By Urmila Devi Dasi
How incense fits into the practice of the yoga of devotion.
The desire for a pleasant fragrance fuels the world’s perfume industry at twenty-seven billion dollars a year;1 soaps, laundry detergents, and the various household cleaners generally have scent added; and it is fragrance that gives flavor to food beyond what the tongue alone can taste: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Although we might think of our olfactory ability as the least among our senses, smells give us useful information about purity and health and greatly add to the scope and variety of life’s pleasures. It should not surprise us, therefore, that Krishna, the reservoir of all pleasure, identifies Himself in the Gita as the “fragrance of the earth.” Indeed, it is from the earth that the sources of fragrance in food, flowers, leaves, and sap grow. Krishna’s own spiritual fragrance is described thus: “The eight lotuslike parts of His body distribute the fragrance of lotuses mixed with that of camphor. His body is anointed with aromatic substances like musk, camphor, sandalwood, and aguru.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 19.91)
As chemists can extract the fragrant essence from a flower, so we can extract the essence of spiritual development from life. We do that by finding our happiness in pleasing our source, Krishna, through loving service. Part of our service to Krishna is to offer Him whatever we can. Since everything is a product of His energy, we are offering Him, with affection, His own energy. Krishna is pleased by this, just as parents feel joy when their children buy them a gift with money received from the parents. So, although from a logical point of view offering fragrance to the source of all fragrance seems pointless and redundant, Krishna relishes the loving mood of such an offering, and the devotee who offers the fragrance relishes Krishna’s pleasure. Indeed, Krishna Himself states, “I am certainly most pleased when nice presentations of fragrant oil, incense, flowers, and palatable foods are offered with love.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.27.18)
Billowing from Krishna’s Homes
When Lord Krishna was on earth about five thousand years ago, incense was used as a standard part of receiving a guest or someone returning home.2 Incense smoke perfumes the entire area at Krishna’s pastoral residence in Vrindavan and His city residence in Dwarka. The sacred literature says that incense smoke poured out from the lattice designs of the windows of Krishna’s residences.
Love means offering the beloved the finest quality we can arrange, and the best incense is made from high-quality natural resins, woods, seeds, flowers, and oils. High-quality natural incense produces abundant smoke that fills a room with its scent for many hours. Much of the incense available today is mass-produced and not of good quality, but with care we can ensure that what we offer is natural and healthy and includes a variety of pleasant aromas. Aromas specifically mentioned in the sacred literature include sandalwood, aguru, camphor, musk, lotus, and rose. Lord Chaitanya refers to a pleasing combination of fragrances called catuhsama: two parts of musk, four parts of sandalwood, three parts of aguru or saffron, and one part of camphor (Cc. Antya 4.197). It’s deeply spiritually satisfying to be able to offer Krishna traditional scents we know He enjoys.
Incense in Worship
Offering Krishna incense is part of archana, or worship, one of the nine divisions of bhakti-yoga. In delineating systems of archana, the scriptures and saintly teachers prescribe mantras to be used, items to be offered, and so forth. The most opulent archana consists of sixty-four items; the most simple, five items.3 In every list, offering incense to Krishna is included. Incense is part of worship of the Lord and His representatives in the scriptures of many of the world’s traditions. For example, when Jesus was born, the wise men brought the child gifts of frankincense and myrrh.
The archana system prescribes offering incense to a picture or three-dimensional form of the Lord, generally placed on furniture set aside as an altar to create a sacred space. The deity’s form may be made of sand, clay, wood, or stone, may be contemplated within the mind, or may be made of jewels, metal, or painted colors. All the forms are of the same spiritual value.
