Dhanurdhara Swami

Kirtan and Humility or: Scrambled Thoughts on Grass

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“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than a blade of grass, more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant constantly.”
(Shri Shikshastakam verse 3)

Pradyumna, a friend and noted scholar, recently shared with me, in his own words, Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s interesting commentary on the phrase trnad api, “lower than a blade of grass” from Shri Shikshastakam (Shri Caitanyas eight core instructions), where the anonymity of the kirtaniya (kirtan leader) 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 kirtan, a participant is just one among many, not striving to stand out”

I repeated Pradyumna’s explanation in a talk I recently gave. An interesting discussion ensued. How to reconcile the humility/anonymity of a vaishnava with the need for individual self-expression? “If pure devotion squelches personal distinction,” it was asked, “does it not contradict a principle of the core philosophical outlook of bhakti, that we are distinct entities with unique offerings of service to Shri Krishna.

One listener, Madan Mohan dasa, succinctly expressed this concern 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

Grass is associated poetically with the quality of humility in the Shikshastakam. 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 Krishna 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:

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 my next talk 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 talk I read Madana Mohan’s letter and commented:

One naturally processes information according to ones experience. Sometimes people who have strictly practiced spiritual life, especially within the confines an orthodox spiritual tradition, feel a dichotomy between the anonymity/humility that such practice demands and their need for individual expression. In such a case the analogy of the anonymity of grass is often misinterpreted as a stifling of individuality rather than its intended message, the discouragement of egoism.

In other words, being like a blade of grass does not imply the annihilation of individuality or talent in God’s service, rather it dissuades egotism, the desire to standout rather than humbly serve.

Envision the non “trnad apikirtan:

The mrdanga (drum) player goes off into an incredible riff. His wonderful dexterity and speed show his skill, but the subtle tempo and devotional spirit of kirtan is compromised.

The singer then passionately does a virtuoso performance basking in his own talent. The mood of devotion, however, is compromised. Bhakti neither flows from the heart of the kirtaniya, nor do the participants become inspired in devotion.

Envision a “trnad apikirtan:

Each member, with his or her individual talents, carefully serves the kirtan to make it as tasteful as possible.

They willingly become equal and anonymous contributor to its perfection, like instruments in a symphony orchestra. The happiness of devotion flows from their hearts and the listeners are moved.

Sudevi, an audience member, shared another analogy to help reconcile the apparent contradiction between anonymity and individuality in the practice of devotion. She heard it in a lecture from her guru, Radhanatha Swami. It’s from the instructions of Shri Ramanuja to Anantacarya:

“A vaishnava is like salt. Although salt brings out the flavor of a gourmet preparation more than any other ingredient, it remains hidden, and we glorify every other ingredient but the 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, salt melts giving up its individual identity to increase the taste of the whole offering. In the same way a devotee is willing to sacrifice everything, even their individual recognition, to make the best offering to Krishna.

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

Dhanurdhara Swami

The column Greetings From Vrindavan is Dhanurdhara Swami’s journal regarding the joys and challenges of the devotional path. A book of his journal entries, spanning the years 2000-2003, has been published with the same title and is available here.

One Response to “Kirtan and Humility or: Scrambled Thoughts on Grass”

  1. thank you for sharing with us swamiji…