Posted on in Healthy Living by Sridevi Ramanathan

The Incomparable One


My grandmother worshipped a plant. Every morning after bathing, she would pray to this plant. She would offer the plant water and milk, occasionally adding raisins and kalkund (a hard candy) to the mix. This plant was so important that it was housed in its own permanent altar, or matham, in the center of the home. This part of the house, called the mutram, was intentionally constructed without a roof. The open-air design allowed for both the sun and the rain to enter the home freely and nourish the plant. My grandmother would decorate the rim of the matham with a kolam, a geometrical design made with her fingers using a “paint” of rice flour and water. Yearly, she would have the matham painted. The pattern was always the same—alternating stripes of brick red and cotton white. The paints were made from semmun (red ochre) and sunampupati (calcium hydroxide / slaked lime).

No, my grandmother was neither crazy nor eccentric. This form of worship was common practice in India in her time. Neighborhood women did the same. Some of them even added goddess-faced masks to their matham.

The worship of this plant is not a strange tradition of yesteryear from a land far away. It continues in homes and temples today—and not just in India. These plant pujas, or sacred ceremonies, are performed around the world. They can be witnessed even here in the US from Berkeley to across the country in Bear, Delaware.

So what is this plant so worthy of worship? Tulsi, or holy basil. Its Latin botanical name is Ocimum sanctum. This differs from the basil used in cooking, the Ocimum basilicum.

C. A. Kincaid, a high-court judge back in colonial India during the early 1900s, was intrigued that virtually every home in the Indian town where he was stationed contained a tulsi plant. Curious, he did some research that he relays in “The Tale of the Tulsi Plant.” He leafs through some dictionaries and learns that the word basil is derived from Greek, and that the basil plant has been referred to as “royal” and “kingly,” respectively, in France and Germany. He finds out from another Englishman and Indian civil servant that in Italy and Greece, the plant was believed to have mystic associations. However, Kincaid notes, the word does not appear in classical Greece. To clarify the origin and holiness of basil, he must return to India.

This is a practical place to start, as tulsi is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and other tropical Asian countries. It voyaged via early trade routes from Asia to Europe. The Christians accepted its sacredness (thus the Latin botanical name) and incorporated it in rituals of Christ. They crowned it “the king of herbs.” This is interesting and ironic, for in India, tulsi reigns as “the queen of herbs.”

In India, tulsi has been used in Ayurveda (India’s traditional medical system) for thousands of years. It is a quintessential plant for its numerous medicinal properties. Every part of the plant—its stalks, leaves, and flowers—have curative properties. It can be eaten raw or ingested as juice, tea, or tincture. Tulsi is an adaptogen and is said to relieve stress, colds, and even blurred vision.

For further understanding of the auspiciousness of tulsi, one can travel a complex path of interweaving mythologies. The mythologies involve many lifetimes and avatars (incarnations) of Hindu deities. There is a story that tells of Krishna sitting on one side of a scale. No amount of weight could bring the scale to balance. A single tulsi leaf placed by a devotee with pure piety does the trick. Sacred stories impart that the gods consider the wholehearted offering of a single tulsi leaf more valuable than any sum of precious gems and sacred waters. Tulsi is paramount. It is present in all Hindu pujas. Tulsi means “the incomparable one.” It is a manifestation of the goddess, Mother Nature.

The tulsi puja is performed for its symbolic value. Symbols are vital tools in Hinduism. Hindus believe that the Divine or Ultimate Truth is omnipotent, omnipresent, and without name or form. “If one already has the direct, living experience that God is formless and all-pervading,” Swami Tejomayananda of the Chinmaya Mission explains, “one has no need of a temple or an idol, a symbol, or a picture. For most of us, however, there is still the need for the support of a symbol. . . .”

Hindus believe tulsi lifts one up to the Divine. Examining the Sanskrit etymology, thula means “to lift up.” Perhaps vibrations of the plant raises one’s energy. The tulsi puja serves to focus and elevate the mind from the chaos of distracting negative thoughts to a state of equanimity. Observing the plant for pests or disease is a reminder to observe one’s own mind for the like—before they grow into a tangled mess. Pruning old leaves instructs one to discard old beliefs that are no longer of assistance.

Above all, the tulsi puja is the symbolic worshipping of nature as a whole. As Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, the saint who circles the globe hugging her followers, explains, “[People] saw the Creator through the creation. They loved, worshipped, and protected nature as the visible form of God.” Amma continues, “By establishing a loving relationship between humanity and nature, [the Ancients] ensured both the balance of nature and the progress of the human race. . . .”

Nature needs humanity’s care as much as humanity needs nature for sustenance; it is a reciprocal relationship. Appreciation of the underlying philosophy of the tulsi puja must translate into individual and collective action. In the end, it is acting in ways that conserve and protect the environment that matters. Tending to a plant can function as a three-dimensional, moving meditation and affirmation of humanity’s partnership with nature. The plant need not be tulsi: any plant will suffice. That one incomparable plant chosen is a personal symbol. It operates to spark a widening consciousness to nature as a whole, and most importantly, inspire action in the larger, allencompassing sphere of life.

One plant is all it takes. Choose one incomparable plant as a symbol to initiate active care and protection of the planet. Start today.

Sridevi Ramanathan is currently pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and religion. She is founder of Story Digs. StoryDigs.com

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