Recent genetic haplogroup studies regarding the phylogeny of the Indian holy basil alongside traditional Hindu scriptural accounts on the most revered plant in Hinduism may shed light on the sophisticated nature of ancient Indic civilisation beyond merely a botanical or agricultural perspective.
Nilesh Baran is a student whose family hails from the Fiji Islands though they trace their ancestry as Sarayupareen Brahmans from Eastern Uttar Pradesh. He is currently pursuing an Honors Degree in the Biological Science Department of MacEwan University, doing research in plant urban ecology. He plans on further studying in the field of Botany and hopefully someday write a book on "The Plants of Hinduism" detailing their scientific and spiritual significance. Nilesh also teaches Hindi to little children at school and is fluent in reading, writing, and speaking English, Hindi, and Awadhi. He is Canadian by birth and resides in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
The Indian Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is the most revered plant in modern Hinduism and is central to Vaishnava traditions throughout the Indian subcontinent and even among the Hindu diaspora abroad. Puranic views regarding the origin of the Tulsi plant are various. In general, the plant is personified as a woman who is a great devotee of God Viṣṇu (named Vr̥ndā or Mādhavī, depending on the source) prior to being turned into a plant. It is important to look at the traditional perspective when considering such a sacred plant but the scientific view should also be examined. Puranic literature indicates that Tulsi was initially a single plant. Recent research from the University of Punjab has shed light on the evolutionary history of O. tenuiflorum which provides interesting clues as to the origin of this sacred plant as well as its distinctness from other basil varieties outside of India. Haplogroups support the species to be a monophyletic clade that has undergone a surprisingly low rate of evolution. This may further indicate human involvement including early cultivation, agricultural practices, and spread of genetics between regions. Analyses of such haplogroup studies of culturally relevant plants of the Indian subcontinent may shed light on the advancement of botany and agriculture in ancient Indic civilisations. When combined with other fields of research in the social sciences, this biological research may be of great relevance when constructing an academically relevant image of Hindu civilisation.
Without a doubt, Tulsi is one of the most popular plants among Hindus, and like other traditions within Hinduism, it is held in high regard in Vaishnava tradition as well. The Tulsi plant can be found growing in highly-raised pots and grove bushes all throughout India, Nepal, and even in parts of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. When the Hindu diaspora left for foreign lands under the British indentured labour system of the 19th century, they brought with them the seeds of their holiest plant, which flowered alongside Sanātana Dharma away from home. Today, the plant can be easily found potted in temples and houses anywhere in the world that Hindus have decided to call home. The question then arises, what can this sacred and ancient plant tell us about the history of our civilisation?
From the perspective of one who is interested in botany and biology, this one little plant is fascinating, to say the least. From the perspective of a traditionalist Hindu, it is a plant that holds such potent values that it leads us along the spiritual path to attain liberation. Here, I connect these two streams of thought such that we may apply biological knowledge to the study of our civilisation.
Traditional (Puranic) accounts regarding the origin of the Tulsi plant
While the Purāṇas are considered more metaphorical and spiritual than literally interpretable texts such as the Mahābhārata or the Rāmāyaṇa, the Puranic literature is the reason why Tulasī is revered as a goddess. Hence, it is important to consult the Purāṇas regarding the origin of this plant in the context of Indic studies.
There are three major accounts of the origin of the Tulasī that has been given in the Purāṇas. These accounts are given the Skanda Purāṇa, Padma Purāṇa, Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, Devī Bhāgavat Purāṇa, and Śrīmad Bhāgavat Purāṇa2,3,4,5.
The first account is the story of the demon Jalandhara and his wife Vr̥ndā, who was reborn as Tulasī given in the Skanda Purāṇa, Vaiṣṇava-Khaṇḍa, Kārttika-Māsa-Māhātmya (fourth section), chapters 21-23 as well as the Padma Purāṇa, Uttara-Khaṇḍa, chapters 3-16. The story is as follows:
Jalandhara was an evil daitya who was causing misdeeds and adharma in the world. His misdeeds and sin led to the Devas pleading to God Śiva to put an end to him3,4. Sadā Śiva goes to slay Jalandhara, but he was unable to defeat the demon due to the sheer power of his wife Vr̥ndā’s pati-vratā Dharma (devotion and chastity of a married woman to her husband)3,4. Hence, Bhagavān Viṣṇu performs an act such that he manages to break the pati-vratā of Vr̥ndā3,4. Vr̥ndā curses him that one day he will be roaming in the forest due to the loss of his wife, along with the king of serpents who is his devotee3,4. She then self-immolates3,4. Her curse comes true when Viṣṇu incarnates as Śrī Rāma in Tretāyuga3,4.
