Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture.

Author:Bailey, Greg
Position::Book review
 
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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...

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