Sandalwood Dreams, Part 1: Myths and Legends

This is the first in a series of posts by Jordan River (of The Fragrant Man website) about the myths and legends of sandalwood, as well as day by day coverage of the 2013 Santalum album sandalwood harvest currently taking place in Australia.

Over the next few nights we will be having sandalwood dreams. Let’s see if these dreams eventually take us to a heightened reality.

Tonight we start with a legend found in the Pali canon, an Indian legend from the early centuries of the Common Era.

The Avadana of Purna

A man was carrying several small logs of wood balanced on his head; firewood for cooking. He was also shivering with cold as he journeyed home. As the day was hot Purna, who was walking by, felt compassion for this man and offered to buy his logs. A deal was struck and both parties happily carried on their way; the former log-carrier having lost his chill and his load and Purna feeling not just compassion but satisfaction at the bargain he had just struck. The cooling effects of a rare tree were known to him from working in his father’s warehouse which stored the goods his half-brothers brought back on their ships that sailed the seven seas in search of trade goods. His mother, who was his father’s servant had long passed on as had his Father and he was now in the awkward position of having been thrown out of the family business by his half-brothers who had disregarded their Father’s will by disinheriting him. Despite his careful accounting and reckoning of the family finances Purna left with a few coins which he has just spent on this cooling wood. Selling a small portion of the wood doubled the money left in his pocket.

The King of the realm of Surparaka, where this story is taking place, was ill with a fever. His physicians recommend a certain cooling wood but none was to be found in the royal treasury amongst the cedar, agarwood and ebony stacks. Enquiries by his ministers brought them to Purna who sold them a small portion of the wood for double what he paid for the original load. A paste is made from the wood and when this cooling ointment is applied to the King’s forehead he recovers his vitality. Realizing that a King should have this remarkable wood in his treasury he seeks out Purna to supply his treasury. Another sale and Purna is now rich with coin and the remainder of the stock. By adding a complimentary piece to the sale to the King he is rewarded with the King’s protection and now has a place to live within the city.

Around this time some merchants arrive in town and Purna, unaware of a current directive by city’s Import Guild, buys all of their goods. The Import Guild is incensed but the King intervenes and asks the guild to buy Purna’s purchases and then on-sell them to the King. This transaction makes Purna rich enough to embark on several trading voyages. His reputation attracts some merchants from Sravasti who accompany Purna on his 7th voyage. These men recite Buddhist texts during the sea voyage and when Purna inquires as to their origin they explain to him the words of Buddha. Highly influenced by these words Purna decides to make a pilgrimage to Sravasti to meet the author. In the Jeta forest Buddha lives in a perfumed chamber, the gandhakuti. Tomorrow we will find out more about this perfumed chamber. After that we will follow the current harvest of Santalum album sandalwood in Australia.

This tale is to highlight the value of sandalwood and also its deeper meaning in Asian cultures.

Avadana – An avadana is a story used to educate and inform Buddhist communities about life, values and the moral economy of karma. This story is from the Divyavadana which means Divine Stories or Heavenly Exploits. Purna was trained in the examination of elephants, horses, gems, wood, cloth and other articles of trade. His education enabled him to recognize value and profit from trade which in his case eventually led to an encounter with Buddha. This tale is found in both the Sanskrit and Pali canons of Buddhism.

Coinage and Accounting

  • Purna paid 500 karsapana coins for the logs from the shivering man
  • next he separated the wood into portions. One portion was ground into a powder and sold for 1000 karsapana coins
  • he then sold another portion to the King’s ministers for 1000 karsapana coin
  • he redivided the remaining pieces and took 4 pieces, now valued at 100,000 gold coins each, to the King. Sold 3, 4th is a gift. NB: These are now called gold coins rather than karsapana coins.
  • he made a 300,000 gold coin deposit on 1,800,000 gold coins worth of trade goods from the sea merchants
  • Purna then sold the goods for 3,600,000 gold coins to guild. Andy Rotman and James McHugh have advised me that 3,600,000 might just mean “a lot.”
  • Such is the legendary value of sandalwood.


Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture : James McHugh / Oxford University Press / Published: September 18, 2012

Divine Stories: Divyavadana, Part 1: Divyavadana v. 1 (Classics of Indian Buddhism) : Andy Rotman / Wisdom Publications / Published: February 8, 2013

The Glorious Deeds of Pūrṇa: A Translation and Study of the Pūrṇāvadāna :

Joel Tatelman / Motilal Banarsidass Publisher / Published: January 01, 2001

Jordan River’s Sandalwood Dreams continue tomorrow…

Sandalwood Dreams Series – by Jordan River


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