Sacred Symbols – The Sacred Tulsi

Ocimum basilicum or Ocimum sanctum which is commonly known as Tulsi is one of the holiest and most useful plants of Hindus. It is found everywhere in sandy and uncultivated places. In 1897J.A. Dubois wrote that “Brahman reveres it as wife of Vishnu and believes that nothing on the earth can equal the virtues of the Tulsi.” Furthermore, he quoted “Tulsi Tulana-Nasty, Ataeva Tulsi” or the divine Tulsi is incomparable.

There are two types of Tulsi plant?one is Rama Tulsi having light green leaves, generally of bigger size and the other Krishna Tulsi having dark green leaves which is a prerequisite for the worship of Vishnu and Narayana.

In the famous book ‘The Pattern of Tree Worship and its Significance” Dr. Sen has quoted P.V. Sharmawho traced the origin of Tulsi and stated that “there is no mention of Tulsi in Amarakosha. Of course the word Surasa is there. It appears that the word Surasa as prevalent for Tulsi in ancient period and it was only in the medieval period, probably 9-10th century A.D. that the word Tulsi appeared on the scene but it attained prominence only between 12th and 14th century A.D. It is not improbable that during the natural course of development Surasa became Tulsi: Surasa > Surasi > Sulasi > Chulasi > Tulasi” Thus the word Surasa was philologically converted to Tulsi.

It is interesting to note that Tulsi, which is worshipped throughout India, is referred with different names. In Sanskrit, Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi it is known as Tulsi. Moreover, in Sanskrit Tulsi is also known as Maiyarika and in
Bengali it is also known as Babultulsi. Marathi and Orivan often refer it as Tulasa and in Punjabi it is called Babri. In Telangana they call it Bhutulsi, however sometimes in Andhra it is known as Tirunapatchi. Tulsi is also called as Sabza in Maharashtra.

The Tulsi manifested itself through the course of time and its symbolic culmination encompassed varied names of gods, goddesses, spirits and reincarnations thereof. Hence the Hindus identify Tulsi with varied names like Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Narayana, Brundavati, Hari,Jagannath, Rai, Damodar, Lakshmi, etc.

The origin of the Tulsi goes back to the Pauranic era. Vettam Mani wrote in his Pauranic Encyclopedia hat Vishnu had three wives, Saraswad, Lakshmi and Ganga. Saraswati and Lakshmi once had a terrible quarrel and cursed one another. Saraswati’s curse transformed Lakshmi into a Tulsi plant, forced to live on earth forever. However, Vishnu intervened and said, “Lakshmi you will live in the world as a holy Tulsi and when the curse has been completed you will come back to me. On that day a river Gandaki will startfrom your body which will be in the shape of the holy Tulsi plant. On the bank of that river, I will remain as a stone image (Salagram Shila).” To commemorate this puranic legend on the eleventh day of the month of Kartika (Oct.-Nov.) Tulsi is married to Krishna by all Vaishnavites. Moreover, Tulsi Mahimamntya noted that Tulsi was born during Purnima of Kartika.

For a Vaishnavite Tulsi is the holiest plant and without its leaves no ceremonial worship of Vishnu is possible. It is praised as destroying all the evils of the present aeon and it is considered sinful to break its branches. Since long Tulsi has remained an integral part of Vaishnavism and the BhaktaMala states that ‘They who bear the Tulsi round the neck, the rosary of Lotus seeds, have the shell and discus impressed upon their upper arms, and the upright streak along the centre of the forehead, they are Vaishnavas, and sanctify the world.” The aim of worshipping Tulsi has varied meanings in different
regions. It is gathered that generally widows worship Tulsi for salvation, girls worship it for having good husbands, and couples worship it for getting better children and aged people worship it for finding a place in heaven.

