Great Big Things

Posted by J Foster on Jan 25, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology

When I was a kid, I used to read the encyclopedia. Rather than attempting to identify myself with the characters of more typical teenage narratives (or, at least, let’s be honest, narratives by adults about teenagers. Which is what “young adult fiction” ultimately is), I habitually spent my quiet reading hours with the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica (an early 1980’s set in black pleather) and a rather brightly colored set of Funk and Wagnall’s Wildlife Encyclopedias. To this day, I credit the latter with my ability to identify, by sight, a hoopoe, an okapi, at least seven types of foxes, and nearly all members of the family Paradisaeidae (order Passeriformes). More than a decade before the internet, and even longer before the advent of Wikipedia, I was happily wiling away the hours with entries detailing everything from the early modern scientific revolution, to Medieval calligraphy, to dry commentaries on Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia. Now, I don’t mention this to imply, in any sense, that reading an encyclopedia as a ten-year-old makes you smarter or more academically inclined (though I am sure it helped along the way somewhere), I mention it here because this is the earliest memories I have of being excited by a world full of Great Big Things.

Bug collecting and fossil collecting are part of seeing the world in this way; constructing one’s own Cabinet of Curiosities in order to categorize and make sense of a world that is complex, fascinating, and wholly beyond one’s limited experiences. But here it is that anthropology challenges us further, amid the desperate urge to classify and harmonize everything into orderly taxonomies; to see our categories, not as a kind of access to direct truths but as a kind of mythology in its own right. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that scientific classification is mere fable or fantasy, or that it isn’t useful in helping us to explain and predict natural processes, but that the choice to associate certain qualities over others or to group certain characteristics and strata for one reason over another comes with its own kind of partiality.

My thinking along these lines echoes the commentaries of British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who once remarked that “like pebbles on the beach of Hinlopenstretet, history, too, is a succession of endless details, and there is an infinite choice whether to pick this one or that (Life, 1997: 24).” Or more specifically, in this case, that “the history of life is filtered by the very processes that preserve it (18).” It is not accidentally that I choose to quote Fortey here, who, as a paleontologist fascinated by the earliest fossils of Precambrian and Cambrian life, also goes on at length to question how things are classified, how one type of creature becomes associated with another, and how such early taxonomies of space and time form their own kinds of “mythological units.” As an anthropologist who works primarily with Shaligram Stones, it is this issue of classification that weighs most heavily on my work at present.

In the discourse of science, Shaligram Stones are black shale fossil ammonites from the Early Oxfordian to the Late Tithonian age near the end of the Jurassic period some 165-140 million years ago (Geological Survey of India 1904: 46). In the discourse of Hinduism, Shaligram Stones are the direct, aniconic, manifestations of Vishnu, gifted to the sacred Kali-Gandaki River (or “cursed” to appear in the river, depending on which origin story you follow) as objects of veneration for worthy devotees. In terms of classification, both are “true” in that both sets of classification tell us something about the world these objects inhabit. In one sense, these fossils tell the story of a Himalayan region once covered by a shallow sea long before the shifting of tectonic plates pushed ragged peaks into the clouds. Before mammals had arrived on the scene, before humanity was even so much as a teleological consideration. In another sense, these sacred stones tell the story of human mobility and meaning-making, of the making of persons and cultures across time and space. They tell a story of a time of divine intervention, the musings of gods, and the creation of the world also long before humanity had much say in the way of things. The famous geologist’s metaphor is to describe the careful peeling back of stratigraphic layers of rock as reading the pages of a book. But what Shaligram Stones show us is that we are not so much “reading” this story, as equally as we are “writing” it.

All narratives require a scale. All stories need a chronology. And for this reason, like it or not, human motivations will always creep into descriptions of the natural world just as much as they dominate our understandings of ritual and religion, of ethnicity, race, and nation. These stories are paradoxical and difficult. The further we delve into the world around us, the more obscure are the events and the less certain the narrative. But we must start somewhere, and in a world of Great Big Things, let it begin with the thing itself (as Appadurai would say). If nothing else but to gain a new appreciation for the richness of life and our human place within it, where a fossil can be a deity and a deity can be a fossil, both millions of years old and imminently present, and have logic be all the better for it.


Too Few and Too Far Between — The Salagrama – Kosha

Posted by J Foster on Jan 15, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I encountered my first Shaligram in India during the summer of 2012. Since that time I have searched virtually every library and bookstore from Kolkata to Kathmandu (and spent an equally exhausting number of hours on Google) for any text I might find about the sacred stones of the Kali-Gandaki River Valley. Curiously, once I had managed to obtain copies of the source texts (mainly the Skanda and Garuda Puranas, the Taittiriya Upanishad, and the Brahma Sutras) that mention Shaligram veneration, I could find little else. Other than a few commentaries and pamphlets available in India and Nepal, there didn’t seem to be a published work about Shaligrams that was “about something.” By that I mean, aside from a few passing mentions here and there in the ethnographies of the Himalayas and of Hinduism, I could not find detailed descriptions of Shaligram practices in Nepal or elsewhere, of pilgrimage experiences, or of the history of Shaligrams in South Asia. But my searching did finally pay off in one respect, when I finally purchased a copy of the Salagrama – Kosha at a book market in New Delhi.

Published by S.K. Ramachandra Rao in 1996, the Salagrama-Kosha (trans. Book of Shaligrams) has, thus far, provided the most complete account of Shaligram worship available to interested readership. It explains the physical and textual origins of Shaligrams in the standard theological sense and it also contains a great deal of valuable information regarding Shaligram origin myths and methods of identification. What is more, it points to other possible sources for inquiry, including Anupa Simha’s “Salagrama Pariksa,” the “Salagrama Sila Lakshana Paddhati,” and a number of other manuscripts written in the last 200 years or so, many of which have never been translated or published.

During my time in Mustang, and among Shaligram pilgrims in both Nepal and India, it was interesting to note that the Salagrama-Kosha, along with the Puranas and other Vedic texts, comprised the vast majority of the average pilgrim’s and practitioner’s referential knowledge of Shaligram texts. As is typical in Hinduism, there appears to be no standardized body of texts that specifically direct Shaligram practice (though various texts at various times certainly hold a great deal of influence), just as there is no standardized body of texts that specifically direct Hindu worship in general. But within this complicated tapestry of inter-related threads, the absence of careful research into Shaligram meanings and practices located in place and time has lead to a noticeable gap in the literatures and in understandings of this widespread but strangely invisible practice. After a time, many of the devotees I met and spoke with even articulated similar concerns.

It’s hard to claim, off hand, that this is what I intend to remedy at the conclusion of my field research in South Asia, but it is with a final planned research monograph that I hope to bring together as many of these texts as possible with in-depth ethnographic research into Shaligram practices such as they are today. This means not just ascertaining what sacred texts say about Shaligram stones, but how people actually use them and what experiences they have in the arduous journey to acquire them.

As the Salagrama-Kosha notes, “the Deity is like an ocean of nectar altogether devoid of waves.” And yet, the physical world remains unsettled, battered about by the winds and tides of everyday life. The research process is, unfortunately, not much different. It’s difficult to tell what leads to chase down, what avenues to explore first, and of course, there remains the perpetual worry that something important might be left out. What texts might I have missed? What ritual specialist might I not have spoken to? What temple or pilgrimage site might I have inadvertently walked past?

In the end, with so many possible books filtering down through the hands of academics and pilgrims alike, and so many transient experiences carried off by the high Himalayan winds, and so many silent and contemplative faces moving through the endless streams of the Kali-Gandaki River each year, I can’t even begin to imagine just how many stones have been left unturned.

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