Hallucinogens in India: the Forgotten Spiritual and Religious Dimensions
Dr. Stephen Fulder
The social discourse on cannabis in the western world today is generally locked in to 2 areas. One is its illegality and possible toxicity, along with the popular use of cannabis as a recreational drug. The second is the science based potential of cannabis as a basis for pharmacologically active ingredients. But in traditional Indian society the discourse is quite different. Cannabis, and similar hallucinogens, are seen as important ritual and religious aids. They are also healing plants. To some extent this was echoed in Western society in the 1960’s when some pioneers used cannabis and similar herbal hallucinogens as agents of inner exploration. This perspective was lost after the end of the 1960’s. The purpose of this article is to offer some reminders of how this ritual use of herbal hallucinogens is experienced within the society itself, in this case India.
The main preparation used for smoking in India is known as ganja. It is the dried and pressed leaves and flowering tops of female plants which have not had the resin removed. The lower branches are removed during cultivation to encourage growth of the top branches and flowering tops. Charas is a more concentrated preparation consisting of the resin collected from the flowering tops by rubbing or touching them, and is also smoked. The fresh or dried leaves are often prepared and taken in the form of drinks or sweets, known as bhang.
Fresh leaves are used to treat piles. The leaves when roasted and unripe fruits are commonly used to aid sleep. The main traditional medicinal use in India seems to be as a mild sedative in restlessness, hysteria, emotional stress, and as a pain reliever, for example of migraine headaches.
The Indian government has made the trafficking and sale of cannabis illegal, but in no way restricts its use for cultural and religious purposes. The tolerance dates back to the government’s Hemp Commission, of more than 100 years ago, which made a thorough study of cannabis use in Indian society and came to the conclusion that there were no noticeable harmful effects in moderate consumption. Today the plant is grown and used openly in temples and spiritual centres. Bhang is widely consumed in festivals, even by children. Traditional Indian families might go down to the river, take bhang together, and there practice rituals for the festival or sing sacred ballads. However the most intense use is by saddhus and wandering renunciates. Here ganja or charas is smoked, often around the sacred fire, in groups. Before the ganja is smoked, the Gods, such as Shiva are invoked. Often with a shout. Afterwards there may be repetitive chanting of mantras or texts, there may be music, meditation, silence, discussions etc.
It is usual to consider hallucinogens as forms of escape. In the West we are used to a popular cannabis use, which is to ‘chill out’, laugh, eat and have a good time. This is not only today. The historian Herotodus mentioned 2000 years ago that the Scythians used to burn hemp seeds in their tent and inhaling the smoke, emit howls of glee! “The intoxication from cannabis use exhibits high variability but is characterized usually by an early onset of a dreamy state with con fusion of thoughts, euphoric exaltation, and extreme happiness often alternating with abnormal depression. Visual and auditory hallucinations are common”, writes the famous ethnobotanist Schultes.
However its religious use is something else entirely. Here cannabis is not used for recreation but for transformation. The preparation, dedication, and intention create another order of experience. Here the drug is used as a doorway to realization, a window to insight. In this spiritual use hallucinogens are not actually hallucinogens. They are the opposite. Instead of inducing a dream as escape from reality, they help to wake up from reality which is itself a dream. If we cannot see anything else apart from the consensus reality, the material world of things and boundaries, we are captivated by the enchantment of Maya, illusion. Cannabis, and spiritual practices help us to break the spell. For example, the saddhus shout Bhola! as a dedication to Shiva. This name of Shiva is as the God of forgetfulness. Shiva can help to forget the conditioning that makes us convinced that the apparent world is all there is. The sacredness of cannabis is due to its power to free the taker from his prison of the limited world of descriptions, and open channels to the unknown. Why does this not happen in the streets of London, New York and Tel Aviv? Actually it probably does in a small way. Perhaps part of the pleasure in cannabis use is to relaxation of boundaries. But consciousness is a mirror of the world. Hallucinogens which expand consciousness are crucially dependent on the set, setting and environment in which they are taken. It may well be that the cannabis induced spiritual journeys of the saddhus are hardly possible unless you are living a saddhus life.
In vedic mythology, in the ancient sacred text the Rig Veda, Soma is deified as the plant of the Gods. It is described in over 1000 adoring hymns or poems. The plant itself was worshipped and until today the word implies divine bliss. The nature of the plant is a mystery. However a strong case has been made that it is the Amanita muscaria red mushroom a hallucinogenic mushroom used in religious ceremonies especially in central Asia. However this has been disputed by other authors and cannabis proposed as much more likely.
Other hallucinogens are known and occasionally used in India. The main ones are opium,(Papaver somniferum), datura, (Datura stramonium), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). However none of them have significance as a religious icon. Opium is regarded as too sedative, and the others too toxic and intoxicating.
Interestingly, the Indian perspective on cannabis is opposite to the Chinese view. As the earliest legendary pharmacopoeia of Chinese medicine (Sheng Nung’s Pen-tsao Ching) records, “if taken for a long time, it helps one communicate with spirits and lighten the body”. The pharmacopoeia notes that it is used to jump into the future for purposes of divination. Unlike India, cannabis use in China went into decline and gave way to opium. While cannabis tends to create active hallucinations, excitation, creativity, opium is more of a sedative, creating pleasant and passive hallucinations and feelings of well-being, which is more compatible with the Chinese ordered sense of culture, the emphasis on family life, social organisation and restraint. India is a wilder place.
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 Schultes, R.E. Hallucinogens of plant origin. Science 163 245-254 (1969)
 Wasson, R.G. Soma: divine mushroom of immortality. Harcourt Brace & World, New York (1970)
 Swamy, B.G.L. Sources for a history of plant sciences in India. II. The RigVeda Soma plant. Indian Journal of History of Science 11 11-32 (1976)
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