Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Oct. 23, 2011

An Asura called Shankhachuda terrorized the Devas. No weapon could harm this demon because he was protected by a magical armour. Brahma told the gods, “The armour will protect Shankhachuda for as long as his wife, Vrinda, remains faithful to him.”

To make a chaste wife betray her husband is a sin. But not destroying an Asura is dangerous. Indra, king of Devas, did not know how to handle the situation. So he approached Krishna. Krishna promised to find a solution.

Vrinda was a great devotee of God. One day she expressed her desire to see God. Krishna, who is God incarnate, immediately appeared before her, but he appeared taking not the form of Krishna. Since God can take any form, Krishna took the form of Shankhachuda. Vrinda welcomed him as a wife welcomes a husband. Instantly, the magical power of her chastity faded from her husband’s armour. The Devas were able to kill Shankhachuda without any difficulty.

All the Asuras accused Vrinda of infidelity. How else could Shankhachuda have died? But Vrinda was adamant, she had never been with a man other than her husband. The Asuras drove Vrinda out of her house. She wandered homeless. And finally came to Dwarka. She had heard Krishna was God on earth. She decided to take shelter in his house. But Krishna’s wives refused to let her enter their house.

Standing in the courtyard, Vrinda said, “Come out Krishna and tell your wives and the world that I am just your devotee, pure and chaste, true to none but my husband.” Krishna could not do that. Vrinda waited and waited in Krishna’s courtyard patiently for God to come to her rescue but there was no sign of Krishna. Krishna’s wives became jealous of Vrinda and feared she was planning to become his wife. Vrinda reassured them that she was but a devotee. Still there was no sign of Krishna. Exasperated she said, “Are you a stone that cannot move, Krishna? May you therefore be worshipped as a stone.” She then turned into the Tulsi plant, growing roots into the courtyard of her house.

Said Krishna, “I was the cause of Vrinda’s misery. I could not come to her rescue. I let her down. I was like a stone. Henceforth, therefore, I will be worshipped as a stone, the Shaligrama fossil. I will accept no prayer unless a sprig of the Tulsi plant accompanies it. That way Vrinda will be brought to me by the very world, which rejected her. She will be the universal symbol of love, devotion and chastity.”

The rather controversial story of Tulsi or Vrinda acknowledges the difficulties associated with chastity and fidelity that forms the cornerstone of the household. For centuries, this goddess of the courtyard has been worshipped by women across India, especially Vaishnavas. She has sometimes been associated with Radha. She embodies viraha bhakti, devotion expressed through the pain of separation. She empathizes with every human being who has to be faithful to worldly responsibilities but yearns to give it all up and surrender to divinity.