Mother Sathya Sai

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Tulasi Devi: The Story of a Sacred Plant Goddess

by Lyn Kriegler

Lyn Kriegler, who contributes the wonderful art and cartoons found in Mother Sathya Sai, explores for us here the sacred tulsi plant.

Certain herbs, flowers, trees and plants have been deemed sacred for many reasons. Their physical symmetry or structure may have reminded someone of a sacred event or divine quality, such as the lotus flower symbolising the unfolding of consciousness in Hindu and Buddhist thought; the markings on a dogwood flower representing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in Christian. The rose has long inspired scholars, theologians and cathedral architects (the famed “Rose Windows” in stained glass) by her selfless beauty and perfection. Indeed, Swami has often reminded us to, Make your life like a rose, full of fragrance. The humble reed inspired Victorian women because of her ability to bend with the wind, enduring with grace and fortitude all the storms that life brought her way.

The tulsi plant is one such inspiration. Tulsi, or tulasi, is an aromatic member of the basil family (Ocinum tenuiflorum or Ocimum sanctum). She has many venerable titles. Tulasi in Sanskrit means ‘the Incomparable One.’ She has also been deemed the Queen of Herbs.

The story of Tulsi is ancient and fascinating; it appears in the traditional stories of numerous cultures in many parts of the world. Her history is well-known in India, where this sacred herb is found in almost every home, and worshipped every day. Revered as an incarnation of Mahalakshmi, she is also dear to Lord Vishnu. One story relates that Tulsi was originally a gopi (cowherd girl) who fell in love with Lord Krishna, and had a curse laid on her by His female counterpart, Radha.

Another story has it that when Krishna was weighed in gold, not even all the ornaments of His consort, Sathyabhama could outweigh Him. But a single Tulsi leaf from her puja, placed on one side by His first consort, Rukmini, tilted the scale.

Christian tradition holds that Tulsi grew around Calvary, the place of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also mentioned in Islamic Shiite writings. Tulsi was revered as an efficacious medicine in ancient Greece and Rome, as it is to the present day in India.

Tulsi also has Her place in numerous stories about the early years of Sathya Sai Baba. Elderly devotees remember the young Sathya as being expert in the fashioning of Tulsi garlands; no one, they recall, could make Tulsi garlands as quickly and as beautifully as He. He once materialised an entire grove of tulsi for His devotees’ pleasure; when they went to look for it the following day, it was no longer in the place they had visited with the divine Boy the day before.

Once, when He was running with a group of young village boys over some rough ground, one of the boys complained that the rocky earth hurt his feet. Baba asked the boys to follow in His footsteps. As He ran ahead, a carpet of Tulsi sprang up beneath His feet, giving everyone the most pleasurable romp of their lives!

In later years, Professor Kasturi, Baba’s beloved biographer, never failed to worship his Lord with Tulsi every day. An historic Tulsi shrine may be seen at the back of Sai Kulwant Hall on the women’s side in Prasanthi Nilayam, in front of the jasmine pergola. Women devotees can see the little tree being regularly worshipped from about four a.m. onwards by numerous ladies, just prior to the sounding of Omkar. Softly glowing oil lamps in the velvet darkness, the muffled cracking of tiny coconuts, freshly drawn rangoli, fragrant incense, flower offerings and circumambulation reflect the intense devotion of the women offering their obeisances and prayers to the Holy Basil, praying for Her numerous blessings and protection, and basking in Her auspiciousness.

Certain plants, flowers and trees are also deemed sacred because of the desirable character traits that they are associated with. Tulsi, in particular, represents duty, dedication, love, virtue and the sorrow of all women. She embodies steadfast loyalty; She is a symbol of Hindu femininity.

The Skanda Purana (ancient Indian religious text) declares, “Just by touching Tulsi Devi, one’s body becomes pure. By praying to her, all desires practically become removed. If one waters Her or makes Her wet, the fear of Yama Raja (Death Personified) is destroyed.” Her sacred qualities are acknowledged in that a garland of Tulsi is the first to be offered to the Lord as part of the daily ritual. She is accorded the sixth place among the eight objects of worship in the consecration of Kalasha, the container of Holy Water.

Used for thousands of years in medicine, Tulsi is listed in the Ayurvedic authority Charaka Samhita. Tulsi’s medicinal qualities are sterling. Extracts of Tulsi are efficient for cold, headaches, stomach inflammation, heart disease, poisons and malaria. Recent studies have identified Tulsi as a COX-2 inhibitor, similar to a painkiller. It has also proved effective for diabetes, reducing blood glucose levels, a treatment for radiation poisoning, and cataracts. Also considered an adaptogen, She balances different processes in the body, helping the body adjust to stress. She is regarded as an elixir of life and is believed to promote longevity. In Sri Lanka Tulsi is even used to repel mosquitoes and other pests.

Tulsi also plays a vital role in the Indian lunar calendar. Kaartik (October-November) is loved by Tulsi. During this time the holy plants are decorated with structures of sugar cane, mango leaves and flowers. One day during this period is celebrated as “Tulsi Vivah” or the wedding day of Tulsi and Shaligram (stone form of a sacred lingam). The Tulasi goddess is formally married to Lord Vishnu annually on the eleventh bright day of Kaartik; this inaugurates the marriage season in India.

Nature is the best teacher. A tree gives shade to others and takes nothing for itself. It gives fruits to others but does not itself partake of them. A plant sprouts beautiful flowers and gives joy to others but does not enjoy the beauty by itself. The sun is constantly at work, giving life, light and energy to the world. Does it ask for anything in return? No, it performs Nishkama Karma; that is, action without reward. These are some of the examples of the selflessness of Nature and are perfect lessons to the selfishness of man. If only man watches and studies Nature carefully, he can imbibe a lot of philosophy from which it will help to make him a better person.
~Sathya Sai Baba

What can we learn from Tulsi? She is inspirational to women in so many ways. The many legends associated with Her always point to Her constant and selfless devotion to God. Be it Krishna, Vishnu or other Names and Embodiments of God, in Her incarnations, She always depended on and yearned for Her Lord alone. As a plant, she gives and gives and gives: all parts of Her can be used for the most effective remedies; she gives her gifts freely, and in sweet silence, asking no reward or praise. Her remedies are comforting and highly curative, bringing peace and comfort to all who employ Her. She is fragrant, spreading her sweetness to those who encounter Her. The stories of Her past can inspire those who read about Her selfless services to gods, sages, holy men and women, ordinary mortals -- and even threatening, angry goddesses, jealous women in the form of Divine consorts, and furious demons!

Nature is very close to God, closer than man is, for in man there is a veil of ignorance clouding his vision and marring his sight. But Nature is the purest handiwork of God. If you are able to love Nature and feel in tune with it, you are that much closer to God. It is very easy to know God through Nature, for in Nature there is goodness, simplicity, purity and selflessness.
~Sathya Sai Baba

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