagri’ or ingredients: Ganga Jal
(water from the Ganges River), Panchgavya (a mixture of 5 auspicious articles
that include: cow dung, cow’s urine, milk, ghee and curd), fresh tulsi leaves,
kusha grass, pipal leaves, incense sticks, camphor, sandal paste, a lamp
burner, and a conch shell. You may substitute any item that is not available
with uncooked rice. Offerings made to the Shaligram can also be of milk,
fruits, flowers, sweet dishes or a coconut.
Sit in a position in which you can face the
East or North-East direction.
Wash the Shaligram with Ganga Jal poured from
the conch shell. Then wash it again with Panchgavya, and then wash it once more
with Ganga Jal.
Place some kusha grass in a stainless-steel
glass filled with water to sprinkle over the Shaligram.
Now, put the Shaligram on some pipal leaves
placed on a plate. Light the camphor, incense sticks, and the lamp filled with
Apply some sandal paste on the Shaligram and
place some fresh tulsi leaves in front of the Shaligram.
Light the lamp and move it in a circular,
clockwise movement of the hand in front of the Shaligram.
Chant the Shaligram mantra nine times. Other
mantras may be substituted according to tradition.
Offer milk, fruits or sweets to the Shaligram.
Offer some money and then give that money to a poor person.
If you are worshiping more than one Shaligram,
make sure they are in even numbers. This means that you should have either two,
four or six Shaligrams. Place a tulsi mala (garland) around them or offer fresh
tulsi leaves everywhere. It is important to remember that even the water that
has touched the Shaligram becomes ‘amrit’
(holy water), while you are bathing it, it takes on the properties of the
Shaligram. If you drink this water, it is said to bring relief from various
physical ailments and poor health.
Because each specific Shaligram is read and
interpreted in different ways, most Shaligram practitioners consider it
essential that a Shaligram be properly examined and identified before they are
taken for worship. Characteristics of particular focus are the shape and color
of the Shaligram, the number and location of chakra marks, the type of lines or
grooves that are present in the crevices and fissures, or any other distinctive
feature which may indicate the deity’s ultimate identity. (To wit: reading and interpreting Shaligrams is the subject of my
next planned book).
Traditions and Panchayatana Puja
Smarta Traditions, the practice of Panchayatana Puja consists of the worship of
five deities set in a five-point cross pattern. As a rule, these five
deities are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi or Durga, Surya, and an Ishta Devata (a term meaning one’s favorite or tutelary deity) such
as Ganesha, Skanda, or another god specific to the devotee’s practice. On
rare occasions, an Ishta Devata may
also be included as a sixth deity in the puja.
Shaligram Panchayatana Puja, Shiva is often represented as a Linga stone from
the Narmada river in India, the Devi/Shakti using a Srichakra (a Mandala-shaped
quartz crystal or coin), and Ganesh, Vishnu, and Surya as Shaligrams. As per
the tradition, any one of the represented deities can be placed in the center
as the main or presiding deity. This deity is then the one who generally
occupies a central role in the worship of the household and for whom the rest
of the deities will be arranged around them (as is also mirrored in temple
architecture from Odisha to Karnataka to Kashmir; and the temples
containing fusion deities such as Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu)).
Theologically, the Smarta tradition emphasizes that all murti are icons of saguna Brahman, a means to realizing the abstract Ultimate Reality called nirguna Brahman. The five or six icons are then viewed by Smartas as multiple representations of the one saguna Brahman (meaning a personal God with material form), rather than as distinct beings in and of themselves. The ultimate goal in this practice is to transition past the use of icons, then follow a philosophical and meditative path to understanding the oneness of Atman (soul, self) and Brahman as infinite and immaterial.
