Outward Spirals: A Guide to Shaligram Interpretive Traditions (TLS Press, 2024)

I finally have some good news to share about the Shaligram interpretive guide that I know so many of you have been asking me about for the past few years. Well, we finally have a release date!

March 2024.

The book manuscript currently covers 90 Shaligram name-types with several of their variations and Puranic references. This means that I have documented most of the primary types of Shaligrams identified by multiple religious traditions and their most common appearances. But, it is important to remember that I certainly haven’t been able to cover ever possible variation or manifestation (which I talk about in the introduction). However, I sincerely hope that this book will allow me to give back to so many Shaligram practitioners, devotees, and communities who have helped me in my research over the past ten years.

It’s hard to believe that I have dedicated a decade to learning Shaligram interpretive traditions. I’ve lived in India for a time and spent over two years in Mustang, Nepal focusing on the Kali Gandaki pilgrimage route specifically. Along the way, I have had the distinct pleasure and privilege to meet and work with gurus, sadhus, ritual specialists, and devotees from all over the world. It is my hope that this book reflects all of that accumulated knowledge and makes it accessible to anyone and everyone who wants it.

I will, of course, talk about the book more as we close in on the release, but I wanted to thank you all for your help and support of this work. It will be a happy day when the book, with photos and drawings all included, is finally out in the world.

A Krishna Gopala Shaligram from the author’s personal collection.

“Outward Spirals: A Guide to Shaligram Interpretive Traditions” (Work Continues)

A lovely morning Shaligram seva image

I’ve been hard at work editing the manuscript for my upcoming book on Shaligram interpretive traditions and I am excited that we are still on track for publication next year. As I continue with the additions and changes however, I want to share my current table of contents. While I do have a page limit (to ensure that the book can be printed affordably), I have added some Shaligrams that I wasn’t able to before, bringing me to a name-list of 85. I still have some leeway to work with though. As such, let me know if there are any Shaligrams I haven’t included here that you might like to see added to the discussion!

(Note: I am not including multiple manifestations — meaning Shaligrams that have more than one deity appearing in their characteristics. This guide specifically focuses on single name-types.)

As of right now, I have:

  1. Acyuta
  2. Adhokshaja
  3. Aditya
  4. Agni
  5. Ananta-Sesha
  6. Ananta-Vasuki
  7. Anirudda
  8. Basudev/Vasudev
  9. Brahman
  10. Buddha
  11. Dadhivamana
  12. Damodar
  13. Gada Dhar (with addition of Padma Shaligram)
  14. Ganesh
  15. Garuda
  16. Govardhana
  17. Hamsa
  18. Hanuman
  19. Harihara
  20. Hayagriva
  21. Hiranyagarbha
  22. Hrishikesh
  23. Janardhan
  24. Kalki
  25. Kalpvriksha
  26. Kamal-Narayan
  27. Kapila
  28. Keshav
  29. Krishna
  30. Krishna-Balaram
  31. Krishna-Gopala (Santan Gopala)
  32. Krishna-Govinda
  33. Kubera
  34. Kumaramurti
  35. Kurma
  36. Lakshmi-Janardhan
  37. Lakshmi-Narasimha
  38. Lakshmi-Narayan
  39. Lakshmi (Devi)
  40. Madhusudana
  41. Mahashakti
  42. Mahavishnu-Dasavatara
  43. Mahavishnu-Multichakra
  44. Matsya
  45. Murari
  46. Narasimha (Ugra Narasimha)
  47. Narayan (Vishnu-Narayana)
  48. Navavyuha
  49. Navdurga
  50. Padmanabha
  51. Parameshtin
  52. Parashurama
  53. Parvati (Shiva-Parvati)
  54. Pitambara
  55. Pradyumna
  56. Prthu
  57. Pundarikaaksha
  58. Purushottama
  59. Rada Ram/Sri Ram
  60. Raghunath
  61. Raj Rajeshwara
  62. Ratnagharbha
  63. Samudra Manthan/Sona Parbat
  64. Shankarshan
  65. Shankha
  66. Shashidhara-Chandramauli
  67. Shimshumara
  68. Shiva Linga
  69. Shridhar
  70. Shrikara
  71. Sudarshan
  72. Surya/Suraj
  73. Tarkshya
  74. Trivikrama
  75. Upendra
  76. Vaikuntha
  77. Vamana
  78. Varaha
  79. Venkateshwara-Balaji
  80. Vishvakesha
  81. Vishvarupa and Vishvambhara
  82. Vishvayoni/Jagadyoni
  83. Vittala and Vitobha
  84. Yagnamurti
  85. Yogeshwara-Yogaraja

