Where we last left off in the story of cannabis through history, it was making its way along the routes of ancient traders and invaders, west from China into the Indian subcontinent. Around 2000 B.C the nomadic Aryans of central Asia were themselves spreading onto the Indian subcontinent, bringing with them animistic rituals involving cannabis across the mountains. They are thought to have brought with them the word Bhang, a name by which cannabis products are referred to in India to this day.
The term Aryan in this historical context refers to migratory peoples who made their way from the central Asian steppe into the Indus valley in northern India around 1500 B.C. They crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and encountered the pre-existing Indus Valley Civilization. There is some debate whether the disappearance of this earlier civilization was the result of warlike invasion, or gradual mass migration into an already declining Indus Valley Civilization. In either case, these Aryans brought with them a set of animistic spiritual beliefs, including rituals in which cannabis or “Bhang” played a central role. These animistic religious beliefs and practices were codified to create the Upanishads – texts which formed the basis of Hinduism.
Throughout the Vedas, seminal Hindu texts from this era which include the Upanishads, cannabis enjoys a legendary spiritual status. Created by the gods for the pleasure of mankind, cannabis itself carries a powerful creation mythology in Hindu culture. The gods stirred the heavens with the peak of Mount Mandara – which is thought to refer to Mount Everest. Celestial nectar, called amrita, fell to earth – where a hemp plant soon sprouted. Upset over a family dispute, the god Shiva went off seeking time alone in the fields. He found refuge from the hot sun under the shade of a tall cannabis plant. He grew curious about the properties of the plant itself, and ate some of the leaves – finding them so refreshing they became his favorite food. Shiva acquired the title Lord of Bhang. Another portion the Vedas describes achieving communion with Shiva through the use of cannabis. It is also called one of the five sacred plants, and called on to deliver humanity from disaster, demons, and disease. Its use is considered to cleanse humans of sin.
Another section of the Vedas mentions a magical plant called soma, considered itself to be a god, and to impart the qualities of the deity to any mortal who consumed it. A process described in some detail, it was created by beating a plant with stones during religious rituals and mixing the pulp with water to create a beverage, it was consumed by priests during the services. Despite some similarity with accounts of cannabis use in this area, the historical record of soma is separate. Over the millennia, the identity of the plant was lost – but the mythology and legend lived on, described here in 1921’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (referred to as Haoma)-
“In such a state, the devotee becomes as powerful as an independent monarch, and is able to withstand many dangers coming from ill-disposed persons. Heaven, health, long life, power to contend against evils, victory against enemies, and fore-warnings against coming dangers from thieves, murderers, and plunderers are the six gifts bestowed by Haoma when adequately praised and prepared. Haoma is specially sought for by young maidens in search of good husbands, by married women desirous of being mothers, and by students striving after knowledge.”
With such monumental descriptions left behind, the hunt for the identity of Soma was one of the great historical mysteries of the 20th century, which saw a wide array of theories. Psychedelic explorers ranging from Gordon Wasson in the 40s to Terence Mckenna in the 90s presented theories that Soma referred to various psychoactive mushrooms - including amanita, fly agaric, and stropharia cubensis. An omission of any discussion of roots or leaves in the early texts lead some to take to these mushroom theories. Other scientists and historians have proposed the use of plants ranging from stimulant ephedra, to Syrian Rue, milkweed, mandrake and opium. However, leaving behind the vagueness of ancient texts, physical archaeological evidence points to the use of cannabis after all – possibly alongside ephedra and opium. Russian archaeologists working in central Asia have found evidence of ephedra mixed with cannabis for rituals similar to those described in relation to soma. Later sites seem to have made use of opium mixed with ephedra instead – indicating that cannabis may have been replaced by other plants later on, leading to a confusing historical record.
Whatever soma refers to, it held a similar role in Hindu legend as cannabis – and speaks to the mythological respect given to such substances in early Hindu spirituality. This serves as an interesting contrast with the story of cannabis in ancient China. China was a static, almost isolated society with relatively little cultural exchange through war or migration over the millennia. The cultural makeup of China today is pretty similar to the makeup of ancient China. The modern Han Chinese ethnic majority is in large part the same ethnic population that was present for the roots of ancient Chinese society. Natural barriers such as mountains or deserts prevented most invasion and migration. The result was an ancient society that inherently valued purity, uniformity, and sobriety, and did not incorporate cannabis the way Indian society did.
Held in such high esteem spiritually, we know cannabis in India began as a sacrament consumed mainly by Brahmin priests of this proto-Hindu religion – whatever its overlap with the mythical soma. They believed it brought them closer to the gods and to enlightenment, and helped to withstand thirst, hunger (interesting), and pain. Priests who performed spiritual feats such as walking on coals or spikes would use it to transcend these physical sensations. At some religious festivals in this early period, the public was given access as well. At the festival of Deshera, celebrating the victory of the god Rama over another deity, Orthodox Hindus (forbidden from alcohol consumption) would drink cannabis tea.
Later on, cannabis found a similarly revered placed in Buddhist legend and practice. On his quest for enlightenment, Siddhartha who later became Buddha, supposedly ate nothing but one hemp seed a day for six years. This ascetic deprivation apparently helped him to achieve the enlightenment that would blossom into the Buddhist religion – first in Northern India. Centuries later, the Tantric religious movement – with its focus on channeling the divine into the human experience, used cannabis in its own rituals.
After a few thousand years in Indian society, this spiritual practices evolved into a social use which might be called recreational today. Soon, bhang was commonly consumed at weddings and offered as hospitality to guests. Through the centuries of poverty and famine, the poor of India had free access to cannabis growing ready to use in the wild – unlike alcohol or opium, which required processing, and the means to do so. Different forms of consumption developed over time in India – including the bhang lassi – a shake like yogurt beverage infused with cannabis leaf and flower still popular today and easily found in northern India. Ganja refers to dense resinous flowers sought after for a stronger effect – a term heavily borrowed by our own English speaking cannabis culture. Finally, there is charas – a hash product harvested from high altitude plants and formed into sticks, blocks, and cakes with a high percentage of purely resin. To this day all these products are found in northern India. Nepalese and Bhutanese porters in the Himalayas still use cannabis as a sort of stimulant.
India in the ancient era was by geographical nature a culture more open to outside influences. As a crossroads between east and west these societies were more used to integrating foreign ideas and practices. In the ancient era, one of these foreign practices was that of cannabis use. This serves as an interesting comparison to the story of cannabis in China, or many other societies which rejected cannabis use as alien and considered the practice generally against the grain of the mainstream. This openness worked well for India for much of its history. The following millennia in India would see a wider variety of ideas – cultures, religions, and philosophies sharing one subcontinent with a high degree of harmony relative to other parts of the world.