At the time of writing, there are well over 1,200 slang words for the cannabis plant. The most common include marijuana, weed, pot, and hash. The most obvious reason for the long list of alternative names for the herb is because it has been illegal all over the world since the middle of the 20th century.
As you may know, marijuana has been used by humans for at least 12,000 years. It was widely available as a medicine and was smoked recreationally until the beginning of the 20th century in most nations. In the United States, we had the ridiculous war on weed which reached its nadir in the 1930s with the passing of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. A significant number of American states had already made weed illegal by then.
The plant went underground but experienced a revival of sorts in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was still illegal, so users had to come up with code words when mentioning its use. Cannabis was reefer, spliff, doobie, airplane, green goddess, grass, asparagus, and ganja, depending on who was using it, and it is the latter word we are focusing on today.
The Origins of the Term ‘Ganja’
The word ‘ganja’ is a Nepali and Hindi name for the hemp plant. It is derived from the term ganjha with itself comes from the Sanskrit term ganja. It was only used in Europe from the mid-19th century onwards when the British imposed a tax on the hemp trade.
However, ganja has been used to describe hemp for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the East. In E.L Abel’s book Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years, he writes that ganja was a concoction made from cannabis in ancient India. According to Abel, ganja was prepared from the upper leaves and flowers of the plant and was far more potent than bhang, which is still a popular drink in India today.
Ganja was used to prepare warriors for battle, and there are texts from the 12th century AD which mention how soldiers consumed it before they went into battle. The goal was to reduce the feeling of panic. One famous story involved the founder of the Sikh religion; Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708).
During a battle, an enemy elephant crashed through the ranks and caused chaos. Singh chose one warrior to dash through scores of blows that would certainly have killed him. The soldier consumed ganja or bhang and completed his mission of slaying the elephant. Once Singh’s men saw the dead elephant, they regrouped and routed their foe. From then on, the Sikhs commemorate the anniversary of the victory by consuming bhang.
Ganja in the Modern Era
By 1655, the British Empire had taken Jamaica as a colony, and it became a major source of sugar. The British shipped slave labor from West Africa. In 1833, all slaves in the empire were emancipated, so the British needed new workers to toil on the plantations. India was considered the ‘jewel’ in the empire’s crown and was a ready source of laborers.
It so happened that ganja was becoming a problem for the empire in India. It was cheap, potent, and blamed for causing criminal behavior. In 1871, the secretary of India wrote a statement mentioning ganja by name as the cause of insanity and other dangerous effects. In 1893, the British House of Commons was so concerned about the use of ganja in Bengal that it gave the go-ahead for the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission to complete a special report on hemp. It was released in 1894.
The report was almost 3,300 pages long and looked at many aspects of ganja in Indian culture. Of special note was the fact that ganja was used when worshipping the god Siva. Members of this cult believed that ganja was one of Siva’s special attributes, and using ganja when worshipping was similar to taking Holy Communion in Catholicism.
Meanwhile, Britain had begun importing indentured labor from India in 1845 and brought around 40,000 workers from there to Jamaican plantations by 1917. As you might expect, these laborers brought their knowledge of ganja and other cannabis preparations.
It is hardly a surprise that over the course of almost a century, Indian and Jamaican cultures interweaved and the term ‘ganja’ was to become the most popular way to describe the herb on the island. By the early 20th century, smoking ganja was one of the most common ways for Jamaican field workers to unwind and relax.
Sadly, many of these laborers were displaced and settled in poor urban areas. As the quest for black liberation grew stronger, the elites in Jamaica felt threatened, and ganja was declared illegal there in 1948. By then, the Abrahamic religion known as Rastafari had been established with marijuana as a central tenet.
Rastas believe that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie is the second coming of Jesus Christ and the incarnation of Jah on Earth. Ganja is used in the religion for spiritual purposes; to help one achieve a higher level of consciousness. The religion was formed in approximately 1930 and hit the mainstream in the late 1960s when the legendary reggae musician, Bob Marley, converted to Rastafari.
Ganja in Popular Culture
Today, the term ganja is widely used all over the world. The phrase has been regularly used in TV and movies, although the first mention of it in a film only occurred in ‘Babylon,’ a UK-produced movie released in 1980 about the issues faced by black youths in London. Since then, it has been used in movies including Bad Boys; This Is the End, 8 Mile, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
The phrase ganja has also been uttered in famous TV shows including Breaking Bad, Scrubs, and The Sopranos. Even so, the term wasn’t used that often in the U.S. until the release of a song by Eminem titled ‘Must Be the Ganja.’ There may be well over one thousand words for cannabis, but few have the history attributed to ganja.