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October 2006

High on Waves

Mother Nature – Our Saviour
Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Living with Nature
Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Plants and Trees
Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Yoga Ecology
Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Connecting with Nature
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Tree Pooja
Swami Prembhava Saraswati

Tulasi – India’s Most Sacred Plant
Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

The Ten Avataras – 9
Swami Satyadharma Saraswati

Prayer to a Tree
Jignasu Madhumati

Yoga Ecology and the Art of Compensation
Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati



Tulasi – India’s Most Sacred Plant

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

Yanmoole sarva tirthaani yannagre sarva devataa
Yanmadhye sarva vedaascha Tulasi taam namaamyaham.

I bow down to the Tulasi, at whose base (the roots) are all the holy places, at whose top reside all the deities (divinity), and in whose middle are all the Vedas.

Tulasi is a gentle female energy, a sweet little goddess, and should be treated like the queen she is – the queen of medicinal plants. For she is also a plant of power, a powerful lady, a friend, a physician and an ally. When you have Tulasi around, you are protected, and she will bring beauty, health, elegance and grace into your life. Wherever there is Tulasi Mayi there is pavitrata, purity, for she is the great purifier, both of the body and of the environment. If you plant nine or eleven Tulasi trees in your garden the air will be pure within a wide radius, and bacteria-free. She is one of those trees that possess divine qualities to invoke the descent of devatas, illumined beings, and increase the spiritual vibrations. (In fact, the Paramahamsa Alakh Bara in Rikhia is shaded by trees of only this quality.) The Tulasi plant is extremely sensitive and aware, and quickly able to register the vibrations around her. She loves to listen to the Vedas, all Sanskrit chanting, to hear the name of God in the form of kirtan, and she is especially fond of ragas sung to the accompaniment of the tampura.

Another name for Tulasi is Hari Priya, the beloved of Lord Narayana, and she is always offered along with the prasadam, sanctified food offering, given after worship of Krishna or Rama (although she is used for other deities also). She is a symbol of Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu. The Tulasi leaf is the only type of prasadam that can be used more than once in worship. After being washed, it can be offered again. Traditionally, in temples the priests keep water and Tulasi leaves in a copper pot and offer three small spoonfuls as prasadam to devotees, who drink part of it and dribble the remainder on their heads.

Tulasi and Ayurveda

From prehistoric times the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent held plants in great reverence. Nature was worshipped by India’s primitive tribes, just as she was worshipped by primitive peoples all over the world. Hindu mythology says that the God of Death, Yama, himself gives way to this most ‘holy’ of India’s plants – the sacred Tulasi. However, India is unique in that it has maintained this reverence right up to the present day. As early as 3000 BC, worship of actual plants was turning into reverence for Nature as a source of medicine. Plants were being regarded less as simply ‘holy’ in themselves than as the home of divine spirits with powers beneficial to mankind. By the time Ayurveda became an established science, these beneficial plants had long been acknowledged in the vast medicinal pharmacopoeia contained in plants. Tulasi, which was once worshipped as a plant with ‘magical powers’, was analysed by the Ayurvedic physicians for its physical properties. Although this dispelled much of the superstition connected with Tulasi and other plants, it did not diminish the reverence in which plants were held by Ayurveda. Tulasi is known as the Mother of Ayurveda.

Two types of Tulasi

The English name for Tulasi is basil, which is very similar to the Indian Tulasi, and which is used both for medicinal purposes and in cooking. There are two types of Tulasi. One is called Shyam Tulasi or Krishna Tulasi because it is said to be the same colour as Sri Krishna – purplish black. Shyam means ‘black’ and is one of the names of Krishna. The other is called Rama Tulasi or Swarna Tulasi and is light green in colour. Swarna means ‘plain’. Shyam Tulasi is the more powerful of the two.

