Cannabis Use in the Ancient World: Ancient India

23rd December 2020

Cannabis is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, with evidence suggesting that we humans may have been making use of the crop for up to 10,000 years. This relationship has endured practically unincumbered to the present day, in spite of the widespread prohibition of the plant in modern societies.

Following decades of efforts to stomp out the use of the plant, many countries are now beginning to re-liberalise cannabis with access to both medical and recreational cannabis is becoming a hot topic. To honour the many uses of the plant, we are taking a look at how some ancient societies used hemp and cannabis to treat their ailments and for spiritual purposes. In this article, we will be exploring evidence of how Ancient Indians made use of the plant.

Hemp, a variety of low-THC cannabis, has a long history of industrial use, thanks to its hardy stem and fibre. The plant has been used for making clothes, weapons, and ship sails, among many other things. But the plant also has a long connection to ancient religion and medicine.

Cannabis and Ancient Hinduism

Hinduism has been the primary religion in the region of India – referring historically to the lands around the Indus river and valley. The Sanskrit word for cannabis – ‘bhang’ or ‘bhanga’ – is believed to have been the source for the Arabic word ‘benj’ and Persian ‘beng’. Cannabis has a long and rich history in this part of the world can still be found growing wild in many areas today – particularly in regions at the foothills of the Himalayas.

The Vedas and Cannabis

Our knowledge of the use of cannabis in ancient Indian societies comes largely from ancient Hindu scriptures known as The Vedas. These sacred texts were recorded in the written word between 1500-500 BCE. Before this, it is believed the teachings of The Vedas were passed from master to student for generations and memorised to keep the original message intact.

In The Vedas, Cannabis is listed as one of the five sacred crops alongside barley and soma (an unidentified plant of which the juice was a ritual drink). It is believed that the plant has been used as part of Ayurveda (traditional medicine) since the Vedic Period and it is largely associated with the god Shiva.

Cannabis as it features in Hindu Legends…

Various Hindu legends tell of the god Shiva and his consumption of cannabis – referred to as bhang. For example, the story of the Hindu gods churning up the cosmic ocean to access the elixir of immortality (Amrit). Some versions of this legend state that cannabis began to grow where drops of this elixir fell.

Shiva ancient hindu india cannabis
Statue of Hindu God, Shiva

Another version states that when the god of destruction, Shiva, was called upon to drink the poison that was produced from the churned ocean, his throat turned blue and he was in immense pain until he was given bhang by his wife, Parvati.

While there are a number of stories in Hinduism – usually surrounding Shiva – that reference cannabis use. However, these tales didn’t particularly promote the use of cannabis as an intoxicant or medicine. Many believe that these tales warn of the toxicity of the plant when consumed in the wrong way and so, traditional preparations focus on the purifying the toxic properties of cannabis.

Despite the references to the toxicity of cannabis, the link between plant and the divine in ancient Hindu culture has resulted in the use of cannabis by holy people in their attempts to become closer to their chosen God, Shiva.

Furthermore, while cannabis is technically prohibited in India, this law does not include the leaves of the plant. Therefore, it is not uncommon to witness the consumption of bhang, particularly on the festival night of Shivaratri.

How was Cannabis Used in Ancient India?

Medicinal Uses

Cannabis has been used as part of Hindu spiritual practises and traditional medicine for perhaps thousands of years. However, the earliest mention of ‘bhang’ – a Sanskrit word for cannabis – as a medicine has been traced back to the works of Sushruta, believed to have been written between 500-600 AD.

Cannabis plant

The Sushruta refers to cannabis as “anti-phlegmatic” (and recommended as a remedy for catarrh accompanied by diarrhoea, as well as a cure for biliary fever. In Ayurveda, cannabis has mainly been used to treat conditions of the digestive and respiratory tracts. However, there is also evidence in later literary sources that cannabis has been used to treat other ailments including epilepsy and asthma.

Other Uses

In addition to the medicinal and spiritual uses of the plant, Ancient Indians would also have used the hemp plant for industrial purposes similar to those seen in other regions at the time. For example, hemp fibres have been used in the production of textiles including clothing for thousands of years.

There is evidence that ancient Indian technicians may have been the first to practise ‘hempcrete’ technology – a form of plaster that contains ‘bhang’ mixed with clay or lime plaster. The natural insecticide and pesticide properties of hemp fibres are thought to have helped preserve artwork in the Ellora cave for almost 1500 years!

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