By Swami Harshananda
God can be worshiped in two forms:
- The iconic - Images worshiped in temples or at home, this may include pictures or paintings also, belong to this group.
- The aniconic - Yantras, śivaliṅgas, kumbhas, śālagrāmas, sphaṭikas and śoṇaśilā belong to this group.
Out of these, śivaliṅgas and śālagrāmas are more widely worshiped.
Śālagrāma is actually a village and a place of pilgrimage on the bank of the river Gaṇdakī in Nepal. As it has śāl trees in abundance, it got that name. Since these stone emblems are found in the Gaṇḍakī river near this village, they too came to be known as Śālagrāmas. The river too got its additional name Śālagrāmī.
The śālagrāma stone is actually an ammonite, the fossilized shell of an extinct species of mollusk found in the Gaṇḍakī river. It invariably contains the discus or the cakra-marks.
Source of Śalagramas
The śālagrāmas are natural objects found in the river Gaṇḍakī of Nepal and are never man-made. There are four specified spots in the river within Nepal’s jurisdiction, from where these stones are picked up.
There are several interesting legends connected with the appearance or manifestation of the śālagrāmas on earth. The river goddess Gaṇḍakī performed severe austerities to please Viṣṇu and get him as her child. Viṣṇu granted the boon and became the śālagrāma stones in her womb, i.e., the waters of the river. According to another version, the river Gaṇḍakī was formed by the drops of sweat of Viṣṇu and Śiva, containing the śālagrāmas.
The literature concerning the śālagrāmas is copious. Apart from the several purāṇas like Brahmavaivarta, Garuda, Padma, Skanda and Varāha, which deal with them, there are special treatises also on the same, like Śālagrāmalaksanam, Śālagrāmaparīkṣā of Anūpasihha, Śāla-grāmamūlalaksanapaddhati, and Śāla-grāmaśilāpariksanapaddhati.
Sanctity of the Śālagrāmas
Right from the ancient times, śālagrāma have been considered to be very sacred emblem of Viṣṇu. The images of Nārāyaṇa at Badarīnātha in Uttaranchal and that of Kṛṣṇa at Udupi in Karnataka are said to be carved out of the śālagrāma stone. In the pañcāyatana pūjā system, the śālagrāma is used to represent god Viṣṇu. Unlike the images installed in temples or the ones used at home for worship, wherein the presence of God has to be induced or infused through appropriate mantras, the śālagrāmas have His presence eternally, by their very nature. It is even believed to possess inherently, a sahajavibhūti or mysterious divine power. This has given rise to several popular beliefs. Some of them are:
- Placing a śālagrāma on a plate along with śaṅkha and covered with tulasī leaves is an extremely meritorious act.
- Any religious observance like dāna, vrata, śrāddha and pūjā if done in association with the śālagrāma, will confer greater benefits.
- Sipping or drinking the water in which a śālagrāma has been bathed, will help in the absolving of all sins. When put in the mouth of a dying person, this water will help him attain the world of Viṣṇu.
- Rituals performed on holy occasions like the periods of an eclipse become more effective if done in the presence of a śālagrāma.
- If a witness in a court of law gave his statement holding a śālagrāma in his hand, it was taken as true, since telling lies would have serious repercussions on him. The same process applied to making solemn promises also.
- Worship of a śālagrāma, even without devotion, can confer liberation.
- The gifting of a śālagrāma stone was considered an extremely meritorious act whereas selling it was frowned upon. The one that was bought was declared unfit for worship.
Modes of Worship of a Śālagrāma
Fire, which already exists in a piece of wood, manifests itself when rubbed against another piece of wood as in the case of the araṇis. So also, Viṣṇu who is already present in the śālagrāma stone, manifests himself when it is worshiped. Due to this, no process of consecration or purification is needed for a śālagrāma before worshiping it. Even there is no need for initiation from a guru with a mantra or learning of a formal procedure. What is really needed is a pure conduct, freedom from arrogance and infatuation, and aversion from the base temptations of the world.
The simplest form of worship of a śālagrāma consists in bathing it with water or milk, keeping tulasī leaves on it and offering some sweet preparation as naivedya. A few other details connected with its worship are:
- The numbers of śālagrāmas that may be worshiped together can be four or six or any even number, except two. Worshiping one is permitted, though odd numbers is not.
- Worshiping twelve śālagrāmas every day with devotion is considered highly meritorious.
- Even after being damaged, a śālagrāma does not become unfit for worship. However, the one that has been secured by unethical means like fraud or force, becomes unfit for worship. Even if worshiped, it will be in vain.