Reading Shaligrams

The book is nearly complete! It’s been a long road but I will be turning in the revised and completed manuscript to my publisher in just a few weeks. I believe I’ve mentioned it before but I have decided that my current research will be separated into two different books. The first, which hopefully will be coming out sometime around the beginning of next year, is my principal ethnography about Shaligram pilgrimage in Mustang, Nepal and about the active practice of Shaligram ritual traditions throughout South Asia. The second is going to be about Shaligram interpretive traditions. This way, I can frame the first book as an introduction to the topic of Shaligram pilgrimage for academics and laypeople who aren’t likely to have any prior background or knowledge of Shaligrams at all. The second book can then be designed more for Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos who already have some prior experience with and understanding of Shaligrams or who actually practice with Shaligrams right now.

But as I finish up this first manuscript and get it off to the next step in the process, I’m starting to think about how I want the second manuscript to work. I already have a series of “field guide”-style pages that detail the characteristics of each of the 90 or so name-categories of Shaligram stones and I think those will be especially valuable to practitioners. But I also want to have some kind of commentary at the beginning that discusses exactly how Shaligrams are read. This is a challenge, of course, because there are several different Shaligram interpretive traditions and each tradition reads the shilas in slightly different ways. But here is a little of what I am thinking.

Firstly, I want to talk about the main sets of characteristics: shape, color, set, vadana (mouth), vanamala (white thread), and chakra (spiral). Each of these characteristics exists on something of a spectrum. In other words, there are a variety of shapes a Shaligram might appear in, a few different colors, and it might have one or more vadanas or chakras. Or, as it may be, none at all. In any case, this makes any discussion of variations potentially limitless and I just don’t have the time or space to cover every possible permutation.

Secondly, I will need to have some commentary on each of the current Shaligram traditions. There are, for example, several Vaishnava Shaligram traditions, a few Shaiva traditions, a number of Smarta traditions, as well as both Jain and Buddhist traditions. Not surprisingly, these various traditions all tend to use different combinations of sacred texts, guru lineages, and deity genealogies to interpret the specific manifestation present in the shila and, though they overlap significantly, they are each unique and distinct. I’ve compiled a table of my data and descriptions, but I am note entirely sure what I want to do with it just yet.

And lastly, I want to both acknowledge and pay homage to the Shaligram books that have come before me. The two main ones being, of course, Rao’s Shaligram Kosha and Ram Charan Sharma’s Shaligram Puran (I discuss pilgrimage literature in the ethnography). Both of these works, though extremely difficult to find outside of India, have been instrumental in my research and deserve the best citations I can give them. They also aptly demonstrate some of the challenges of working with Shaligram traditions as they move outwards from the Himalayas. As Sharma’s work shows, for example, several Shaligram traditions have begun to incorporate other sacred stones, such as Dwaraka shilas and Shiva Lingams, and ritual objects, such as murti and coins, in place of rarer Shaligrams that have been otherwise too difficult to obtain. This means that any given Shaligram puja might incorporate a wide variety of mantras, images, objects, or other accoutrements whose relationships to one another might not be immediately apparent.

Ultimately, as I continue to contemplate how best to move forward, I have been experimenting with a few ways to demonstrate “reading Shaligrams.” One, represented by the image below, takes a diagrammatical approach to mapping out specific characteristics and their meanings. I’m also considering using other combinations of tables, images, scans, and drawings to highlight the important processes in the most understandable way I can. Hopefully, either later this year or next year, I’ll have the chance to devote a significant amount of time to it and to the complementary online database I’ve been contemplating for a while now.

Reading Shaligrams is a challenge. Both in terms of reading about them and reading the shilas themselves. So, it’s going to be a delicate balance. I’ve already included as many Vedic, Puranic, Shastric, and Tantric references as I can and I will continue to document the various ways in which both sacred texts and peoples over time have come to understand Shaligrams and to receive darsan of the deities present. But in the end, I know that I can’t include everything. It’s a start, though.

Furthermore, I’m interested to hear what you all might think, in terms of format, information, or presentation. If anyone has any thoughts, I’m open to suggestions! Feel free to comment here or contact me on Twitter: @Manigarm

Vasudev Shaligram – Interpretation Explained