It is sometimes believed that the use of cannabis in India is very ancient. This article explores the available evidence in an attempt to assess when the use of cannabis probably began in South Asia.

Cannabis in the Vedas

The oldest texts of South Asia are the Vedas, which are the mantras used by the Brahmins of India for the performance of religious rites and rituals. The four Vedas (Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda, Atharvaveda) were composed in Sanskrit in northwest India between around 1600 and 700 BCE, and they contain a few references to what is probably cannabis. 

One of the most oft-cited references in this regard is a passage in the oldest of the Vedas, the Ṛgveda (9.61.13): “The gods approached Soma of perfect birth, he is the destroyer (bhaṅgaṃ) who speeds the waters, and [is accompanied] by the knowledge rays” (trans. Kashyap). In Sanskrit, the masculine term bhaṅga means “breaking” or “destroying,” while the feminine form bhaṅgā means cannabis. It is apparent that the term in this verse is used as an epithet for soma⎯the psychedelic ritual drink of the Brahmins of ancient India⎯and does not indicate cannabis.

(In Vedic culture and terminology, Soma/soma refers to a deity, to the extracted juice of plants and also to the soma drink. See Matthew Clark, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca, 2017, for a full exploration of the constituents of soma preparation and its use.)

Another Vedic passage frequently referred to in relation to cannabis is in the Atharvaveda (11.6.15) (c.1200 BCE), where it states: “To the five kingdoms of the plants, of which soma is chief (śreṣṭha), we speak. Dharba [a kind of grass that pervades Vedic ritual], hemp [bhaṅgā], barley [yava], saha [‘mighty power’]: let them free us from distress” (trans. Whitney). Sāyana (14th century CE, who commented on the Vedas) regards bhaṅgā in this verse as a reference to śaṇa (another of the many epithets for cannabis in Sanskrit), which sometimes refers to cannabis and sometimes to Crotalaria juncea Linn. (i.e., Bombay/Bengal hemp). George Grierson, in a comprehensive article published in 1894, also interprets this verse as a reference to bhaṅgā as a sacred grass.

Cannabis (śaṇa) is also referred to in another verse of the Atharvaveda (2.4.5), where it is said that śaṇa is brought from the wilderness (araṇya) and used as a protective device (maṇi) against evil and poison, together with a jaṅgiḍa maṇi (a protective amulet made from various agricultural crops).

The references provided above in the Atharvaveda (2.4.5; 11.6.15) appear to be referring to the cannabis plant, but whether it is as an intoxicant, as merely a wild plant, or as an agricultural crop is hard to determine. Nevertheless, it seems that the cannabis plant had little importance in classical Vedic times (c.1600–700 BCE). It is not mentioned in the Black Yajurveda saṃhitā as one of the “seven cultivated plants,” which are specified in other texts, used by Āryan migrants and settlers in South Asia, though cannabis could have been collected from the wilderness.

Cannabis References in Post-Vedic Texts

Several centuries after the end of the period of Vedic composition, Kātyāyana (3rd century BCE), in his commentary (Vārtika) on Pāṇini (a grammarian, 5th–4th century BCE)—in a verse (5.9.29) discussing the affix kaṭac—refers to bhaṅgākaṭa among agricultural crops that produce dust [or pollen], the others being bottle gourd (alābū), sesame (tila) and flax (umā). The great French Indologist Louis Renou interprets bhaṅgā in this verse as “hemp,” which would seem to indicate Kātyāyana’s acquaintance with the pollen of bhaṅgā. If the “dust” mentioned here is not pollen (from the male plant) but rather the dust-like psychoactive resin that falls from the mature buds of the female plant, then the produce that Kātyāyana refers to is hashish. This suggests, possibly, that the intoxicating properties of bhaṅgā may have been known in South Asia in the early centuries BCE, but to what extent, or if it was used as an intoxicant or as a medicine or as merely a useful plant remains uncertain.

There is no mention of cannabis, by any of its many synonyms, in the three foundational texts of Āyurveda, compiled by Caraka (c.0–300 CE), Suśruta (c.0–300 CE) and Vāgbhaṭa (c.600 CE), despite several erroneous published claims that cannabis is mentioned by Suśruta. However, more definite references to cannabis begin to appear around the middle of the first millennium CE. There is a reference by Varāhamihira (505–587 CE) in his Bṛhatsaṃhitā (XLVII.39) to vijayā (one of the common synonyms of cannabis) and other grasses used in the rites of a bathing festival. This is probably a reference to hemp/cannabis, as the wording of the passage is similar to that in the Atharvaveda (11.6.15) passage noted above. In the 7th/8th century Buddhist text, the Cakrasamvaratantra (ch. 50), śaṇa (cannabis) is mentioned as one of several ingredients to be used in a rite for an abundant life for a yogi. 

