Cannabis and religion have been going steady for thousands of years. Their relationship is rich and complex and most likely, far more widespread than you might have anticipated. As a potent medicinal plant, the energies of the cannabis plant have long been used as a means to enlightened thought, health, and spiritual healing. Sects from many major religions still utilize cannabis as a key component in their spiritual practice, especially in Eastern religions. Today, we’re going to explore just a few of the ways cannabis has shaped religion in the East.
India and Tibet
Ancient texts, dating back to 2000-1400 BCE, describe marijuana as one of the five sacred plants. While they didn’t have Gorilla Glue bud, they believed the use of “bhang” (a type of cannabis preparation) is believed to cleanse sins, avoid miseries of hell, and unite with Shiva. It is said that the gods sent hemp out of compassion for the human race so that they may attain delight, lose fear, and increase sexual desires. Other stories suggest cannabis originated from a spot of nectar dropped from Heaven or is the result of both gods and demons churning a massive milk ocean to obtain amrita, Sanskrit for immortality, and receiving cannabis as one of their end products.
The spiritual aspects of cannabis are so profound, that many groups incorporate its use into meditation practices, a practice that is said to stop the mind and allow one to enter into a state of stillness called Samadhi. For those who practice the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, it is taught that Buddha survived on nothing but hemp seeds for six years and the Buddhist Tara Tantra lists cannabis as a vital aid to meditation and spiritual practice to facilitate deep meditation and heightened awareness. Cannabis is most closely associated with the worship of Shiva and is considered to be Shiva’s favorite herb.
Wandering ascetics, known as sadhus, smoke cannabis out of a clay chillum as part of their spiritual practice. Bhang is given to Shiva images and statues as an offering.
The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission even made these conclusions in a report on government study of cannabis in India:
“…It is inevitable that temperaments would be found to whom the quickening spirit of bhang is the spirit of freedom and knowledge. In the ecstasy of bhang the spark of the Eternal in man turns into the light the murkiness of matter….Bhang is the Joy-giver, the Sky-filler, the Heavenly-Guide, the Poor Man’s Heaven, the Soother of Grief…No god or man is as good as the religious drinker of bhang…The supporting power of bhang has brought many a Hindu family safe through the miseries of famine. To forbid or even seriously restrict the use of so gracious an herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to large bands of worshipped ascetics, deep-seated anger. It would rob the people of a solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from the attacks of evil influences…”
China and Japan
Hemp has a long and sacred history in China. In fact, at one time, the Chinese called their country “the land of mulberry and hemp.” It was a symbol of power over evil and considered the “liberator of sin.” The Chinese believed that the legendary Shen Nung first taught the cultivation of hemp in the 28th century B.C. He is credited with developing the sciences of medicine from the curative power of plants and regarded as a deity and the Father of Chinese medicine.
Taoists believed that combining ginseng with cannabis would set forward time and reveal the future
The addition of cannabis to their incense burners in the 1st century A.D. was 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 consumption was strictly reserved for religious officials and not shared with common people, which might explain its strange exclusion from ancient texts. Unfortunately, by 200 C.E., the Han Dynasty of Imperial China had abandoned Taoism and, with it, cannabis, thus effectively ending the widespread use of cannabis as a spiritual practice in China.
In Japan, cannabis was used in ancient ceremonial rights and for purification and driving away evil spirits. 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. As such, waving the gohei over the suspected evil would cause the evil spirit inside a person or place to be driven away. Clothes made of hemp were worn during formal and religious ceremonies because of hemp’s traditional association with purity.
Cannabis and Islam
Mohammed (570-632 A.D.) expressly forbade alcohol, but the use of cannabis was not expressly forbidden. It should be noted that while cannabis is not expressly forbidden, orthodox groups of Muslims today consider it to be so. However, many historical groups of Muslims have a different perspective. In fact, hemp is considered a “Holy Plant.” Ancient Arab doctors used hemp as a sacred medicine known as 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 increased introspection, happiness, reduced anxiety, and increased music appreciation.
In fact, an according to one Arab legend, the Persian founder of an order of Sufis, Haydar, was said to have accidentally encountered cannabis while walking in the mountains. Haydar was typically a reserved and quiet man but when he returned to the monastery after consuming cannabis, he was said to have been lively and full of spirit. As a result, his disciples, being inspired by his enlightened spirit, went out and found the plant for themselves and thus the Sufis came to know the pleasures of hashish.
So, as you can see, cannabis has found it’s way into the very underpinnings of many Eastern religious practices and has been influencing thought for thousands of years. All the more reason to worship at the altar of Mary Jane.