Cannabis, in one form or another, has been used in India for literally thousands of years. The earliest mention of cannabis usage in India can be traced back to the sacred Hindu texts known as The Vedas, which date to somewhere between 2000 and 1400 B.C. In the Atharva Veda, cannabis is described as one of “five sacred plants” and a guardian angel is said to live amongst its leaves. According to The Vedas, bhang could be used to help attain delight, increase sexual appetite and even control fear. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, Indian soldiers often drank bhang before going into battle.
In ancient India, it was believed that the gods sent down cannabis out of compassion for the human race. Another legend suggests that the bhang plant was produced in the shape of Amrita nectar when the gods churned the ocean with Mount Mandara and a drop of nectar fell to earth. From the spot where that drop landed allegedly sprang the first bhang plant.
Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes in India for many thousands of years. There are in fact references to it being used medicinally that date back to the 9-10th century. According to ancient texts, doctors used bhang to treat a variety of conditions, including insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders and pain, especially during childbirth. Bhang was also believed to have been used in treating dysentery, sunstroke and clearing phlegm. Unlike many western countries, medicinal cannabis has always remained legal in India. Even now it remains an integral part of what’s known as Ayurvedic medicine, and today in India, pharmaceutical students are educated about the properties of cannabis.
Cannabis in Religion
Cannabis use throughout India has always had a strong religious component. During ancient times, there was often an intersection of its medicinal use with its religious usage. According to one Indian philosopher, a longing for bhang “foretells happiness.” Cannabis has also been associated with the god Shiva, who was sometimes known as the Lord of Bhang. In Hindu practice, local gods were given offers of bhang drinks during religious festivals. Members of the religious community would also take part, sharing bowls of bhang with each other. Even today, Hindus use bhang for religious purposes while others use it to seek divinity. Sadhus, Indian ascetics who have turned their backs on material goods, use bhang as a means to attain spiritual freedom.
Bhang as Food
Drinking bhang was typically the preferred method of consuming cannabis in ancient India. Over the centuries, bhang has been blended into a variety of different concoctions, usually involving boiled milk or yogurt, and adding nuts or spices like almonds, cinnamon, cardamom or cloves. Bhang is also sometimes rolled and eaten in small balls. There are literally hundreds of recipes containing bhang developed over the centuries. Some contain substantial quantities of other substances such as opium, nutmeg or betel nut.
Hemp in Ancient India
Like the Chinese, the people of India have a long history of using hemp to make clothing, rope and other goods. In fact, hemp derived from cannabis was first brought to India by Chinese migrants more than 3,500 years ago. The Mahabharata tells the story of the Sakas bringing gifts of hemp thread to India.
In addition to drinking bhang, ancient Indians also smoked cannabis in the form of ganja, which was comprised of the flowers and upper leaves of the female plant. Ganja is stronger than bhang, but stronger still was charas, which was made from blooming cannabis flowers. In ancient India, ganja and charas were smoked in earthenware pipes, known as chillums. Using a chillum is still the preferred method of smoking cannabis in India today.
The ancient Indians revered and respected cannabis for its many uses. “Wise” consumption of bhang for religious rites was believed to cleanse sins, bring one closer to Shiva and help people avoid the miseries of hell in the afterlife. However, foolish or frivolous consumption of bhang was frowned on then, just as it is today, in many quarters of Indian society.
India and the Beatniks
In 1964, Indian cannabis culture actually played a role in the first major pro-cannabis protest in New York City. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were among the LeMar (Legalize Marijuana) protesters near Tompkins Square Park repeatedly chanting "Om Hari Namo Shiva." Per the Village Voice in 1964, Ginsberg said Shiva is the god of cannabis, and the Indian chant meant, “Oh bringer of delight, name of Shiva.” Ginsberg, who spent time in India the year previous, added, “All the respectable families drink bhang [on Shiva’s birthday] prepared by all the respectable grandmothers in India. Pot is sold in government stores, and is a big industry there.” In a 1966 essay for The Atlantic, the Beat writer added that many believe Shiva himself smoked cannabis.