Vaishnava and Hare Krishna Traditions
Finally, Sri Padmanabha Goswami’s “Śālagrāma-śila” (1993) details the puja sequence more common in the Gaudiya Vaishnava and Hare Krishna traditions. He begins by explaining that the worship of Shaligram is not different than the worship of any other installed deity and in any case where reverence or respect to a deity would be performed, so must it be performed for Shaligram, with individual attention paid to each shila present. He then goes on to say that the worship of Shaligrams should be “conducted in accordance with Purus͎a-sukta.” (1993: 32). If a devotee wishes to adorn a Shaligram with ornaments, this is acceptable but that an offering of rice should never be made (in contrast with the Sri Vaishnava tradition mentioned previously).
Women are allowed to worship Shaligrams openly in these traditions but should refrain from doing so during menstruation and finally, that the specific mantras one should recite vary depending on the Scriptural texts used and should be whatever mantras are most well-known to the initiated Vaishnava.
sequence for puja and the offering of
five items; gandha, pus͎pa, dhūpa, dipa, and naivedya (tulsi is always required) or sixteen items then commences as so
(additional descriptions for each piece of the sequence given in the text, pgs.
Wake the Lord
After the Lord has risen, chant idam pus͎panjali samarpayami and offer
Asana (a seated posture) – while
offering asana, chant idam asanam
Svagata (welcome) – while offering svagata,
chant susvagatam, susvagatam
Padya (poem, verse) – while offering
padya, chant idam padyamsamarpayami
Arghya (libation) – while offering
arghya, chant idam arghyamsamarpayami
Acamana (sipping water) – while
offering acamana, chant idam acamaniyamsamarpayami
Madhuparka (honey and milk) – while
offering madhuparka, chant idam
Punaracamana (sipping water again) –
while offering punaracamana, chant idam
Snana (bathing) – while offering
snana, chant idam snaniyamsamarpayami
Vastra (clothing, or a cloth) –
while offering vastra, chant idam vastramsamarpayami
Upavita (sacred thread) – while
offering upavita, chant idam upavitamsamarpayami
embellishments) – while offering abhushana, chant idam abhushanam samarpayami
Gandha (fragrance) – while offering
gandha, chant idam gandham samarpayami
Tulasi (tulsi leaves) – while
offering tulasi, chant idam tulasimsamarpayami
Pus͎pa (flowers) – while offering
pus͎pa, chant idam pus͎pamsamarpayami
Dhupa (incense) – while offering
dhupa, chant idam dhupamsamarpayami
Dipa (lamp) – while offering dipa,
chant idam dipamsamarpayami
Naivedya (an offering to God; i.e.,
a promise, a willingness, etc.) – while offering naivedya, chant idam naivedyamsamarpayami
Incidentally, he also mentions that the mantra: om yajneshvaraya yajnasabhavaya yajnapataye govindaya namo namah from Hari-bhakti-vilasa (15/530) also suffices for all steps from padya to dipa.
the appearance of a Shaligram stone within the Kali Gandaki river is to, quite
literally, witness its birth. Formed in the womb of the mountains (the
Himalayas) and then brought into the world through the flow of the river
Gandaki, Shaligrams are self-manifest as deities in ways quite unlike many of
the other murti common throughout Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon.
I have written at some length on the ways in which Shaligrams recreate cycles
of karmic birth, death, and rebirth as well as how they continue to live
literal lives with their human kin as members of the family and of the
community. But as of yet, I have not written quite so extensively on the birth
of Shaligrams such as takes place in the Muktinath Valley of Mustang, Nepal. For
this reason, I am happy to do so here but I find it best to describe the births
of Shaligram through two separate but related approaches. Therefore, my plan is
to describe the process of Shaligram birth in two parts. The first part here
will detail the story of Vrinda/Tulsi and Vishnu so as to convey the Scriptural
foundations that underly the event of Shaligram’s appearance. The second part,
to be posted later on, will discuss the methods of preparing a Shaligram to
return home following pilgrimage so as to draw concrete links between the
sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most
commonly carry out.
