UPDATE: This piece was published in slightly modified form in the 15 July 2012 issue of Sunday Manila Standard-Today.
My late father was into yoga in the 1970s, during the hippie age here and abroad. He said he even helped the first Krishna devotees set up in Manila, having met their founder guru (an American man) at the airport, and befriended him. He helped find an apartment for the group. One thing he could not forget was how the guru insisted on glass or ceramic things for drinking and eating, never plastic, which he said were unclean. Or couldn’t be cleaned properly. Or something like that.
In any case, that meeting heralded the start of my father’s interest in Eastern religions and rituals. He would sit cross-legged with eyes closed, at night, in the dark, in the living room, with only an incense stick burning, as my sister and I tiptoed hush hush around him, wondering if he had fallen asleep sitting up. Later he said he was “meditating.” We wondered if that was another word for “napping uncomfortably in places other than the bedroom.”
He continued his vegetarianism (begun when he was an adolescent and a Seventh-Day Adventist), and avoided over-processed food - no white sugar, brown sugar and honey were his preferred sweeteners; brown rice instead of white; wheat bread instead of Tasty; cottage cheese instead of cheddar from the supermarket.
He took us with him to eat at the now-defunct Gandharva restaurant in Manila, which smelled more of incense than food. It was a self-service cafeteria where one took trays to a counter, piled them with curries and rotis, and took them to eat at tables besides walls hand-painted from ceiling to floor with colorful murals of Krishna and Arjuna and Radha. We always wondered why Krishna’s skin was a striking deep blue.
He burned incense nearly every night that he was home during the yoga years.
So when I saw these incense sticks and incense case at Scent for Senses in Megamall last week, I made sure to take them home. The incense box is studded with inlaid brass stars and has a carved fretwork lid and sides, which allows the scent of incense placed inside to waft gently into the room, even when the incense is unburned.
Rose incense smells of the flower; clove and myrrh remind me of the scents my father used to burn, the names of which we did not know. I do remember he also had sampaguita and sandalwood sticks.
A compartment beneath the box is for storage.
In Hinduism, as in other religions that use incense in their rituals, the burning of incense is used during worship as a vehicle for prayer to reach the gods. The fragrance reminds worshippers of the positive attributes of the deities that they must imitate. One of my father’s friends named me after the Hindu goddess of peace - Shanti Devi. I have been trying to live up to the name ever since; not succeeding all the time, but getting better at it.
Sometimes peace doesn’t come easy. Sometimes you have to work at it by examining your life and consciously making decisions to eliminate causes of stress, and finding whatever you enjoy that puts you in a more relaxed state of mind. Let it all flow from there.
These nights, as the scent of roses wafts up from my incense box, I remember my father, who is at peace. And I am grateful I have reached a point where I have that in my own life as well, where serenity and calm are as fragrances to my nostrils.
As they say at the end of the Upanishads – “Om shanti shanti shanti.” Peace peace peace.