Cannabis in Spiritual Practices
Cannabis has been utilized in spiritual practices for centuries, spanning cultures throughout the world. Its earliest known roots are in Hinduism, and it has touched Muslim and Taoist traditions. Its latest and most infamous influence is in Rastafarianism. From ancient India to Greece to the Caribbean, Cannabis has connected people to God, nature, and the infinite.
Cannabis has strong roots in the Hindu tradition. The Vedas, holy Hindu texts from over a thousand years before Christ, hold the cannabis plant in divine esteem as one of the earth’s five sacred plants, and call it by names that translate to “victory,” “joy-giver” and “liberator”. In the origin story of Cannabis in the Vedas, the god Shiva has an argument with his family and walks out into the rice fields in anger, eventually stopping to rest and seek shelter from the sun under a bush. When he awakes, he eats the leaves of the cannabis plant and is revitalized. He calls this magical herb his most loved plant and shares it with the world. Cannabis, called *bhang* in Sanskrit, is often consumed by Hindus during religious celebrations as a way to bring them closer to Shiva.
Bhang is most closely associated with the Hindu celebration of Holi, a springtime festival of colour, during which people of all ages run in the streets, wearing all white clothing and covering one another in brightly coloured dye. It is most commonly consumed in a kind of yogurt shake called bhang lassi. The shake is made of the leaves of the plant, ground and mixed with heavy cream, almonds, sugar, and spices. In India, you can buy these potent potables at government-sanctioned shops, as well as less-than-legal sellers.
Hinduism is not the only ancient religion to incorporate the use of ganja in its search for higher knowledge; the Persian religious texts Zend-Avesta are considered to be counterparts of the Hindu Vedas, and include writings about the value of cannabis as a spiritual aid. Thought to be written by the famed mystic Zoroaster, these texts tell of mortals who were given knowledge of the universe’s deepest mysteries after ingesting the plant, known as bhanga to Persians.
In the Muslim tradition, there is some debate over how cannabis fits into Islamic beliefs, and some consider it to be taboo. While intoxicants such as alcohol are understood to be strictly forbidden for orthodox Muslims, cannabis was not explicitly prohibited in the teachings of Mohammed, and throughout history, a number of Islamic sects have considered it to be a holy plant. One of these groups were the Sufis, mystics from Persia who used hashish as a spiritual aid, claiming that it provided insight into their own nature and brought them closer to an understanding of God. Music and poetry were central to the Sufi belief system (Rumi, one of the world’s most famous poets, was a Sufi), and hashish was said to enhance one’s appreciation for these art forms (as anyone who has listened to a great record after smoking a joint can attest to). According to legend, the Sufis were first introduced to hash by Shayk Haydar, a famous cleric, who discovered cannabis in the desert outside his monastery and ingested its leaves. He found that it created a sense of euphoria and peace, and shared the plant with his disciples, and so it became a staple of Sufism.
In ancient China, Taoist shamans and medical practitioners used cannabis in combination with the ginseng root, believing it to give them premonitions of the future. There was even one instance in which archaeologists recovered the mummified remains of a shaman in northwest China who had been buried with cannabis plants, as if to carry it into the afterlife. Hemp seeds were commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a plethora of symptoms, including nausea, chronic pain and constipation.
Of course, the most well-known spiritual tradition involving weed is Rastafarianism. Even before the inception of the religion, cannabis use was prevalent in Jamaican culture. It was introduced to the Caribbean islands in the late 1800s, when indentured servants were brought from India to work after slavery was abolished, and with them came cannabis. The crop flourished in the tropical climate, and it was soon adopted by Jamaicans as a medicinal herb. In the 1930s, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader, made a prediction regarding the appointment of a “Black Messiah,” embodied by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie I, and the Rastafarian religion was born. Smoking ganja became a central tenet of the belief system. Religious meetings in the Rastafari tradition are known as Reasoning sessions, and regularly involve smoking from the “chalice,” a pipe with spiritual significance, as well as prayers, chants, and Nyabingi, or holy music. Before smoking, Rastafari will say a prayer, similar to the tradition of bowing one’s head and giving thanks before a meal. Rastas believe that the plant is holy and that the Bible supports this in a number of verses. The most commonly known of these, popularized by Bob Marley, is from Revelations: “[…] the leaves of the herb are for the healing of the nations.”
People have been getting high as a part of their spiritual lives since human beings all over the planet discovered the peculiar and wonderful effects of the marijuana plant. In different forms, and for different reasons, cannabis has aided people in their search for meaning in the universe, so next time you take a hit of your favorite strain or enjoy a THC-laden snack, take a moment to reflect on some of life’s big questions.