Monday, May 14, 2007

Incense burning

Many spiritual traditions include the ritual burning of incense, but their reasons are many and varied. Below are excerpts from various internet sources outlining the beliefs from many cultures. When you see ~M~, that indicates a comment written by me.

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans

In the ceremonies of [pre-Christian religion] incense had an important part. Its use is mentioned by Ovid and Virgil as a feature of the rites of Roman worship, being probably adopted from the Eastern nations with whom the Romans had come into contact. Among these, especially the Assyrians and Egyptians, it has been known almost from the dawn of history. The carvings of the tombs and temples of Egypt represent kings offering homage to the gods by burning incense in censers much like those used in our Catholic churches at the present day.

The religion of ancient Egypt used incense frequently during temple worship, and when the idol would be moved in procession. In pagan Rome, incense was also used at funerals.

[The use of incense by ancient Mediterranean peoples appears to have been an offering, a purification rite, or both. ~M~]

Baha'i, Buddhist, Gnostic, Hindu

Excerpts from "Wisps of Worship" By Saurabh Bhattacharya

Fragrance has been a dominant factor in Hindu religious rituals since Vedic times. "The essential philosophy of havan (fire ceremony)," says Brahmaprakash, a teacher in Srimad Dayanand Ved Vidyalaya, a gurukul in Delhi, India, "is that man can absorb anything in minuscule form. Havan purifies the atmosphere by releasing fragrant properties of samidha—wood—and samagri—powder of fragrant wood, mixed with aromatic medicinal herbs and ghee. Incense sticks and dhoop are corrupt versions of the havan fire."

The term dhoop, according to Brahmaprakash, originates from the dhoop tree, found in eastern India—whose chips give out a rich fragrance when burnt. But the popular dhoop—black-colored putty—is essentially a mixture of ghee, herbs and wood chips. It is, in effect, a miniature form of havan.

The relation between incense and havan fire is qualified by Ameeta Mehra of the Gnostic Center, India, thus: "Incense purifies the atmosphere like havan fire. But it works through the power of fragrance which is not so much the mainstay of Vedic ritual as the domain of flowers that have deep spiritual connotations in Hindu philosophy." Incense brands are often named after flowers.

"Incense sticks," says Mehra, "are made by extracting the perfume of sacred wood and flowers. Their aim is to make the atmosphere congenial for spiritual contemplation."

"When I light an incense stick and offer it to God," states Mehra. "I symbolize my aspiration to burn with that fire and fragrance. I am, in effect, offering my Self to the Divine."

Incense is considered an excellent ally to meditation. The archetypal image of a meditating sadhu has a bunch of incense sticks burning near him. As Michael Talbot writes in his book Your Past Lives: "Perhaps one of the most ancient techniques for creating a meditative atmosphere is the burning of incense... For many, a gentle and pleasant fragrance is as lulling a 'backdrop' to meditation as soft music."

Explains Brahmaprakash: "Because fragrance purifies the physical environment, the individual feels that, as part of the environment, he is also being purified. Psychologically, he reads a basic physical purification as a spiritual one. In the process, the person transfers himself into another world where meditation is easier."

However, Dr A.K. Merchant, a Baha'i, feels that burning incense has stronger spiritual undertones. "Humans love aroma," he says. "You burn the incense you like before the deity. By doing so, you express the urge to share your likes with your god. At the same time, you contribute a little bit of your individuality to a place of worship."

None of the extant religions give as much emphasis to the use of incense as Tibetan Buddhism where it has transcended mere ritualistic fumigation and gained a respectable medicinal status. "Tibetan Buddhism considers spirits as ethereal neighbors who are there for your benefit," says Dr T. Dolkar Khangkar, a Delhi-based Tibetan medicine practitioner in India. "Hence, incense sticks are the means to keep a good relation with them."

Incense was unknown in early Buddhism, which was opposed to external ritual. But, in time, its use became more general. To quote from the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics:

"It is used in the initiation of a monk; it is offered to the good spirits and lamas in the daily cult of the monasteries; it is used in exorcisms, in baptisms, and other ceremonies; it is burned in censers before the lamas at the performance of religious dramas, or in shrines."

Christian and Jewish

The mystical meaning of incense is not difficult to comprehend. By its burning it symbolizes the zeal with which the faithful should be animated; by its sweet fragrance, the odor of Christian virtue; by its rising smoke, the ascent of prayer before the throne of the Almighty. As St. John tells us in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelations: "The smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended before God from the hand of the Angel."

[Also, incense creates a cloud. A cloud is a symbol for God the Father. For example at the Transfiguration, Matt. 17:5, a cloud appears and from it comes the Voice of God. In Acts 1:8 Jesus enters a cloud. Also in Exodus, the people are lead by a pillar of cloud, Exod. 13:22; and in Exodus 40:34 the cloud settled on the meeting tent and the glory of the Lord filled it. Thus the cloud of incense should remind us of God whose presence is revealed by a cloud.]

Exod. 30:7-8. "Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations."

Exod. 30:34 -37. "The LORD said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the LORD."

Daoist, Shinto

"... burning incense in Asia is comparable to a Catholic lighting a vigil candle in the West. It is always a prayer or offering to the divine."

[However, in some places, burning incense also represents purification. ~M~]


For example, there is the use of light to signify consciousness, the characteristic of the soul, and Enlightenment; a fruit symbolises the ultimate fruit of Moksha itself; burning incense signifies the burning away of Karma.


Incense According to Quran and Sunnah

Keeping the Mosques Clean and Scenting Them

Fiqh-us-Sunnah 5.132

Aishah said, "Perfume the Ka'bah, because this is a part of purifying it." Ibn Az-Zubair used to perfume the entire interior of the Ka'bah. He used to burn one pound of incense in the Ka'bah daily, but on Friday, he burnt two pounds of incense.

Fiqh-us-Sunnah 2.71

'Aishah reports that the Prophet ordered that mosques be built in residential areas and that they be cleaned and perfumed. This is related by Ahmad, Abu Dawud, at-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, and Ibn Hibban with a good chain. Abu Dawud's wording is: "He ordered us to build the mosques in the residential areas, to build them well, and to purify them. 'Abdullah would burn incense when 'Umar would sit on the pulpit."

Anas reports that the Prophet said: "The rewards of my ummah were placed before me, even for removing a speck of dust from the mosque." This is related by Abu Dawud, at-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Khuzaimah who calls it sahih.

Native American

Many, but not all, Native American Tribes use Smudge (which is from a Middle English word meaning "smokey") instead of traditional incense sticks, cones, or powders. No doubt you have seen batches of braided grasses, often Sweetgrass or Sage. Smudge is what the batches of braided grasses are called, and it also means "to spread or "bathe" with smoke." In Native American spiritual traditions, smudging was done for personal and ceremonial purification, and to make dwellings sweet-smelling. ~M~


Although many Pagan traditions associtate specific botanical materials with certain magical attributes, those definitions vary widely from one tradition to another. Generally speaking, Neopagans and Wiccans use incense for two basic purposes in modern rituals. First, incense is believed to create a magical atmosphere that is appropriate for the invocation (or inviting) of deities and spirits often present around the Pagan altar. Second, burning the incense is believed to release the large amount of energy stored within natural incense so that it can be used for magical purposes.


What are the objects of Zoroastrian rituals and ceremonies?

The first object of Zoroastrian rituals and ceremonies is to purify atmosphere with fire burning with incense, the second is to secure blessings of divine spirits, and the third is to express gratitude to Ahura Mazda for the seasonal bounties bestowed upon mankind.

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