It is our nature to worship. From prehistoric times to the present, human society has been engaged in some form of veneration. Secularizing our ritual from the religious to the ridiculous does not change the fact that we are about worship. India is no exception to this reality, where worship has for the most part remained God-centered for thousands of years. The two most popular forms of worship among the followers of the Vedic dharma are devotion to Viṣṇu and Śiva. In both the Viṣṇu and Śiva bhakti traditions we find the worship of śālagrāma-śilā.
Śālagrāma-śilās are sacred black stones that come from the Gaṇḍakī River valley of the Himalayas. śilā means stone. The qualities and characteristics of the śālagrāma-śilās are not found on stones anywhere on earth except in the Gaṇḍakī region. There, in that remote area of the world nestled between the Dhaulagiri and Annapūrṇa mountain ranges, the Gaṇḍakī River flows through the village of Śālagrāma and the āśrama of Pulaha. In ancient times, the mountain range surrounding Pulaha was called Śālagiri due to the vast forests of śāla trees. From this came the name Śālagrāma (village of śāla trees) and śālagrāma-śilās (stones found only in the region of Śālagrāma).
These small black stones are more than meets the naked eye. All followers of Vedic dharma, with Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas no exception, consider śālagrāma to be a direct manifestation of Viṣṇu himself.
According to contemporary geologists, the śālagrāma-śilās are fossils of a prehistoric insect. This insect is mentioned in the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa. Therein, tulasī, the sacred plant so dear to Viṣṇu, cursed Viṣṇu to become a stone during one act of their eternal līlā. Viṣṇu said, “To fulfil your curse, I will become a stone (śālagrāma-śilā) and will always live on the banks of the Gaṇḍakī River. The millions of Vajrakīṭa worms that live at that place will adorn those stones with the signs of my cakra by carving them with their sharp teeth.”
The geologists’ suggestion is thus not entirely unacceptable. It is supported to some extent by sacred literature. However, for the tradition, the Vajra-kīṭa is the secondary cause, whereas Viṣṇu himself is the principal cause of his manifestation as śālagrāma-śilā. The cursing of Viṣṇu is also considered a secondary cause. In Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology, Viṣṇu in the form of Kṛṣṇa is considered to be the cause of all causes, sarva-kāraṇa-kāraṇam. The main cause of God’s appearance in this world is his own desire. Corresponding to Viṣṇu’s desire is the desire of his devotee, the Vaiṣṇava. In regards to the śālagrāma-śilā, Viṣṇu desired to appear in this world in a form which could be easily worshipped and maintained by his devotees. Thus the drama of accepting the curse to become a stone was enacted with the help of his devotees. An elaboration on just how Viṣṇu was cursed to become a stone is narrated in the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa as follows.
There once appeared on earth as the daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and his queen Mādhavī a beautiful princess who was a plenary expansion of the hlādinī-śakti, or internal pleasure potency of Godhead. When the child was born she was decorated with all the signs of good fortune. She matured to be exquisitely beautiful and never aged beyond sixteen years. Her beauty was captivating and pleasing to the heart of everyone. She was the manifestation of all divine qualities, and thus she was called Tulasī (matchless).
When Viṣṇu wants to perform his līlās on earth, he does so only in the association of his personal potencies appearing as his eternal associates. The potency which arranges for Viṣṇu’s pleasure is called hlādinī. In the eternal Goloka, where the Supreme resides eternally as Śrī Kṛṣṇa, that hlādinī potency is eternally manifest as Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, the original goddess of fortune. When Kṛṣṇa descends to this mundane world as a Viṣṇu avatāra to perform pastimes, similarly his hlādinī potency manifests along with him. The expansions that accompany the Viṣṇu avatāras are called Lakṣmīs. The princess who appeared as the daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and Queen Mādhavī was an expansion of Lakṣmī, the goddess of fortune.
By the will of providence, Tulasī was wedded to Śaṅkhacūḍa, a powerful demon. Śaṅkhacūḍa had received a boon from Lord Brahmā to get Tulasī as his wife and remain undefeated in battle as long as she remained chaste to him. Taking advantage of Brahma’s boon, Śaṅkhacūḍa began to terrorize all the demigods. Being severely afflicted by his attacks, the demigods approached Śiva for protection. Śiva went himself to fight with Śaṅkhacūḍa, but because of the chastity of Tulasī, Śiva was unable to kill him.
