The world we live in today is tremendously a diverse one, always been that way, with vast arrays of societal, cultural and religious differences; each housed uniquely distinct civilizations in their own rights
Even though there are indeed overwhelming differences in these cultures and their way of life, however certain aspects strangely remain quite common that can be found in all civilizations, particularly in their system of faiths, from ancient to the contemporary, especially the mystical branches of such faiths. And such common aspect includes the sacramental and religious usage of cannabis plant or in other words the systematic tradition of using the psychoactive drug, Marijuana (Ganja, in Bengali linguistic terms) to attain spiritual and religious ecstasy and saintly euphoria., a custom common from civilization to civilization, region to region, locale to locale, from ages to ages.
By now it is well agreed amongst the archaeologists, anthropologists and historians that marijuana is perhaps one of mankind’s oldest cultivated crops that dates back to 10,000 BC to even more. According to the experts, since the very first time the hallucinatory aspect of this herb entered into human being’s blood stream that led to the sudden out of the blue euphoric and ecstatic feeling, mankind’s been using this plant as a sacred medium for the communion with the spiritual world and to achieve a elated heavenly delight that they thought opened doors to a numinous new realm of higher consciousness.
Let’s start out with Africa. In his book, “The Dragons of Eden” noted astronomer Carl Sagan stated that, Pygmies of central Africa claim that they have been smoking cannabis since the beginning of time for religious purposes. Same goes for the Zulus, Hottentots and the Bantus, the tribal sects of Africa that used native marijuana crops as medicinal and religious sacrament. The Bashilenge tribes of the same continent who call themselves Bena Riamba, meaning “the sons of hemp” are a cult group whose distinct religious rituals simply revolves around the sacramental usage of home grown cannabis plants. Members of Rastafarian movement in Africa, founded in Jamaica back in 1930’s, are still carrying out that very particular herbal tradition where they use cannabis as a part of their worshipping of God and the enhancement of their meditation process.
Shamanistic usage of cannabis in the ancient China can be traced back to the Neolithic period (beginning 9500 BC, the last part of the Stone Age). And in fact up until sixth century, cannabis was celebrated as one of the seven main food grains in parts of that vast ancient society. By 14th century cannabis became a key aspect in mainstream Chinese medicine. But before that, in many historical writings of ancient Chinese dynasties like Han ((206 BC – 220 AD) and Chou dynasty (700-500 BC), amongst many, talk about the application of cannabis from both religious and healing perspective as well as strongly implying the supposed magical connotations associative with the drug (the power to foretell the future). Several mummies discovered by archeologists in the Xinjiang province of Northwestern China were found to have sacks of cannabis next to their heads, amongst other possessions that were to aid their journey to the after life. Even though ancient Chinese Taoists (practitioners of the religion Taoism, founded in 550 BC) were skeptical about this plant however by first century AD, the followers of this religion started using marijuana seeds in their incense burners as an aid to their meditation which they believed heightened their spiritual awareness.
Ancient Germanic (an ethno-linguistic group of people of Northern European origin) paganism was also linked by the usage of marijuana, for example, it was believed that the Norse love goddess Freya lived in the plant’s flowers, and if one consumes the flower, one is thought to be filled with her divinity. According to experts the legends of the Greek god of intoxication Dionysus, involve both cannabis and wine. Marijuana infused drinks were known to be popular in the ancient Thrace, the home of the oracles of Dionysus who used the drink and other dried herbs to enter into a higher state of divine ecstatic like trance and to be able to predict the future, much like the ancient Chinese. And around 23-79 AD, the Roman historian Pliny wrote on the medicinal utilization of cannabis seed oil to treat ear infection and later Roman physician Claudius Galen (130-200 AD) wrote on how cannabis seed desert was popular amongst the Romans, often served to keep the guests warm and delighted.
The ancient Egyptians (from around 3100 BC) mostly used cannabis for medicinal purposes, from the treatment of sore eyes to a way of medication for Egyptian women to relive sorrow, bad humor and various others, exemplars of which can be found on many Egyptian papyruses including Eber’s Papyrus (1600 BC), believed to be the oldest known complete medical textbook in mankind’s existence.
In the various other ancient regions of middle Earth, the ceremonial usage of cannabis was quite common.
According to the early Greek history and backed by recent archeological findings, various tribes and clans have been applying the elements of cannabis in their way of life for about 2,500 years.
Greek historian Herodotus (484—425 BC) wrote that Scythians, an ancient horse-riding nomadic group of people, reigning the ancient middle Earth from 7th to 1st century BC, whose geographical proximity lay close to modern-day Iran, habitually used marijuana in sacred ceremonies, from religious to funeral observances.