Properties and uses

The remarkable thing about Tulasi is that, unlike other medicinal plants, she is effective even if she is not consumed. Just her close proximity is enough. In Sanskrit it is said, Tulanaa naasti athaiva Tulasi – that which is incomparable (in its qualities) is the Tulasi plant. Along with her brother, the bael tree of Lord Shiva, she is considered to be the most powerful of all medicinal plants. Her leaf’s quality is heating. She contains mercury, and is an antibiotic or antibacterial. All respiratory tract problems such as coughs and colds, sore throats, whooping cough in children, etc. are helped by her. Infusions of Tulasi tea are most effective in all such cases. Boil ten to fifteen leaves and three to five black pepper corns in one hundred milligrams of water until the liquid reduces to half, add a pinch of salt and drink as hot as is comfortable. Tulasi is also effective in fever, insomnia, mental tension, skin problems, and the treatment of cancer and diabetes. Hormonal imbalance is regulated in both men and women by the consumption of Tulasi.

For all-round protection and physical strength, ten to fifteen leaves should be taken daily in the morning on an empty stomach, preferably during brahmamuhurta (the two hours before sunrise when the vibrations are sattwic or subtle and healing), after bathing and worshipping the Tulasi plant. Children can take five to six leaves. The leaf should not be chewed, as the mercury affects the teeth, but swallowed with fresh water. Tulasi leaves can also be crushed or ground into a paste and applied externally to wounds and skin problems. For some skin problems she is mixed with salt. Sadhus in Gangotri drink green tea mixed with Ganga Tulasi (Artemisia cina) which is very good for health.

Many Ayurvedic medicines are made from Tulasi and every part of her is useful. Even the smell of Tulasi has a positive and soothing effect on the mind. In the early morning her leaves emit a type of oil. If you sprinkle water on her and then remain near her, preferably chanting a prayer or mantra, you will receive the benefit of this. Tulasi purifies the air day and night. Most plants take in oxygen during the night, but Tulasi gives out oxygen during both day and night, so you can keep her inside at night, especially when you are doing your japa, chanting and other sadhana.

When the Tulasi plant dies, it is dried and kept by many Hindu families, and placed on the funeral pyre when someone in the family passes away. In Siddha Prarthana, there is a bhajan entitled ‘Itna to karna swami’ – O God, do at least this for me. The third verse asks, “When the prana leaves this body may it be in Vrindavan. And in my mouth may there be Tulasi leaves and the water from Lord Vishnu’s feet.” This illustrates the great faith and reverence Hindus have for Tulasi Mayi. The dried Tulasi wood is also ground into a paste and used for tilak, the dot placed at the eyebrow centre to purify this area and awaken the ‘inner eye’.

Tulasi mala

Japa malas are also made out of the dried wood, stem and branches of Tulasi, and are sattwic, calming, and cooling in nature. Tulasi is the only wood mala used in yoga because it holds and concentrates energy, and tranquillises the mind. Followers of Vedanta or Samkhya also use the Tulasi mala. The quality of vibration emitted by Tulasi wood is very passive, tranquil and balancing. One who uses the Tulasi mala should have a light sattwic diet, and preferably be a complete vegetarian. Meat, wine and tobacco should not be taken by those who wear or use the Tulasi mala for japa and sadhana. The Tulasi mala is the most commonly used mala because it is an all-rounder.

Tulasi Vivaha

Mythologically, in the Vishnu Purana, Tulasi is referred to as Vrindavati Devi, goddess of the forest, and also as Sati Vrinda. (‘Sati’ is the title given to a wife who is totally chaste and devoted to her husband. This one-pointed devotion makes her very powerful, and therefore no one can harm her husband.) It is said that in her previous birth Tulasi Devi was called Sati Vrinda. Her husband, who was named Jalandhara, was a very cruel man, because he took birth at the time Lord Shiva burnt Kamadeva, the god of love. Jalandhara used to harass the rishis and munis and destroy their sacrifices. In this way he was becoming very powerful, and the gods were worried.

