Witnessing 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.
Previously, 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 9th skanda 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.
For 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
(If my devotee offers me with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it).
According 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 without Tulasi.”