The Water and the Mountain
According to the Varaha Purana (12th
c. CE) some Shaligram stones come from the water (jalaja) while others come from the mountain-side (sthalaja). In common parlance, Shaligram
devotees occasionally refer to these two categories as either water-born (jal) Shaligrams or mountain-born (kshetra) Shaligrams. In practice,
“mountain Shaligrams” are the term typically given to the reddish-orange, raw,
ammonite fossils which can be found slowly sliding down the river valley walls
on their way into the Kali Gandaki River below. While many of these fossils can
be easily obtained by walking the narrow village paths throughout the Baragaon,
few, if any, Shaligram pilgrims ever actually seek them out and I never
encountered any such fossils in the home altars or puja trays of active practitioners. Though they often agreed that
such stones were holy and acknowledged that kshetra
Shaligrams were included in the scriptural texts, I did not encounter a single
religious use of such stones at any point in the years I have worked with Shaligram
devotees. Only the smooth, black, formations of Shaligrams born out of the
river are usually ever accepted for ritual use.
Besides the Shaligram origin accounts detailed in Puranic
texts (mainly the Brahma Vaivarta, Agni, Padma, Garuda, Nrsimha, Skanda,
Brahma, and Brahmanda Puranas), Shaligrams are also mentioned in a wide variety
of other Hindu works (many of which are later commentaries or compilations of
Puranic texts): the Shalagrama-mahatmya of the Gautamiya Tantra, the Shalagrama-pariksha
in the Magh-mahatmya section of the Padma Purana, the Puja-prayoga, the Haribhaktivilasa
of the Gopal Bhat͎t͎a, the Shalagramarcana-candrika, the Puja-pankaja-bhaskara,
the Shalagrama-mimamsa of Somanatha-vyasa, the Shalagrama-lakshan͎a-panjika,
the Shalagrama-pariksha of Anupa-simha, the Shalagrama-mula-lakshana-paddhati,
the Shalagrama-shila-parikshana-paddhati, and an entire section of the Vaishnavanidhi
chapter in Maharaj Krishnaraj Wodeyar III of Mysore’s Sri-tattva-nidhi. Many of
these later texts advocate for the worship of Shaligrams as a method for
obtaining material benefits such as great wealth, numerous children, success in
business ventures, healthy herds of cattle, and a long and healthy life.
Some Hindu theologians, however, view Shaligram veneration
as a “kamya,” an optional form of
ritual worship based on the desires of the practitioners in question and
therefore not obligatory for all Hindus. While this concept is largely shared
among the attitudes of current Shaligram devotees (that the practice is
optional), few, if any, view the ritual worship of Shaligrams as specific to
desires for material goods. Rather, the worship of Shaligrams is more commonly
associated with religious tradition, family history, and movement across sacred
landscapes than the fulfillment of any specific day to day desire. Shaligram
devotees therefore tend to follow the approach of the Skanda Purana which
advocates Shaligram worship for anyone wishing to perform service or
austerities as a way of entering into a relationship with the divine. And it is
here that our story begins.
Tulsi and Shaligram
As related in the Padma Purana, there was once a massive and deeply destructive battle that took place between Lord Shiva and the demon Jalandhar. This battle raged on for several days, neither Shiva nor the demon showing any signs of winning due, in this version of the story, to the power of Jalandhar’s pious wife Brinda. In the Vishnu Purana, Shiva then requested help from Lord Vishnu. As the battle between the demon and Shiva continued, Vishnu took on a duplicate form of Jalandhar and went to Brinda’s home. Subsequently, as Vishnu broke Brinda’s long-held chastity while in the duplicate form of her husband Jalandhar, Brinda’s power, her pativrata or sati dharma, was unable to protect her husband and Shiva was finally able to kill Jalandhar in the battle. As a result of this, Brinda became very angry and cursed Vishnu to take the form of a stone, of grass, and of a tree. It is for this reason then that Vishnu came down to earth to become Shaligram (stone), kush (holy grass), and the Pipal tree.