When all became hopeless for the demigods, Viṣṇu devised a plan to spoil the chastity of Tulasī. While Śiva and Śaṅkhacūḍa were engaged in ferocious combat, Viṣṇu went there in the guise of a brāhmaṇa to beg charity from Śaṅkhacūḍa. Standing before Śaṅkhacūḍa, the brāhmaṇa requested, “My dear Śaṅkhacūḍa, famous throughout the three worlds as the giver of whatever one desires, please give me your kavaca (armour) in charity.”
Knowing that it was the chastity of his wife, Tulasī, that protected him, Śaṅkhacūḍa unhesitatingly gave the brāhmaṇa his armour in charity and resumed his fight with Śiva. Dressed in Śaṅkhacūḍa’s armour, Viṣṇu went to the palace where Tulasī was waiting. Thinking that her husband had returned from battle to regain his strength, Tulasī welcomed Him to the bed chamber for rest. Thus the night passed and the chastity of Tulasī was broken by the tricks of Viṣṇu, and at that moment Śaṅkhacūḍa was slain by Śiva in the midst of battle.
When Tulasī understood that the Śaṅkhacūḍa that slept the night in her bed chamber was actually Viṣṇu and not her husband and that Śaṅkhacūḍa had been killed by Śiva, Tulasī cursed Viṣṇu. “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 the curse of Tulasī, Viṣṇu then replied, “For many years you underwent very difficult penances to achieve me as your husband. At the same time, Śaṅkhacūḍa also performed penances to get you as his wife. As a result of a boon from Lord Brahmā, the desire of Śaṅkhacūḍa was fulfilled. Now that Śaṅkhacūḍa has left this mortal world and gone to the spiritual world, your desire to have me as your husband will be fulfilled. It is my benediction that your present body will be transformed into the Gaṇḍakī River and from your beautiful hair will grow millions of small trees that will be known as tulasī. These trees will be held sacred by all my devotees, the Vaiṣṇavas. To fulfil your curse, I will become many stones (śālagrāma-śilā) and will always live on the banks of the Gaṇḍakī River.”
Thus Tulasī appeared as the Gaṇḍakī River and as the sacred plant tulasī, and Viṣṇu began to dwell in the world as śālagrāma-śilā in the waters and on the banks of the Gaṇḍakī. It is also mentioned in the Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa that Śaṅkhacūḍa was an eternal associate of Kṛṣṇa named Sudāmā who manifested in this world as a demon to assist in these pastimes.
From the time these eternal events took place until the present, the devotees of both Viṣṇu and Śiva pilgrimage to the Gaṇḍakī River in the Himalayas and collect the śālagrāma-śilā and worship them with the leaves of the tulasī plant. There is a reference to offering tulasī leaves to Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad-gītā (9.26):
patraṁ puṣpaṁ phalaṁ toyaṁ yo me bhaktyā prayacchati
tad ahaṁ bhakty-upahṛtam aśnāmi prayatātmanaḥ
“If my devotee offers me with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it.”
According to the ācāryas, great spiritual masters, the patram (leaf) mentioned in this verse particularly refers to the tulasī leaf. It is also mentioned in the Garuḍa Purāṇa and the Bṛhan-nāradīya Purāṇa that worship without Tulasī leaves is never accepted by Viṣṇu. “Without tulasī, anything done in the way of worship, bathing, and offering of food and drink to Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa cannot be considered real worship, bathing, or offering. Viṣṇu does not accept any worship, or eat or drink anything that is without tulasī.”
The ritual of śālagrāma-śilā worship was so well-accepted in India that up until the advent of secular society in 1947 the śālagrāma-śilā was worshipped in practically every household. At the present time, śālagrāma-śilā is still worshipped in major temples throughout the country and in the homes of very pious persons.