In Zoroastrianism, one of the key religions of the ancient world, founded in ancient Persia back in 8th century BC, it is believed that not only the chief religious sacrament of its priest class was marijuana plant but also it was used as an important medicine as obstetric (the branch of medicine that deals with the care of women during pregnancy, childbirth, and the recuperative period following delivery), incense-rites, anointing and christening oils. The Zoroastrian wise men, also known as Magi (the root word for what we today refer as Magic) were known to practice a religious technique of shamanistic ecstasy which crucially revolved around the consumption of potent preparations of marijuana.
Also an order of Nizari Ismailis of Persian and Syrian decent (existing around 1092 to 1265 AD) were known to use marijuana as part of their sacramental way of life. It is important to mention here that, according to many scholars, the modern word “Assassin” comes from the Arabic word “Hashishin” meaning users of hashish, another term for marijuana. These particular sects of people were called Assassins, mostly because they were histories most fearsome and skilled killers (from Hashishin to Assassin) who would use hashish, through various means, as a part of their pious custom and also strengthen their scholarly efforts, since many of their people were brilliant scientists and academics.
In the ancient Mesopotamia, the home of the once mighty Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, the cradle of human civilization as we know it, the people (particularly the priests of the temples) of these once vibrant places used marijuana as a mean to strengthen their devotion to their religious obligations and spiritual fulfillment in accordance to their distinct sacramental rites and rituals.
Cannabis use was common amongst the ancient Israelites (11th to 7th century BC) the Hebrew speaking people who inhabited the land of Canaan that is the modern day Israel, western Jordan, Southern Lebanon and Palestinian Territories. One of the herbs of interests for these people was kaneh-bosem, a Hebrew word believed to have been originated from the Aramaic word for hemp (The cannabis plant, especially when grown for fiber) kanabos where kan means hemp and bosm means fragrant.
Many scholars believed that the modern word cannabis is actually comes from this Semitic linguistic derivations. And the Israelites applied cannabis, in various forms, from exchange of trade goods, to use it as incense, an ingredient for anointing oil for high priests, kings to various ministers of the temple. The Essenes, an ancient Israelite sect belonging to the time 200 BC to 73 AD were known to use marijuana medicinally just like the Theraputeas, their counterpart in Egypt, and it is from Theraputeas we get the modern word therapeutic which means healing.
India, being one of the most prosperous of the ancient worlds, is no stranger to marijuana. The earliest Indian record of the cannabis plant’s sacred status comes from Atharva Veda, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism and one of the four Vedas, written sometime around 2000-1400 BC which mentions cannabis as one of the five sacred plants. Cannabis is associated with the worship of Hindu deity Shiva, the destroyer God, where Bhang (the leaves and flower-heads of cannabis, used as a narcotic) is offered to the Shiva images, especially during the Shivratri festival in the temples of Benares, Baidynath and Tarakeswar. Cannabis is also an important part in the Tantric (according to experts the mystical branch of Hinduism) rituals, especially during the ceremonial sexual acts sanctified to the Goddess Kali, the Hindu Goddess of power, where the devotee drinks bhang one and half hour before the sexual ritual. Just like the other spiritual branches of contemporary religions, the Sufis, the mystical celebrants of Islam were also known to be the frequent users of marijuana for hundreds of years chiefly to attain divine revelation, spiritual insight and achieve a greater sense of oneness with the almighty creator.
Cannabis use today
Many of the ancient world’s great civilizations from Americas to the great African continent, Europe to the vast diverse regions of the mighty Asia, people have been applying ceremonially the psycho-stimulating power of marijuana to activate their religious sense of being in order to achieve a sense of trance-like higher realm of spirituality. Given the narcotic quantity found in cannabis, this plant and its products have been defined illegal in most parts of the world. However, at the end of the day, this drug is in fact a drug after that entire do contains some health benefits which is why today it is often used for medicinal purposes in many physical and psychological health related problems. And this is no surprise because there have been archeological evidences which suggest that since 2737 BC, the cannabis plant have been used for medicinal purposes. And in recent times research have found out that this plant, if applied medicinally upon doctor’s prescription, can have positive effects, if not curative, on a wide ranging health related problems like asthma, digestive diseases, leukemia, skin tumors, Parkinson’s disease, alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder, depression, hepatitis C, colorectal cancer, HIV-Associated Sensory Neuropathy and many more.
It seems cannabis has come a long way from being merely a primal mean to seek a greater sense of spiritual tranquility.
Originally Published in Weed World Magazine Issue 98