Lord Vishnu therefore had to set about killing him, but due to the purity of his Jalandhara’s wife, Sati Vrinda, and her devotion for her husband, he could not do so. So Vishnu took the form of Jalandhara and stole her virginity. Only after doing this was he able to rid the world of Jalandhara and restore peace and harmony. When Sati Vrinda discovered the trick Lord Vishnu had played on her, she cursed him to become a shaligram, an oval stone used in sadhana and worship, in his next incarnation. Vishnu then gave Sati Vrinda the boon that in her next birth she would incarnate as Tulasi, and be worshipped everywhere. That is why Tulasi is virtually married to Shaligram.

Tulasi Vivaha in the Akhara

The Sanskrit word vivaha means ‘marriage’. The marriage of Tulasi and Shaligram is celebrated in the Paramahamsa Alakh Bara every year on Ekadashi (the eleventh day after amavasya, the no-moon night) in the month of Kartik (October/November) with full ceremony, just like a human marriage. This is also the day of Deva Utthana. Deva means ‘god’ and utthana means ‘to rise up’ or ‘awake’, so it is the day when the gods, or certain dormant energies, awaken. In this marriage the Tulasi plant is symbolic of the energy of goddess Tulasi, while the Shaligram is symbolic of the energy of Lord Vishnu. Sindoor, mangala sutra, bangles, sweets and marigold malas are offered. A yellow cloth, symbol of Vishnu, and a red cloth, symbol of Tulasi, are tied together and offered. Arati is performed and Tulasi and Shaligram are enclosed in a special bamboo structure or mandap covered with a brightly coloured cloth while they have their honeymoon, which lasts for a few days.

Tulasi pooja

In the Devi Bhagavatam it is written that, “One who worships Tulasi with the mantra Om Shreem, Hreem, Kleem, Aim, Vrindaavanyai Swaahaa attains all siddhis.” Goddess Tulasi, who dwells in the Tulasi plant will appear and grant this boon. For it is said that goddess Tulasi is a benevolent force presiding over all the lokas, or planes of existence. From ancient times, many cultures have worshipped plants and trees, and regarded all flora and fauna as sacred. This reveals the sensitivity, foresight and refinement of such cultures. Those who wish to be righteous and live a happy and prosperous family life worship Tulasi. Virgins pray to her for good husbands. Either in the front, back or central angan (courtyard) of most Indian homes there is a Tulasi-chawra or altar bearing a Tulasi plant. Pooja or worship of Tulasi is part of the daily morning ritual of most Hindus, whether they understand the scientific purpose behind this worship or not. The common belief is that where Tulasi always resides, auspicious vibrations, peace and prosperity always dwell.

Tulasi is especially worshipped during the months of Baisakh (April/May), Shravan (July/August), Kartik (October/ November) and Magh (December/January). After bathing, the worshipper offers water, flowers, kumkum, sandal paste, naivaidya (food) and incense to Tulasi, who is then circumambulated. In the evening her arati is performed, along with pooja of the household deities. Arati is performed by waving incense and a deepak (lamp containing ghee or clarified butter) before her in a clockwise direction. Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu) in particular worship Tulasi with full reverence and due observance of scriptural injunctions. Traditionally, before she is worshipped, she is nurtured for a period of three months. Side by side with Tulasi, it is customary to have a pot of either kusha grass or sugar cane which, like the shaligram, are symbols of Lord Vishnu.

Tulasi pooja in the Akhara

Tulasi being the Ishta Devi of the Akhara, her worship is done twice daily at sunrise and sunset. This worship was started by Swami Satyananda, who sought the protection of Tulasi Mayi during his Panchagni sadhana. He has said, “I was able to do Panchagni only because of the blessings of Tulasi. I prayed to her for one thing only – ‘Keep me fit, that’s all, nothing more’.” He performed pooja of Tulasi continuously for nine years. This he did in every kind of weather, without a break, wearing only a kaupeen or loin cloth. It was a wonderful thing to see. He would enter the pooja area like a ship in full sail, ringing a brass bell in his left hand and holding a brass karchul (container for samagri and dried cow dung) from which the flames leapt and the smoke billowed. The purifying fragrance of the samagri (a mixture of woods and herbs) within it filled the air with the fragrance of sattwa. The ringing of the bell captivated and alerted the mind, summoning the world to look within. The fierce guard dog Bholenath, the vehicle of Bhairava, accompanied him, adding his dynamic presence to the breathtaking scene.