Jalandhara is liberated by Rudra, upon which it is said that the body of Vr̥ndā was merged with the body of Mother Gaurī3,4. Seeing that God Nārāyaṇa was enchanted by the beauty of Vr̥ndā, the Devas pray to Mūlaprakr̥tī (Mother Nature) and the Divine Goddess Śaktī appeared3,4. She tells them that Gaurī, Lakṣmī, and Svarā are her forms alone, so they should go to them as they will solve their issues3,4. The Devas went to the three goddesses who each give them seeds and tell them to scatter them wherever Viṣṇu is present3. Three plants emerged from the seeds, Dhātrī (born from the Mother Earth), Mālatī (born from Mother Lakṣmī), and Tulasī (born from Mother Gaurī)3. Bhagavān Viṣṇu was attracted to the Dhātrī and Tulasī plant due to the beauty of Vr̥ndā. The version in the Padma Purāṇa instead states that Vr̥ndā herself was reborn as a plant called Tulasī3,4.
The second account is uniquely given in the Skanda Purāṇa, Vaiṣṇava-Khaṇḍa, Kārttika-Māsa-Māhātmya (fourth section), chapter eight2. This account comes prior to the one mentioned above. This story is related to the Samudra Manthana, or the churning of the ocean by the Suras and Asuras2. During this event, Bhagavān Viṣṇu in the form of Dhanvantari was holding a pot of nectar that bestowed the promise of immortality and freedom from old age2. He began to cry with joy upon looking at the pot from which tears dropped into the pot becoming Tulasī2. According to this claim, Mother Lakṣmī also emerged from this event along with Tulasī, both were given by Bhagavān Hari by Brahmā and went with him to Vaikuṇṭha2.
The third account is mentioned in the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa and Devī Bhāgavat Purāṇa5,6. Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, Prakr̥ti-Khaṇḍa mentions this story which is also found in the ninth book of the Devī Bhāgavat Purāṇa5,6. Once there was a king by the name of Vr̥ṣadhvaja, who was a great devotee of Sadā Śiva and was very dear to him, but he was hostile to other deities5,6. He did not allow the rituals of other Devas and did not show any respect to Bhagavān Viṣṇu5,6. Upset by this, Sūrya Deva (the Sun god) gave him a curse5,6. Outraged by his curse, Sadā Śiva went to hunt Sūrya Deva down who sought refuge in the feet of Brahmā5,6. A conversation later takes place between Mahādeva (Śiva) and Nārāyaṇa in which upon hearing the plea of Śiva for his devotee, Nārāyaṇa reminds him that time proceeds at a faster rate on earth than in the heavenly abodes, hence Vr̥ṣadhvaja has already died5,6. It was now the time of his devotee’s grandsons, Dharmadhvaja and Kuśadhvaja, who were also under the effect of the curse5,6. Both of their wives went on to perform the tapasyā of Mother Lakṣmī5,6.
The wife of Dharmadhvaja, Mādhavī, was reborn as Tulasī5,6. She had decided she would perform such a penance so that Nārāyaṇa would become her husband5,6. After completing a harsh penance, Brahmā gave her a boon that she would marry Sudāmā, who was cursed to become the demon Śaṅkhacūra5,6. Śaṅkhacūra was given the Viṣṇu-Kavaca (armour of protection of Viṣṇu) by Brahmā on the condition his wife remains pati-vratā5,6. The unfolding of the following events is analogous with the story of Jalandhara given in the first account. Soon a war occurs between the demon and God Śiva, and Bhagavan Vishnu goes to break the pati-vratā of Tulasī3,4,5,6.
Tulasī then states to Bhagavān Hari that he has not done right by breaking her pati-vratā5,6. He reminds her of the great penance that she has done to attain him as her husband5,6. Hence, he tells her to discard her mortal body and attain her divine form in Vaikuṇṭha5,6. Her body became the Gaṇḍakī river and her hair became a plant thus called Tulasī5,6. It is also stated here in both scriptures that Viṣṇu raised Tulasī to the rank of Ramā (Lakṣmī)5,6.
Whichever of the three accounts is more authentic is not relevant to Puranic studies. However, the relevance of this plant given in the scriptures should serve to illustrate the importance of Tulasī in Hinduism.
