Romantic fantasies of “the East” in American and European writings often centered on the use of intoxicating plants like cannabis and opium. These writings represent one side of the duality of attraction and repulsion that many call Orientalism. Such ideas not only defined geography but also inspired and shaped European projects of colonization. Imperial administrators might wear local clothes or become fascinated by Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but this desire went hand-in-hand with the ease to brutality. In other words, fascination and repulsion are part of the same process of defining the “other”, the outsider. In such famous nineteenth century works as the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and The Hasheesh Eater, the authors connected the mystical experiences they had from ingesting opium and cannabis to “the East”. Yet their desire for these plants also reproduced them as foreign, irrational, suspicious, and even effeminate. Cannabis and opium were certainly used and grown to a certain extent in various regions of Asia, but this European fascination with “Eastern” intoxication resulted in an overemphasis of its use in these places. Cannabis, specifically, has been associated with South Asia. Longterm tourist industries have existed which cater to white foreigners wanting to smoke ganja. However the local use of cannabis is much more multi varied. The story of bhang, a cannabis-infused drink, provides a good illustration of this complexity.
Cannabis has a long history in South Asia since it freely grows in the mountainous tracts of North India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Because of this connection, India did not make cannabis illegal until 1985 and bhang remains legal in many Indian states to this very day. However, when looking closely at cannabis in India, there are mixed feelings regarding its use for intoxication, whether for religious purposes or recreation. The amalgam of diverse religious and spiritual customs which we call Hinduism, includes some instances of religious cannabis use but is more often a religion of abstention from intoxicants of various kinds, including cannabis.
Three words for different forms of cannabis have originated from Sanskrit, the ancient language of many of the oldest Hindu texts. The first, ganja, refers to dried flowers of the female plants. The second, chara, is essentially hash made by collecting the resin from the female flowers. The third is bhang. Sometimes this word refers to the male cannabis plants or a dried mix of the top leaves, but more often it means a cannabis-infused drink. Bhang is the most common and accepted form. It is prepared in many different ways, but the main idea is that you grind up the flowers and leaves (often dried but sometimes fresh) of the cannabis plant with a mortar and pestle. You then mix the powder or paste with milk and filter it through a cloth. Spices and other additives can then be blended with this milk concoction. Sugar is the most important for sweetening, but many recipes also include black pepper, cardamom, fruits, poppy seeds, crushed almonds, or pistachios. Another popular form often sold to tourists is bhang lassi, which uses yogurt instead of milk.
There have been many different reports of bhang use for religious celebrations or holidays. A few people drink it during the playful festivities of the spring festival, called Holi in Hindi-speaking areas, Basanta Utsav in West Bengal, and Phagwa in Bihar. Shiva worshippers use it during the Shivatri festival dedicated to the God Shiva. Some people also drink bhang on the last day of the famous Bengali holiday of Durga Puja. Because of these many instances of holy use, it is very easy to find misinterpretations of bhang amongst the writings of Americans and Europeans. The claim that ancient Hindu texts reference the spiritual use of cannabis and particularly the drinking of bhang are highly contested. For example, the most ancient Hindu texts of the Vedas include the digestion of drinks, often from the plant called soma, which bring amrita, or immortality. Some have claimed this was bhang, yet most scholars argue that it was something else, like psilocybin mushrooms, or more convincingly, the sacred eastern lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). Cannabis was certainly listed in Hindu medical texts, but most Sanskrit scholars now think that soma, and other similar sacred drinks in the Hindu texts, do not actually refer to bhang.
Nevertheless, when the British Parliament created a hemp commission to investigate the use of cannabis in British India, the resulting report printed in 1894 detailed the multitude of practices and beliefs regarding the plant. The commission took 7 months to compile statements from over 700 witnesses which elaborated the ways that cannabis was used in different regions. The commission recommended that the colonial government continue to limit, regulate, and tax the use of various forms of cannabis, but not make it illegal. The commission posited a number of reasons for the futility of making cannabis illegal in India: 1) in many places it grew wild and would be impossible to eradicate 2) it was an ancient religious practice and so banning it would be an encroachment on religious liberty 3) most people only used it occasionally and not habitually 4) they could not with good conscience take away a common form of relaxation amongst the poor. Yet many of the elite Indian men who were either members of the commission or witnesses, claimed that cannabis was not commonly used for religious purposes. Moreover, they associated cannabis use with those of “disreputable character.” Amongst these men, bhang was the safest mode of consumption.
For example, the prominent Bengali landowner Raja Soshi Sikhareswar Roy, a member of the commission, submitted his note of dissent. He instead suggested the banning of chara and gradual prohibition of ganja because of their harmful health effects, but that bhang, as a weaker sort of beverage, should not be regulated if grown and consumed at home. Bhang, he argued was a cooling medicine freely available to the rural poor, and should not be limited by taxes or licenses. A huge number of witness statements collected by the commission expressed similar reservations. They associated the use of ganja and chara with the lower classes or traveling holy men prone to trickery. They instead highlighted bhang as an acceptable pastime used sparingly at Holi or Durga Puja.
The Hemp Drugs Commission report gives just one snapshot of cannabis in India from an elite perspective. There were many diverse approaches to its use, including abstention. Drinking bhang was and continues to be an occasional drink used to celebrate holidays and gain spiritual experience. As a genteel and tasty method for altering your mind, its use is much more accepted than smoking ganja. Nevertheless, cannabis has never fulfilled as prominent a role in Indian religion as imagined by many romantic writers. It does not have the same ubiquity as alcohol does in Europe, and so should not supersede a recognition of the complexity of the Hindu religion.
Andrew McDonald, “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma,” Economic Botany, Vol. 58 (Winter, 2004), pp. S147-S173.
Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1893-94. Simla: Government Central Printing Office, 1894.