“Shaligrams as Kin”

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

Here’s a preview:

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

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

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

[i] A Hindu wedding booth

[ii] Ocimum tenuiflorum or Holy Basil

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

It’s Book Release Day!

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

(Links to read a preview of the book below)

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

Or, order on Amazon HERE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal Magic and Saffron Science

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

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

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

What Can We Do?

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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


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

Getting a Fake Shaligram, Intentionally

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

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

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

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

Even so, stories of receiving fake stones abound.

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

Real Shaligram broken into pieces and re-glued

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

M-Seal Shaligram with stamped “chakras”

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

M-Seal Shaligram from Ebay

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

Trilobite “Shaligram” from Ebay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buyer beware, indeed.

Keshav Shaligram

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.

Image

According to Adi Åšankara’ 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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

References: Skanda Purana, Nagarekhanda, 244: 3-9. Garuda Purana (Panchanan Tarkaratna, part 1 Chapter 45) & Praanatoshanitantra (page 348-351).

Happy New Year!

Tonight, I happily bring in 2020 with a Surya Shaligram! May the New Year bring light, joy, and illumination to the world.

फूल खिलेंगे गुलशन में खूबसूरती नज़र आएगी,
बीते साल की खट्टी मीठी यादें संग रह जाएगी,
आओ मिलकर जशन मनाएं नए साल का हँसी ख़ुशी से,
नए साल की पहली सुबह ख़ुशियाँ अनगिनत लाएगी।
हैप्पी न्यू इयर

Shaligram Interpretive Practices: The Vasudev Shaligram Example

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 Åšesha (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 Åšesha.

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.

Vasudev Shaligram side by side with the iconic image of Vasudev rescuing the infant Krishna

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…