How Marijuana Became a Part of Thriving Cultures: Part 6 [Ancient India]

By now, it should be obvious that marijuana use was extensive in ancient civilization. Cultures in China, Persia, and Japan, among others, used weed for religious purposes, but also weren’t afraid to use it to enjoy a psychoactive high. Not only did weed NOT lead to the downfall of these kingdoms, but it was also a major part of their growth, for a portion of history at least.

In part 6, I am going to look at how cannabis was used in ancient India; a nation where it is still used regularly today. According to legend, a Vedic religious figure saw an immense amount of illness and suffering in 6,000 BC. He pleaded with the Gods for help, and they took pity on him by teaching him medical knowledge of the Ayurveda, a system of holistic and herbal medicine still practiced in India, and other places, today.

It is a nice story, but marijuana probably wasn’t used in India until after 2,000 BC. The Indus Valley Civilization had reached India sometime after 3,300 BC, but by 1,700 BC, it had all but vanished from the country. By that time, another group appeared on the horizon – the Aryans are possibly responsible for introducing weed, which they called bhang, into India.

The Early Years of Marijuana in India

The first literary mention of cannabis’ mind-altering properties appears in the fourth book of the Vedas – better known as the Atharvaveda, which translates to ‘Science of Charms’ – at some time between 2,000 BC and 1,400 BC. According to the book, weed was one of the five ‘sacred’ plants, and a guardian angel lived amongst its leaves. Marijuana was referred to as a source of happiness and joy; a wonderful plant that provided delight and eliminated fear.

The Atharvaveda states that weed was specifically created by the gods for the pleasure of mankind. What happened was that the gods stirred the heavens at the peak of Mount Mandara, which likely refers to Mount Everest. Amrita, a celestial nectar, fell to Earth and a hemp plant sprouted from it.

The book goes on to state that the God Shiva went into the fields to get some time alone. It was a blisteringly hot day, so he found shade beneath what proved to be a large marijuana plant. His curiosity prompted him to eat some of the leaves, and he enjoyed them so much that he declared them his favorite food. From that point onward, Shiva became known as the Lord of Bhang.

Another section of the Vedas refers to a magical plant called soma, which may well have been a deity. Any mortal who ate it also became a god. In any case, priests routinely beat the plant with stones during religious rituals and mixed the pulp with water to create a drink, which they enjoyed during ceremonies. It seems as if soma was NOT marijuana and probably refers to ‘magic’ mushrooms such as fly agaric and Amanita.

Throughout ancient India’s history, its holy men believed that they needed to be intoxicated with bhang to communicate effectively with the gods. Another legend claims that the Buddha ate nothing but a single hemp seed each day for six years. This difficult ritual enabled him to achieve the enlightenment which developed into the Buddhist religion, and it was first formed in northern India.

The herb was primarily used as a drink since the start of recorded history in India. It was combined with almonds, pepper, ginger, sugar, pistachios, and poppy seeds, and boiled with milk or eaten with yogurt.

Even today, bhang is eaten in India and is rolled into small balls before being consumed. The fat in the milk helps extract marijuana’s THC, but when you ingest it, the effects take longer and are inconsistent.

Marijuana as a Medicine in India

Despite a long and extensive period of use, there are relatively few mentions of cannabis being used for medicinal purposes in India until around the 9th century AD. Arguably the first Ayurveda reference to medicinal marijuana in the AD era was written in the Abhidhana Ratnamala in the 9th or 10th century.

That being said, the Atharvaveda did mention the use of bhang to relieve anxiety. The Sushruta Samhita, written in around the 6th century BC, mentions the plant as a possible treatment for diarrhea, phlegm, and catarrh. By the 10th century AD, there were further mentions of cannabis being used to treat gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, insomnia, and dysentery.

Marijuana in India During the Modern Era

The Portuguese became familiar with the marijuana customs and trade of India after seizing the port of Goa in 1510. A doctor and botanist by the name of Garcia de Orta wrote about how Indians used bhang to improve the appetite of individuals, and also to improve labor output.

The East India Company was formed in Britain in 1600 to trade in the Indian Ocean region, but they soon controlled large parts of the Indian subcontinent. British rule in India could be said to have begun in 1612 and didn’t end until the Partition of India in 1947. In 1798, the British Parliament enacted a tax on ganja, bhang, and charas in a bid to reduce marijuana consumption in India.

It didn’t work. By the 1890s, the British decided that the use of marijuana in India was so extensive that they needed to perform a detailed study to determine the extent of its use. They incorrectly believed that weed was driving natives insane and endangering their health. In the end, they realized that the suppression of bhang was completely unreasonable and unnecessary.

According to the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, completed in 1894, the use of bhang was ancient and had religious sanction amongst Hindus. Moreover, society was suffering greater harm from alcohol consumption. It was also determined that attempting to prohibit the substance in India would have led to a national outcry, would be incredibly hard to enforce, and would ultimately lead to increased use of other dangerous narcotics.

Another review, this time by Chopra and Chopra in 1957, discovered that bhang was still widely used by construction workers at the end of a day to help them relax. It was also used in Hindu religious ceremonies. Over sixty years later, nothing has changed, despite global attempts to ban marijuana.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was an international treaty created in 1961. It classified marijuana as a ‘hard’ drug. Rather than lie down and accept it, Indian delegates opposed prohibition because of the impact it would have on the religious and social customs of their country.

In the end, India agreed to limit the export of Indian hemp, but bhang was left out of the legal definition of weed. Even when the Indian government passed the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985, bhang was not classified as marijuana.

Today, you can still easily find bhang in India. In fact, there are street stands licensed by the government in some areas! However, you must be careful because not all regions tolerate the use of India’s ancient drink. It is banned outright in Assam, and you need a special license to eat, possess, sell or manufacture bhang in Maharashtra.