Characteristics of Tulsi (O. tenuiflorum)
Tulsi is from the family Lamiaceae, a family of eudicot angiosperms. Indian Tulsi is particularly distinguishable from other basil species particularly by its distinct aroma and fuzziness of young branches and leaves. However, there is yet no visible phenotypic trait that distinguishes the species from other basil species found outside of India1. All Tulsi plants have simple, opposite leaves, stand erect, often display a “hairy” stem, and branch without pruning1. Some of these characteristics may or may not be found in western basil species1.
The plant has been used in Ayurveda for centuries. Various modern scientific research has shown the leaves of the plant to exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-microbial, and other medicinal properties1.
Those who are familiar with Tulsi know that there are two common varieties of Tulsi. Krishna Tulsi, which is said to have smaller purplish leaves, and the Rama Tulsi which has larger green leaves. Krishna Tulsi is said to have a stronger aroma and more colouration than that found in Rama Tulsi. These differences are simply phenotypic and do not indicate that there exist two lineages within the line of Tulsi as different varieties hybridise frequently1. In fact, there are likely thousands and thousands of different morphs of the plant present throughout the subcontinent, each with many different characteristics. The varieties grown in South India may differ from the ones from North India, both differing from Bengali Tulsi. However, each region will still contain drastically different varieties as it is and a recent study by Bast et. al (2014) has shown that the movement of humans within the Indian subcontinent (bringing with them their Tulsi seeds) has resulted frequent gene flow between varieties slowing down the rate of evolution. Take a look at Figure 1 for a case study.
Figure 1. Three varieties of Rama Tulsi grown in Edmonton, Canada. The one on the left is phenotypically similar to the one on the right, but the left variety is a long-living indeterminant (flowers multiple times) while the right is a short-living determinant (flowers only once then dies after flowering). Both of the varieties are highly scented. The one on the middle is less scented, can grow to be 2 meters high, and is also indeterminant. The one on the left and the middle one originates from the Fiji Islands, where Hindus brought seeds likely from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar in the 19th century. The one on the right is a variety from Vrindavana, India.
With such observable variety present in all these varieties of Tulsi found from region to region, house to house, and even pot to pot, how are we so sure that the Indian Tulsi species is a monophyletic clade (a phylogenetic lineage including all descendants of a common ancestor) as opposed to a lineage with admixture from different basil species? That is addressed in the next section.
Figure 2. Tulsi plant of Karnataka origin. Notice the branching pattern of lateral shoots, as is common for all Tulsi varieties.
Genetics of the Tulsi Plant
For those who do not have a clear understanding of the manner in which genetic divergence is measured, a brief run-down is given here. There are certain sequences of DNA in every eukaryotic organism that are non-coding in their genome, these may be introns (formerly known as “junk DNA”) or may be sequences of DNA in the mitochondria or chloroplasts (in the case of plants)1. Since this DNA is non-coding, it is not subject to natural selection and mutations in this sequence of DNA will have no impact on the ability of an organism to survive or reproduce1. By the usage of a concept known as the molecular clock, we are able to estimate the time of divergence of two lineages based on the rate of mutation in these sequences1. The Bast et al. (2014) study utilises a variable and comparable sequence of genomic DNA to compare Tulsi plants from around India1. The sequence is first amplified using PCR and then sequenced using DNA sequencing technology1.
This study utilised Tulsi plants from all across India1. Plants from Jharkhand, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Orissa, Bihar, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh were utilised1. The results are interesting, to say the least.
- Firstly, the phylogenetic tree established in the study confirms that all Indian Tulsi varieties belong to the same species as the species is a monophyletic clade (a lineage in which descent is from a common ancestor and includes all descendants)1.
- Secondly, the phylogeny found that the Tulsi varieties of north-central India (Punjab, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) are the least diverged and almost genetically identical1.
The most diverged Tulsi varieties were that of Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Kerala1. In general, Kashmiri, eastern Indian, and south Indian Tulsi varieties form a separate lineage that diverged from the north-central Indian Tulsi lineage at some point in history1. They may have been brought there from north-central India at a later time by human migrations. However, the study itself admits that the genetic evidence for this claim may not be strong enough1.
Although one thing is clear from the study, that the Indian Tulsi is a distinct monophyletic lineage from Plectranthus parishii, its basil cousin found outside of India1.
Another study by Upadhyay et al. (2015) researched the genetics behind the morphological differences between Rama Tulsi and Krishna Tulsi varieties and found many genes responsible for colouration and scent7. It was found that Krishna Tulsi varieties have a higher activation of genes that code for these proteins which are less active or absent in Rama Tulsi varieties7. Once again, this does not clear up confusion regarding the phylogenetic origins of the two varieties as they could merely be allelic differences7.
