What is so Holy about Basil?

Holy Basil or Tulsi has a rich and interesting history known since the Vedic age for its immense curative power. It has been considered the ‘herb royale’ to the French, a sign of love by the Italians, and the most sacred of herbs in India.

Vishnu, one of the deities in the Indian pantheon is considered the guardian god.  As the preserver, he is one of the trinity of Gods, along with Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer, whose role is to protect humans and restore order to the world. Vishnu’s role is to return to earth during troubled times and restore the balance of good over evil, dark over light.

Tulsi or Holy Basil (Ocimum Sanctum) is one of the most sacred plants in herbal medicine and considered an early manifestation of the goddess Tulsi/Vrinda; the consort of Vishnu. Upon her untimely death, Vishnu transferred her soul into a plant, which was henceforth called Tulsi.

Those who worship Vishnu and stand in the awareness of the importance of preservation and protection, are called Vaishnava. Tulsi’s great connection with Vaishnava’s is communicated through the fact that they are known as "those who bear tulsi round the neck". The stems and roots are made into powerful mala beads. It is said that some English people living in India at the time roamed regularly with a tulsi bead necklace to neutralize the electrical impulses after lightning storms, as taught by the locals.

Many people in India have tulsi plants growing in front of or near their home, often in special pots known as Tulsi Vrindavan. Traditionally, Tulsi is planted in the center of the central courtyard of houses.  The plant is said to protect and ward of negative energies, and is cultivated for spiritual offerings and ritualistically serves as a threshold point between heaven and earth.

A traditional shloka or verse tells that the Gods reside in her branches, sacred pilgrimage sites reside in her roots, the Ganges river flows through her stem and the person who waters and cares for the Tulsi daily is believed to gain liberation even if they do not worship the plant directly.

Every part of the Tulsi plant is revered and considered sacred. Even the soil around the plant is holy.  Ocimum Sanctum has proven to have tremendous protective properties both in traditional folklore as well as in the pharmacological system of medicine. 

There are three main types of Holy Basil or Tulsi. Rama Tulsi or Sri Tulsi, also known as green leaf tulsi with light purple flowers and an aromatic, clovelike scent, thanks to its chemical component of eugenol, which is the main aroma in cloves and mellower flavor. Krishna Tulsi, also known as Shyama Tulsi is a purple plant which also has a clovelike aroma but a more peppery flavor. Vana Tulsi (or wild leaf tulsi) is a  bright, light green tulsi plant that grows wild and is indigenous to many areas of Asia, with a more lemony aroma and flavor.

The interesting thing about tulsi is her current medicinal relevance during Covid and climate change, where simply breathing is becoming more and more challenging, and the fact that she has a natural affinity to the lungs. The leaves and juice have expectorant properties and historically, have been given for throat, chest and respiratory trouble. 

Tulsi has been used for thousands of years in Āyurvedic medicine, for its diverse healing properties. It is mentioned in the ancient texts as being an adaptogen, balancing different processes in the body, and helpful for adapting to stress. Marked by its strong aroma and astringent taste, it is regarded in Āyurveda as a kind of "elixir of life" and believed to promote longevity. If sprinkled over cooked food and in stored water, tulsi leaves prevent bacterial growth. It has been scientifically proven to inhibits the growth of E. coli.

Holy Basil is pungent and bitter in taste, with a hotter post digestive effect. It alleviates both cold and wet qualities in the body. It possesses warming, light and dry attributes. Her seeds on the contrary are more oily with a colder potency. Tulsi is a stimulant, aromatic herb and effectively reduces fever. 

A lot of pharmacological investigations have been carried out on tulsi and the studies show that the plant possesses vital biological activity against a number of ailments and diseases including respiratory trouble. Some of its proven therapeutic uses:

    • Tusli contains higher levels of antioxidants like beta carotene that help prevent cell damage
    • The root of the tulsi plant can be crushed and boiled with turmeric root powder for a few minutes, after which it should be filtered. Consuming two spoonfuls of this twice daily will ease the symptomology of respiratory distress. 
    • Tulsi tea with honey is a good expectorant especially in cases where fever is involved. The juice of the leaves is given as a bronchodilator. 
    • The anti-bacterial properties in the leaves and juice are also effective in reducing mouth ulcers and other topical and internal infections. 
    • Chewing the leaves helps relieve cold and flu symptoms. A decoction of the leaves, cloves and common salt can give immediate relief in case of the flu. 
    • As an adaptogen and stress modulator taken in medicinal doses, it helps in purifying blood. It improves the metabolic breakdown and elimination of dangerous chemicals in the blood aiding detoxification. This, in turn, helps in reducing the risk of heart attacks and also lowers cholesterol levels.
    • Balances blood sugar and insulin metabolism and can reduce fasting blood glucose helping to normalize blood sugar and blood-lipid levels. 
    • A remedy for sore eyes and night blindness (beta carotene/Vit A) It helps treat conjunctivitis. The juice of tulsi mixed with raw honey is used as an eye wash to either wash the eyes or spread on the tender skin below the eye. 

One easy way to consume tulsi is to brew an herbal tea or infusion. To make tulsi tea, boil 1 cup of filtered water and pour it over 1 teaspoon of fresh tulsi leaves, 1/2 teaspoon of dried tulsi leaves, or 1/3 teaspoon of tulsi powder. Cover the water in a pot or mug and let it steep for 20 minutes (or longer, if you want to maximize the health benefits). Then strain the leaves, add honey if desired, and enjoy. Tulsi tea is caffeine free and can be safely consumed up to four times a day. 

In recent years, as holistic methods of healing are gaining more scientific ground and acceptance, research studies continue to delve more deeply into the medicinal benefits of herbs.

The scientific evidence is clear that tulsi can address physical, chemical, metabolic and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions. So we continue to research the rich antioxidant and potent properties of this sacred plant and her benefits that continue to yield new discoveries. The studies of holy basil/tulsi validate the mythological healer’s claims that this holy plant deserves its reputation as having medicinal qualities that serve and protect humanity.