Healing and Spiritual Traditions that Use Cannabis
A depiction of the churning of the world in the ancient Indian creation myth.
Most people are startled to find out that every major pharmacy in America offered cannabis tinctures as medicine until the 1930’s when cannabis prohibition began in the US.(1)
Cannabis has been used for over a thousand years by most of the world’s great cultures as a medicine. Most people in the west are unaware that many ancient cultures also recognized the value of cannabis as an aide to spiritual practice.
Like any powerful medicinal plant, the energies of the plant must be used in a way that harnesses its basic properties to promote health and healing. When used correctly it can have a profound, enlightening effect.
For this reason, sects within Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism and a variety of other religious groups have used cannabis for spiritual practices. Below is a brief overview of cannabis spiritual history compiled through various textual and online sources with a focus on ancient spiritual practices.
Cannabis Use in India
Cannabis has been used in Ayurvedic and Indian medicine for at least three thousand years to treat a variety of health conditions, including nausea and wasting syndromes. It is also prescribed for general health and longevity. To this day body builders in India use cannabis as a part of their training regiment to gain muscle mass, promote digestion, and build strength.
The spiritual aspects of cannabis are considered so profound in South Asia that many religious groups including Buddhists, Naths, Shaivites and Goddess Worshippers(2) have incorporated it into meditation practices, as a means to stop the mind and enter into a state of profound stillness, also called Samadhi.
Cannabis holds a prominent place among Tantrics in India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Tibet to this day. In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, it is said that Buddha subsisted for six years on nothing but hemp seeds.(3) Various spiritual texts, including the Buddhist Tara Tantra,(4) list cannabis as an important aide to meditation and spiritual practice. In the Tantric Buddhism of the Himalayas and Northern India, cannabis still plays a significant role in meditative rituals to facilitate deep meditation and heighten awareness.
Cannabis is even mentioned in the Indian creation myth, where it is named as one of the five nectars of the gods and designated a “Reliever of Suffering.” In the original myth, the gods churn the Ocean of Milk in search of Amrita, the elixir of eternal life. One of the resulting nectars was cannabis. In the Vedas cannabis is referred to as a “source of happiness.”(5)
In India today, cannabis is often made into a drink consumed by local people and is said to be the favorite drink of Indra, the king of the Indian gods.
Cannabis is most closely associated with the worship of Shiva, one of the three principal deities of India. Cannabis is considered Shiva’s favorite herb due to its spiritual properties. It is commonly consumed by Shaivite yogis, ascetics, and worshippers of Shiva, as an aid to their sadhana (spiritual practice). Wandering ascetics, known as sadhus, are often seen smoking cannabis out of a clay chillum as a part of their spiritual practice.(6)
One of the most commonly consumed preparations of cannabis in India is called Bhang. Bhang is offered to Shiva images and statues throughout India, especially on the festival of Shivratri.
Cannabis is such an important part of the religious culture of Benaras, the main city of Shiva worship, that it is sold in government-run shops and used by pilgrims and common folks alike, being part of the religious culture.(7)
In reviewing the use of cannabis in India, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission conducted a government study on the matter and made the following conclusions in their report:
Ayurvedic and Indian doctors still prescribe cannabis to treat a range of conditions. Slowly the west is finally beginning to recognize the true values of this remarkable plant.
Cannabis Use in China
Hemp has a long history in China. At one point it was so prized that the Chinese called their country “the land of mulberry and hemp.” Cannabis was a symbol of power over evil and in emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia and was called the “liberator of sin.” The Chinese believed that the legendary Shen Nung first taught the cultivation of hemp in the 28th century B.C. Shen Nung is credited with developing the sciences of medicine from the curative power of plants. So highly regarded was Shen Nung that he was deified and today he is regarded as the Father of Chinese medicine.
