By Yogi Baba Prem Yogacharya, Veda Visharada
Of all the eastern teachings, deities, terms such as ‘OM’ and philosophies that have emanated from India few people recognize the important role that incense has played in spirituality and health in India and the west.
Of all the senses, the most powerful and primal is the sense of smell. Not only is the sense of smell associated with the 1st chakra, which aids in forming an important part of our foundation in life; of all the senses, it is our sense of smell that has a direct effect on the brain due to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb allows aroma molecules to imbed and slowly pass through the bulb, directly affecting the brain, especially the frontal lobe. For this reason, pleasing or offensive aromas have a powerful effect on us mentally and emotionally. Our subtle sense of smell is so powerful that it not only determines our view of other people, it also determines our overall enjoyment of a variety of activities. As an example, if a meal is served that has strong visual appeal, but a disturbing aroma; generally one will not enjoy the meal as much as opposed to one that had a pleasing aroma. Therefore, aroma has a profound impact on our happiness and joy in life. Incense due to its very nature has an airy/etheric quality to it when burning; this is especially true as some of the oils used or naturally present within the incense are quite volatile, giving them a powerful affect on the mind and brain. The volatile nature of incense also has a powerful purification effect on the air element, creating a positive healing environment, and a sacred space in our home, office or meditation space. It would be true to say that aroma is an essential component for creating and maintaining a sacred atmosphere. Likewise, it is quite beneficial in creating a sacred state of mind while calming the mind, and aiding in turning the senses inward for meditation.
Incense has appeared in a myriad of forms ranging from indirect burning incense (powder placed on a small charcoal brick) to cones, coils, sticks, and rods. Likewise, incense is a global phenomena having appeared within a variety of cultures such as China, Japan, Middle Eastern countries, Tibet, Nepal, the Mayan civilization, and India, to name but a few.
The date when incense first appeared within the human collective conscious is not really known, but some of the oldest references appear to be within the Vedas themselves, especially the Atharva Veda, indicating that the use of incense is quite old, dating back at least 3500 years and more likely closer to 6000 to 8500 years old at a minimum. Aside from religious purposes, many people are surprised to learn that incense and the use of aroma is quite common within Yoga, Ayurveda (Indian health system), and even the use of incense plays a role in Vedic Astrology.
The common Hindu term for incense is called agarbatti. It is also common for incense to be referred to as Dhoop. It is more common to see the term dhoop used when offering incense to deities within a temple, at an individual’s alter, picture of a deity, one’s Guru, or even offered to nature. In locations such as Bali, it is common each morning to be greeted with pleasing aromas of incense even at hotels. As the Balinese commonly place offerings in banana or other large leaves that include rice, a flower and incense. These offerings are to the deities and of course to nature as well; likewise, they provide a heavenly experience when awakening in the morning. For temple worship, incense is not only an offering, but serves an important role in purifying the atmosphere by reducing microbes and purifying the astral levels as well; incense is also calming and stimulating to the minds of temple visitors to enhance their own spiritual awareness. The roll of incense in purification is quite important and it is interesting to note that 4 of the 5 elements are represented within a stick of incense. It has form, representing the earth element. There is an ember for the fire element. The smoke represents the air/ether element. The oils, resins or flower materials would represent the air element as well, though an argument could be made that the oils also represent water element at least to a degree. In this light, the incense stick is almost a complete representation of the elements itself, which is why various religions have always viewed it as a fitting offering to Divinity.
Many modern students of yoga and spirituality are surprised to learn that many of the deities within Hinduism have specific aromas associated with them: such as tulsi (Holy Basil) for Krishna and Kewra for Shiva; Lakshmi enjoys jasmine or sandalwood. Most deities are associated with several aromas of incense. Therefore, when using incense as an offering, it should be performed in a beautiful and loving way; such as lighting the incense, holding it before the image and gently pushing the smoke toward the deity, image of the Guru or other sacred item. This should be performed in a loving gentle manner with a sense of this being a sacred act and offering. Some prefer to hold the incense stick and move it in a circular motion in front of the deity or image of the Guru. This should be performed with the same loving attitude as well.
