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A Holy Bead Plant

Here we discuss a holy bead plant from India. So naturally, we'll begin in Scotland.
The sacred bead plant is here.

Or, rather, with a Scotsman -- James George Frazer, a classicist and anthropologist wrote the multi-volume The Golden Bough in the last century. Some say he did for society what Freud did for the individual recall the memories of the past and their connections to the present.

He emphasized plants in the mythology of the world's people. The protagonists of The Golden Bough are the King of the Wood and the Corn-mother, Corn-maiden or Corn-bride. The King of the Wood has to fetch the Golden Bough (mistletoe gathered on an equinox or solstice) to save humanity.

The point is that plants are sacred to many people. But how did plants become sacred? Here I am going to ask that question by taking two examples of sacred plants used in India. Let's see what we can discover about their origins.

Tulsi in Hindi and Ocimum sanctum in botany-speak. In English it is the Holy Basil, closely related to O. basilicum, the spice you have in your kitchen cabinet.

Wooden beads said to be tulsi, India.

The principal religion in India is Hinduism, an ancient faith. Within Hinduism many people direct their devotions to certain gods or goddesses or rituals.
Those who particularly revere Visnu are called Visnavaites (the "s" is pronounced /sh/).

Visnavaites plant a tulsi bush in a pot on a pillar near their homes,
temples or family shrines. They offer prayers at this spot and tend the bush carefully.
Private shrines may hold the ashes of deceased family members.

Beads are also cut out of the plant, using the stem and upper root. Wearing them indicates a member of this sect. Many other kinds of white wood are sold as tulsi. Real tulsi necklaces are expensive and typically have only small beads because the plant is small..

I once found a tulsi bush outside a house I lived in India. I cleaned the area around it, marked it with rocks and incorporated it into the lawn-garden I was tending. A neighbor stole it and planted in front of his apartment. What gall!

To whom was this plant first sacred? Hinduism grew from several religious strains.
 One was the ancient faith practiced in the Indus Valley (Harappan) Civilization that flourished in western India from about 2600 B.C.

Another was the religion of the Aryans, who pushed into India a thousand years later and came to dominate the North. The combination of the two produced Hinduism.
As Hinduism swept through the rest of India, it absorbed the third strand, the older nature religions of the non-urban people.

So, there are three possible sources of the worship of this plant: 1.) The religion of the Indus Valley people, 2.) The doctrine of the Aryans and 3.) The faith of tribal India.

Nothing suggests that the Indus Valley people revered tulsi.
There is much we do not know about these people and we have yet to decipher their language, but there are no hints of tulsi in any of their iconography.

The four Vedas, some of the oldest books in the world, were written by early Aryans
after coming into India. They are the foundation of the Hindu religion. Of the four,the Arthavaveda(ca 800 B.C.), discusses charms in detail. Tulsi is not mentioned.

The oldest written record I have of tulsi dates to only 1650 A.D. The literary work Bhakti Mala (Sacred Necklace) says, "They who bear the Tulasi round the neck . . . they are Vaishnavas and sanctify the world." What a responsibility!

Given the scarcity of old texts discussing the plant, it was probably not used by mainstream Hinduism until late in history. At least one Indian scholar says the veneration of tulsi was indigenous. That is, it was non-Aryan and tribal, and absorbed by Hinduism later.

However, there is a parallel to the use of tulsi in India in at least one Aryan country, Greece. There the small shrub is said to have grown on Jesus' grave and have mystic powers.

On St. Basil's Day (when else?) sprigs are taken to the church to be blessed.
At home they are sprinkled on the floor to ensure luck, put in cupboards to keep vermin from the linen and eaten that day so the family will not get sick. Each of these blessings lasts a year, until the next St. Basil Day.


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