Our body enshrines incense,
And all holy offerings
For your forefathers and the Lord
—Pipa, a contemporary of Kabir, Bhakti saint from India
Alternatingly cloying and calming, wisps of incense smoke permeate almost every place of worship in the world—crowded temples, somber yagyashalas (places of Vedic fire worship), echoing churches, smoke-filled monasteries. In fact, incense sticks or their Indian version dhoop have become a part of our daily rituals. But the spiritual and psychic essence of this fragrant wand demands more than a passing appreciative sniff.
Fragrance has been a dominant factor in Hindu religious rituals since Vedic times. “The essential philosophy of havan (fire ceremony),” says Brahmaprakash, a teacher in Srimad Dayanand Ved Vidyalaya, a gurukul in Delhi, India, “is that man can absorb anything in minuscule form. Havan purifies the atmosphere by releasing fragrant properties of samidha—wood—and samagri—powder of fragrant wood, mixed with aromatic medicinal herbs and ghee. Incense sticks and dhoop are corrupt versions of the havan fire.”
The term dhoop, according to Brahmaprakash, originates from the dhoop tree, found in eastern India—whose chips give out a rich fragrance when burnt. But the popular dhoop—black-colored putty—is essentially a mixture of ghee, herbs and wood chips. It is, in effect, a miniature form of havan.
The relation between incense and havan fire is qualified by Ameeta Mehra of the Gnostic Center, India, thus: “Incense purifies the atmosphere like havan fire. But it works through the power of fragrance which is not so much the mainstay of Vedic ritual as the domain of flowers that have deep spiritual connotations in Hindu philosophy.” Incense brands are often named after flowers.
“Incense sticks,” says Mehra, “are made by extracting the perfume of sacred wood and flowers. Their aim is to make the atmosphere congenial for spiritual contemplation.”
Incense is considered an excellent ally to meditation. The archetypal image of a meditating sadhu has a bunch of incense sticks burning near him. As Michael Talbot writes in his book Your Past Lives: “Perhaps one of the most ancient techniques for creating a meditative atmosphere is the burning of incense… For many, a gentle and pleasant fragrance is as lulling a ‘backdrop’ to meditation as soft music.” Agrees Brahmaprakash: “It definitely helps to meditate in a fragrant atmosphere but that does not necessarily mean that havan or incense is essential for spiritual growth.”
Incense sticks and dhoop are part of the 16 essential offerings during a Hindu ritual—the others being water, fruit, cloth, sweet, camphor, cardamom, betel-nut, betel leaf, clove, diya (lamp), flower, grain, naivedyam (mixture of nine offerings) and sandal paste. Each of these have symbolic significance and are offered to the deity in a particular order. “Incense,” states Pandit Kalyan Dutt, a Hindu priest, “keeps the devotee in a calm frame of mind while performing the puja or ritualistic worship.”
Purification through smell—the ritual significance of incense seems to stop at this. But the insistence of humanity to light incense sticks while meditating, sitting at home or at places of worship belies such a limited view. Explains Brahmaprakash:
“Because fragrance purifies the physical environment, the individual feels that, as part of the environment, he is also being purified. Psychologically, he reads a basic physical purification as a spiritual one. In the process, the person transfers himself into another world where meditation is easier.”
However, Dr A.K. Merchant, a Baha’i, feels that burning incense has stronger spiritual undertones. “Humans love aroma,” he says. “You burn the incense you like before the deity. By doing so, you express the urge to share your likes with your god. At the same time, you contribute a little bit of your individuality to a place of worship.”
“When I light an incense stick and offer it to God,” states Mehra. “I symbolize my aspiration to burn with that fire and fragrance. I am, in effect, offering my Self to the Divine.”
This psycho-spiritual interpretation seems to be in tune with the historical use of incense. In ancient times, pleasant-smelling perfumes were either offered to royal personages and saints, or were diffused over the roads on which they traveled. Over time, they came to be incorporated in ritual on the anthropomorphic principle that what pleases humans must necessarily please the gods.For Egyptians, incense held a direct connection with the dead. Each ingredient of incense was supposed to contain magical properties, which would carry prayers as well as the souls of the dead to heaven.
