Rituals in amma’s home were aplenty and a requirement for most of those rituals was the darba grass. Sharp and spiky, the darba grass is used variously as a spoon to pour ghee into the fire, for random pointing gestures (seriously! Theres no other way to describe it!), as a back scratcher (usually by bored participants who have no clue as to what’s going on in front of them) and other ingenious things. But in general, amma says, the darba grass is considered powerful because of what happened when it was fortuitously growing where Garuda had his showdown with the nagas (serpents). The story goes:
Once upon a time there lived a sage, Kashyapa. He had two wives, Vinata and Kadru. Granting them boons to have sons, Kashyapa said to them, “You may ask for whatever you most want as your child.”
Kadru thought a little and said, “I would like a thousand sons who are powerful.” Kashyapa blessed her and she eventually gave birth to 1000 nagas, or serpents, who were very powerful but also arrogant.
Vinata chose differently, and said, “I would like to have two sons who are strong and virtuous. If any harm should befall me, they must be able to look after me.” After receiving Kashyapa’s blessing, Vinata was left with two eggs that were in her safekeeping. “Do not meddle with them,” warned Kashyapa. “They must be allowed to hatch of their own. Then they will be as powerful as you wanted them to be.”
Vinata waited but after a while her curiosity and impatience grew. It didn’t help that she would often see her sister, Kadru, enjoying the company of her many chidren. One day, as she kept watching her eggs for signs of life, Vinata thought she saw some movement in one of them. Piqued, she watched for more signs of life. There was none. “Perhaps if I just tap it a little. Maybe my baby needs a little help emerging.”
As she tapped the egg, it cracked wide open and the child inside vanished into the heavens and a voice said, “Foolish mother! I am Aruna, who would have been your mighty son. In your haste you have lost me. Now be patient, so my brother may emerge in peace and be your strength.”
So saying Aruna vanished to become Surya, the sun god’s, charioteer. Disconsolate, Vinata promised herself, “I am not going anywhere near the second egg. I will be patient and wait for my son.” Even as she thought it, the egg started to crack and from it emerged her son, Garuda, with the head and the wings of a giant eagle and with the grace and majesty befitting a deva. Vinata was very happy and hugged her son in joy. Their joy at being together was short-lived though. A few days later, Kadru, who was overcome by jealousy seeing VInata’s handsome son, spotted a white horse in the heavens. Vinata saw it too. “How beautiful that white horse is. It it the purest white I have ever seen,” said Vinata.
Kadru saw a chance to get the upper hand over Vinata and hatched a plan. She said, “Vinata you must be seeing things. That horse is not pure white; it has streaks of black hair in its tail.” Confused, Vinata tried hard to spot the black hair but could not. Finally Kadru said, “All right! Let’s have a bet! I say there is black hair in that horse’s tail, you say there is not. If there are, you and Garuda will be my slaves for 500 years. You will have to serve me and my sons. And vice versa of course. Do you agree?”
Scanning the horse one last time to make sure there was no way she could lose, Vinata agreed. Now Kadru had no intention of losing and knew the horse was spotlessly white. She told one of her serpent sons to hang along the horse’s tail so it would appear as if there was a black hair in the tail. When she pointed out the ‘hair’ to Vinata, a horrified Vinata was trapped in the bet she had agreed to. Garuda had watched the whole episode and was sure the nagas had cheated in some way but he couldn’t pinpoint it. So he approached them and said, “O nagas, my mother and I have been unfairly enslaved. But I am willing to try to do something for you so we can win our freedom back. What would you like me to do?”
After a lot of conferring, the nagas looked at Garuda and hissed, “We have desssssssscccccccccided that if you can bring us the nectar of immortality we will allow you and your mother your freedom!” Garuda was shocked by his cousins’ arrogance but thought, “Well, I don’t have much choice. If it is the nectar they want, it is the nectar they will get.” Pressing hard down on the ground, Garuda took off for the heavens.
Cackling with laughter as they saw Garuda speed away towards his task the nagas hissed, “Poor fellow! Off to his doom. The devas will not let him get anywhere near the nectar! And if he does get it, why we will become invincible and it does not matter if he’s free or not. A win-win sssssssituation indeed!”
Garuda flew steadily towards the heavens and Indra’s abode. He saw the nectar there, jealously guarded by the devas’ armies. “I have nothing to lose,” thought Garuda and he swooped down, grabbed the pot of nectar in his beak and flew off. Horrified, the devas tried to stop him in any way they could. All to no avail. Garuda slashed and slew and did not let a single drop of the nectar fall. In disarray, the devas asked Vishnu to help them. Vishnu appeared in front of Garuda and asked him, “What do you want with the nectar, Garuda? I can see you are not taking this for yourself but seem to be carrying it elsewhere.”
When Garuda explained why he had to take the nectar of immortality, Vishnu said, “All right, you may proceed. However, I will also bless YOU with immortality and am asking you to henceforth be my mount. Will you agree?” Honoured that Vishnu would want him to be his mount, Garuda said, “Let me finish what I have set out to do and then I will return to you, Vishnu, so I may be blest to carry you upon my back.”
By this point, Indra also arrived on the scene. Sensing an opportunity, he said to Garuda, “Garuda, you are a guardian of good. Once you give that pot to the nagas they will be undefeatable and will carry out their wicked ways with no one to stop them. You alone can prevent this. Do not give them the nectar.”
Garuda thought about it and said, “Indra you are right. But I also have to fulfill my promise. However, I have a plan. Do not worry! The nectar will not fall into wrong hands and I will bring it back to you safely.”
Relieved, Indra departed and Garuda carried on his way. As he approached the nagas‘ abode, there was tremendous excitement all around. Vinata was proud and grateful her son had returned from such an arduous voyage. The nagas were sure they would be invincible once they had the nectar. Garuda alighted on a patch of grass and set the pot of nectar down. He addressed the assembled nagas and their mother, Kadru, “Here is the nectar. Now give my mother and myself our freedom. From this day on we are not held in bondage by you.”
Releasing Vinata, the nagas by now had eyes for nothing other than the pot of nectar. They did not notice Vinata moving to stand near her son and hold onto him. In their steady glide towards the nectar, they did not notice that Garuda had grown immense. They did not notice any of it and that was their mistake.
In a flash, as soon as Vinata was holding onto him and before the nagas got their tongues on it, Garuda swooped upon the pot and took off with it. Only one drop of the nectar spilled to the ground evading the greedy serpent mouths that tried to drink it. Screaming with rage and frustration, the serpents hurled abuses upon Garuda. “Pesssssstilence!” they hissed. “We will hate you forever. You have sssssstolen our right and tricked usssssss!” Garuda, climbed higher and higher into the heavens and returned the pot of nectar to Indra and the devas. Then, setting his mother down gently, far away from Kadru and her slithery clan, Garuda said, “Bless me mother, for I must leave you now. I have promised Vishnu that I will be his mount. I must go now.” Blessing him, Vinata sent Garuda on his way.
And so to this day, serpents and eagles remain sworn enemies. An immortal Garuda became the mount for Vishnu and bears him upon his shoulders. And the patch of grass that got splashed with the nectar of immortality, was the darba grass, forever endowed with the qualities of goodness and knowledge (although scratching yourself with it may not accomplish much before an exam!).
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**An alternate story exists where the darba grass is splashed with nectar when Rahu and Ketu try to steal the nectar and are defeated by Vishnu. See Onion and garlic, anyone? posting for the story of Rahu and Ketu and the nectar. But I just liked this version better.