Cannabis (Bhaang) in Indian Culture

Written By: Vishal Ingole

Cannabis (Bhaang) in Indian Culture

While the Western world remains divided over the legalization of marijuana, let’s turn our focus on to some other nations where the use of cannabis has been prevalent since ages. Although the West is usually more in the news for the consumption of marijuana, there are several countries around the world where cannabis has been in use but never made any news. India is one such country where the use of cannabis is deeply ingrained in the culture. So much so, that several traditions and religious rituals are incomplete without cannabis. The only difference is that cannabis isn’t known by the name of marijuana here. It has various other names — bhaang, charas, and ganja being some of the most popular ones.

“…bhaang, charas, and ganja being some of the most popular ones.”

cannabis in indian culture
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Religion and Cannabis

When we take a look at the use of cannabis in India, it doesn’t make sense why the West is against the legalization of marijuana. After all, cannabis has been used in India since 2500 B.C. Yes, that’s right. Even before modern civilization dawned, the early human beings were consuming cannabis on a daily basis and finding pleasure in it. Since the practice is deeply rooted in religion and culture, there’s nothing wrong seen with smoking pot in India. There isn’t even any debate over the prohibition or legalization of the substance.

“The legalization of marijuana is not a dangerous experiment – prohibition is the experiment, and it has failed dramatically, with millions of victims all around the world.”
Sebastian Marincolo


cannabis in indian culture
Image via Flickr

Researchers have found the very first mentions of cannabis dating back to the sacred texts of the Hindus, called The Vedas. Although the exact date isn’t known, it is believed that these texts go back to as far as 2000 to 1400 B.C. The texts in the Vedas read that cannabis was one of five sacred plants, in whose leaves a guardian angel lived. The Vedas have also labeled cannabis as a source joy and happiness, something that the creator has gifted humans for freeing them from fear and anxietyand attain delight.

cannabis in indian culture
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The Hindu god, Lord Shiva, has a famous association with cannabis. It is believed Shiva had once wandered away into the fields after having a fight with his family. When he was drained and tired because of the heat of the sun, he dozed off under a plant, which turned out to be cannabis. He sampled the leaves of the plant and felt so rejuvenated that it became his favorite thing to consume. In fact, he henceforth came to be known as the God of Bhaang.

Shiva is one of the most important gods in Hindu mythology, and none of the rituals involving Shiva is complete without an offering of cannabis. Devotees of Shiva regularly smoke pot and consume bhaang as offering to god. There are certain villages in India where people begin their day by drinking bhaang, as an offering to Shiva. Therefore, cannabis is considered sacred in Hindu mythology and culture.

So what exactly is bhaang? The leaves of the cannabis plant are boiled in milk, along with nuts like almonds, pistachios, ginger, pepper, and sugar. Sometimes, yogurt is used in place of milk. This drink is called bhaang,and is known to be highly intoxicating. During the Indian festival of Holi, bhaang is consumed in full flair, and people often report seeing double or eating an enormous amount of food because of the intoxicating. Another important festival of Shiva, Mahashivratri, is incomplete without bhaang. In fact, in Nepal, where marijuana is banned, the ban is lifted on the occasion of Mahashivratri. Devotees consume bhaang as an offering to Shiva. On occasion of such festivals, people freely consume cannabis for delight and pleasure.

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There are other forms in which cannabis is consumed in India. Ganja, for instance, is stronger than bhaang, since it is made from the flowers and upper leaves of the female plant. Charas is probably the most potent version of bhaang, made from the blooming flowers of the plant. It is usually smoked in a chillum, which is an earthen pipe. Back in the day, and still today in many villages, the pipe is passed among a group of people, which makes smoking pot a communal and social activity.

Cannabis and the British Rule

Since a long time, cannabis has been used to relieve anxiety and calm the nerves. This was especially true during the Middle Ages, when soldiers drank bhaang before going to the battlefield, much like soldiers in the West taking a swig of whiskey.  This helped calm their nervesand made them more confident to take on the enemy. This practice was very common in the olden dayswhen alcohol or foreign liquor wasn’t readily available. In fact,during the British rule, owning or consuming foreign liquor was equivalent to betraying the country. Therefore, the patriotic people stuck to the local bhaang for intoxication.

Speaking of British rule, cannabis didn’t evade the attention of the Britishers either. The British found that cannabis was extensively used all over the country, so much so that it led them to commission a study in the late 1890s to examine the extent of use and the effects of smoking pot or drinking bhaang. The reason for the study was that the Britishers thought extensive use of cannabis was harmful to health and led to insanity. This was a joint initiative by the British government and the government of India. The commission looked into the cultivation of cannabis (also called hemp), preparation of drugs from it, interviewed those who traded in the drugs, the impact of its consumption, and possible prohibition.

This study wasn’t conducted in a day. It took years and years of research and interviewsand involved people from all walks of life, from farmers to doctors. The primary aim of the study was to find out if cannabis caused psychoses.

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After systematicand thorough research, the commission was left with six volumes of data gathered from the examination and interviews. By this time, The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission has started to exist formally. The study concluded that cannabis wasn’t harmful when taken moderately, and caused much less harmfulthan alcohol. The Commission also concluded that there was no reason to prohibit the cultivation or use of cannabis because it wasn’t harmful, and had religious and cultural significance. Since the use of cannabis was ancient, theprohibitionwould trigger an outcry by religious groups. The study also observed that the suppression of hemp would give rise to more dangerous forms of narcotics.

Cannabis in Modern India

The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission brought out this report in 1894, and even though over a hundred years have passed since, the findings are still relevant today, when there is a great debate regarding the use of cannabis. Like in many other parts of the world, medicinal marijuana has also been a subject of controversy in India. However, the use of cannabis to treat illnesses has been around since the ancient times, as mentioned in Ayurveda and Atharvaveda. In modern India, not only is the use of cannabis more prevalent, but also more acceptable. There have been several discussions to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, and a number of policy changes are set to take place to facilitate this.

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The suppression of cannabis use began in 1961, around the time when marijuana was prohibited in many other parts of the world. However, in recent times, it has come to be known that cannabis isn’tharmful like opiates, and may even be more useful medicinally. With the medicinal benefits of cannabis being increasingly accepted by several other nations, India is also starting to embrace the positive aspects of this authentic medicinal plant.

There are several differences between medical cannabis and recreational cannabis. Some of the points that differentiate medical cannabis are:

  • Medicinal cannabis can be cultivated, manufactured, and sold only by certified people, and are available only on prescription, for a serious illness.

  • Cannabis is only provided to a patient after regular medicines have failed to give any results. The medicinal use of cannabis is only done under the supervision of a physician or pharmacist.

  • The cost of medicinal cannabis is the same as that of cannabis on the black market.

  • Medicinal cannabis is quality controlled, which means that the cannabinoids arealways the same and there are no contaminants present.

In fact, there’s also a hemp startup in India that has received funding to produce medical cannabis. The day may not be far when medical marijuana is officially prescribed for treating certain illnesses. In India, some of the strongest cannabis is grown in Himachal Pradesh.

cannabis in indian culture
Image via WikiMedia Commons

This is also the reason why several backpackers, drug peddlers, and marijuana lovers flock to India to find the most authentic cannabis in its natural environment. Cannabis has been a part of Indian culture since the dawn of civilization. When there were no cigarettes or alcohol around, cannabis was the intoxicant of choice for ancient Indians. With medical cannabis making its presence felt around the world, it is time, India rediscovered this sacred plant for medicinal purposes. Whether or not cannabis is given legal status, in India,it will remain part of the culture for years to come.

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