Tradition History & Culture

Allies in worship

A traditional Sufi mausoleum in Tunisia

A traditional Sufi mausoleum in Tunisia   | Photo Credit: Krishnaraj Iyengar

On how scents are connected to the spiritual tradition

“Everything in this universe is yelling ‘connect to my creator’!” he gushed. His thoughts resounded in the tranquility of Mumbai’s old Baghdadi Synagogue. “Fragrances have the capacity to connect us to God , hence aiding in worship,” smiles Sharon Binyamin Galsurkar, India’s venerated Jewish educator. For the First Temple of Jerusalem, he explained, there were certain families that made scented oils and incense. Only they knew its secret formula! In Judaism, there are special blessings recited over fragrances. A sacred spirit emerges when Shabbat (day of rest) begins, according to Sharon, and leaves when it ends, making a worshipper feel low. Hence natural scents, say spices (like in his case) are inhaled in the Havdalla ritual with blessings recited over them, to enliven the spirit.

Our inherent relationship with nature being legendary and since fragrances are made from, or made to imitate natural substances like flowers, woods, spices and water, they deeply affect our psyche. Right from the Vedic age, incense has helped the Rishis of old to meditate, natural perfumes also playing a vital role in spiritual rituals.

Perfume recipes

Classical texts such as the Bruhat Samhita of sage Varahamihira talk of innumerable perfume recipes, proving that the art of making pure, non-alcoholic perfume from natural materials, called ‘attar’ in Arabic, first began in India and became a part of its liturgical repertoire. “Rose and mogra have the innate ability to uplift the spirit. They are thus preferred by devout Hindus as offerings to the idols of deities. While Sikhs also prefer rose for the Rumala Saheb (sacred cloth) in the Gurudwaras, Muslims choose Majmua, a classic rose and kewda blend for the chadars at mausoleums of Sufi saints,” explains Mukul Gundhi, one of India’s foremost traditional perfumers who is known to pray over his attars, owing to their deeply ‘saatvik’ energy.

For the Buddhists monks, Jain sadhus, Christian mystics and Sufis alike, fragrance has played an integral role in their ‘sadhana.’ Do our age-old memories of inhaling certain fragrances during worship make us associate them with spirituality? Psychotherapist Dr. Girish Patel explains that circuits called ‘engrams’ formed in the brain store events as memories. ‘Associative memory’ and nostalgia are triggered by something strongly appreciated during the event. But as James Joyce said, “In the particular is contained the universal,” there is also the unexplained elixir within each fragrance that instantly connects the spirit to the universal!

Sufi Rumi, who believed that love was the universal, supreme reality, serenaded musk as the ‘scent of love’! “Eshq buye moskh daarad, zaan sabab peyda shavad. Moshk ra key chaareh baashad joz, az in rosva shodan?” (Love bears the fragrance of musk. What choice does it have but to spread and be recognised?) While the Arabs love ‘oud’ or agarwood, the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia have offered sandalwood sticks and lobaan resin to the Atash or Holy Fire. While many Islamic and Sufi traditions talk about oud incense or bakhour and oud oil as perfume, oud was also once a part of Indian Parsi ritual. “At our most sacred Iranshah Atashbehram Fire Temple in Udvada-Gujarat, the priests would offer a large sheet of agarwood to the Atash and the whole town would be encompassed by its mystical fragrance. That era is long gone!” reminisces Rohintonji Mehta, a senior Parsi scholar and owner of a Zoroastrian shop at Mumbai’s grand Anjuman Na Atashbehram fire temple.

Sandalwood powder has also been a part of ancient Indian rituals for its calming effect. While camphor, floral and sandalwood incenses purify the atmosphereand calm the nerves helping the mind to focus inward, oud with its warm, masculine aroma heightens energy levels, eliminating depression and anxiety. “The word ‘agarbatti’ comes from ‘agar’ or oud. Previously, they were made from pure oud while today we have fascinating synthetic varieties,” explains Gundhi.

In the Maha Mrutyunjaya Mantra, the Supreme Being is addressed as ‘Sugandhim’ or ‘the fragrance of life,’ thus explaining that scents are after all, gifts of the divine and angels of spiritual connection. Like Sharon rightly explains, “In the ancient Talmud, it is said, ‘What is it that provides enjoyment for the soul, but not for the body? Fragrance!’”

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2020 6:09:53 PM |

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