The Hindus considered the basil plant (ocimum sanctum) as sacred. They called it Tulasi or Surasah in Sanskrit, Tulsi in Hindi, Tiruttizhai, Tiruttilai or Tulasi in Tamil, Sivatulasi in Malayalam and Oddhi in Telugu - I have added just the Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu names for the plant as these are the three major southern Indian languages spoken in Malaysia.
In Malay, ocimum sanctum is called Oku, Ruku-ruku or Sulasi. As in the case of Malay, languages of countries with significant Hindu influence in their culture, like Thai, Khmer, Indonesian, Laotian, and Burmese also have their own versions.
The above names are those for the sacred basil, as obviously there are other types of basil, for example, Kemangi, Daun selaseh, Selasi jantan in Malay.
The Hindus believed the basil or Tulasi is sacred to Lord Vishnu and a reincarnation of his consort Lakshmi, or that of some of his avatars, like Rama and Sita.
Steward Lee Allen in his book, In The Devil’s Garden – A sinful History of Forbidden Food, provided a variation to the Hindu myth. An Indian girl named Vrinda (incidentally also another name for Lakshmi) was so distressed by her husband’s death that she committed Sati, the Hindu act of devotional self immolation by widows.
The title Sati means 'Righteous' - Hindus believe the first Indian woman to commit Sati was Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. She did so to protest strongly against the wrongs and insults to her husband, rather than as a devoted widow joining her deceased husband in death. When a woman commited Sati, she would hold a sprig of Tulasi in her hands.
Back to Stewart Allen's story, the gods was so impressed by Vrinda’s devotion that they turned the ashes of her hair into the Tulasi, the sweet and fragant basil or ocimum sanctum (photo of sacred plant). They ordered their priests to revere the sacred plant.
It seems that some Indian courts still make Hindus take an oath by placing their hands over this holy plant, akin to Christians doing so with the Holy Bible. Apart from its use by Hindus as a purifier during religious ceremonies, the sacred basil is also employed by Indians to keep snakes and mosquitoes away, and for general health purposes.
Alexander the Great was responsible for the basil going from India to Europe, where it became popular as a herb, particularly with the Italians. Steward Allen humorously narrated how the Italians, being Catholics, slowly modified Vrinda's unacceptable suicide into a tale of an Italian maid, Lisabetta, deeply distressed by the death of her lover. She cut off his head, buried it in a pot, grew a basil in the container, and watered the plant with her tears. The plant grew by leaps and bounds because of the special fertiliser. Its amazing growth attracted pilgrimages from people.
The name basil is derived from Greek basileus (king), because of the royal fragrance of this herb.
I frequently partake of the delicious Vietnamese dish Pho Dac Biet (combination beef noodles soup), which uses fresh basil as fragrant garnishing. The next time I do so, I’ll certainly treat the basil with its ancient and amazing pedigree with more respect.