History of Incense
Our sincerest thanks to Christopher McMahon, of White Lotus Aromatics, for this beautiful and informative article.
When we speak of incense, especially within the context of India we are apt to think of bamboo sticks upon which has been rolled some sort of paste which gives off a pleasant odor. In fact, the story of this type of incense is less than one hundred and fifty years old. Prior to that time, incense was composed of a great variety of natural ingredients, which were obtained from precious woods, aromatic spices, balsamic resins, gums, pungent herbs, earthy roots, etc. In their simplest form these ingredients were powdered or coarsely ground and burned during special ceremonies called yagnas. It is said that in all parts of India great rishis and sages lived whose whole life was dedicated to serving the people of their region. They had deep knowledge of the plant world and understood for which purpose each one was created. In the realm of the aromatic plants they found combination of spices, woods, herbs, etc. that were very efficacious in purifying the atmosphere of seasonal bacterial and viruses and that at the same time would stimulate the immune systems of those inhaling the smoke.
India, several thousand years ago was a veritable natural paradise filled with a wealth of botanical treasures, many possessing unique aromatic properties. The people of that time, lived simple lives with senses fully awake to the environments in which they lived. Today we speak of ecology but in earlier times people had to live in harmony with nature because their everyday life depended upon it. They needed all of their senses to read the signals coming to them from the world in which they lived so they would be able to survive and lead a healthy, happy and wholesome way. They did not think of themselves as being the only conscious entities, but understood that each and every living thing had their own language. They knew it was there duty to have a humble, reverent heart so that they could "hear" what the other denizens of the creation had to say.
With their deep knowledge of the mysteries of nature, they realized that certain types of beneficial aromatic molecules could only be released into the atmosphere via pyrolisis or destructive distillation by fire. Through both inner experience and outer experimentation they developed a highly evolved system of social medicine that served several purposes at one stroke. First of all they would call the people of their vicinity together to perform a yagna during seasonal transition times. Specially designed "Agni kunds" (fire pits designed according to specific geometric formulas) would be constructed that would serve as giant censors for aromatic formulas compounded for that particular season. The sacred fire would be ignited in the various kunds and men and women would sit together chanting powerful mantras that helped attuned their body and mind to the healing power of the Spirit of Life which although not visibly seen was alive and permeating the entire universe. At the same time they would inhale the purifying smoke which would also help in the purification process. The aromatic molecules contained in the smoke were also known to gently stimulate the higher brain center through the olfactory nerves helping the participants relax and experience a sense of reverence and receptivity to the sublime unseen Power supporting their life. This should not be equated with the effect obtained by strong hallucinogens but simply a natural means of awakening the finer sensibilities of the people at large.
As the minds of the people united in this communal devotional endeavor the sages would explain to them simple truths which would, if put into practice, help transform the lives of those listening to them. Pointing to the coarse materials to be burned in the Agni kunds from which a beautiful aromatic smoke would come, they explained that only when a human burned his desires in the fire of divine love would the fragrant essence of the soul come out. Then just as the smoke curled up into the air and became absorbed in the atmosphere would the soul also merge back into its creator.
- More on the History of Incense
- Different Types of Incense
- Benefits of Burning Incense
- Qualities of Individual Scents
- Incense and Aromatherapy