Scent and Ayurveda
The application of aroma and health is quite developed within Ayurveda. Aromas can increase or decrease ether/air (Vata), fire/oil (Pitta) and water/earth (Kapha), likewise, they can be an important addition to living a harmonious Ayurvedic lifestyle. Due to the nature of incense or essential oils, there is a certain vata increasing quality to them, but generally the aromas can be used according to one’s body type. For example, sweet aromas will increase Soma or one’s happiness; sweet aromas can also increase kapha. An example of this would be Sandalwood. While sandalwood is cooling and calming to pitta, it can increase kapha. This would be evident when one has a kapha type cold, burning sandalwood will often increase kapha resulting in increased mucous. Earth aromas such patchouli can also increase the earth energy but are generally considered pungent and warm, so patchouli can be beneficial for kapha. Pungent aromas could increase pitta such as mint or cardamom, but the cooling properties of Sandalwood are excellent for pitta. Vetivert is a root and is called Khus in India; it does have an earthy smell and increases kapha; it is good for pitta especially. Musk is pungent, stimulating and has aphrodisiac qualities, therefore, it is excellent for cultivating Bhakti or devotional qualities with the deities.
Here is a partial list of some beneficial incense or oils for each humor:
Vata: Musk, sandalwood and rose.
Pitta: Sandalwood, rose, and lavender.
Kapha: Cedar, myrrh and musk.
Rejuvenation of the mind (Brahmi Rasayana) is an important quality of incense and can be a nice addition to Ayurvedic and yogic rejuvenation programs. Sandalwood is an excellent incense, as well as rose; both are considered sweet and nourishing. Vertivert or Khus is excellent for vata and pitta doshas. Jasmine is excellent for mental rejuvenation, as well as lotus. Small amounts of Camphor are very clearing to the mind. Note: camphor does produce a dark soot when burning. Lavender is excellent for stress reduction, and rosemary is excellent for memory and mental fatigue.
Incense and the chakras.
Incense and aroma have subtle connections with the chakras, as the chakras are part of the astral body. Aromas that are earthy or root based will have a connection with the 1st chakra (muladhara) at least to some degree. Jasmine will have a connection with the 2nd chakra (svadhisthana). Pungent aromas such as sage and camphor will connect with the 3rd chakra (manipura or nabhi). More volatile aromas such as rose will have more of a connection with 4th chakra (anahata) and secondary connections with the 5th (Vishuddha). Incense such as Basil or mint will connect with the 5th chakra. All incense will stimulate the 6th chakra (Ajna) due to their volatile nature to varying degrees based on their aroma.
Aroma and the Planets
All the planets within one’s Vedic chart are reflected within the internal world, just as they have their external counterparts. Therefore, just as colors, foods and herbs are connected with planetary energies so is incense and aroma. Aromas are excellent addition to a program for strengthening planetary energy. The following is a partial list of but should not be considered comprehensive:
Sun: Sage and Camphor.
Moon: Jasmine and Sandalwood.
Mars: Musk and Camphor.
Mercury: Sandalwood and Basil.
Jupiter: Lotus and Frankincense.
Venus: Nag Champa and Plumeria.
Saturn: Cedar and Myrrh.
Rahu: Sandalwood and Myrrh.
Ketu: Sage and Camphor.
It becomes quite clear that incense has a very dynamic role in yoga, meditative practice, various forms of worship, Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology. This is more of an introduction to the important role that incense plays within ones spiritual life. While it would not be correct to think that aromas can solve all the issues within one’s life themselves; they can be an important part of a comprehensive program of health and spiritual harmony.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my book 'An
Introduction to Astrological Yoga'.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my book 'An Introduction to Astrological Yoga'. Learn more.
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