There are many references found in the Purāṇas regarding the special sanctity of śālagrāma-śilā. In the Skanda Purāṇa it is said:
mlecchadeśe ‘śucau vā ‘pi cakrāṅko yatra tiṣṭhati
yojanāni tathā trīṇi mama kṣetraṃ vasundhare
tan madhye mṛyate yastu pūjakaḥ susamāhitaḥ
sarva-vadha vinirmukto punaḥ so’pi na jayate
“A śālagrāma-śilā , when duly worshipped at any place inhabited by any class of people, is able to purify an area with a radius of 24 miles. That area should be considered Viṣṇu-loka, non-different from the abode of Viṣṇu. If someone believing in the sanctity of śālagrāma-śilā, as per the verdict of the sastra, breathes their last within that 24-mile radius, he is sure to attain mukti, salvation from material bondage.”
We also find mention in the Purāṇas of various kinds of śālagrāma-śilā, differentiated according to their markings and variation in colour. Some of the names and qualities of śālagrāma-śilā are as follows: The vāsudeva-śilā is white in colour and is very attractive looking. It has two equal-sized cakras, or discs, on the front, but slightly off-center. The saṅkarṣaṇa-śilā is red-coloured, with two cakras combined in one section and a well-formed front. It is very beautiful to see. The pradyumna-śilā is yellow with small cakras and a very large mouth with many small holes within it. The aniruddha-śilā steals the mind with his blue colour and beautiful round shape. He has three lines in front of his mouth and a lotus mark on his back. The nārāyaṇa-śilā is black with a cakra on his raised navel. The nṛsiṁha–śilā is black with a large mouth and two cakras within, one on top and one on the bottom.
With the help of the Purāṇas, it is possible for the worshipper to identify several hundred different kinds of śālagrāma-śilās which correspond to the many incarnations and manifestations of Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa. The worship of a particular śālagrāma-śilā will bring a particular desired result. If one worships the nṛsiṁha-śilā, one gets liberation and attains victory in battle. One who worships the varāha-śilā gets material enjoyment and liberation after death, and the worshipper of the lakṣmī–nārāyaṇa–śilā will attain kingship in heaven. It is also said in the Purāṇas that one can worship any śālagrāma-śilā one desires and simply meditate on the form of Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa most dear to one’s heart.
In the Vedic culture the first goal of life is to embrace dharma, religiosity. The next three stages of life are artha (economic development), kāma (material enjoyment), and mokṣa (liberation). Worship of śālagrāma-śilā is recommended in the codes of dharma and almost all the worshippers of śālagrāma-śilā seek either economic development or material enjoyment. These worshippers are known as karma-kāṇḍīs, those who seek a material benefit from their worship.
Viṣṇu is the maintainer of the universe and thus he is inclined to bless his worshippers with the fulfilment of their desires. However, one should remember that fulfilment of material desires is ultimately unfulfilling because material desires pertain to the satisfaction of the body, mind, and senses which are destined to destruction at the time of death. Therefore, one who approaches Viṣṇu for material benefit, although pious, does not know about the ultimate benediction.
In this regard, there once arose a difficult situation when Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, the renowned preceptor of the Gauḍīya Maṭha, was conducting his preaching activities in the early part of this century with the help of diorama exhibitions. Sarasvatī Ṭhākura wanted to emphasize that the worship of śālagrāma-śilā for some material benefit is almost irreligious from the highest point of view. The essence of dharma is hari-toṣaṇam, the satisfaction of Hari, Kṛṣṇa. To the extent that one pleases God, religion is meaningful and we ourselves will be satisfied. To demonstrate this point, Sarasvatī Ṭhākura ordered the construction of a diorama exhibiting a man in generic Hindu brāhmaṇa dress sitting before an altar arranged for śālagrāma-śilā worship. The brāhmaṇa was holding a śālagrāma-śilā in his hand, using the stone as a nutcracker. Sarasvatī Ṭhākura’s point was that Viṣṇu feels like a nutcracker in the hands of one who simply worships him for filling the belly and getting other such temporary benefits. This nutcracker diorama appeared in Calcutta at a theistic exhibition sponsored by Gauḍīya Maṭha.
