Perfumes of Vedic India
My fools for senses,
Our last review –which you can still read here- embarked us upon a journey through the India of Pushkar, Brahma and Kamala ; there we smelled the fragrant oud and cinnamon and rose and nutmeg and that is the reason why today’s Overview is about the perfumes of mythic India, of Vedic India ; the India of Gods and myths and heroes and wars.
Since days forgotten, India and perfumes have had an intimate relationship. From the Ayurvedas to the mughal princes, perfumes have shaped Indian culture –be it vedic or buddhist or hindu or muslim. In the Mahabharata already, Durodhyana mentions heaping tributes of perfumes, sandalwood and aloeswood. In other places, incense formulae have been found, one of which dedicated to Shiva including, amongst incense and honey, ingredients such as : the unstable, the heavy, the fingernail or the rain-cloud . Ancient Indian literature is full of references to perfumes, whether it is Rambha whose face « is of the fragrance of lotuses » or the lush groves of sandalwood, aloeswood and mango trees ere Gautama’s gaze, or the air filled with the fragrance of patchouli, flowers and incense – India is a land abundant with scents. A popular telegu song puts the following words in Sita’s mouth : « Fragrance of bethel leaves all over the bed ; fragrance of bethel nuts all over the bed ; fragrance of flowers all over the bed ; fragrance of musk all over the bed ».
This land which gave birth to sandalwood, to mitti, to attars of gulab and night jasmine, wherever from did she get her knowledge ? What is the symbolic meaning behind these perfumes, how were they used ? Our Overview will mostly dwelve on the spiritual aspect of perfumes in India and its link to the heavens above. Through jasmine, camphor and aarti, let us enter together into the Perfumes of Mythic India.
« I am the sacred fragrance of the earth » - Bhagavad Gita, VII. 9.
This verse, adressed to Arjuna, was the base of our reflection. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna reveals secrets of the world and the understanding of the world to Arjuna. He, the « sound in the air » and the « flavour in the waters » ; he of the entire universe « the origin and the dissolution » ; he the « manhood in men » introduces himself as « the sacred fragrance of the Earth ». This sole verse tells much more that one would think of the deep understanding and link that India has with perfumes.
Historical understanding but above all mystical for, if there is one thing common to almost all religions, it is their peculiar connection with incense.
Which is India’s incense ? It is multiform. We can isolate two dynamics in the incense offerings to the gods. The first is ascending, it is that of judeo-christians summed up in the verse from the Psalms : « Let my prayer be incense before you, my uplifted hands a vesperal offering. ». Through this dynamic, the smoke of incense is used as a vehicle to carry the prayer and sacrifice to the gods. The second dynamic is descending, it is that of ancient Egyptians. The incense manifests Gods’ presence inside the Temple. We shall have plenty of time to explore these two dynamics in other Overviews, should the reader be interested in it.
The incense sacrifice, in Vedic era, was somewhat austere. Few perfumes are mentioned except for the aloeswood and the guggul – also known as Indian myrrh. To these incense offerings were added other kinds of fragrant libations : the faithful would usually cook then burn cakes, which smoke would ascend to heaven and the gods. One can easily understand that the gods would not travel to the place of the ritual sacrifice but would rather partake in it by smelling it. The Rig Veda even mentions Agni as carrying the sacrifice to the heavens in the form of smoke.
To better grasp this notion, let us listen to the Mahabharata. A tale tells of King Yayati who, having been banished from heaven due to his immense pride, approaches the gates of heaven only to smell the smoke rising from a sacrifice. « That king, the lord of earth, clinging to the river of smoke connecting the heaven and earth, that king descended. » We clearly see how the smoke of incense was literally considered a link, a way, a moving river connecting heaven to earth.
What we must really understand is that what links earth to heaven is not the smoke –la fumée- but rather what travels THROUGH the smoke –par la fumée- what lingers after smoke has vanished. To put it simply : par-fum. In Vedic India, as well as in Buddhism, the sense of smell was the only one which allowed a being to partake in the essence of another from a distance – it’s because the fragrant molecules rise to heaven that the gods can partake in a sacrifice. This participation to the essence announces a participation to the divine essence. That is also the reason why the Hindu faithful offer garlands of fresh flowers rather than burning them like incense, because the emphasis lies not on the fum –the smoke- but on the perfume. By it only, is the sacrifice lifted from earth to skies.
Since then, the believers have been looking for the most pleasant fragrances to offer them : jasmine, rose, oud, sandalwood, guggul and camphor conquered incense recipes and cover the temples’ yards in mist. These sacrifices of pleasant smell seem logical to us but they reveal something much more subtle about the world : what is good smells good whereas what’s bad smells foul. This reality always crossed the borders of ritualism.
We can learn it from the Mahabharata when reading the part where the son of Dharma finds his family in an infernal realm. His kin is informed of his arrival by a breeze carrying his perfume : « On your coming, there blows a pleasant wind, in the wake of your fragrance that has brought us joy ». In this land defiled and accursed, stinking of rotting corpses and malevolence, the Pandanas knew the coming of Yudhistira by catching a fragrant breeze. The goodness in him dispels all evil around him and brings joy, even to those who were deep in despair. There is no mention of smoke but only a breeze carrying a scent which is not a physical scent but a spiritual one. In this culture, which has never been desincarnate, there is no discrepancy between spiritual and material : the good perfume is that of virtue, the foul is that of evil-doing.
And that is precisely the meaning of this hermetic verse : « I am the sacred fragrance of the earth ». What the English language translates into sacred –punya in Sanskrit- actually means way more than this. Punya means pure, hallowed but above all it means good. The sacred fragrance of the Earth, which soaks its soil, isn’t a fragrance of jasmine or rose : it is the sweet scent of goodness. Some will have noted the similitude between this verse and one in the Gospels where Jesus says « I am the salt of the Earth ». If salt gives the world its taste, perfume makes it more pleasant. We can see the opposition between two visions of paradise. A western one, where the Man can drink and eat aplenty, where paradise overflows with nectar and ambrosia ; whereas the Eastern one tells of a fragrant kingdom. In the land of Indra grows the night jasmine, this flower so dear to the heart of Hinduism for its leaves are a direct reference to the Trimurti –the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Visnu-Siva.
This link good-doing and good-smelling leads us to an even more holy perfume : camphor. We’ve long asked ourself why Hindus would burn camphor for Aarti. Guggul is said to be a god’s flesh, jasmine is about Trimurti, sandalwood is good for the third-eye but what could camphor possibly be useful for ? Its fragrance reminds us of hospitals more than heavens and yet, every day in India, thousands of camphor pellets burn.
Well camphor is actually the best symbol of this « sacrifice of fragrant smell », this sacrifice of righteous smell. Sacrifice indeed, for the camphor, once burnt, doesn’t leave any trace on the embers. This signifies that Men, tried in the fires of divinity, consume their vasanas, their mundane inclinations, their ties to the world that passes, their ego ; the last barriers preventing them from being one with the Divine. The Man consume is consummated by the Lord. Sacrifice of pleasant smell because only when burning does camphor emit a sweet fragrance ; it is that of surrendering one’s will to serve your neighbour, that of giving one’s life to share and bring love to the world. The only condition to smell this perfume is to be entirely given to others : it is the perfume of what is good, of one’s love for one’s neighbour.
The one true fragrance of mythic India, could it be as simple as Love itself ?