Kusha Grass

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The Sacred Cushion

The sanctity of dharba, also known as kusha (or, kusa) grass, is as old as the Indian gods.  Puranas tell how Vishnu assumed the form of the Cosmic Tortoise (Skt. kurma) whose shell served to support Mandara, the mountain that served as a dasher in the Churning of the Sea of Milk. As the mountain rotated, several hairs were rubbed from the tortoise's back.  With time, they washed ashore and became Kusha.

Later, when the amrita [nectar of immortality] was obtained as a result of the churning and distributed among the gods, some drops fell on the grass which further sanctified it imbuing it with healing properties.  Therefore, in the traditional hair-cutting of Vaishnava toddlers, the hair is touched with kusha before it is cut. 

It was used as a ritual seat as far back as the Vedas, and the Bhagavad Gita (ch. 6) stipulates that, covered with a skin and a cloth, it is the appropriate seat for meditation.  Therefore, it was one of the first offerings made to the Buddha.

Kusha, whose name signifies sharp in the sense of acute, is the root for the Sanskrit word for "expert," kosala.  That is because the edges of the long leaves that grow in pairs along the tall stems are very sharp, so like the sword it is a symbol for discernment or "discriminating wisdom."

It grows beside brackish (salty) water such as is found at the mouths of rivers and is a kind of tussock grass; that is, it grows in clumps.  When it is dry, kusa straw is called durva or dharbai.  However, some say these are two different species:  Kusha is Poa cynosuroides and Durva, Agrostis linearis

Dharba Grass and Serpents' Tongues

Another myth explains that when the pot of Amrita was set on the sacred grass, the children of  Kadru (Garuda's stepmother) were determined to get some of the elixir. Ever-watchful Garuda, to prevent their attaining immortality, quickly snatched it away. The snakes ended up licking the the leaves in hopes that some drops had fallen there, but they were so sharp that the poor serpents' tongues were sliced in two

Dharba or kusha is also identified as Desmostachya bipinnata.  In the USA, it is known as Big cordgrass or Salt reed-grass, and in Australia, as Halfa grass. 

In Buddhism

In the tradition that comes down to us in the Pali language, after accepting a dish of food from a woman, Shakyamuni, on his way to sit in determined meditation, meets with Sottiya the grass-cutter, who offers him eight handfuls of kusa grass to make a seat.  He arranges it with its roots facing towards the trunk before taking his place on it under the Bodhi Tree. 

As part of the fifth step in the preparation for receiving the Kalachakra Initiation, (and also in some other highest tantric initiations) the participants receive two pieces of fresh kusha:

The long and short pieces of grass are of the nature of pristine awareness and on the conventional level represent clear dreams. The disciples should imagine the kusha grass as having the quality of producing undistorted thoughts.

The longer kusha grass is to be placed under the mattress and the shorter under the pillow. These two pieces of kusha grass should be received with folded hands. Since kusha grass is a purifying substance, through the power of mantras and seed syllables said over it, it purifies inauspicious dreams, performs the activity of removing distorted conceptions, brings clarity to the minds of disciples and has the potential to induce clear dreams indicating whether or not someone has the propensity to receive the initiation. 

~ Kalachakra.com

Bamboo

Bamboo is also a type of grass, and not a tree.  Although to look at images of bamboo forests, this might be difficult to believe.  

Also, the so-called lucky bamboo that is sold in souvenir shops and some grocery stores is not a bamboo at all.   Marketing of this very ordinary dracaena as bamboo might be considered a kind of fraud.  

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Puranas: Collections of myths.

The Oxford Dictionary traces the word cushion through Old French to Latin, coxinum, the "tail" bone.  Nevertheless, the correspondence between the English word and the Sanskrit seems striking. 

sliced in two: According to Kurt Schwenk (" Why snakes have forked tongues," Science, vol. 263, 1994 [1573-1577]) the forked tongue allows the snake to sample two points along a chemical gradient simultaneously which helps them assess trail location and perhaps plays a role in mating.

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