Whilst in the West cannabis is a much maligned and demonised plant, for those who share my cultural background it has largely been regarded as benign or beneficial, and even a sacred plant for over 4,000 years.
Growing up I often heard accounts of a ‘mysterious’ substance known as bhang. My granddad would often regale us with stories about parties where they’d imbibe bhang lassi, a milkshake type drink, and then dance the night away.
Talking about bhang wasn’t ever taboo in my family, but then I didn’t exactly know what the word actually meant!! Aged 11 my curiosity finally got the better of me and one weekend I asked my granddad, “What is this bhang that you speak so fondly of?” My granddad looked sternly towards me, “Oh shit!” I thought “I should have kept my mouth shut!!” My granddad got up out of his seat, walked over towards me and told me to follow him. He led me out to the garden and into his greenhouse, there growing amongst the chillies, tomatoes, and peppers was the familiar five fingered leaf I recognised as being associated with hippies or Rastafarianism. “There that’s bhang” he said. “But isn’t that drugs?” I enquired. “Any substance can be abused and that is wrong but this, when used sensibly, is heaven sent and was given to us by Rab (God)…”
Cannabis has a long history in India, veiled in legends, spirituality and religion. It is in The Vedas that you find the earliest mention of cannabis. Sacred Hindu texts, these writings are thought to have been compiled as early as 2000 B.C. It is written that cannabis was one of five sacred plants given to man at the creation of the world, regarded as a source of happiness, the joy-giver, a liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose all fear. The Hindu god, Shiva is frequently associated with cannabis. According to legend, Shiva wandered off into the fields after an altercation with his family. Drained from the family squabble and the beating midday sun, he fell asleep under a leafy plant. When he awoke, his curiosity led him to sample the leaves of the plant, feeling instantly rejuvenated, Shiva made the plant his favourite food and he became known as the Lord of Bhang. To this day it is still commonly consumed by Shivaite yogis, ascetics, and worshippers of Shiva, as an aid to their sadhana (spiritual practice).
During the Middle Ages, soldiers often took a drink of bhang before entering battle, just as Westerners took a swig of whiskey or brandy. One story tells of the Sikh leader Gobind Singh’s soldiers being scared by an attacking elephant with a sword in his trunk. Terrified, the men nearly mutinied until Singh gave one courageous man, who he had named his “colourful midget”, a mixture of bhang and opium. The herbs gave him the strength and agility to slip under the elephant from below and kill it without endangering himself. This act of courage led Singh’s men to victory over the enemy.
My granddad always said that using cannabis helped him achieve a state of mind he referred to as “Charhdi Kala”. He explained that one’s attitude is central to life’s experience, Charhdi Kala in general terms was a positive, buoyant and ever optimistic disposition, it is an equivalence of a mind that never despairs, never admits defeat and refuses to be crushed by adversities. He said that this state of mind was essential to fulfilling one’s duties and obligations as a Sikh.
The Sikhs of Punjab are amongst the biggest consumers of cannabis in religious texts. Created by Guru Gobind Singh, Sukhnidhan (the peace giver) is still prepared today by the Nihangs or Warrior Sikhs just as it was over 300 years ago. A mixture of nuts, poppy seeds, black pepper, rose petals, cardamom seeds, melon seeds which are all ground together with cannabis, then to make it drinkable, water, milk and sugar are added to the mix. Today Sukhnidhan is still consumed by the Sikhs on special occasions, festivals, parties or for spiritual uplift and meditation.Other preparations of cannabis in India include ganja and charas. Stronger than bhang, ganja is made from the flowers and upper leaves of the female plant. Charas is the strongest preparation and is made from rubbing the sticky, resinous blooming flowers. Similar in strength to hashish, charas contains a lot of resin. Both are smoked in an earthenware pipe called a chillum. The pipe is usually shared among 2 to 5 people, making the smoking of cannabis a communal activity. My granddad is a strong believer in the communal consumption of cannabis and his favourite method still remains my gran’s special Bhang Pakoras.
During the ‘Raj’ the British found the use of cannabis to be so extensive in colonial India, that they commissioned a large scale study in the late 1890s. The British government asked the government of India to appoint a commission to look into the cultivation of the hemp plant, preparation of drugs from it, trade in those drugs, the social and moral impact of its consumption, and the possibility of prohibition. The commission was systematic and thorough. It sampled a large and diverse group of people in a range of situations, from farmers to hospital psychiatrists. After years of thorough and well conducted research, the Commission concluded that “suppressing the use of bhang would be totally unjustifiable. Its use is very ancient, has some religious sanction among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, and is harmless in moderation”. In fact, it was stated that more harm was done by alcohol, and that prohibition would be difficult to enforce, be likely to result in outcries by religious clerics, and possibly lead to the use of more dangerous narcotics. These findings of The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894, conducted over 100 years ago, are still surprisingly relevant today.
Cannabis continues to be available in India as of the 20th and 21st centuries. Hindus use bhang for religious ceremonies like Holi and ascetics use it to seek divinity. Sadhus are Indian ascetics who have shunned material life and use cannabis to seek spiritual freedom. They live simply in the forest and wear ragged clothing. By emphasizing physical austerity through celibacy and fasting, cannabis helps Sadhus transcend ordinary reality and achieve transcendence. Today, bhang is so common in some parts of India that it can be found on government licensed street stands and Bhang shops.
Even after nearly 4000 years cannabis is still being used in Ayurvedic and Indian medicine to treat a variety of health conditions, including nausea , wasting syndromes, pain, epilepsy, tumours and is also prescribed for general health and longevity. To this day body builders in India use cannabis as a part of their training regime to gain muscle mass, promote digestion, and build strength. Slowly the west is finally beginning to recognise the true values of this remarkable plant, and that us Indians had it right all along!!