A certain group of aristocratic brāhmaṇa gentlemen of Calcutta took exception to the diorama, and even went so far as to file a civil court case against the Gauḍīya Maṭha in an attempt to close down the exhibition. Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had to send his preachers before the magistrate to answer the complaint. There, the preachers of Sarasvatī Ṭhākura prevailed by demonstrating the validity of the diorama.
The only valid objection that the opposing party raised was that this anomaly was not relative to only Hindu brāhmaṇas, even a Vaiṣṇava might be guilty of worshipping śālagrāma-śilā for material gains. Sarasvatī Ṭhākura agreed and suggested that the Vaiṣṇava markings of tilaka be painted on the forehead of the generic brāhmaṇa. At this the brāhmaṇa gentlemen were defeated, and they realized that Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had not intended any malice towards the brāhmaṇas as a community, but that he indeed was a pure theist who drew his concepts and conclusions from the absolute consideration and not in favour of any particular caste or creed.
Those who approach Viṣṇu for mokṣa, liberation from material bondage, are said to be most intelligent. For literally millions of lifetimes, the soul is wandering in material existence suffering the fourfold miseries of birth, old age, disease, and death. When one gets liberation from the cycle of birth and death, one is said to have achieved the fourth goal of life. Worship with the goal of liberation is the approach in which we find the followers of Śaṅkarācārya, Rāmānujācārya, Madhvācārya, and others – Smārtas, Śaivaites, etc. All these worshippers adore the śālagrāma-śilā for liberation.
What to speak of worshipping the śālagrāma-śilā for material benefit, the pure Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas even reject worshipping the śālagrāma-śilā for liberation. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas have as their ultimate aim the fifth goal of life-a goal superior to even liberation from material bondage. That fifth goal of life is prema, or divine love of God following in the wake of the eternal associates of Vraja Kṛṣṇa. The preceptor of this fifth goal of life is Śrī Caitanya.
Śrī Caitanya taught his followers that worship which is free from the desire for material benefits or liberation brings one to the platform of love of Kṛṣṇa. In that stage of unmotivated, pure love, one worships the śālagrāma-śilā for the sake of pleasing the senses of Kṛṣṇa, hṛṣīkena hṛṣīkeśa-sevanaṁ bhaktir ucyate – “All worship is meant to please the master of the senses, Kṛṣṇa.”
Devotion is both the means and the end of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Viṣṇu, as the maintainer and benefactor of his devotees, awards material benefits and even liberation to his worshipper, but only Kṛṣṇa is completely conquered by love. With eyes tinged with the salve of love, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas see Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa everywhere, even within the śālagrāma-śilā. A story from Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava history illustrates the power of love in relation to the worship of śālagrāma.
When Śrī Caitanya was touring South India, he arrived at the holy city of Śrī Raṅgam just at the beginning of the four months of the monsoon season. There he established a friendship with the head priest of the Raṅganātha temple, Śrī Venkaṭa Bhaṭṭa, and remained in his house for four months continuously. During that time, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa, the son of Venkaṭa Bhaṭṭa, became very attached to Śrī Caitanya and with firm determination, the young boy made up his mind to accept Śrī Caitanya as his guide and spiritual master.
At the age of thirty, after his mother and father had passed away, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa traveled north and came to reside in Vṛndāvana. There he had the company of many of Śrī Caitanya’s senior associates and disciples like Rūpa and Sanātana Gosvāmīs. After some time, Śrī Caitanya appeared in a dream to Gopāla Bhaṭṭa and instructed him to make a pilgrimage to the Gaṇḍakī River to collect śālagrāma-śilā. Śrī Caitanya also informed Gopāla Bhaṭṭa that by worshipping śālagrāma-śilā he would soon get his darśana (divine vision).
Gopāla Bhaṭṭa set out on foot toward the Gaṇḍakī River. After a long and arduous journey, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa reached the Gaṇḍakī at Śālagrāma and happily took his bath there. Having placed his water-pot in the river, he saw that several śālagrāma-śilās had entered the vessel. Removing the śālagrāma-śilās from the pot, he again placed them in the water and again he saw that several śālagrāma-śilās had entered his pot. Again he removed the śālagrāma-śilās from his pot and placed them in the water and again the same thing happened. This time Gopāla Bhaṭṭa saw that twelve śālagrāma-śilās had entered his water-pot. Considering this to be the mercy of Śrī Caitanya, he decided to bring those twelve śālagrāma-śilās back to Vṛndāvana.
