Webster’s dictionary defines incense simply as a word derived from the French encens, or encensen from the Latin incensus to cause (a passion or emotion) to become aroused.
1. Material used to produce a fragrant odor when burned.
2. The perfume exhaled form some spices and gums when burned; Broadly: a pleasing scent. It is all that and much more.The use of incense dates back to biblical times and may have originated in Egypt, where the gums and resins of aromatic trees were imported from the Arabian and Somali coasts to be used in religious ceremonies. It was also used by the Pharaohs, not only to counteract unpleasant odors, but also to drive away demons and gratify the presence of the gods, as they believed.
The Babylonians used incense extensively while offering prayers to divining oracles. In India, some 2000 years BCE, various writings mention ‘perfumers’ and ‘incense sellers’. Evidence suggests oils were used mainly for their aroma. Incense spread from there to Greece and Rome. It was imported into Ancient Israel in the 5th century BCE to be used in religious offerings.
Brought to Japan in the 6th century by Chinese Buddhist monks, who used the mystical aromas in their purification rites, the delicate scents of Koh (high-quality Japanese incense) became a source of amusement and entertainment with nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.
During the Shogunate period in the 14th century, samurai warriors would perfume their helmets and armor with incense to achieve a proud aura of invincibility as they prepared to meet their foe and their fate. But it wasn’t until the Muromachi Era during the 15th and 16th century that the elegant art of incense appreciation (Kōdō) spread to the upper and middle classes of Japanese society.
What the Japanese call Koh-Do, or incense appreciation, has long been the spiritual nourishment of Japanese culture. Fast becoming a popular custom in the United States and all over the world for those seeking quiet reflection and peace of mind, this elegant art not only creates a feeling of tranquility and an added dimension in gracious living but also opens up a new world of temporal and spiritual awareness.
Modern practitioners of this elegant art now use incense to enhance the ambiance of their homes or offices, to entertain guests, to celebrate special occasions, to relax the body and calm the mind after a trying day and to soothe tired nerves before retiring.
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History of Incense in India
The oldest source on incense is the Vedas, specifically, the Atharva-veda and the Rigveda. Incense-burning was used both to create pleasing aromas and a medicinal tool. It’s use in medicine is considered the first phase of Ayurveda, which uses incense as an approach to healing. Incense-making was thus almost exclusively done by monks.
The specific knowledge of incense as a healing tool was assimilated into the religious practices of the time – early Hinduism. As Hinduism matured and Buddhism was founded in India, incense became an integral part of Buddhism as well. Around 200 CE, a group of wandering Buddhist monks introduced incense-making to China.