All through the trek, we have been traveling in the vicinity of the Kali Gandhaki river and, now, we are about to go to Muktinath. It is necessary, then, to also tell you about the myth behind the river, since it is an inseparable part of the myth of Tulsi - the plant that Hindus venerate. There are two versions of the tale - one from the Shiv Puran and one from the Devi Bhagavatam.
The Shiv Puran version is the tale of Jalandhar and Vrinda. Once, when Lord Shiva was angry with Indra, due to the latter's ego, he opened his third eye and was stopped from immolating Indra by the prayers of Brihaspathi and the penitence of Indra. His fury, however, lodged in the Ocean and Jalandhar was born. Thus, in a manner, Jalandhar was the brother of Lakshmi, who also arose from the Ocean at the time of the Samudra Manthan (The churning of the Ocean).
Jalandhar married Vrinda, the daughter of the asura Kalanemi. Vrinda was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu (one version is that she was a gopi cursed by Radha) and as long as she was chaste and prayed for Jalandhar's welfare, Jalandhar was protected from any harm. Jalandhar proceeded to conquer the three worlds and the devas were deprived of their kingdom. Lord Vishnu fights a long and indecisive battle against him but, on the entreaties of Lakshmi, he makes peace with her brother.
Hearing the Sage Narada extol the praises of the beauty of Goddess Parvati, Jalandhar sends a message to Shiva to live true to his reputation of a Yogi and surrender his beautiful wife. Angered by the missive, Lord Shiva battles against Jalandhar but is unable to overcome him. Meanwhile, Jalandhar creates an illusion that keeps Lord Shiva and his army occupied and goes to Goddess Parvati in the guise of Lord Shiva. The Goddess recognizes him for who he was and rises in fury to kill him whereupon he escapes.
When the Goddess asks the Lord Vishnu about why Lord Shiva was finding it difficult to vanquish Jalandhar, he tells her that the Vrinda's chastity and devotion to himself was protecting Jalandhar. The Goddess, then, requests him to put an end to Vrinda's chastity if that was the only way to vanquish Jalandhar.
Heavyhearted at practising such a deception on his devotee, Lord Vishnu takes the appearance of Jalandhar and goes to Vrinda, who receive him as a wife would receive her husband. With her chastity destroyed, Lord Shiva kills Jalandhar with his Trishul. Learning of the deception, Vrinda curses Lord Vishnu to be trapped in a stone (which is the reason why the Shaligram is supposed to embody Vishnu) and, also, that he would suffer separation from his wife (as he did in the Ramayan). Thereafer, Vrinda immolates herself but Lord Vishnu saves her hair and converts it into the Tulsi plant.
The Devi Bhagavatam has a similar tale - with minor variations. In an argument between the Goddesses Lakshmi, Ganga and Saraswati, Ganga and Saraswati are cursed to become rivers and Lakshmi is cursed to be born human and marry an asura. An aspect of Lakshmi is born as Tulsi, the daughter of Dharmadwaj. She undergoes austerities to marry Lord Vishnu when Lord Brahma appears and tells her that before marrying the Lord, she would have to marry an asura.
Meanwhile, Sudama (who, in this case, is considered an aspect of Lord Vishnu) is born as an asura - Shankachud, son of Dhamba - and he marries Tulsi. Shankachud is blessed to be invincible as long as Tulsi remains chaste. He conquers the three worlds and, in his arrogance, challenges the Lord Shiva. The Lord Shiva finds it impossible to vanquish him.
Lord Vishnu then, reluctantly, takes the shape of Shankachud and goes to Tulsi. Shankachud is killed by Lord Shiva and the news is conveyed to Tulsi while Lord Vishnu is with her in her husband's apearance. Upon being accused by an inconsolably weeping Tulsi, Lord Vishnu appears in his true shape. Tulsi accuses him of being stonehearted and curses him to become a stone. Her body decays into a river - Kali Gandhaki - and her hair turns into the Tulsi shrub.
We have a habit of picking all the wrong lessons to learn from our myths. The things to be noted are that a. Even though it WAS the Lord, who committed the 'crime', and even though it was done under compulsion, he accepted the punishment imposed on him and b. Far from being reviled as unchaste - as would probably have been done in these unjust times - Tulsi is a deity to be venerated by the chaste.
Now that we know why the Lord Vishnu - in the form of the Shaligrams - lies always in the embrace of the Kali Gandhaki river, and why Tulsi is Vishnupriya, we can proceed with the last stages of the trek.
Photo Credit: Sampat