First, Sri Swamiji would squat down and perform arati of the peepal tree (at the foot of which stands Hanuman wielding his mace) in front of Raghunath Kutir. Then he would enter the kutir and perform arati of Sri Rama, ringing the bell throughout. The strong, clear, resonant sound of the bell and the heady incense created a most powerful atmosphere. Then he would stand before Tulasi Devi, facing West and blow the conch three times, turning full circle to include all the directions. The stirring sound of the conch would fill the whole area with the mantra Om and the truth which lies behind it, sending out the call for the victory of ‘good’ (dharma or righteousness) over ‘evil’ (adharma or unrighteousness). Upon hearing this sound the mind would be immediately elevated, and its movement almost stopped. Next, facing West once more, Sri Swamiji would perform anga nyasa (mental placement of mantras in body parts while touching that part) to purify the body. Finally, facing East, he would touch the split shaligram to his forehead before ministering to his fire, the Maha Kaal Chita Dhuni, the celestial fire of the yogi, which has burnt continuously since his arrival in Rikhia in September 1989. The whole pooja was a glorious sight to behold!

Regarding pooja of Sri Tulasi, Sri Swamiji says, “In the ritualistic worship of Tulasi, only one thing counts, and that is childlike faith. The secret of all rituals is the faith of a child. For an intellectual Tulasi is just a plant, but for me, Tulasi is not a plant, she is a Devi. All the ornaments offered to her, and which I give to the newlywed girls of the locality, belong to Tulasi. They are first and foremost offered to her. Whenever you give me a golden bracelet, nose ring or hair ornament, you are in fact offering it to her, as she is the owner of the Akhara property. Everything is first dedicated to Tulasi and then presented to the new brides of this locality. Tulasi is the presiding deity of the spiritual and Vedic darshan. She is the head of all departments of pharmaceutical flora.”

Krishna and Tulasi

It is said that Lord Sri Krishna lived in Vrindavan because he wanted to be near Vrindavati Devi. In fact, Tulasi Devi is said to be one of the 16,000 wives of Krishna. In Vrindavan there is a Tulasi forest where the Tulasi trees are ten and twelve feet high! It is here that Krishna is believed to have performed his Rasa Lila with the gopis or milkmaids. It is such a powerful place that anyone who stays there in the night is found mad in the morning. They are no longer in any state to speak of what happened there, so it remains a mystery as to what takes place in the Tulasi forest at night. How highly Krishna thought of Tulasi is revealed in the following story.

Tulasi leaf

Once Satya Bhama, one of Krishna’s wives, weighed him against her legendary wealth. She asked him, “My Lord, I value you so deeply that I wish to take your weight in gold.” Krishna agreed, and a large set of scales was brought. With an amused smile dancing on his lips and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Krishna sat on one side of the scales, and Satya Bhama began to place her gold on the other side. However, no matter how much gold she placed on the scales they would not move at all! She placed all she had on the scale, but to no effect. Satya Bhama became distressed because she had completely run out of gold and no more would even fit on the scales.

Then another of Krishna’s wives, Rukmini (‘one who is full of gold’), who understood the lila, or play, of Krishna, took a single Tulasi leaf and placed it on top of the pile of gold with her full devotion. Immediately, the scales began to move and Krishna’s weight was measured. The priceless Tulasi leaf represents devotion, and this story shows that even a small leaf offered with devotion means more to the Lord than the wealth of the whole world. This is the greatness of Tulasi.

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