Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is a sacred plant in Hinduism and has been revered in India for thousands of years. This herb has a rich history that dates back to ancient times, and it continues to be an important part of both Ayurveda as well as spiritual practices. In the west, this herb has continued to grow in popularity due to its rich lore and reverence amongst Indian traditions. Moreover, modern science continues to validate ancient wisdom surrounding the plant’s properties including its use to support the immune system, manage and adapt to stress, and deepen meditative states. In an increasingly busy world filled with news of strife and conflict, it seems this gentle adaptogen is poised more than ever to provide comfort the world so dearly desires.
The Origins of Tulsi
The origins of the tulsi plant can be traced back to the Indian subcontinent, where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years.1 The plant is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is known by its botanical name, Ocimum tenuiflorum, though previously its scientific name was Ocimum sanctum, a reference to its sacred status in Hindu mythology. It is also commonly referred to as Tulsi, which is a Sanskrit word that means "the incomparable one."2
Tulsi is native to tropical regions of Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, though it is now cultivated around the world. It is an annual plant that typically grows up to 75 centimeters tall, with green leaves that are highly fragrant and have a slightly astringent and aromatic flavor.3
In Hindu mythology, tulsi is said to be an incarnation of the goddess Tulasi, which the plant is named after. There are extensive legends and stories regarding Tulasi and her many roles in society. Once such legend states that the goddess took the form of the plant to protect people from diseases and negative energies. The plant was also considered a symbol of purity and was used in religious ceremonies. Both the plant and its distilled essential oil carry significant religious value and are common plants in the homes of those of Hindu faith. Furthermore, the soil that the plant grows in is also considered sacred.4,
Tulsi is considered a sacred plant in Hinduism and is commonly found growing in or near both temples and homes in India. The plant is believed to have purifying properties and is used in religious ceremonies to bless people and to cleanse the environment. The leaves of tulsi are also used in the worship of various Hindu deities, including Vishnu, Krishna, and Rama. In many households, it is customary to have a tulsi plant growing in a small pot in front of the house. Tulsi is also associated with the festival of Tulsi Vivah, which is celebrated in India in the month of Kartik (October/November). During the festival, the marriage of the goddess Tulsi to Lord Vishnu is celebrated, and tulsi is offered to the gods.
Ayurvedic Assessment of Tulsi
The ancient Indian system of treatments known as Ayurveda has been practiced and evolved for thousands of years. Tulsi is a key herb in Ayurveda and is used to treat a wide range of conditions. According to Ayurveda, tulsi is described as pungent and bitter. In Ayurveda, flavor impacts the energetic movement the herb has within the body. In this case, the pungent flavor opens the senses and unblocks the channels of the body, while the bitter flavor helps ground and center the individual among other utilities. It is also considered warming to the body, which promotes digestive fire and metabolic transformation.5 This is echoed in its uses on the Ayurvedic dosha. The dosha are 3 terms that represent different facets of biological life. Kapha represents the flesh, oils, and moisture of the body, Pitta represents the fires of metabolism, digestion, and transformation in the body, and Vata represents all the movements of the body from physical movement to the movement of ions into and out of the cell. In the case of Tulsi, it harmonizes the Kapha and Vata dosha. Translated simply, it harmonizes the physical form with the movements of the body and mind. One might consider this as harmonizing our spirit and purpose (why we move through the world) with that which sustains us (our physical body). This elegant explanation echoes and informs one of Tulsi’s primary modern uses as an adaptogen: a plant that helps the body and mind relax and adapt to stress. Tulsi was typically consumed as a tea or added to food as a seasoning. Today, it is also available in supplement form.
Tulsi Today: What the Research Says
As holy basil continues to rise in popularity in the west, a number of studies have investigated the properties of the herb, and the results have been promising. Research into tulsi’s phytochemical makeup have found it contains eugenol, rosmarinic acid, and ursolic acid, all of which are antioxidant compounds associated with maintaining healthy immune function and mental alacrity.6 Tulsi is believed to have adaptogenic properties, meaning that it can help the body to better cope with stress. This is thought to be due to its ability to modulate the production of stress hormones such as cortisol, and to increase the activity of enzymes used against oxidative stress.7 Tulsi has also been found to have anti-stress properties, which could make it useful in supporting mood and outlook. A small study of 24 individuals found improvements in mood with 300mg of tulsi extract.8
Tusli has a rich history that dates back thousands of years and is a beloved plant now known around the world. This sacred plant has been revered in India for its Ayurvedic properties and spiritual significance as a sacred plant in Hinduism and is used in religious ceremonies to purify the environment and bless people. Modern research has shown that tulsi may have a number of potential supportive benefits in healthy adults. As interest in botanical supplements continues to grow, tulsi is poised to do what it has done for thousands of years: grow right alongside us.
- Choudhary, S.K. (2020). Ethnobotany and the Sacred Divine Plant: Tulsi.
- Singh, N., & Hoette, Y. (2014). Tulsi: The Indian Super Herb That Helps You Relax and Destress. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 28(3), 4-11.
- Balachandran, Indira, and V.V. Sivarajan. Ayurvedic Drugs and Their Plant Sources. Chennai: Asia Publishing House, 1993.
- Das, Subhamoy. (2020, August 26). Tulsi or The Holy Basil in Hinduism. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/tulsi-the-holy-basil-1770040
- Dabur Research Foundation. Major Herbs of Ayurveda. Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone, 2002.
- Mondal, S., Varma, S., Bamola, V. D., Naik, S. N., Mirdha, B. R., Padhi, M. M., Mehta, N., & Mahapatra, S. C. (2011). Double-blinded randomized controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract on healthy volunteers. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 136(3), 452–456.
- Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., & Drummond, P. D. (2022). Modulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis by plants and phytonutrients: a systematic review of human trials. Nutritional neuroscience, 25(8), 1704–1730.
- Bhattacharyya, D., Sur, T. K., Jana, U., & Debnath, P. K. (2008). Controlled programmed trial of Ocimum sanctum leaf on generalized anxiety disorders. Nepal Medical College journal : NMCJ, 10(3), 176–179.