The Classification of Smells and the Order of the Senses in Indian Religious Traditions

In: Numen


In the course of producing complex analyses of sensory experience, traditional Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scholars in South Asia examined the nature of smell. These scholars were most often interested in the fundamental qualities of smells, i.e. how many types of odor there are. Faced with this difficult task, the three sectarian groups initially produced three different accounts, though in later works most scholars adopted very similar classifications of smell. In part, this may be because of the difficulties involved in classifying smells, but the article also suggests that it was mutually beneficial to abandon contentious material in less significant parts of a system in order to focus discussion on more central issues. Amongst all the sense-objects, odors were most consistently defined by terms implying an aesthetic value. The article also examines the place of the sense of smell within the three different orders of the senses that these three schools of thought used. These sense-orders reflect divergent classificatory principles, and the place of smell in relation to the other senses highlights different aspects of the sense of smell. Unlike their stance on the classification of odors, the three schools of thought always maintained distinct orders of the senses, which must have been a regular reminder of difference in philosophical priorities.

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