Apr 2, 2012
Thirty or more years ago on a Toronto sidewalk I ran into a group of young men in saffron robes with shaven heads, a small tail of hair, and clay markings between the eyes, dancing with bells and drums, inviting strangers to their cause. I had never seen them before and was curious about them. Years later, back in South Africa, I ran into another friendly group of Hare Krishnas on a Claremont main road. I watched them for a while, paid for a little book and visited their temple in Rondebosch for the Sunday afternoon program. The temple, a double storied house with two floors, the ground level of which was used on a Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon for sermons and initiations, housed the devotees, young men and women from different countries and religious and cultural backgrounds.
I was surprised to see so many young people, from different faiths and walks of life, in either white or saffron dhotis, eager to belong to a group they were clearly respectful of and curious to know more about. The drums and tambourines sounded and the hypnotic strains of the Hare Krishna Hare Rama chant started up. People took up their places on the floor, some of them sitting on cushions. After a few brief words by one of the leaders, the initiation of a young man, Daniel started. There was a little sermon. Daniel took his vows, threw a handful of rice into a fire which was burning right in the room on a board wrapped with foil wrap, and fully prostrated himself face down on the floor. He was bowing to Krishna.
I found myself caught up with the drums and the tambourines and the dancing and chanting. The meals were vegetarian, free and good. I got to know all of the devotees. I was fascinated by them. They offered something different; they were happy to spend their time serving God. I was busy making documentaries then and filmed an initiation of a young devotee, for a television program. I interviewed the Hare Krishnas on radio. I wrote about them for the One City, Many Cultures campaign that was running in Cape Town at the time. As a Muslim, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and felt good.
I started to believe that day that it does not matter what faith you embrace, you can always appreciate the beauty of someone elses. I found the Hare Krishnas to be caring, hardworking human beings devoted to God, and I went back many times. I felt I knew why so many young people from other faiths enjoyed the Hare Krishna experience. It was the attractiveness of the chant, the instruments, the eager faces willing to learn, the dancing together as families, the colorful saris and colorful ceremonies and the mesmerizing beat of the drums. I did not feel spoken to or preached to; I just had a really wonderful time. And my heart opened up to God. Unusual, I thought that it should be in a temple. The experience was a wonderful one and I realized that if we put ritual aside, we all want the same thing; to know God and please Him and to be close to Him. I was enriched by the experience. I did not change my faith and no one asked me to. The experience made me want to know more about other faiths.
Many of us take smell for granted, and don’t realize how much we live in a visual world and let our sense of smell go to seed. Being able to smell should not be taken for granted and smell should be physically activated so as not to let go altogether of it and just be used to mundane smells. We should start smelling. Why? In short, to maintain good brain function. How? By activating the olfactory bulb, which is the old part of the brain. Have you ever paused to smell nature- water – animal dung – plants – the smell of fresh honey? If the brain is not used or constantly worked, a part of the brain atrophies. Activating the brain by truly indulging in the art of smelling allows the brain to produce more neurons. Neurons and synapses is what the brain needs. Go into the woods and smell the wetness of the land. Smell the earth. Smell the sun beaten daisies between the rocks. These would all be new smells to you.
The function of the brain
There are two places in the brain where neurons can be manufactured; the hippocampus and the olfactory system. The olfactory is the most important as it can produce neurons to all parts of the brain, which can repair damaged brain cells. This is indeed good news for Parkinson’s and all neuro degenerative disease – for example, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, Dementia, Muscular Dystrophy. The upshot of all this is that you can repair the damaged neurons. Tests have shown that there can be plaque in the brain and that these neurons can attend to the damage or even repair it. It is important therefore to keep on with the activation of smell in order to maintain steady function. Once you are able to do this you should regularly exercise the brain and the ability to smell, and smell differently than before. However, the olfactory bulb also needs special brain food. The best food for the olfactory bulb is fish – as well as super brain foods such as nuts and seeds and vegetables and fruit.
Activating the sense of smell
You can start in your own kitchen by making a physical effort to smell what you already have, such as beans, cheese, and your olfactory bulb will take you to the keenness of smell that you will at some point even be able to smell land, or to smell raw egg and water. We as unconscious humans don’t really think water has a smell, but it does have. What is more, the olfactory bulb likes its ability to smell and should be exercised like any other part of the body we pay attention to. We are using our eyes and ears more than we are using the much more important sense of smell for the brain. Test it for yourself. Go outside now and see if you can differentiate between the smells of the different flowers in your garden simply by bending down, closing your eyes, and smelling. The discovery of adult neurogenesis has changed our view of the mature brain. This is important knowledge for all of us especially those affected with some kind of brain disease.