Depicted above in the Indian votive stupa carved in relief: Offering of Kusa Grass by Sotthiya the Grasscutter to Siddhartha (Buddha Sakyamuni), Kusana period ca. second century CE, 101 CE – 200 CE (Collection of Central Archaeological Museum, Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: The Huntington Archive
Skt: कुश (kusha) – and kusa grass – OnlineSktDict Pali: kusa m. a blade of grass, sacrificial grass, good — Source: Kusha grass
Kus, kush, kusha grass — Brahmin
Not much is written about the etymology and origin of the word “kusa” (the word means “grass” in Japanese), although tomes have been written about the sacred “sword of life”, the “Kusanagi“ that is part of the imperial regalia of Japan and a component of the conquering tale of “Grasscutter” sword of Yamato Takeru (see The Search for Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Lost Imperial Sword of Japan – the tale is too familiar and well-known that we will leave it out of the discussion, focusing only on the etymology of the common word ‘kusa’ in the Indian and Japanese languages. A lot of scholarship and speculation, however, surrounds the word “kusanagi” and its roots, which have been attributed to Altaic or Tungusic origins:
Proto-Altaic or Tungus words for serpent: “A link between ‘serpent’ and the sword-name OJ kusanagi is not difficult to postulate, even though one essential link in the etymology remains missing. New Korean kulöng’i ‘a serpent, a large snake’ (Martin et al. 199 a) …The Proto-Tungus form, reflected also closely in the Korean, would be *kulin- ; to this the Korean has added its reflex of the Tungus animal-name suffix * -ki(Miller 1989: 147 sqq.), for a proto-form as *kulinki. To associate this with OJ kusanagi we must postulate that the *-/- in these Tungus and Middle, resp. New Korean forms goes back to earlier Proto-Altaic *- /2 – in a proto-form *kul2 in-, this would regularly have yielded an Old Korean *kusinki which was then borrowed into Old Japanese to appear …” — Professor A. Miller (and noted by N. Nauman)
We would like to suggest, notwithstanding the above interpretations, that a clear and direct Central Asian provenance for the Japanese word ‘kusa’ (and hence, ‘kusa-nagi’ may be found in the ‘kusa’ and ‘kusha‘ grass forms in the Rigvedic Sanskrit, Proto-Indo-European linguistic usage, both ancient and current, from the regions of North-west India or possibly, the Hindu Kush valley area from whence the kusa grass was both domesticated and its Vedic word usage recorded (these was also the approximate regions that were formerly populated by the Indo-Sakka (possibly related to the later derived Kushan and Khotanese-Sakka peoples).
“The word “kusa” is a word from the ancient Sanskrit language. In the fullness of time, the word came to be used in India as a name for a storied, ceremonial sacred grass: the kusa grass. Behind the legendary kusa grass lies one of humanity’s great myths. The legend of a “sacred grass” rises out of the mists of time at the beginning of history in the ancient East.
Just as a human mother nourishes her offspring, humanity at the beginning of history perceived a “great vegetal mother” whose green plants made human life possible through nourishment.
Humanity’s ancient legend of a special “sacred grass” (the kusa grass), pays tribute at its root to this concept of a great vegetal mother whose botanic bounty sustains all life on earth.”
‘Kusa’ and its ‘kusha‘, the close cognate form, are still in use today in many parts of India — the Desmotachya bipinnata (Salt-reed grass) is an Old World perennial grass, with long usage in human history medically and ritually. A meditational mat called the kusha ashan mat still being manufactured in India and musti kusa grass sold out of Jaipur, Rajasthan, where the use of ‘kusa’ grass is universally known. The Kachchwaha people of Jaipur, Rajasthan, belonging to the Kshatriya-warrior caste of Hindus, trace their origins back to the sun, via Kusa#, who is the twin son of the god Rama (see “History of Jaipur” ). ‘Kusha’ has continuing ritual significance for the Vedic, Hindu and Buddhist religions. In many sacrifices, branches or leaves of sacred plants, such as the kuśa plant (a sacred grass used as fodder) of the Vedic sacrifice and the Brahmanic pūjā (ritual), are used in rituals such as the Zoroastrian sprinkling (bareshnum), or Great Purification, rite, in which the notion of fertility and prosperity is combined with their sacred characters (see Boyer’s “Ceremonial Object“). The plant (also known as Daabh, Darbha, Darbhai) was mentioned in the Rig Veda for use in sacred ceremonies and also as a seat for priests and the god. From the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: Srimad Bhagavatam (Chapter 8: “Markandeya’s Prayers to Nara-Narayana Rishi”):
SB 12.8.7-11: “After being purified by his father’s performance of the prescribed rituals leading to Markandeya‘s brahminical initiation, Markandeya studied the Vedic hymns and strictly observed the regulative principles. He became advanced in austerity and Vedic knowledge and remained a lifelong celibate. Appearing most peaceful with his matted hair and his clothing made of bark, he furthered his spiritual progress by carrying the mendicant’s waterpot, staff, sacred thread, brahmacari belt, black deerskin, lotus-seed prayer beads and bundles of kusa grass.”
Also recorded is the Srivaishnavam or Brahmin traditional “practices widely used by Indian Brahmins all over using a Holy Grass named Dharbham or Dharbai. The botanical name is Eragrostis cynosuroides and Hindi they call as Kus or Kusha.”
And in the Hindu books:
Puranas and Upnishads describe that this grass came into existence after Samudra Manthan, the churning of cosmic ocean. When demigods and demons got ready to churn the cosmic ocean of milk, there was no one to support the base of Madhara mountain. Lord Vishu took the form of Tortoise [Kurma Avatar] and gave the needed support. During the churning, the hairs of the tortoise came out and washed away to the shore. These hairs turned to Kusha grass. — Punitra Yatra: The sacred grass called dharbai or kusha grass*
Most significantly, a clear connection can be seen between ‘kusha’ grass with its sword-like quality, and the killing of serpents:
“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. …
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.
