Printer Friendly

Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture.

Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture. By James McHugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxii + 322. $35.

Apart from the important work of P. K. Gode, little of scholarly value has been produced about the subject of perfumery in India or for that matter about anything that may be regarded as the perceptible objects of the senses. (Though I note that a recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society [3rd Series, 23/1, January 2013] is a "Special Issue on Perfumery and Ritual in Asia," in which the present author has an article.) Focus has always been on the psychological bases of perception, the buddhindriyas, and their means of perceiving, the karmendriyas, rather than on the objects of what is to be perceived. Yet in Indian culture the latter are certainly as important as the former, and are explored comprehensively in narrative literature and belle-lettres. While there have been many minor investigations of realia in a range of areas, McHugh's book is, to my knowledge, the first that chooses one specific area and investigates it in as comprehensive manner as possible.

The book is divided into five sections, themselves further subdivided into separate chapters, each composed of many sub-sections, a feature that sometimes gives the book an appearance of being many separate essays, though it does hang together as a whole. The first section is called "Smells in Theory" and looks at early Buddhist and Jain texts and the Mahabharata, with allusions to Samkhya, as to the way smells are classified amongst the sense objects and how the nose is classified amongst the organs of the senses. It contains a very useful summary of the ordering of the senses (pp. 46ff), pointing out that for the Jains and the Nyaya-Vaisesikas "the senses are ordered according to the sensory 'richness' of their respective concerns: Sensed object and sensed subject respectively." Whereas "For the Buddhists, the classificatory principle is most probably based on an analysis of the nature of perception ..." (p. 47). This reflects the bias of epistemological concerns and is a long way from the more smell-object-based focus of later medieval texts not easily identified as being religious.

Part two is called "Smells in the World" and deals with literary representations of how smells and odors were actually experienced by human agents. This necessitates judgements as to the quality of the smells, based on a range of terrible to sublime, but with many subtle variations between these extremes. McHugh realizes these are not necessarily the constituents of a real smellscape: "These odors are not a given smellscape, but an idealized, conventional, respectable, and rather conservative smellscape" (p. 63). The same chapter includes sections of how smells are described in Sanskrit literature, noting that usually their source--often a plant or an animal in various stages of decomposure--is discussed and its smell is given as something familiar--the earth or a fish, outside of the smelling substance itself. Examples are given from the Arthasastra and the Carakasamhita, and this is followed by a more extended discussion (pp. 67ff.) of constant smell referents such as earth, the lotus flower, and the smell of "seized" sick infants in the Susrutasamhita.

In the fourth chapter he looks at two famous scenes from the Mahabharata, showing the responses of certain characters to particular smells. He deals with the smell of flowers and fish, first focusing on a passage from the Aranyakaparvan where Bhlma travels to the Saugandhika forest on Mt Gandhamadana, and a breeze brings a strong fragrance of the golden water-lily, within which Bhlma luxuriates (p. 96). The second section focuses on the scene where Satyavatl stands near the Yamuna smelling of fish and on King Vasu's reaction to this. McHugh's purpose here is to present texts depicting how smells are experienced in practice and the implications of this. He draws the insightful conclusion (p. 101) "The result of an act of smelling is thus spatial: smellers subsequently move toward or away from the odor, as well as relational: smellers are not just interested in the subjective experience of the odor, but are in some manner concerned with the source of that odor."

Part three, called "Smells in Practice," summarizes the body of texts in Sanskrit and Prakrit on perfumery, most of them dating after 1000 C.E., with the earliest being Varahamihira's Brhatsamhita (6th C. C.E.). He summarizes the contents of these texts without studying them in great detail. A very useful part of this chapter is a brief survey of lost texts on perfumery, supplemented by an appendix giving further enumeration of texts on perfume blending (pp. 121 ff.). He also shows how slesa and riddling are utilized in these texts and then treats of other literary features, demonstrating the learning of the authors in poetics. Chap. 6 deals with perfumes and focuses on perfumery, the materials from which perfumes are made, followed by a lengthy section on the purpose of perfumery as explained in the classical texts on the subject. Detailed knowledge of perfumes was especially important for the nagarika (or vidagdha), the man who is a connoisseur of kama, pointing to an important sub-text of this book, a new understanding it gives us of the nagarika in the specific sense of the manner he might prepare his body, and a definite sign that the connoisseur of perfumes is male (p. 151). Two texts in particular, the Haramekhala and the Nagarasarvasva, deal with this in considerable detail and are certainly worthy of more study in this regard.