Thoughts on relationship to Hindu civilisation
The idea that Tulsi originated in north-central India and spread further to other regions is an interesting point that may have implications regarding migratory patterns in the Indian subcontinent. It could be possible that the spread of Vaishnavism throughout India via empires and migration of Brahmins led to the spread of the Tulsi throughout the subcontinent. As of now, there lacks concise evidence that can be used to reach a conclusion as to why this genetic difference exists, but human involvement would most definitely have implications for Indic studies. Further research must be carried out regarding the genetics of the Indian Tulsi. This requires a larger sample size than the one employed by Bast et al. (2014) as well as a larger region to be studied that would include Tulsi varieties found outside of India such as in Sind of Pakistan and Nepal1. In addition to this, a molecular clock would be helpful in determining the timeline of divergence of the Tulsi plants of different regions.
These studies can be troublesome since several human migrations may have caused gene flow in the past. Nonetheless, it is worth delving in to. Such genetic studies would shed light not only on potential migration roots but may also shed light on the agricultural aspects of ancient Hindu civilisation. Many other sacred plants exist in India that can also be genetically studied to give insight to migratory patterns and agriculture in those days.
The genetics of the Tulsi plant is indeed fascinating and holds many implications in regards to Indic studies and the anthropology of India. Such research often only focuses on human genetics, archeology, astronomical evidence, and linguistics. It often ignores the fact that Hindu civilisation is deeply rooted in its surrounding environment. Our scriptures give reference, relevance, and reverence to various flora and fauna that are native to the subcontinent. It is obvious that with such an admiration of so many living organisms, that over thousands of years our ancestors would have had an everlasting effect on these populations that can be found in the genome of these organisms alone.
It is well known that Indian cattle were domesticated thousands of years ago and are considered sacred in Hinduism, but we often fail to look at the genetics of these domesticated animals to inquire on how different they have become from European breeds and their distant common ancestor. This information holds huge value in evaluating the naturalistic knowledge possessed by our ancestors regarding artificial selection in breeding, domestication, and the migratory routes they took.
The same is true for the Indian Tulsi. Its genome holds many secrets about our past. It is important for Indic studies to take a holistic approach that integrates non-human genetics into the current fabric of scriptural evidence we use to make claims about our civilisation.
Archeology requires that we search for historical objects that may or may have not been preserved. Genetics on the other hand, while not as direct, can be found in the nuclei of any living organism of any extant species under question. It is a powerful field of research with implications far beyond biology alone.
1. Bast, F., Rani, P. and D. Meena. 2014. “Chloroplast DNA Phylogeography of Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) in Indian Subcontinent.” The Scientific World Journal vol. 2014, ID 847482.
2. Skanda Purāṇa, Vaiṣṇava-Khaṇḍa, Kārttika-Māsa-Māhātmya (fourth section), chapter 8. NOTE: This chapter presents the story of the origin of Tulasī from the churning of the ocean which is different from the account related to Jalandhara in the subsequent chapters in the same section.
3. Skanda Purāṇa, Vaiṣṇava-Khaṇḍa, Kārttika-Māsa-Māhātmya (fourth section), chapters 21-23. NOTE: These three chapters relate to the origin of Tulasī by the story of Vr̥ndā, wife of Jalandhara.
4. Padma Purāṇa, Uttara-Khaṇḍa, chapters 3-16. NOTE: This is also the Jalandhara story of the Skanda Purāṇa, but here it is explicitly stated that Vr̥ndā was reborn as Tulasī.
5. Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, Prakr̥ti-Khaṇḍa, chapters 19, 21-22, 26. NOTE: This account deals with the story beginning with the wife of Dharmadhvaja, Mādhavī, whose hair turns into the Tulasī plant in her next birth.
6. Devī Bhāgavat Purāṇa, ninth book, chapter 25.
7. Upadhyay, A.K., Chacko, A.R., Gandhimathi, A., Ghosh, P., Harini, K., Joseph, A.P., Joshi A.G., Karpe S.D., Kaushik, S., Kuravadi, N., Lingu, C.S., Mahita, J., Malarini, R., Malhotra, S., Malini, M., Mathew,O.K., Mutt, E., Naika, M., Nitish, S., Naseer, S., Pasha, Raghavender, U.S., Rajamani, A., Shilpa, S., Shingate, P.N., Singh, H.S., Sukhwal, A., Sunitha, M.S., Sumathi, M., Ramaswamy, S., Gowda, M. and R. Sowdhamini. 2015. “Genome sequencing of herb Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) unravels key genes behind its strong medicinal properties.” BMC Plant Biology, vol. 15, no. 1.