In the Padma Purana, the events have a slightly different outcome but the course of the narrative is not particularly divergent. In this account, Vishnu is actually infatuated with Brinda and, because of this, the gods Agni, Brahma, and Shiva decide to approach Maya, the divine manifestation of illusion and concealment. Maya, in turn, directs them to three of her representatives: Gauri (rajas), Lakshmi (sattva), and Svadha (tamas) who give the gods three seeds with instructions to sow them in the place where Vishnu dwells. When the seeds were sown, three plants sprouted: dhatri (Umblica officialis), malati (Linum usitatissimum), and tulasi (Ocimum sanctum). These three plants were then considered aspects (amshas) of Svadha, Lakshmi, and Gauri respectively but it is otherwise unclear precisely what this variation has to do with the origins of Shaligrams other than to emphasize that Shaligram and tulsi plants are strongly associated in worship.
In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana version of this story (and in 9thskanda of the Devibhagavata), the part of Brinda is actually subsumed by the goddess Tulasi (tulsi). This account explains that there was once a daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and his queen Madhavi who was both a beautiful princess and an incarnation of the hladhini-shakti, the internal pleasure potency and creative power of the universe (and specifically of the Godhead). When this daughter was born, she was said to have been marked with unusual good fortune and as she matured into an exquisitely beautiful young woman, she never appeared to age beyond sixteen years. As the manifestation of universal divine qualities and blessed with incomparable beauty, she was thus called Tulasi (meaning: matchless). Accordingly, when Vishnu then wanted to perform his lilas (sacred past-times) on earth, he was obliged to do so only in the association of his personal potencies; the potency in this case being that of Vishnu’s divine pleasure (hladhini) called Tulasi. (In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, this particular manifestation is taken over by Sri Krishna and his hladhini who is manifest as his consort Srimati Radharani, who is also the goddess of fortune).
When Vishnu (or Krishna) then descend into the mundane world
as avatara to perform their past-times
or undertake acts of heroism, their hladhini manifests
along with them. In many Hindu traditions, these expansions that accompany the
avatars of Vishnu are sometimes called Lakshmis and the princess Tulasi
who was born as the daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and Queen Madhavi is also
considered an incarnation of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu and the principal
goddess of fortune. Finally, in the Devibhagavata, it is noted that Tulasi’s incarnation on earth is actually due to
the jealousy of Radha (Krishna’s principal consort) who became very angry with
Tulasi while in Goloka (the Vaishnava paradise) because Krishna had become
overly fond of her (non-Puranic accounts sometimes explain that it is Lakshmi
who curses Tulasi to become a plant because Tulasi longs to have Vishnu as her
husband. Vishnu then joins with Tulasi as a Shaligram stone).
As the story continues in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, it is
by the machinations of the karmic cycle that Tulasi is wedded to Sankhacuda, a
powerful demon (subsuming here the role of Jalandhar). As fate would have it, Sankhacuda
had also received an earlier boon from Lord Brahma to obtain Tulasi as his wife
and, having done so, would remain undefeated in battle as long as she remained
chaste to him. Taking full advantage of Brahma’s boon, Sankhacuda began to
terrorize the world and all the demigods as he desired to do. Being severely
afflicted by his attacks, the demigods then approached Shiva for protection. Shiva
himself then went to fight with Sankhacuda, but due to Tulasi’s faithfulness, Shiva
was unable to kill him regardless of what he tried. The demigods then fell into
despair but Vishnu (naturally) devised a plan to spoil Tulasi and render the
demon vulnerable. While Shiva continued to engage Sankhacuda in combat, Vishnu
went to the both of them first in the guise of a brahmana to beg charity from Sankhacuda. Standing before
Sankhacuda, the brahmana requested,
“My dear Sankhacuda, famous throughout the three worlds as the giver of
whatever one desires, please give me your kavaca
(armor) in charity.” Knowing that it was the chastity of his wife, Tulasi,
that protected him, Sankhacuda unhesitatingly gave the brahmana his armor in charity and resumed his fight with Shiva.