The nineteenth century scholar M. Williams recorded that “In its (Tulsi) roots are contained all places of pilgrimage; its centre contains all the deities and its upper branches all the Vedas.” Ritualistically speaking, since time immemorial Tulsi has remained an integral part of Hindu way of life. The puja of Tulsi is offered daily. And the prasad of lord Krishna is a leaf of tulsi. When a Brahmin is dying one of the tulsi plants is fetched and placed on a pedestal. After puja a bit of tulsi is offered to the dying man, and the leaves are placed on his face, eyes, ears and chest; he is then sprinkled from head to foot with a tulsi’s twig which has been dipped in water. While this ceremony is being performed his friends and relatives chant in high pitch ‘tulsi, tulsi’. The man can then die in the happy certainty that he will go to Swarga. Tulsi Mahimamritya recorded that if a dying person gets tulsi water he goes to Vishnu Loka. It is popularly believed that tulsi even wards off the messengers of Yama, the ruler of the dead, who would not enter a house containing a sprig of tulsi. When death occurs the funeral pyre should be constructed of tulsi, palasa and sandalwood.

According to the hearsay if anyone waters the tulsi plant regularly he attains salvation. If one offers a branch of it to Vishnu regularly he achieves salvation after death. If a branch of it is offered to Vishnu in the month of Kartika it will be more pleasing to the God than offering thousand cows. Whosoever offers Tulsi at any time is assured of becoming like Vishnu himself, and of enjoying a share in Vishnu’s happiness. Most Brahmins cultivate the plant in their houses and offer it daily prayer. They take care that it should grow near the places they perform their ablution, and in their meeting places such as Chuttrams, The tulsi is usually planted on a little mound of sand, which they call Bnndavanamor on a square pillar of four
feet in height, hollow at the top, with its four sides facing the four points of the compass. Brahmins consider it a peculiarly meritorious act to carefully watch and cultivate the plant.

Furthermore, according to Tulsi Mahimamritya a touch of Tulsi {Tulsi sparsh) is comparable to bathing, meditation and takes towards emancipation.

The renowned saint Omkarnath said that if anybody donates Tulsi leaf during the month of Kartika, this daana or donation as prasadam becomes equivalent to Godaan or gift of cow to a Brahmin. Thus we find in all Krishna temples of Vrindabana the prasadis Tulsi leaves. Moreover amongst Vaishnavites, it is widely believed that whosoever sports Tulsi wood-mala gets the fruit of Aswamedh Yagna. Furthermore, Omkarnath had referred to Tulsimritika, or earth beneath the Tulsi plant, as sacred and said that if anybody besmears his body with Tulsimritika he gets the merits of best yogi.

The aim and modes of Tulsi worship might differ from region to region but the basic aspiration of emancipation remained the core objective of Vishnustuti
Nairs of Kerala after bath take seven circumbulations of Vrindabana or Tulsithara?a tulsi planted atop the raised masonry. Vaishnavites of Uttar Pradesh, according to B.L. Desai, plant Tulsi on the palm of their hand and with it cover their pilgrimage. However, tulsi worship is not limited to man’s theosophical aspirations as Tulsi’s curative effect has been widely acknowledged by the Ayurvedic system of medicine, based on the Atharuaveda.

Its leaves have a sweet aromatic scent and act as a cough elixir; indeed the Hindus think that they possess many medicinal properties. The Brahmins always swallow one or two leaves after their meals which helps digestion. Tulsi leaves are considered as a potential preventive medicine. As we find the Hindus eat some leaves before and after their ablution in cold water in order to keep up proper temperature in the stomach and prevent ailments arising from cold.

Since long there is a practice among Hindus to put tulsi leaves in cooked food to prevent germination and in stored water to prevent bacteria formation during solar or lunar eclipse. Thus tulsi is widely acknowledged as a great antidote. This theo-medicinal practice has become a part of the cultural ethos and is in vogue all over. Moreover, tulsi plant possesses many curative properties and is an antidote to snake-venom. It is acknowledged a great destroyer of mosquitoes and other pests. Thus every Hindu home cultivates Tulsi in its anganaor courtyard.

The famous saint Omkarnath once narrated in a discourse that in the 19th century one Englishman, the Chief Electrical Engineer of Calcutta, planted only tulsi plants all around his bungalow. When asked the reason he explained that tulsi plant’s electrical strength cannot be compared with any plant of the world and a tulsi plant purifies the air of an area of two hundred metres all around. It destroys Malaria, Plague, Thysis. And if one ties a piece of wood of tulsi plant in any part of the body then the germs of communicable diseases never enter the body. And finally this practice enhances longevity.

Likewise Tulsi has lived down the ages spreading the aroma of its medicinal value and remained as a religio-cultural ethos of Hindu way of life.

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