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” — Kusha Grass, (Khandro.Net)
The kusa grass and serpent-slaying associations may also have arrived in Japan via Korea’s Indian connections with Ayodhya, from which the legend of the Kusha king (who was the twin of Luv, and one of the two sons of Rama# see the next paragraph) came. The city had ancient connections with the Gaya kingdom of ancient Korea due to an alliance with the Ayodha-Indian princess who was sent to the Gayan kingdom to marry King Suro in 48 AD (see Kim clan and the Princess Heo Hwang-ok). The Kusha king is also said to have subdued in battle the Naga king, Kumuda, which has an affinity to the allegorical idea of the Kusanagi, subduing the serpent (see King Kusha)…for Naga king means Serpent king. Hence, the Indian legend could have been the origin or indicate a close and common source for the word ‘Kusa-nagi’ (‘nagi‘ is known to be a female snake ‘naga‘ deity, or alternatively in the Japanese context, a ‘cutting’ or ‘mowing’ sword)… in which case, ‘nagi‘ here could be a cognate of the Iranian aki–nakes sword.
In another myth cycle involving ‘kusa’ grass, Kusha is said to have taken over the Kosala Kingdom (ruling from Ayodhya) from his father, Rama, and is also believed to have founded a city called Kushapur (today called Kasur). Also called “Kush,” he was believed to be the ruler of a kingdom centered at Kasur in ancient times. According to the legend of Kusha, the sage Valmiki created another copy of Luv using his divine powers when he thought that wild animals had taken away Luv while he was away for prayers, so Kush or Kusha was so named because he was created out of divine kusha grass, see “The story of Kusha grass and the birth of Kush – The son of Sri Ram and Sita“. The Raghuvamsha of Kalidasa also mentions the names of some of the kings of the Ikshuvaku dynasty. (Source: Ikshvaku dynasty‘s – Kusha and Kushapur vs. Luv-and-Luvpur). The Genealogy of the Ikshuvuku dynasty includes the following:
Atithi, the son of Kusha
Nishadha, the son of Atithi
Nala, the son of Nishadha
Nabhas, the son of Nala and so on……..
Luv (Lav; Loh) or Lava was said to have created a kingdom elsewhere purportedly Lahore (in the Ramayana: we find that, Lava and Kusha were the sons of Rama). It is believed he did so to the Northwest (present Punjab). He founded the city of Luvpur (or Loh-Awar [Loh’s Fort]; today known as Lahore). The Mewar Lineage descends from Luv.
From Central Asia to East Asia:
The usage of the sacred reed grass ‘kusa’ as meditation mats for ascetics, together with other ritual ‘kusa‘ ritual practices, likely spread eastwards to Tibet and China, probably along with the growth of Buddhism, and from there to Japan via either Tibet or China (see the 17th c. Silk Painting below “Buddha Enthroned on a Mat of Kusa Grass“, Photo: Smithsonian Institution):
The Indo-Sakka or perhaps Kushan monks or hybrid Sakka-Chinese migrating peoples could conceivably have brought their customary practices to Japan. A kind of herbgrass-cake called ‘kusa–mochi‘ is popularly made and eaten in Japan, and the origin of ‘kusamochi‘ is said to have come from China:
“the custom of eating KUSAMOCHI first began back in ancient China, where bitter grasses were believed to be effective in expelling from the body impurities and evil spirits. This notion was imported to Japan in the Heian Period (794-1192) though a different type of herb was used as the most common ingredient (母子草 hahakogusa or gogyou).” — Bitter herb an important component of traditional spring sweet kusa-mochi
* The text also informs us that “Darbha or Kusha grass is a special type of grass which is used in Hindu rituals for purificatory process. This grass is wore as the ring in the ring finger of the person who is performing the rituals.” “All kind of evil forces like, ghosts, spirits, demons, etc. keep away from the place where it is used. This is considered to be the holiest of all the thirthas here, and is believed to be the spot where Gowtama Rishi finally secured Ganga on earth by spreading the Kusha or the Durva grass around her. Kusha grass is considered purifying, and rings woven of it are sometimes worn in worship to keep the hands ritually pure.” This suggests a Central (or South) Asian source for the practice of the chinowa harae purification ritual where Shinto devotees go through the purification ritual of walking through grass rings (see “Chinowa“, Encyclopedia of Shinto).
Incidentally, a Kusa swamp exists in Kenya Africa, from which the grass for the making of papyrus and mats is sourced (see Utilization and conservation of papyrus plants for sustainable livelihoods in Kusa swamp, Lake Victoria, Kenya). It is however, beyond the scope of this article to investigate whether the roots of ‘kusa‘ usage go back all the way (via ancient migrations) to Africa, or whether the word is related to the Melanesian myth of the Kusa Kap bird. The word ‘Kusa’ also appears as part of the name of the mythical bird ‘Kusa Kap’, a folktale of Melanesian New Guinea, and islands of the Torres Strait.
Sources & readings:
Nauman, Nelly 1992. “The Kusanagi Sword” Nenrin-Jahresringe: Festgabe für Hans A. Dettmer. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1992, S. -170
Witzel, Michael. 2009. The linguistic history of some Indian domestic plants. Journal of BioSciences 34(6): 829-833 http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/8954814
Kusha grass (Rigpa Shedra website)
Kusha ashan mat (Rudra Yoga store)
AuBoyer, Jeannine “Ceremonial Object”
“Dharbam the Holy Grass” by TRS Iyengar
The Encyclopedia of Shinto article, “Chinowa harae”
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