In Vṛndāvana, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa began the worship of the twelve śālagrāma-śilās with great devotion. Gopāla Bhaṭṭa was always thinking of Śrī Caitanya’s words spoken in his dream. In this way, his worship of śālagrāma-śilā continued and his desire to have the promised darśana of Śrī Caitanya became very, very intense.
One day a wealthy gentleman approached Gopāla Bhaṭṭa to offer a selection of dresses and costly silver and gold ornaments to use in the worship of the śālagrāma-śilās. Gopāla Bhaṭṭa requested that the man present the dresses and ornaments to a temple in Vṛndāvana where the Deity form of Kṛṣṇa was being worshipped. At this instance, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa began to remember the promise of Śrī Caitanya and feeling great separation he yearned for the Lord’s darśana.
It happened to be the appearance day of Śrī Nṛsiṁhadeva who manifest himself before his devoted servant, Prahlāda Mahārāja. Thus Gopāla Bhaṭṭa began to pray, “O Lord, You are very merciful and fulfil the desires of Your devotees. I desire to serve Your ecstatic form. Therefore, please reveal Yourself. What can I do? I am hopeless and I cannot sustain my life any longer if You do not bless this humble beggar.”
That night Gopāla Bhaṭṭa slept only a short while and when he awoke in the morning he found that one of the twelve śālagrāma-śilās, the dāmodara-śilā, which he kept in a simple straw basket had manifest as Śrī Kṛṣṇa. From the dāmodara-śilā, which was approximately two inches wide, had manifested the full-fledged form of Kṛṣṇa, measuring 11 1/8 inches in height. The form of Kṛṣṇa had manifest in the classic tribhaṅga-svarūpa, threefold bending form with his hands poised for playing a flute. This form is described in the Brahma-saṁhitā:
śyāmaṁ tri-bhaṅga-lalitaṁ niyata-prakāśaṁ
govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi
“I worship Govinda/Kṛṣṇa around whose neck is a garland of forest flowers swinging to and fro, and whose head is adorned with a peacock feather. His hands carry the flute and his arms are bedecked with jewelled bracelets. He eternally enjoys in pastimes of love and his charming threefold bending figure of a blackish hue is eternally manifest.” (Brahma-saṁhitā 5.31)
Gopāla Bhaṭṭa called for his senior mentors, Rūpa and Sanātana Gosvāmīs, and other highly elevated souls to see what had happened. It was determined by those great saintly persons that Śrī Caitanya had indeed fulfilled His promise to Gopāla Bhaṭṭa by giving him His svarūpa-darśana. Śrī Caitanya is none other than the combined forms of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa:
rādhā kṛṣṇa-praṇaya-vikṛtir hlādinī śaktir asmād
ekātmānāv api bhuvi purā deha-bhedaṁ gatau tau
caitanyākhyaṁ prakaṭam adhunā tad-dvayaṁ caikyam āptaṁ
rādhā-bhāva-dyuti-suvalitaṁ naumi kṛṣṇa-svarūpam
“The loving affairs of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa are transcendental manifestations of the Lord’s internal pleasure-giving potency. Although Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are one in Their identity, They have separated Themselves eternally. Now these two transcendental identities have again united in the form of Śrī Caitanya. I bow down to Him, who has manifested Himself with the sentiment and complexion of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī although He is Kṛṣṇa himself.” (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Ādi-līlā 1.4)
Thus the form of Kṛṣṇa which had self-manifested from the dāmodara-śilā was named Rādhā-ramaṇa, being the combined forms of Rādhā and Ramaṇa/Kṛṣṇa (Ramaṇa means one who gives great pleasure to Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī). The highest revealed form of Godhead is that of the combined forms of Kṛṣṇa and his hlādinī-śakti, Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, and this divine reality was manifest from the śālagrāma-śilā. This is the ultimate śālagrāma-śilā darśana.