Cannabis: Esoteric Uses
From hemp stalk invitations to burning the leaves for religious celebration, spiritual leaders began integrating cannabis into religious rituals a long time ago. Hemp spread throughout Asia, across the sea to Japan and across India to the Middle East where it became an integral part of the culture dating back at least 10,000 years. While time has worn our ability to fully comprehend the ceremonies, what little wisdom is left behind brings us more understanding. Generations of healers held this plant in the highest regard for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Modern day users are becoming more drawn towards conscious consumption and intentional living in all parts of their lives. Thanks to progressive legalization and years of counter culture slowly becoming the norm, we are able to explore cannabis’ esoteric roots more thoroughly.
Ayurvedic: Bhang, Ganja and Hashish
Cannabis and the Hindu culture have been intertwined since the Vedas, ancient holy scriptures which chronicles Hindu mythology and prayers. According to legend, cannabis was one of the five holy plants alongside others such as rice and soma (although many debate that soma and cannabis are one and the same) brought down from the heavens. It was believed that living inside the leaves of the cannabis plant was a liberating guardian who relieved anxiety and brought happiness to those who partook in consumption.
One popular way to consume cannabis, in modern and ancient times, is bhang. A milky beverage of almonds, roses, poppy seeds, spices and cannabis, bhang is consumed by all for Holi, an observance during the spring to celebrate shared love and acceptance. Bhang was always regarded with the highest esteem, and those who consumed it were Shiva-like. The Brahmin priests and teachers of Hinduism praised bhang for it’s rejuvenating and uplifting properties. Only those who consumed it while not in a spiritual state of mind were viewed to be foolish. Otherwise they sung the praises of bhang which they believed protected and brought solace to them from evil.
Lord Shiva, the God of creation, sativa, and bhang, has been credited with bringing cannabis to mortals. In one tale, he discovers the plant while in the garden during a family argument. After consuming the flowers, he immediately returns with happiness to his family. Others credit his wife, Parvati, with finding ganja and when she brought it back the pair created tantric sex. According to the Vedas, cannabis was the nectar of the gods which fell from a primordial ocean onto the earth and Shiva brought the plant, which sprouted from that spot, down from the Himalayas to bring pleasure and enlightenment to humanity. There are more tales that include Shiva and his ties with bhang, but no matter the tale, all followers revere Shiva as Lord of Bhang.
Shintoism: Heavenly Hemp
Asa, commonly known in Japan as hemp, and taima, the tall hemp of sativa cannabis, has held a place in the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto, for centuries. Hemp was a major crop until the arrival of cotton on the 17th century. Before then, hemp dominated the country. Hemp fibers were used to create fine clothing for priests and the upper classes as well as everyday items such as rope, paper and long eel fish lines.
Under the 1948 Japan Cannabis Control Act proposed by the United States, hemp is still grown by the government to create ceremonial robes for the emperor. Many daimyo, japanese overlords in their feudal system, instructed their farmers to grow hemp to increase profits and stock wealthy shops with fine cloth. Traditionally, brides would wear bridal gowns made of un-dyed hemp to represent their chastity, faithfulness and obedience to their husbands. The way of the kami, god deities and ancestors that were worshipped, holds purity and fertility as two attributes that all should try to embody. Asa personifies these virtues for the followers of Shinto.
A page from “Wakoku Hyakujo” shows women preparing fibers from cannabis plants. (Hiroko Tanaka)
The keepers of the Ise Jingu Shrine (dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omi Kami, from whom Shintoists believe the royal family is descended from), burn cannabis during religious ceremonies to encourage dancing, relaxation and cleansing. Hemp paper decorations are scattered along the shrine, and curtains of hemp hang low enough to skim the tops of those who pass under the doorways. Priests still use gohei hemp wands to wave over the heads of visitors to purify and protect those who enter. Hemp paper love charms adorn sacred trees during religious holidays such as Obon, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors.
There’s even a legend surrounding ninjas and hemp. On the first day of his training, a ninja will plant the seed and jump over the plant, every day, until he’s done training. The Japanese culture and hemp are intertwined. And the fiber of the nation is asa. Even a common kimono and baby clothing pattern, asa no ha, is a geometric hemp leaf.
Sufism: Hippies of the East
The Sufi sect of Islam has been referred to as ‘hippies’ compared to their orthodox counterparts. They first used coffee as an intoxicating aide in their night long chanting and dervish dances. The use of caffeine, hashish and a chewy concoction called ma’joun were all consumed as spiritual guides and encouraged all night dancing. Other sects of Islam saw the behavior of the Sufi’s as haraam, or forbidden according to the religious texts and followings of Allah. On the other hand, Sufis believed that consuming intoxicants, such as hashish or ma’joun, brought them closer to God. In combination with ecstatic dancing they believed that the spiritual practice of consumption allowed their spirits to ascend to a higher place. Music, dancing and cannabis have been used in tandem throughout the ages. The euphoria and joy felt from the combination of these things can still be seen today.
Another figure associated with bringing cannabis to his followers was Haydar, the founder of the Sufi sect. Legend has it that he found the plant while on a reflective walk through the countryside while in a slump. Haydar took some of the leaves and ate them. Soon he found his mood improved and he rushed back the monastery to spread the word about this divine weed. His brothers were shocked at his behavior, as Haydar had been depressed and refused to speak for weeks. After hearing his praises, they all went out to seek the plant that their leader spoke so highly of.
The way that cannabis is celebrated in Shinto is subtle yet powerful. The Vedas and other Hindu texts regard bhang as a gift from the gods. Sufis open themselves up to the divine while spinning and chewing ma’joun. The use of cannabis to attain a higher spiritual understanding has been known throughout the centuries. We now have the chance to take a page from those who came before us and use cannabis with good intent. While it’s unclear exactly how cannabis was consumed, we can still observe these principles and reverence for cannabis during our consumption practices. By combining our own beliefs and practices, we can create personal rituals to heighten the cannabis experience and elevate ourselves.