Archive for April, 2006

Scrambled Thoughts on Grass

April 13th, 2006

Note: I had temporarily stopped writing my journal due to the phone sanga’s and a book I am writing, but I have no intention of stopping them. They will begin again and you should get then regularly beginning with today’s entry “Scrambled Thoughts on Grass”.

April 13, 2006

Scrambled Thoughts on Grass

Pradyumna, my god-brother, recently shared with me in his own words Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s interesting commentary on trnad api, “lower than a blade of grass” where the anonymity of the kirtaneer is described:

“Grass is so indistinct, that is not only insignificant, but is not even individually insignificant. It is just one of many indistinguishable blades in the same lawn. In the same way”, Pradyumna continued, “in real harinam sankirtan, one becomes just one among many not striving to stand out”

I repeated Pradyumna’s explanation according to Bhakivinoda in my phone sanga. An interesting discussion ensued. How to reconcile the humility/anonymity of a vaisnava with the need for individual self-expression? If pure devotion squelches personal distinction, it was asked, does it not contradict the very principle of our core philosophical outlook, that we are distinct entities with unique offerings of service to Sri Krishna.

One of our sanga listeners, Madan Mohan dasa, expressed this concern very succinctly in a letter to me which he entitled “scrambled thoughts on grass”

Dear Maharaja,

I had some impulses on the topic of grass, as mentioned in yesterday’s class.

Grass is associated poetically with the quality of humility in the Siksastakam. But where this takes my thoughts as a gardener may be quite different from where it takes the casual observer of grass.

I appreciate Pradyumna’s thoughts as you expressed them, though I’d like to further explore the implication that humility is somehow related to homogeneity. I’d lean away from the idea that humility implies blending in, like a blade of grass in a lawn. To me this conjures images of neutrality. It even sets off my alarm for impersonalism – non-distinction, non-variegation, oneness – and it also seems a bit cultish, as is American lawn care. It also describes only what the mundane human eye sees, not what God’s eye sees. Presumably, He sees each blade’s individuality, not just blobs of greenery.

My own spiritual chlorophyll is stimulated more by the idea of humility being expressed through service, and service being characterized by offering our individuality in a flavorful manner. I do understand though that individuality and distinction are not ends in themself, not the aims of service, just inevitable components of it. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes.

And in this regard I’d like to share a gardener’s inside scoop on grass. The big news here is that there is amazing variety in the grass family, and many are far from humble, in the ordinary sense. They are mainly highly utilitarian plants, doing humble service to mankind in many ways – food (grains are grasses), shelter (thatching material, bamboo lumber), basketry, musical instruments, etc. – yet they are certainly not all small, trodden-under-foot creatures. Some grasses are even shade-giving giants, reaching skyward to heights of 70 feet or more in the case of bamboo, which is a grass.

There is much variation in growth habit, color, flowering characteristic, etc. I have an encyclopedia of grasses which shows their amazing variety. Grasses are rather more dramatic components than “humble” ones, when it comes to garden making. So to me the humility of a blade of grass lies mostly in its honest, practical contribution to the whole, not its shy, non-difference from its neighbor.

A middle-class American will probably just think of grass as lawn grass – boring, homogenous, impersonal, suburban, living carpet, good little botanical soldiers marching to the beat, mowed into apparent oneness. But a garden artist will see creative opportunity in the grass family and all its variety and personality.

And the most treasured grasses for a garden artist are those that exhibit some kind of rare, interest-enhancing mutation, such as when a green blade exhibits some kind of white or yellow stripe, known as “variegation” in this field. These mutations are sought by the connoisseur, and fetch a collector’s price.

I’d prefer to think of Krsna as the connoisseur, and devotees as the rare, variegated plants in His garden, serving “humbly” by displaying their individual beauty tastefully – sometimes harmoniously in a mass composition, and sometimes as dramatic focal points, showing off their attributes in contrast to neighboring plants, all depending on the needs of the space and the inspiration of the, dare I say, lila shakti, expressed through the gardener’s heart.

In expressing all this, I realize that to a middle-class “American” audience this poeticism may be repulsive. I appreciate therefore the practical value of a less florid presentation, but I just couldn’t keep my mutated-middle-class-American self from saying something.

Am I fair or foul?

Madan Mohan das

I quickly replied:

Jaya! I like it. It brings up the problem with analogies. If I say to a very attractive person that your face is like the moon am I complementing them or insulting them? Am I saying that their face is bright or their face is comically spherical? So in the same way what are we trying to say by that analogy of the grass? In the next sanga I will read what you wrote and try to discuss it. Yes, I have to make that analogy more precise and perhaps you as a listener may have to try harder to see the compliment in it. This is a quick reply, but I need to think more about it. Thanks for the thoughtfulness.

In the next sanga I read Madana Mohan’s letter and commented:

One naturally processes information according to ones experience. If one has felt from the participation in institutions too much an absolute dichotomy between anonymity/humility and individuality, then certainly the analogy of the anonymity of grass could seem stifling to personhood rather than its intended message, the discouragement of egoism. Unfortunately, that has too often been the case.

In other words, being like a blade of grass does not intend to encourage the annihilation of individuality or talent in Krishna’s service, but to dissuade the use of egotism, the desire to standout rather than serve.

Envision the non “trnad api kirtan”:

The mrdanga player goes off into an incredible riff. Their wonderful dexterity and speed are obviously used to standout as drummer, but in the process the subtle tempo and over-all offering of kirtan is compromised.

The singer passionately then goes into a virtuoso performance basking in their talent. The mood of devotion of the song, however, is lost. Bhakti does not flow from the heart of the performers. The participants and audience is not inspired in devotion.

Envision a “trnad api kirtan”:

Each member with his individual talents carefully serves the kirtan to make it as tasteful as possible for the pleasure of Krishna.

Kirtan is done solely for Krishna’s pleasure. Each member willingly becomes an equal and anonymous contributor to its perfection for the pleasure of Krishna like a string instrument in a symphony orchestra. The happiness of devotion flows from the heart and the audience is moved by devotion.

Sudevi, a sanga member studying at Radhadesh in Belgium, sent me another analogy to help reconcile the apparent contradiction of the devotee’s want for anonymity with their individuality in devotion. She heard it in a lecture from her spiritual master, Radhanatha Swami. It’s from the instructions of Ramanujacarya to Anantacarya:

“A vaisnava is like salt. Although salt brings out the total flavor of a gourmet preparation more than any other part, it remains hidden, and we glorify every other ingredient but salt. Similarly a true devotee performs all kinds of service, even great things, but always prefers to remain hidden, not seeking credit or glory.

“Also the salt melts giving up its individual identity to increase the taste of the whole offering. In the same way the devotee is willing to sacrifice everything, even the recognition of their contribution, to make the best offering to Krishna.

“Although the salt melts, it doesn’t merge. It still remains distinct. Likewise the humble devotee has their unique offering to make in the service in Sri Krishna.”