The worship of fire or Agnihotra is an ancient Vedic practice. In the Vedic pantheon, the highest functions are ascribed to Agni, the god of fire.
The system of Agnihotra essentially involves worshipping the Supreme Power through fire. The Agnihotra system popularized by Trichy-based R. Venkatesan in India, has its own guidelines. He advises that it should be done at sunrise and sunset: “At sunrise, a subtle energy emanates from the sun and produces a flood effect. At sunset, this flood recedes, resulting in a growth of pathogenic bacteria. Agnihotra has a bacterio-static effect on the atmosphere.” Venkatesan prescribes surya stuti (mantras worshipping the sun) and agni stuti (mantras worshipping fire) as the appropriate chants during Agnihotra. He also claims that regular practice of Agnihotra can keep you in perpetual good health.
“Fire is the most powerful of all energies,” adds Delhi-based Sheeba Loganey, an Indian reiki master and practitioner of the fire ceremony. “When we sit next to the fire, all our chakras open up and get cleansed.” The small copper havan kund used in the ceremony is pyramidal in shape. “The smoke creates a pyramid of positive energy,” she says, “which envelops the practitioner.” The fire ceremony can be conducted any time, in any place and for as long as you wish.
Mystical aspects of incense have withstood the test of time, making the product an absolute necessity for any magical or occult practice. In his book Magic: An Occult Primer, David Conway writes: “There is a magical tradition that incense enables ‘spirits’ to assume tangible form. This was borne out in the late ’20s when Stella C. was delighting the Society for Psychical Research with her mediumship. Incense was burned during her séances because… the medium liked the smell—as apparently did the ‘spirits’ for they excelled themselves.”
None of the extant religions give as much emphasis to the use of incense as Tibetan Buddhism where it has transcended mere ritualistic fumigation and gained a respectable medicinal status. “Tibetan Buddhism considers spirits as ethereal neighbors who are there for your benefit,” says Dr T. Dolkar Khangkar, a Delhi-based Tibetan medicine practitioner in India. “Hence, incense sticks are the means to keep a good relation with them.”
Incense was unknown in early Buddhism, which was opposed to external ritual. But, in time, its use became more general. To quote from the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics:
“It is used in the initiation of a monk; it is offered to the good spirits and lamas in the daily cult of the monasteries; it is used in exorcisms, in baptisms, and other ceremonies; it is burned in censers before the lamas at the performance of religious dramas, or in shrines.”
Tibetan medicine and Tibetan religion are closely related. Hence, the usage of incense in Tibetan medicine is strongly dictated by the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. “For example,” says Dr Khangkar, “to treat skin diseases, we perform the nag puja where incense sticks used are made of hill flowers. We maintain a strict vegetarian diet while plucking herbs and making incense sticks. Similarly, incense sticks for purifying chhaya (shadows) have specific ingredients and it is essential to have a bath before performing the ritual.”
Despite its wide usage and popularity, a significant part of the incense industry is still cottage-oriented. Most of the sticks are hand-made. The process is well defined by Dr Merchant, whose father once owned an incense stick factory: “First, you make a paste of either charcoal, sandalwood or sawdust powder. You may add any essential perfume at this stage. Then, roll out the paste and cut it into long pieces. Roll them onto a thin bamboo stick.” These sticks are then dipped in an odorless petroleum oil to which the relevant perfume—rose, mogra, jasmine, etc—is added in its essential form.
But isn’t charcoal harmful if inhaled? Dr Merchant agrees: “Sandalwood paste is the ideal base. However, it is not always easy to get this. Hence charcoal or sawdust.” Incense sticks also have an herbal avatar that is used for therapies. “Medical incense,” states Dr Khangkar, “is used for nervous problems, sleeplessness, stiffness, depression, etc. We make our own incense sticks and collect the necessary herbs from high altitudes.”
Making medical incense is not very different from the general process. “However,” Dr Khangkar specifies, “merely lighting an incense stick will not help the patient. It is also necessary to meditate and chant mantras. Different incense varieties are associated with different mantras.”
From ritual to remedy—the incense stick and its close cousins have traveled a long way, solely on the strength of fragrance. And for a society gradually awakening to the benefits of this olfactory sensation, incense can definitely look forward to yet another evolutionary leap!
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