Srila Prabhupada explains that such forms, although apparently made of matter, are fully Krishna when prepared and installed according to scripture:
These forms are called archa-murtis, or forms of the Lord which can be easily appreciated by the common man. The Lord is transcendental to our mundane senses. He cannot be seen with our present eyes, nor can He be heard with our present ears. To the degree that we have entered into the service of the Lord or to the proportion to which our lives are freed from sins, we can perceive the Lord. But even though we are not free from sins, the Lord is kind enough to allow us the facility of seeing Him in His archa-murtis in the temple. The Lord is all-powerful, and therefore He is able to accept our service by presentation of His archa form. No one, therefore, should foolishly think the archa in the temple to be an idol. Such anarcha-murti is not an idol but the Lord Himself, and to the proportion to which one is free from sins, he is able to know the significance of the archa-murti. (Bhag. 3.1.17, Purport)
Following traditional Vaishnava practice, Srila Prabhupada set the standard for ISKCON that only devotees who have received brahminical initiation (“second initiation”) can directly worship the deity on the temple altar. But anyone can perform simple worship at home. To offer incense to Krishna, hold the incense with the right hand and circle it clockwise while ringing a bell with the left hand and saying once, “Here is incense offered to You, Krishna.” (The Sanskrit is esha dhupah, followed by the mantra for the form of Krishna one is worshiping, such as klim k rishnaya namah.) According to the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, one should also offer a flower after offering incense.
We can also note that just as the form of Krishna can be within the mind, so incense can also be offered mentally. Even when offering incense physically, one’s mind should be absorbed in the activity—the offering should be done with body, mind, and words.
The bhakti-yogi focuses on the happiness of Krishna, taking pleasure in Krishna’s pleasure. After the incense is offered, we then enjoy—as prasadam, or Krishna’s mercy—the wonderful smell that fills our home or temple. In The Nectar of Devotion, Srila Prabhupada’s summary study of the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, Prabhupada writes in this connection:
In the Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya there is a statement about the incense which is offered in the temple: “When the devotees smell the good flavor of the incense which is offered to the Deity, they thus become cured of the poisonous effects of material contamination, as much as one becomes cured of a snakebite by smelling the prescribed medicinal herbs.” The explanation of this verse is that there is an herb found in the jungles which expert persons know how to use to revive the consciousness of one who is bitten by a snake. Simply by smelling that herb one becomes immediately relieved of the poisonous effects of the snakebite. The same example is applicable: when a person comes to visit the temple and smells the incense offered to the Deity, he is cured at that time from all his material contamination.
Any devotee coming into the temple should always offer something to the Deity—fruit, flowers, incense, etc. If one cannot offer anything in cash, something else must be offered. In India the system is that all the ladies and gentlemen who come in the morning to visit the temple bring so many things. Even one morsel of rice or one morsel of flour can be offered. It is a regulative principle that one should not go to see a saintly person or the Deity in the temple without any offering. The offering may be very humble, or it may be priceless. Even a flower, a little fruit, a little water—whatever is possible—must be offered. So when a devotee comes to offer something to the Deity in the morning, he is sure to smell the good flavor of the incense, and then at once he will become cleansed of the poisonous effect of material existence. (The Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 9)
Incense is intimately associated with the Hare Krishna movement. Perhaps that is because in ISKCON’s early history, devotees of Krishna maintained temples through a business called Spiritual Sky, which manufactured incense and scented oils. Or perhaps it is because today in every ISKCON center visitors often describe how the smell of incense, often mixed with the fragrance of pure ghee (clarified butter) used in cooking, created an immediate sense of a spiritual atmosphere.
One of my favorite times of the day is when I sit at my altar to give Krishna some simple articles like incense, flowers, and fruits. When I can put the best quality incense in front of Him, I feel both the room and my heart becoming purified and filled with satisfaction.
2. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.11.15: “In each and every door of the residential houses, auspicious things like yogurt, unbroken fruits, sugarchane, and full waterpots with articles for worship, incense, and candles were all displayed.
“PURPORT: The process of reception according to Vedic rites is not at all dry. The reception was made not simply by decorating the roads and streets as above mentioned, but by worshiping the Lord with requisite ingredients like incense, lamps, flowers, sweets, fruits, and other palatable eatables, according to one’s capacity.”
3. The five most basic ingredients for Deity worship are (1) very good scents, (2) very good flowers, (3) incense, (4) a lamp, and (5) something edible. (Cc. Madhya 24.334, Purport)