Unequivocal references to cannabis in South Asian medical texts begin in the 11th/12th centuries CE, by which time cannabis was clearly understood as both a medicine and an intoxicant. In the Cikitsāsārasaṃgraha (“Compendium of the essence of medicine”) of Vaṅgasena, who flourished between approximately 1050 and 1100 CE, there are references to cannabis as bhaṅgā, indraśana and tribhavanaviyayā. Vaṅgasena also notes some similarities between the effects of cannabis and opium (though he does not discuss the use of opium). In the 11th-century work Śabdacandrikā by Cakrapāṇidatta, the terms jayā, vijayā, trailokyavijayā, bhaṅgā and indraśana are used for cannabis.

Other references to cannabis subsequently occur in several other medical texts dating from 1100 to 1250. In the 13th century, Śārṅgadhara mentions bhaṅgā as an intoxicating (mada) drug that may be used for treating several medical conditions, including cough, loss of appetite, anaemia and diarrhea. In the following centuries, references to cannabis proliferate. The most comprehensive early account of the effects and uses of cannabis and its mythology and cultivation are in a chapter devoted to it in the Ānandakanda⎯a voluminous text on tantric alchemy and yoga⎯dating from the 12th or 13th centuries.

Cannabis Use in Religious Contexts in South Asia

In the 16th century, cannabis, referred to as saṃvit/ saṃvidā or vijayā (“victor/conqueror”), appears for the first time in some Tantric rites, particularly in northeast India. The use of cannabis for spiritual intoxication was probably adopted from Sūfī ascetics, such as those from the Madāriyya order, founded by Badī ad-dīn Shāh Madārī (d. c.1440), an immigrant settled in Jaunpur who became one of the most celebrated saints of Muslim India.

Even more radical than the Madāriyya Sūfīs were several sects of wild antinomian Sūfīs, known more generally, among other sectarian designations, as Qalandar, Haydarī or Malang. This movement of radical Sūfīs began in the Khorasan region (northeast Iran and western Afghanistan) with Jamāl al-Dīn Sāvī, who lived in a tree for some time and was described as a walking library. The movement was further impelled by the activities of one of Sāvī’s disciples, Qutb al-Dīn Ḥaydar. Several sects of these darvish Sūfīs spread throughout the Muslim world between 1200 and 1500 CE. 

According to Sāvī and his followers, cannabis provided access to the heart of their religion’s revelation. Qalandars were known for not praying or reading the Koran, sometimes begging aggressively and gazing at good-looking, un-bearded boys, sometimes being completely naked, being shaven or wearing dreadlocks, playing drums and music around fires, dressing strangely, wearing—variously—chains, bells, bangles or rough cloth, being barefoot, and consuming bhāṅg to excess. They were be-shār (“outside the law”). Numerous bands of these Qalandars arrived in north India in the 13th and 14th centuries, displaced primarily due to the Mongol conquest of Khorasan in 1220/1. 

It seems that the use of cannabis for spiritual purposes was introduced into South Asian culture primarily by Qalandar Sūfīs and related groups. 

The wild, nomadic horse-riding Scythians, who were widespread in Asia in the first millennium BCE, were known to use cannabis. Between around 200 BCE and 400 CE, the Śakās (Scythians) were a dominant force in northwest India (from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh), Pakistan and eastern and southern Afghanistan. It seems conceivable, or even probable, that the Scythians cultivated (or used) cannabis in those areas, though so far no evidence for this has yet surfaced.

Some South Asian sādhus and Muslim faqīrs consume cannabis in great quantities. It is often considered by sādhus to be a form of tapas (spiritual austerity). They may sleep very little and generally understand it to be a kind of discipline to remain upright and adequately focused even under the influence of excessive doses of cannabis.

Smoking is recommended by Āyurvedic authorities, such as Caraka, Suśruta, Vāgbaṭa and Vaṅgasena, for particular medical conditions. Caraka (Sūtrasthāna 5.20–55), for example, prescribes mixing around two dozen dried and powdered plants into a cigar, which is then smoked (three puffs) eight times daily via a pipe. This is said to remove numerous ailments in the neck and head, including excess kapha. However, excess smoking is said to lead to deafness, blindness, giddiness and bleeding from different parts of the body. Vāgbhaṭa devotes a whole chapter (Sūtrasthāna, ch. 21) to smoke therapy (dhūmapāna vidhi).

However, smoking was not a social activity until tobacco was introduced to India by the Portuguese around 1600 CE. Prior to the introduction of tobacco and recreational smoking, cannabis was only eaten or drunk, usually in the form of bhāṅg (Hindi), which comprises the pounded (usually lower) leaves of the plant, commonly mixed with some spices and a milk product. In South Asia, cannabis is always mixed with tobacco for smoking, usually in a clay pipe (cilam [chillum]) and sometimes in an emptied cigarette. In current popular Hinduism, cannabis (and datura, a dangerous and potent hallucinogen) is associated with the great god Śiva. A well-known popular bhajan (religious song) to Śiva in north India contains the line: “bhog uska bhāṅg datura” (“His food is cannabis and datura”).

During the night of the popular festival for Śiva (śivarātrī), many orthodox Hindus of all ages in north India consume bhāṅg. However, the evidence presented in this article suggests that this custom is probably no more than 700 years old.

Dr. Matthew Clark is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London.

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