Almost all religions and spiritual schools use incense in one form or other. Fragrant sticks, flowers, spices, perfumes and various other methods have been used for thousands of years in ritual worship and meditation sanctuaries. What role incense plays in spirituality and religion?
When I was growing up and came to study the theory of evolution-I wondered why we dislike some scents and like others. For example–why smell of a rose is pleasant and that of H2S so unpleasant. Hydrogen Sulphide is released from our guts along with excretion–similarly we don’t like Methane which is released from marshes. Gradually I came to understand that pleasant smells suggest that we can stay at those places and the air will not harm our organisms whereas unpleasant smells suggest that air would be detrimental for our respiratory system as well as bloodstream. I still don’t know what ingredients a rose contains which are beneficial for us but rose-water is used for eyes and for other purposes so it’s safe to assume that it’s indeed a fact that in this case pleasant smell is suggestive of good stimuli. There might be many exceptions to this and it is a general rule. For example–there are some dangerous trapping plants in the wild(I neither remember nor have time to look them up right now but I have read about them) which give wonderful effervescence. Another exception is allergic organisms. Allergy is still a mystery for medical science at large so we should leave it at that. Even most pleasant smells can trigger off allergies for some people.
Now, does meditation and religious ritual worship utilize this knowledge? Not directly. Our organisms have evolved in a way that unpleasant smells trigger bad moods. Some of them are apparent but others aren’t so obvious. There are subtle gradations of which we aren’t aware. Our senses flood our brains with infinite perceptions every second but only infinitesimal portions is brought into our conscious attention. There are plenty of scents which are mildly unpleasant but not alarmingly repelling. They trigger our moods sometimes without making us run away from those places. What incense does is–to carefully trigger positive moods. The aromas used in meditation sanctuaries and ritual worships are carefully chosen to trigger positive states of mind. It might not work for everyone and different people might like different scents(obviously!) but majority of mankind reacts positively to these scents.
Burning incense is a way of copying natural meditative states in ritual form. Beginners in meditation don’t have experience of divine fragrances or visions. Masters created some rules to give proper conditioning to trigger higher awareness. In deep meditation–wonderful visions, lights, smells and sounds are experienced–so ritual worship and meditation sanctuaries try to enact it using bells, conches, incense, fire, candles and sandal wood etc. When deep meditative states are reached external conditioning doesn’t matter that much but for most of us it is important to create an environment which is conducive to meditation at first and incense does play a positive role in doing so. That is why it has been part of the ritual worship since many thousand years though most of us don’t know about it. Use incense in your meditation sanctuary and it will positively alter your meditation experience. Happy Valentine’s Day!