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.
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 versions of the havan
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
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
says Mehra, "are made by extracting the perfume of sacred wood and
flowers. Their aim is to make the atmosphere congenial for spiritual
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."
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."
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."
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
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
"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."
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."
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!
permission from LifePositive.com
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