What is a Shalagram?
Shalagrams or Saligrams are iconic representations of lord Vishnu, the protector in the Trinity of gods in the Hindu pantheon. These ammonite fossilised stones are available on the river bed of the Gandaki River which flows through Nepal from the Himalayas. These dark coloured spherical stones are treasured as storehouses of primordial energy and worshipped with reverence in many temples and Hindu households. They are believed to have been existence for 150 million years formed when the mighty Himalayas was an ocean floor. Just as the Shivalinga is sacred to the Shaivites the Saligram is revered by the Vaishnavites. This is also a belief that a tiny worm known as the vajra keeda bores itself into these stones and remains inside.
The Holy Gandaki
There are shalagram shilas or stones that are available in many river beds. But what is it that makes the shalagrams from the Gandaki riverbed so sacred? At the source of the Kali Gandaki River is a huge lake mentioned in the Puranas. This is known as Damodar Kund and is in Nepal. The lower Gandaki is popularly known as Mukti Nath the place where one attains salvation. Muktinath is one of the 108 divya kshetras for Vaishnavites. It is here that these dark coloured stones held in veneration by generations of men can be found. This place is also known as Shalagrama Kshetra due to the presence of these symbols of Vishnu. River Gandaki is also known as Narayani, Salagrami and Hiranyavati.
The Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata describes the river as the abode of all the gods. One who has the good fortune of touching the waters of the river or sipping it a little will have his sins removed. The importance of the river is extolled in the Shiva Purana in the Kumarakhand under the chapter Killing of Shankhachuda. The Devi Bhagwata also has a reference to the Shalagrams found in Gandaki Riverbed.
It is believed that the holy Tulsi transformed herself into the river Gandaki while Lord Vishnu became the shalagram stones so that they could remain inseparable at all times through the ages. Hence the worship of shalagram is incomplete without an offering of the sacred tulsi leaves.
How is a Shalagram worshipped?
Worship of the Shalagram Hinduism advocates the worship of all beings. Isavasyam idam sarvam says the Upanishads. The lord pervades everything, be it a tree, creeper, plant, river, mountain, animal, insect or man. Raising even a stone to divinity is unique only in this religion. That is the universality of the cosmic spirit that pervades throughout in Hinduism.
These special stones contain the markings of Lord Vishnu like the discus, the conch and the lotus and hence are considered divine. Most of the Shalagrams in individual homes are family heirlooms and have been passed on over generations. It is important to maintain high personal standards and continue the family worship in the tradition adhered to by the forefathers.
There is no initiation required for worshipping a shalagram. Soucham or purity is one of the important niyama or practice advocated by our Scriptures. It is not mere physical purity but also moral purity that is stressed. Ritual worship includes the niyamas prescribed by our seers. This is the only qualification required of a devotee. To worship the shalagram, therefore, no initiation or qualified priest is necessary. Purity of thought, word and deed, manas ekam, vachas ekam, karman ekam alone is enough along with a spirit of surrender or sharanagathi bhava. These are the hall marks of a true devotee that the lord seeks. The shalagram is bathed in water, milk, curd, honey and tulsi leaves are offered with devotion every day. One need not undertake any pilgrimage or austerities to reach the godhead. Worship offered with sincerity to the shalagram is enough to wash away the sins and confer merits.
Origin of Shalagram worship
Adi Sankara mentions the worship of Shalagram traditionally in his commentary to the verse 1.6.1 in Taittiriya Upanishad 3 and 4 and his commentary to the verse 1.3.14 of the Brahma Sutras.
"Ye Pivanti Nara Nityam Salagrama Sila Jalam
Panca Gavya Sahasrais Tu Sevitaih Kim Prayojanam"
A person fortunate to drink the water which has bathed the sacred Shalagram Shila, to him, there is no need to drink the panchagavya a thousand times.
Structure of the Shalagram
The shalagram in general represents Lord Mahavishnu. These stones are found with varied markings and are worshipped as a particular form of Vishnu based on the markings.
Different combinations signify different forms of the lord.
Shanka, chakra, gada and padma - Keshava
Padma, gada, chakra, shanka - Narayana
Chakra, shanka, padma and gada - Madhava
Gada, padma, shanka and chakra - Govinda
Padma, shanka, chakra and gada – Vishnu
Shanka, padma, gada, chakra – Madusudhana
Gada, chakra, shanka and padma – Trivikrama
Chakra, gada, padma, shanka - Vamana
Chakra, padma, shanka, gada - Shridhara
Padma, gada, shanka, charka - Hrishikesh
Padma, chakra,gada, shanka - Padmanabha
Shanka, chakra, gada, padma - Damodara
Chakra, shanka, gada, padma - Sankarshana
Shanka, chakra, padma, gada - Pradyumna
Gada, shanka, padma, charka - Aniruddha
Padma, shanka, gada, chakra - Purushottama
Gadha, shanka, chakra, padma - Adokshaja
Padma, gada, shanka, chakra - Narasimha
Padma, chakra, shanka, gada – Achyuta
Shanka, chakra, padma, gada - Janardana
Gada, padma, shanka, chakra - Upendra
Chakra, padma, gada and shanka – Hari
Gada, padma, chakra and shanka - Krishna
Shanka, chakra, padma, gada – Vasudeva
The Jagannath Temple at Puri in Odisha has the largest Shalagrama.
The image of Vishnu in Badrinath is said to be carved out of a huge shalagram as also the idol of Krishna in Udupi.