Śakra and the smelly seers

A new motif has cropped up during my survey of Indra/Śakra/Sakka’s characterization in Buddhist sources. In both the Saṃyutta Nikāya of the Pāli scriptures and the Mahāvastu we find the following exchange:

Śakra approaches some seers to pay them honour. They advise him not to stand downwind of them as they smell bad and the devas can’t cope with that. Śakra assures them that he is perfectly happy as the smell of seers is pleasing to him.

So I am now on the hunt for other references to the smelliness of seers and its offensiveness to the gods! If anybody knows of similar motifs elsewhere I would love to hear from them.



7 thoughts on “Śakra and the smelly seers

  1. Christian Ferstl

    Is the seers’ warning perhaps to be considered as a flowery phrase of modesty, a verbal prostration as it were? Munis, rishis and so on are usually described as shining bright and fragrant.

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      An intriguing idea – thank you. I have just come across James McHugh’s new book Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture (OUP 2012) so I am hoping that will give me some background. Though he does not seem to mention this motif, he does discuss more broadly the gods’ need for pure and good fragrances (and thus the need for humans to make fragrant offerings to them). I suppose the seers might be referring to the idea that gods are particularly sensitive when it comes to smell. But then quite why they call themselves smelly when they should be fragrant I am not sure. As you say, maybe it is false modesty of some sort.

  2. Warner Belanger

    I was going to suggest James’ book. Perhaps it has something to do with the trope of gods smelling bad right before they die?

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thanks – I hadn’t thought of that, and it could definitely be part of the picture. Though there is no suggestion of Śakra’s mortality in the motifs, merely his possible sensitivity…

  3. Roy Tzohar

    Thanks for this great blog! Regarding the foul smell of Risis, the episode of Vyasa’s union with Vicitravirya’s wives in the Mahabharata comes to mind, in which his horrifying appearance and foul smell play an important role . I do not have the exact reference but it will be easy to find.
    Roy Tzohar
    Tel Aviv University

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thanks for this suggestion Roy – and I am glad you are enjoying the blog. I will certainly check the reference to see what part smell plays there. Naomi


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