The Elixir of Life


By James Bailey, L.Ac., M.P.H.  |  

In ayurveda">ayurvedic circles, tulsi is revered as "the elixir of life," an herb with numerous healing powers. It is used to ward off common ailments, to foster compassion, and to engender divine protection. Also known as holy basil or Indian basil, tulsi is a relative of that fragrant herb commonly used in Western cooking.

Tulsi means "the incomparable one," and its many healing powers were recognized centuries ago by the rishis (spiritual seers), who made it one of the most revered herbs in India. Most notably, it works as an adaptogen, providing protection from the effects of stress by supporting the naturally occurring adaptive responses of the mind-body to psychological and physical challenges from the environment.

The protective effects of adaptogens prevent the onset of many more illnesses than they actually heal. Tulsi is thought to strengthen the immune system, increasing antibody production with its antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal properties. It is used to treat colds, headaches, digestive disorders, inflammation, heart disease, and various forms of poisoning. It is also an important constituent of Ayurvedic cough syrups, expectorants, and digestive remedies. Tulsi has pungent, bitter, and warming properties, so it is often used to treat various vata and kapha disorders. And although it increases pitta, it is regularly taken to reduce fever.

Some Hindus, particularly those who worship Vishnu, the Preserver of life, honor the spiritual properties of tulsi. In fact, many Indians would consider their home incomplete without a growing tulsi plant, which is usually housed in a meter-high terra-cotta planter that is known as a tulsi vrindavan.

The ancient Vedic scriptures include many references to tulsi. They tell how Brahma is believed to reside in its roots, Vishnu in the stems and leaves, and Shiva in the flowering tops. According to some legends, tulsi is especially sacred to Vishnu, who was quite fond of it. Two of the three varieties of the herb are therefore known as Krishna tulsi and Rama tulsi. (Krishna and Rama are the human incarnations of Vishnu.) The third, Vana tulsi, is named after the sacred forest where Krishna was believed to have lived.

Women throughout India worship tulsi (or tulsi-devi, as they often refer to it) as an embodiment of the Mother Goddess. Some perform a puja (an elaborate daily ceremony) that involves praying and singing praise to the Goddess while pouring holy water on the plant. They invoke tulsi to open the heart and mind, increase prana (life energy), and foster greater love, devotion, faith, compassion, and clarity. Through puja, the Goddess is believed to clear the aura and provide divine protection. Tulsi is so revered that both men and women wear necklaces of 108 beads carved from its stems to provide them with spiritual protection and nourishment, as well as to bring lightness and consciousness into their being.

A simple tea infusion is the best way to absorb tulsi’s benefits, which include overall well-being, improved stamina and endurance, and increased sattvic (spiritual) energy. Tulsi is available in tea bags at Indian and Ayurvedic markets; its sattvic properties are more pronounced when it is grown organically.

Contributing Editor James Bailey practices Ayurveda, Oriental medicine, and herbal medicine.