Now dressed in Sankhacuda’s armor, Vishnu went immediately to
the palace where Tulasi was waiting news of the battle’s outcome. Thinking that
her husband had returned from the fight to regain his strength, Tulasi welcomed
him to the bed chamber for a rest. Thus, the night passed and the faithfulness
of Tulasi was broken by Vishnu’s deceit, and at that moment Sankhacuda was
slain by Shiva in the battle that had also continued throughout the night. When
Tulasi realized that the Sankhacuda she had slept with was actually Vishnu and
not her husband and that Sankhacuda had been killed by Shiva, Tulasi levied her
curse against Vishnu: “By deceiving me, you have broken my chastity and
killed my husband. Only one whose heart is like stone could do such a thing.
Thus, I curse you to remain on earth as a stone!”
Accepting Tulasi’s curse, Vishnu replied, “For many
years you underwent very difficult penances to achieve me as your husband. At
the same time, Sankhacuda also performed penances to get you as his wife. As a
result of a boon from Lord Brahma, the desire of Sankhacuda was fulfilled. Now
that Sankhacuda has left this mortal world and gone to the spiritual world,
your desire to have me as your husband will be fulfilled. Give up this body,
and let your spirit be merged in Lakshmi’s, so that I am always with you. This
body of yours will be transformed into a river, which will become sacred and
celebrated as Gandaki, and from your beautiful hair will grow millions of small
trees that will be known as Tulasi. These trees will be held sacred by all my
devotees. Furthermore, to fulfill your curse, I will become many stones (shaligram shilas) and will always live
on the banks of the Gandaki River. Thus, Tulasi was transformed and appeared as
both the Gandaki River and as the sacred plant tulsi. Vishnu then came into the
world as Shaligram, born in the waters and on the banks of the Gandaki.
At this point, the Brahma Vaivarta Purana also mentions that Sankhacuda,
though a demon in his last manifestation, was also an eternal associate of
Krishna by the name of Sudama who manifested in the world as a demon so as to
assist these events in coming about.
In most cases, the popularity of this version of the story
owes its fame to the Marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Tulsi Vivah), a festival that takes place throughout India and
Nepal on the eleventh lunar day of the Hindu month of Kartik (October/November).
What all three variations of this story provide, however, is the links between
the chastity-deceit-curse version of the Shaligram story and the literal and
metaphorical birth of Shaligrams out of the landscape. To some degree, the
variability in the story likely has to do with narrative blending in both
Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions of Shaligrams veneration where both Vishnu and
Shiva are said to play distinctly important roles in the formation of the Kali
Gandaki River and of the Shaligrams within it. Furthermore, for many Shaiva and
Smarta Shaligram practitioners, the implicit association of Shaligrams directly
with Vishnu is not always accepted, noting for example the many instances where
Shiva mentions the worship of Shaligrams in the Skanda Purana or the particular
quote in the Padma Purana where Shiva himself states:
My devotees who offer obeisances to the shalagrama even negligently become fearless. Those who adore me while making a distinction between myself and Lord Hari will become free from this offence by offering obeisances to shalagrama. Those who think themselves as my devotees, but who are proud and do not offer obeisances to my Lord Vasudeva, are actually sinful and not my devotees. O my son, I always reside in the shalagrama. Being pleased with my devotion the Lord has given me a residence in His personal abode. Giving a shalagrama, is the best form of charity, being equal to the result of donating the entire earth together with its forests, mountains, and all.
Vaishnavas (particularly Gaudiya Vaishnavas), there is an additional reference
to offering Tulasi leaves to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (9.26):
patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati tad aham bhakty-upahrtamasnami prayatatmanah
my devotee offers me with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will
to several current Vaishnava acaryas
(spiritual masters), the patram (leaf)
mentioned in this verse particularly refers to the tulsi leaf. Tulsi leaves are
also mentioned in the Garuda Purana and in the Brhan-naradiya Purana,
which state that the worship of Vishnu without tulsi leaves is incomplete and
is unlikely to be accepted by Vishnu as proper veneration: “Without
Tulasi, anything done in the way of worship, bathing, and offering of food and
drink to Vishnu (Krishna) cannot be considered real worship, bathing, or
offering. Vishnu does not accept any worship or eat or drink anything that is