Varieties, Shapes and Sizes
The śālagrāmas are stones, rendered round and smooth by water currents flowing for millenniums. They are distinguished by the discus-like marks left by śālās or vajrakītas which had entered into them, for residence, and got fossilized. Thus the cakra-formation is the most distinguishing mark of this stone emblem. Since the cakra or the discus is the chief weapon and mark of god Visṇu, these stone emblems came to be regarded as Viṣṇu Himself in that aniconic form.
Approximately eighty-nine varieties of śālagrāma have been listed by experts and treatises on them. They are available in several forms like round, umbrella-shaped, spear-shaped, cart shaped, crooked and so on. Their sizes also vary from that of an āmalaka to as big as a ball that can just be covered by both the palms. Depending on the smoothness of the surface, color and shape, śālagrāmas are classified as:
- Uttama - the best. Perfectly smooth and blue-black ones belong to this group.
- Madhyama - the middling. The ones with bluish or blackish color belong to this group.
- Adhama - the worst. If the color is tawny, yellowish, ash grey or red, it belongs to this group.
Identification and Testing
Examination and identification of śālagrāmas is called as śālagrāmaparīkṣā. It is an art and science, well-developed. Several purāṇas like Agni, Brahma, Kūrma and Padma as also a few independent works, contain exhaustive accounts of this subject. Though the śālagrāmas are emblems of Viṣṇu in general, there are several varieties of them, each representing his particular aspect. The factors that contribute to this variety are:
- Number and nature of cakras
- Other marks like lines and holes
Since genuine śālagrāmas are considered extremely sacred and beneficial and also bought or sold for fabulous prices, fake ones are produced by unscrupulous traders cheating the gullible devotees. Hence, the standard texts on this subject prescribe a few tests to check the genuineness or otherwise of these stones. Some of them are:
- Striking it gently or all sides by a small hammer or knocking it with one’s finger after holding it firmly
- Placing it on a plate with its equal weight of rice or keeping it in milk in a bowl and leave it for a night
The former test shows that it is fake, if soft powders fall down. In the latter case, a slight increase in the weight of rice or the quantity of milk proves that the stone is not only genuine but also beneficial.
Aspects of Viṣṇu Represented
The aspects of Viṣṇu represented by the śālagrāmas are quite numerous. The designation of each one is determined by the distinguishing marks of identification as given by the purāṇas and special treatises. For instance, if a śālagrāma is round in shape, has two cakras at the opening and is of whitish hue, it represents Vāsudeva. If it has a wide opening, is black in color with two cakras on the left side, it represents Laksmī-narasimha and so on. Some of the other aspects are the ten avatāras of Viṣṇu:
Fruits of Worshiping Śālagrāmas
The purāṇas are particular in mentioning the various fruits and results that can be got by worshiping certain specified śālagrāmas. For instance:
- To obtain mantrasiddhi one should worship a smooth and shining stone.
- If one wants freedom from sins one should worship pale-colored one.
- If one wants a progeny, he should worship yellow one.
- If one wants fame, he should worship black one.
- If one wants worldly prosperity one should worship blue-black one.
These texts also warn that worship of the wrong ones will bring about great harm. For example, worship of a red one will cause illness, whereas the worship of a very large one will cut the life-span. Hence the possessor of a śālagrāma emblem should know all the essential details before keeping it and worshiping it.
The dvārāvatīśilās are white stones similar in shape to the śālagrāmas. They too have cakras. They are available in Dvārakā, a famous place of pilgrimage for the devotees of Kṛṣṇa. If śālagrāmas are worshiped along with these, then all the sins of the worshiper are destroyed.
The followers of every religion believe what their scripture says, especially regarding things beyond the ken of the five sense-organs. Thus, the scripture being the sole authority in such matters and since the religious scriptures highly eulogize the sanctity of the śālagrāma stones, they are being greatly revered even today.
- Yantras means mystical line-drawings.
- Kumbhas means pots filled with water.
- Sphatikas means crystals.
- Soṇaśilā means piece of red metallic stone.
- Śāl tree are scientifically known as Shorea robusta or Valica robusta.
- Śaṅkha means conch.
- Tulasī leaves are called as holy basil.
- Dāna means gifts.
- Vrata means vows.
- Śrāddha means obsequial rite.
- Pūjā means worship.
- Naivedya means food for the deity.
- Vajrakītas means ammonite.
- Āmalaka means gooseberry, myrobalam.
- It can be of about 20 cms. or 8 inches in diameter.
- Avatāras means incarnations.
- Mantrasiddhi means rousing the inherent power of a mantra.
- Cakras means other marks.
- It is now in Gujarat.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore