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The Holy Herb Basil

Carl Ploss

In Traditional Chinese Medicine the wood element corresponds - through a system of non- linear causality or harmonies - to the organ liver, the sense organ eye, the color green, the season spring, the planet Jupiter, the emotion anger and the virtue kindness. Perhaps no plant better illustrates the wood element in its tender green benevolence than the Basil plant, Ocimum basilicum seu sanctum (labiatae), also known in India as Tulasi or Tulsi.

The leaves of basil are large, toothed, oval, pointed, bright gretulsi_2en, with a fresh scent which Lesley Bremness ( The Complete Book of Herbs, 1988) compares mildly with clove. The stems are hairy, finely ridged, the small whitish flowers appearing in late summer are complete, hence self-pollinating. There are purple, O.b. Purpurescens and lemony scented, O.B. Citrodorum varieties as well as a compact O.b. Minimum bush variety.

Well known for its use in Italian cuisine, such as one of the two key ingredients (with garlic) in pesto, or simply laid over fresh tomato slices with mozzarella and olive oil. In both these uses the carminitive and mucolytic properties of basil make it a good resolver of cheeses, while its restorative, anti-depressent, and genitourinary tonifying qualities (The Energetics of Western Herbs, Peter Holms, 1989) make its presence in any sauce more than just delicious. Steeped in wine basil is especially tonifying, infused it aids digestion, in aromatherapy it allays mental fatigue. Gaspart Bauhin (1560) wrote that "this herb with its fine scent quickens the brain and heart, and restores the vital spirits." Wilhelm Ryff (1582) claimed that it awakened "joy and courage." That it should awaken courage corresponds to its usefulness in treating lung conditions, where the essential oil has been found to act better in lung infections than Thyme.

The story is told that Basil was found growing around Christ's tomb after the ressurection. This is a kind of meeting of the herbs, for the women bearing myrrh and spices - to emtomb the fallen savior - find not a corpse to preserve but instead an empty tomb and fresh basil. This makes basil a symbol of the new life, the regenerated nature, and in that sense Ocimum sanctum grows in the garden of paradise regained and ushers in a return to Eden, neutralizing the forbidden fruit, just as the resurrection nullifies the fall. Hence, some Greek Orthodox churches use basil to prepare holy water, which becomes the Jordan for those that are cleansed of sin.

The spiritual uses of basil are even more elaborately practiced by the devotees of Krishna, the dark lord of Vrindavan, the primeval forest where he and his foremost lover/devotee Radha carried on their pastimes. Every morning a potted Basil or Tulsi is brought into the temple, where she is supplicated as a pure devotee of Krishna, is offered the vedic worship of puja and ritually watered by those in attendance. Tulasi-devi is said to be the "expansion" of Srimati Vrinda-devi, the Vrindavan gopi in charge of arranging the details of Radha and Krishna's play. Srila Prabupada writes, "she decides which flowers will bloom, which birds will sing, which breezes will blow, which food will be served, which games will be played, which musical instruments will be played. ("The Art of Caring for Srimati Tulasi Devi", Isanah devi dasi). She has profound love for the divine but always stays in Vrindavan, hence when the Tulasi-devi is brought into the temple, the pure devotee enters the primeval forest and experiences the bliss of fruitful devotion. At the same time the slender Tulsi, whose early growth needs supports and whose lifespan does not usually exceed five years, "never goes back to Godhead, for she is always with Godhead." Hence when the leaves die, the trunk and branches are carved into beads worn constantly next to the skin by the worshipful. In touching the wood, the devotee touches divinity.

Most Christians and especially the most westernized of Christians (whether American, Korean, Chinese, or Indian) would say that through faith they reclaim their original prelapsarian wholeness, but in practice lack the worshipful means or liturgy to directly experience or "realize" this truth. On that issue, when Jesuits went to India and then to China in the 1600's one of the controversies that emerged from their missionary work was the question whether God's grace completely suffused heaven or whether it had to remain centered in the Godhead. The question of paradise having a similar form requires the transcendental logic whereby the divine potency of God may render a place holy without diminution. Omnipotent omnipresence not only allows but demands such paradox. The difference between a paradise and heaven, however, is that the blessed inhabitants of paradise, (unlike in heaven where hunger does not exist) are fed from the nourishment of the garden, which should not be taken to mean that everything is edible, like a chocolate city or a mountain of bread, but that the garden produces by its naturally holy process sufficient and pleasing nourishment. If this be the case, then, the inhabitants of paradise must choose what nourishes and what does not. There will be a certain knowledge, then, necessary for living in paradise, for we can expect in paradise the full range of natural process with the visible and apparent oppositions life and death, origination and decay, nourishment and purgation. Hence food and its opposite, poison, should exist in paradise. And the newly re-entering by redemption from the Fall, these joyous ones also will have said to them just as was said to Adam, this plant suits you and this other does not. Eat not of this one, for this paradise in which you can thrive, in which you are literally designed to thrive, contains by the decree of the blessed and all-good creator a fruit which will kill you. Can we not also expect lions and tigers in paradise? Beetles, scorpions, snakes? The newly regenerate should not be so giddy by the act of redemption through faith that they imagine that they have been ushered not into paradise but into heaven itself. To confuse paradise and heaven makes us act like idiots, if not demons.

The obvious truth is that we may inhabit paradise whenever we choose to accept its terms, that we enjoy perfectible powers of discernment and that teachers and teachings are part of nature's benevolence. Mistakes are also possible, but not in their possibility unholy. To insist on a world in which mistakes are impossible, in which only edible and beneficial plants and animals surround us, where we need no discernment and can act thoughtlessly without dire consequence, this is in fact by its unnaturalness a recipe for hell, for on the edges and borders of this subparadise will be found pent-up or abandoned substances of inconceivable toxicity. If we take it in mind to improve on paradise so that we can enjoy a realm of thoughtless indulgence then we in our vanity create something much worse, a realm where even attentive choice will not be enough.

The holiness of basil does not imply the identical holiness of all plants. It happens by its nature to be especially good for humans, extremely conducive to qualities of alertness, potency, and capable assimilation. Those who use Basil to prepare holy water or who offer with Tulsi leaves food to Krishna involve themselves in the manifest will of heaven that in the space between heaven and earth there be a realm where the virtues that preside over human destiny may be realized. To the knowing Basil in her slender form and short life realizes profound goodness and offers unceasing praise to God.


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