A Chinese Taoist priest wrote in the fifth century B.C. that cannabis was used in combination with Ginseng to set forward time in order to reveal future events. It is recorded that the Taoists recommended the addition of cannabis to their incense burners in the 1st century A.D. and that the effects thus produced were highly regarded as a means of achieving immortality. In the early Chinese Taoist ritual, the fumes and odors of incense burners were said to have produced a mystic exaltation and contribution to well being.
Cannabis Use in Japan
Hemp was used in ancient Japan in ceremonial rights and for purification with and emphasis on driving away evil spirits. In Japan, Shinto priests used a gohei, a short stick with undyed hemp fibers to create sacred space and purity. According to Shinto beliefs, evil and purity cannot exist alongside one another, and so by waving the gohei the evil spirit inside a person or place would be driven away. Clothes made of hemp were especially worn during formal and religious ceremonies because of hemp’s traditional association with purity.
Cannabis Use in Ancient Iran
Ancient Iran was the source for the great Persian empire. According to Mircea Eliade, “Shamanistic ecstasy induced by hemp smoke was known in ancient Iran.” In the Zend-Avesta, hemp occupies the first place in a list of 10,000 medicinal plants.
One of the few surviving books of the Zend-Avesta, called the Venidad, “The Law Against Demons”, calls bhanga (marijuana) Zoroaster’s “good narcotic,” and tells of two mortals who were transported in soul to the heavens where, upon drinking from a cup of bhang, they had the highest mysteries revealed to them.
Cannabis Use in Ancient Europe
According to Nikolaas J. van der Merwe (Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, South Africa) the peasants of Europe have been using cannabis as medicine, ritual material, and to smoke or chew as far back as oral traditions go.
The famous Greek philosopher Herodotus wrote about the use of cannabis by the Scythians, whose cultural practices he observed and wrote about.
According to Herodotus cannabis was an integral part of the Scythian cult of the dead wherein homage was paid to the memory of their departed leaders. Cannabis has been found in Scythian tombs dated from 500 to 300 B.C. Along with the cannabis, a miniature tripod-like tent over a copper censer was found in which the sacred plant was burned.
Cannabis Use in Africa
In south central Africa, cannabis is held to be sacred and is connected with many religious and social customs. Cannabis is regarded by some sects as a magical plant possessing universal protection against all injury to life, and is symbolic of peace and friendship. Certain tribes consider hemp use a duty.
Members of the Rastafari movement use cannabis as a part of their worship of God and for Bible study and meditation. Rastafarians see cannabis as a sacramental and deeply beneficial plant and consider it to be the Tree of Life mentioned in the Bible. Bob Marley, amongst many others, said, “The herb ganja is the healing of the nations.” The use of cannabis, and particularly the use of large pipes called chalices, is an integral part of what Rastafarians call “reasoning sessions” where members join together to discuss life according to the Rasta perspective.
According to Rastafari philosophy, “the herb is the key to new understanding of the self, the universe, and God. It is the vehicle to cosmic consciousness” and is believed to burn the corruption out of the human heart.(8)
Cannabis Use and Islam
It is interesting to note that the use of hemp was not prohibited by Mohammed (570-632 A.D.) while the use of alcohol was strictly prohibited. Despite the fact that Mohammed did not disallow cannabis, orthodox groups of Muslims today consider cannabis to be forbidden.
However, many historical groups of Muslims considered hemp as a “Holy Plant.” Medieval Arab doctors used hemp as a sacred medicine which they called among other names kannab. The Sufis (Muslim mystics) originating in 8th century Persia used hashish as a means of stimulating mystical consciousness and appreciation of the nature of Allah. They maintained that hashish gave them otherwise tremendous interiority and basic insight into themselves. They also claimed that it gave happiness, reduced anxiety, and increased music appreciation.(9)
According to one Arab legend Haydar, the Persian founder of the religious order of Sufis came across the cannabis plant while wandering in the Persian mountains. Usually a reserved and silent man, when he returned to his monastery after eating some cannabis leaves, his disciples were amazed at how full of spirit he was. His disciples went out into the mountains and tried the cannabis themselves. So it was, according to the legend, that the Sufis came to know the pleasures of hashish.(10)
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