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The use of marijuana in the Hindu tradition

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Cannabis in India has a tradition of consumption that is historically documented since the 19th century BCE, that is, for four thousand years. Marijuana in India is used recreationally, medicinally and also religiously, something that is unique in the world (not counting the Rastafarian tradition, of course).

In Indian society, common terms for cannabis preparations include “charas” (resin), “ganja” (inflorescences) and “bhang” (seeds and leaves), and marijuana-based drinks, such as the famous “bhang lassi” and “bhang thandai”.

Hemp has long enjoyed a ritual role in India8 and perhaps it is this plant that the Atharva Veda mentions as a sacred intoxicant, created together with the amrita or potion of soma (another unknown plant) when the gods and demons beat the ocean of milk to extract all kinds of goods.

Hemp preparations sometimes called viyaia (‘victory’, in Sanskrit) are especially sacred to the god Shivá and come in three forms: bhang, a preparation of the leaves used in drinks such as “bhang lassi”, which are taken by Shivaite devotees before visiting important temples, the “gañya” (or flower buds) and the “charas” (pure resin). The latter two are usually smoked in a chillum or straight pipe that is held vertically.

In Haryana (India), Cannabis sativa leaves are taken orally with honey to combat coughs, while in Nepal the juice of Cannabis sativa leaves is used to heal sores and wounds.

Although bhanga is mentioned in various Indian texts from before the 20th century BCE, there is some debate among Sanskrit scholars as to whether this bhanga can be identified with modern cannabis bhang.

Cannabis sativa has been proposed to be the plant from which soma, a ritual drink mentioned in texts from the Vedic period, was made. Soma is described with “intoxicating effects” and appears in the Ṛig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas of Hinduism (written between 1500 and 1200 BCE).

The Atharva Veda (1500-1000 BCE) mentions bhanga as one of the five sacred plants that relieve anxiety. Sayana interpreted bhanga as a type of wild herb, but many scholars identify bhanga with cannabis.

The verse says:

पञ्च राज्यानि वीरुधां सोमश्रेष्ठानि ब्रूमः।
To the five kingdoms of plants that Soma rules as Lord, we turn;
दर्भो भङ्गो यवः सह ते नो मुञ्चन्त्व् अंहसः॥
darbha, hemp, barley, saha – release us from distress.

(Atharva Veda 11.6.15)

Another text, called Sushruta Samhita (c. 600 BC) again mentions bhanga as a medicinal plant, and recommends it to treat colds, phlegm and diarrhea.

According to Gerrit Jan Meulenbeld and Dominik Wujastyk, Chikitsa-sara-sangraha (late 11th century) by an author named Vangasena is the oldest extant Indian text featuring an indisputable mention of cannabis.

He mentions bhanga as an aperitif and digestive, and suggests it in two recipes for a long and happy life.

Narayan Sarma’s Dhanvantariya Nighantu, a contemporary text, mentions a narcotic effect of the plant.6 Nagarjuna’s Yogaratnamala (12th-13th centuries) suggests that cannabis smoke (mdtuldni) can be used to make enemies feel possessed by spirits.

The Sharngadhara Samhita (13th century) also gives medicinal uses to cannabis, and together with ahiphena (poppy), mentions it as one of the fastest acting drugs in the body.

Cannabis is also mentioned in other historical writings such as Dhanvantari Nighantu, Sarngandhara Samhita, and Kayyadeva Nighantu. It is also mentioned in Ayurveda as an ingredient in various recipes for pain relievers and aphrodisiacs in small amounts.

It is observed that prolonged consumption or in large quantities can be addictive and that it is more dangerous than tobacco for the lungs and liver. However, Ayurveda does not use cannabis for recipes related to smoking the substance.

Typical Hindu scene, with a man holding a “chilum”, the vertical pipe to smoke the sacred substance

It is said that the Hindu god Shiva chose cannabis as his favorite food, after spending a night sleeping under the leaves of the plant and eating it in the morning refreshed him.

Another legend suggests that when the Halahala poison came out of the Samudra manthan, Shiva drank it to protect everyone from.
Shiva Purana suggests offering bhang to Shiva during the summer months.

But not all devotees offer bhang to Shiva.

Did you know these uses of marijuana in Hinduism?
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