Part four (chaps. 7-8) deals with the more pragmatic aspects of perfumery, pointing out that the literary sources regarded the place from where perfumes were obtained as having a strong exotic ambience, a quality surely adding to the mystery surrounding the whole subject of perfumes. But the origin of the perfumes also tells us about marginal and regional groups, showing us how they were theorized in the texts. On p. 167 he writes, "This literary use of aromatics and other, often luxury, commodities to convey regional character was also consciously theorized in one text.... Indeed it is by the material nature of their world--the products of their land, their clothes and eating habits--and not in terms of their beliefs or social organization that many marginal groups are primarily characterized, and interaction with these groups is often represented in the form of material exchanges." In chap. 8 McHugh summarizes what the sources say about merchants and traders in perfumes, their networks and the requirement for them to receive an education in methods of evaluating perfumes, where similarities with the evaluations of precious stones are apparent.

The fifth and final part uses the collection, use, and definition of sandalwood as a case study of perhaps the most important aromatic found in Sanskrit literature. He primarily uses Buddhist avadana sources, notably the story of Purna who trades in sandalwood for the benefit of the Buddhist order. Sandalwood objects seem particularly important in Buddhism as objects of prestige and occur often in the texts; yet in spite of this there is still difficulty in defining sandalwood in either Sanskrit or English. On p. 213 he writes "... sandalwood was represented in texts as a sculpture material that was used almost exclusively to 'frame' the bodies of special persons in early South Asia.... Indeed, in the Sanskrit language when placed at the end of a compound the word candana could imply that a certain thing was 'most excellent of its kind.'... Likewise, certain qualities of sandalwood--its color, fragrance and coolness--made it an ideal precious material to associate with the bodies of enlightened persons." Thus having a status beyond its intrinsic quality, or its intrinsic quality being defined by its associated with prominent holy figures. The final chapter (9) of the book looks extensively at the widespread use of flowers in the worshiping of the gods, the fragrances associated with these in particular rituals, and the textual authority for these.

No doubt specialists (are there any?) will find problems with certain details of this book, but its overall contribution is the massive stimulus it gives to the detailed study of the objects of the senses as they constitute both intellectual discourses (see pp. 62-63 for intelligent reservations here) and real world realia. If there is a problem it is that our sources do not enable us to go beyond a high literary realm, such that, as usual, the majority of the population who were unlettered evade our scrutiny (see his useful reservations expressed on p. 116). Yet this book will force us to explore new subjects of knowledge that can be located in high culture literary sources, which have as yet scarcely been plumbed by scholars.

A few minute points of dissent. The translations from the Mahabharata (pp. 97-100) are rather stilted; yet such literalness may be justified, given that they are being used for close analytical readings. On p. 121 could not "is produced from evil" (papasam jananam) equally be translated as "is productive of evil"? On p. 164 for the translation "Like days with rain clouds their quintessence is many dense clouds," I would rather have "As on days filled with rain clouds, whose quintessence is many dense clouds." But these are minor quibbles, as are the few misprints I have found throughout the book.

It is not insignificant that McHugh sees the subject of perfumery as being tied up with a "mingling of literary, olfactory, and religious culture, such that the world of perfume making, perfume use, and perfume texts is far more complex than one might expect" (p. 131). Yet again this mirrors the high hermeneutical value given to religion even in areas where one might expect it to be of marginal value, though clearly in the case of religious practice it is not marginal. Is it possible to read South Asian material culture presented through texts outside of the prism of religion? McHugh does not address this question, but his book skillfully navigates the extent to which religious requirements influence an understanding of what might elsewhere be regarded as standing outside of the religious sphere.

In concluding his book the author is modest enough to write that "this study should be considered a mere prelude to the writing of a larger history of smells and aromatics in South Asia" (p. 247). Whilst it does have some of the features of a prelude, I would prefer to describe it as an Einleitung, because of the greater depth of scholarship within that genre display. What McHugh has done is to give us a survey of the treatment of smells, the objects from which they come, the different perceptions of these smells, the mode of their production and distribution and the social status of those who took them seriously in daily life and in ritual contexts, and their exotic status. Methodologically it means interpreting texts where smells and fragrances occur in use as described narratively, in analyzing lists of synonyms and names of smells in kos'as, and in exploring some of the literature in Sanskrit and Prakrit produced in the medieval period. But it is also clear he has done considerable amount of field-work with producers and sellers of perfumes and aromatics. He has produced a model for other like-minded works on realia. Highly recommended.


COPYRIGHT 2015 American Oriental Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bailey, Greg
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:Celestial divination in Esarhaddon's Assur a inscription.
Next Article:Sources of Tibetan Tradition.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters