Cannabis has been entrenched in Indian culture for centuries. The plant is recorded in the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts compiled sometime between 2000 and 1400 B.C. These texts describe cannabis, specifically bhang, as one of five sacred plants given to humans by the gods to deliver us from anxiety and fear.
The Significance of Cannabis to Shiva
The Hindu deity most associated with cannabis is Shiva, the paradoxical god of creation and destruction, asceticism and hedonism, good and evil. It is said that Shiva loves marijuana and uses it for meditation and relaxation, so his worshipers partake in Shiva’s Prasad (offerings) out of reverence for the deity.
As the legend tells it, Shiva discovered cannabis after engaging in an exhausting, combative conversation with his family
He found refuge from the sun and his frustration beneath the shade of a cannabis plant and eventually fell asleep. Once he awakened, he decided to try the plant’s flowers and leaves, was immediately rejuvenated by their properties, and so began his affection for pot.
Another version of Shiva’s introduction to marijuana tells it this way. The deity was poisoned by halahala, a mystical toxin. He went to a place of healing in the mountains where he found and tasted bhang—cannabis. He was immediately healed, and from that day on, cannabis became Shiva’s favorite food.
Cannabis Use in India
Like in other countries, cannabis has been and is used in India for an array of reasons for a very long time. Pot use in India was so prevalent, the British, India’s colonizers, studied its effects in the late nineteenth century, driven by the concern that marijuana was being abused to the detriment of native Indians’ mental and physical health. The study entailed over one thousand interviews with a diverse group of people ranging from farmers to health care professionals. At the conclusion of the study, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report found that prohibition of cannabis “would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to the large bands of worshipped ascetics deep-seated anger.”
Ironically, possession of cannabis is illegal in India. For the most part. The 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was the beginning of this odd predicament for the country, especially odd because India was wary of prohibition, and as previously mentioned, found that restricting cannabis use would be a bad idea.
Whereas the US and other western nations left that treaty with a hardline approach to cannabis, India found loopholes that allowed people to continue to possess marijuana without actually possessing it. For example, the treaty officially defined the forbidden form of cannabis as “the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant,” so people were free to consume cannabis leaves or seeds without penalty. That law and those loopholes persist today.
Like in the past, contemporary cannabis continues to be used to satisfy a variety of needs. Ascetics, those who have given up worldly possessions and pleasures, use cannabis to diminish hedonistic desires, to open their minds, and to meditate. Some Indians use cannabis to celebrate during religious festivals such as Holi. Some use cannabis to relax after a long day at work. Others simply enjoy the sensation of being high. And often, the way these people choose to consume marijuana is by drinking bhang.
Bhang is a drink made with spices, nuts, rose water, yogurt or milk, and cannabis leaves, stems, and seeds. It is considered the least potent of the three traditional cannabis preparations, the other two being ganja (the dried flowering tops of cannabis plants rich in THC) and charas (resin). Basically, bhang is an edible, but it has been around in India for ages and is so much more than a milkshake with a kick.
Bhang has a rich cultural history. Before going in to battle, Indian warriors drank bhang to strengthen their resolve, newlyweds to get in the mood, the religious to strengthen their prayers. For example, it is accepted that Shiva takes bhang, and so some believe that drinking bhang is a way to get closer to achieving oneness with the Hindu god.
Despite India’s cannabis laws, bhang is pretty much legal for a couple of reasons
Because bhang is traditionally made with cannabis leaves, seeds, and stems, it technically doesn’t meet the definition of illegal cannabis. Additionally, since it has such cultural significance in India, the anti-cannabis laws are often overlooked, especially around Holi. In fact, bhang is so enmeshed in Indian culture, the government has licensed several shops to sell the edible. During certain holidays, especially Holi, unlicensed food shops and bakeries sell bhang as well without government interference.
Bhang is a staple of the Holi festival, a celebration of the annihilation of the demon, Holika. Holi is celebrated the day after the full moon in March every year, and in 2018, it will be celebrated on March 2. People celebrate the holiday, also known as the “Festival of Colors,” by attacking each other with colored powder and colored water, dancing beneath water sprinklers, partying, and consuming bhang, which in addition to the aforementioned spiritual reasons, gets people in the mood to have fun.
Bhang is also commonly consumed during Shivatri, the holiday devoted to Shiva. Devotees of Shiva believe that worshipping him during this holiday pleases the deity more than anything else, and that doing so will absolve them of the sins of their pasts and give them salvation (liberation from reincarnation). Given the significance of bhang to Shiva’s lore, it is no wonder that consuming the drink during this holiday is common practice for any Hindu devoted to the cannabis loving god.
Not surprisingly bhang has been used for medicinal purposes in addition to spiritual and recreational ones
Bhang has been credited with alleviating insomnia, depression, skin conditions, wounds, nervous disorders, fever, arthritis, sunstroke, nausea, dysentery, indigestion, and rigid muscles. However, bhang should be taken carefully and in moderation; as an edible, it can leave the consumer with an extremely intense and uncomfortable high if consumed too quickly or taken on an empty stomach.