By DEAN CHRISTOPHER
Since ancient times, people have used drugs — in groups or individually — as part of religious rituals and for personal spiritual quests. Even without specific references to ingesting mind-altering plants, throughout history the link between substance and spirituality has been indirectly described or can be inferred through logical deduction.
That said, the simple belief, however sincere, that cannabis usage constitutes a religious sacrament is not necessarily sufficient to convince legal authorities that possession and use of marijuana is not a crime.
Most of today’s major religions not only do not use cannabis during worship; they specifically forbid their members to use it at all, for perceived moral as well as actual legal reasons. Some go to extremes. Muslim societies, often at governmental levels, strictly prohibit alcohol and other intoxicants. They can impose severe penalties on anyone caught with liquor or drugs. Punishments range from burdensome fines to physical beating to imprisonment to public beheading. Thus their viewpoint is made clear to all.
This does not change the fact that, throughout history, other religious leaders have been — and in many places, continue to be — enthusiastic advocates for the spiritual value of cannabis. Since cannabis is arguably the world’s oldest, most widely cultivated crop, it is unsurprising that it should have been used for religious, as well as medical and social, purposes in virtually every culture on Earth.
Religious groups use cannabinoids (and similar substances) in their rites for many reasons: To commune with gods, nature and one another. As a path to enlightenment. For initiation or anointing new members. As a companion to prayer. To celebrate holidays or special occasions. Some consider cannabis a sacrament akin to Communion. Marijuana has also enhanced certain cults’ “sacred sex” rituals.
Since religions are so closely invested in the physical health of their adherents, cannabis has often been used as medication for members’ well-being.
In the beginning. As noted above, since ancient times, cannabis has been a part of religious rituals all over the world — the spiritual equivalent of its role in physical healing.
But it is important to understand that what we call “religion” today was not so narrowly defined in ancient times. Our distant ancestors made no distinction between medicine and religion. It was all mysterious, divine. Medicine was considered part of the magical arts. Shamans or tribal chiefs were doctors and spiritual leaders — healers of souls as well as bodies. “Medicine men” in the full sense of the word. They could invoke “healing spirits” with the help of nature’s pharmacy — plants whose properties they knew from personal experience. These were seen to produce an altered state, in which good (and sometimes bad!) forces could be invoked.
Far out in the Far East. Ancient Chinese documents — identified as a respected pharmacopeia — refer to cannabis as a magical plant useful for contacting the spirit world. Mummies from about 1000 B.C. exhumed in Northwest China were found next to large sacks of marijuana, from which archeologists surmised that they were shamans or healers (more likely both, as mentioned above). Some Taoists believed that a potion of ginseng and cannabis could help them accurately predict the future.
The Hindu connection. The ritual use of cannabis among Hindus has been noted since 1500 B.C., mentioned in the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and other sacred texts. Bhang became the favored form of cannabis for Shiva worship, a custom which continues to the present day. Devotees sip a bhang herbal infusion (or tea) of cannabis leaves, flowers and selected flavorings. Sometimes milk is added to the potion. Lest anyone doubt the importance of cannabis to Indian culture, consider that “Bengal” means “Land of bhang,” and “Bangladesh” stands for “People from the bhang country.”
Besides Shiva, the goddess Kali-Ma is closely associated with cannabis. Indeed, these two may enjoy the oldest continuous tradition of worship of any deities, predating even Hebrew, norse and East Asian gods. Devotees of Kali-Ma use marijuana to enhance erotic activities designed to draw kundalini fi re from the base of the spine up into their higher chakras.
The Sikh sect from the Punjabi region of northwest india is known to use bhang mixtures in their religious observances. it is approved by their Holy Scripture, the Adi Granth. is this why the Buddha smiles? it is widely claimed that Gautama Siddartha (known to the West as Buddha, the “wise one”) subsisted on a strict diet of cannabis seeds for several years before reaching his enlightenment. Based on this endorsement of “the holy plant” from their Founder, cannabis is still part of some Buddhist rituals, notably the Tibetan Tantric sect.
Northern light-ups. In north European (Germanic and Scandinavian) cultures, cannabis was often linked to worship of Freya, the norse love goddess, equivalent to the Egyptian isis, roman Venus, Greek Aphrodite and Hindu radha. These cultures believed that she dwelled within the plant’s leaves, and worshippers could partake of her divine love-power by chewing the leaves. Predictably, this ingestion was usually accompanied by erotic rites. Hashish residue found in ancient Celtic ruins suggests that at least some of their tribes also used cannabis in their rituals.
and in Biblical times … rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his 1981 book The Living Torah, writes that Kabbalists over the centuries have used mind altering drugs to intensify their mystic experience. This suggests that “burnt offerings” probably does not refer exclusively to barbecued oxen or goats. Kaplan and other scholars claim that the “kaneh bosem” referred to in ancient Hebrew texts was a cannabis-like plant included in anointing oil. in some Biblical accounts, wise men (including King Solomon) and their wives and children enhanced their wisdom with herbal stimulants.
In Part Two, The 420 Times takes a look at cannabis and religion in Ancient Greece, Rome and elsewhere, including early Christianity and Islam. Stay tuned!
By DEAN CHRISTOPHER