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Cannabis Cultures: Bhang

Cannabis use varies between cultures. Some elements of cannabis consumption certainly seem to be ubiquitous. Smoking cannabis in the ‘marijuana cigarettes’ known colloquially as joints, spliffs, and blunts, for example, seems to pervade almost all geographic boundaries. However, certain practices are unique to a specific culture or location. Today, we will be exploring one such practice: a cannabis concoction known as bhang.

Origins of Bhang

Bhang is a cannabis-infused dairy drink originating from South Asia, and is generally associated with India today. Cannabis has a long history in the region, in part due to its role in certain Hindu religious traditions. Hinduism is a diverse religion originating from the Indian subcontinent. One Hindu religious text identifies cannabis as one of the five most sacred plants, and others mention its medicinal use. In several cities and regions, deities are offered cannabis as part of Hindu religious ceremonies. Cannabis, and bhang in particular, is largely associated with the Hindu god Shiva, who is sometimes called the “Lord of Bhang”.

Other South Asian religious traditions have also used cannabis at times. In addition to its Hindu inhabitants, South Asia is also home to large Muslim and Sikh populations, among others. Muslims in medieval South Asia practiced a medicinal system known as Unani Tibbi that used cannabis medicinally, and Sikh warriors would drink bhang before going into battle. One Sikh order still ritually consumes bhang today.

Contemporary Use of Bhang

Many urban Indians are increasingly turning towards alcohol and tobacco in place of cannabis. Stigma around cannabis use is growing among some upper class Indians, particularly among those that came of age during the prohibition of cannabis use in the 1980s. However, there is one day where cannabis and bhang still enjoy widespread acceptance in India: Holi, the festival of colors.

Holi is a nationwide holiday in India. Participants celebrate by throwing powdered colors on one another. Bhang also plays an important role in the festival, and is consumed by a wide segment of Indian society with little to no stigma. While norms surrounding cannabis and bhang are shifting in India today, this longstanding tradition does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

History of Marijuana

The Unexpected History of Ganja

When you hear the term ‘ganja’, the first thing that comes to mind might be Rastafarianism. Rastafarianism is a religion that began in Jamaica in the 1930s, combining Protestant Christianity with mysticism and a pan-African political consciousness. Rastas use ganja (cannabis) as part of a spiritual, meditative practice. Interestingly, however, the word ‘ganja’ does not originate in the Caribbean. Rather, ‘ganja’ is of Sanskrit origin, an Old Indo-Aryan language from the Indian subcontinent.

So how did a word with Indian roots become so prevalent in a primarily Jamaican religion? The answer lies in the importance of cannabis to aspects of Hindu culture and society and British 19th century imperial policy.

Hinduism and Cannabis

Hinduism is a diverse religion from the Indian subcontinent, dating back as far as the 2nd millennium BCE. Many of its holy texts are written in Sanskrit. Several of these texts identify cannabis as sacred, leading one scholar to assert that “Hindus regard cannabis in much the same way as Christians regard the holy sacrament of wine.” The importance of cannabis to parts of Hindu society can also be seen in local religious practices throughout the Indian subcontinent. In several cities and regions, deities are offered cannabis as part of religious ceremonies.

The British Empire, Slavery, and Indentured Servitude

The British Empire formed the link between the Indian subcontinent, and, hence, Sanskrit-based words for cannabis, and the Caribbean. By the late 18th century, Britain had gained strategic control over parts of India, further consolidating its control throughout the 19th century. In 1833, Britain outlawed slavery. Consequently, the empire’s colonies, especially its rubber and sugar plantations, needed laborers.

Britain looked to the Indian subcontinent for manpower. Indians were taken abroad, often as indentured laborers, to plantations in a variety of locations, including Jamaica. Between 1845 and 1917, Britain brought nearly 40,000 Indian indentured laborers to the country.

Ganja and Rastafarianism

The interweaving of Indian and Jamaican cultures that followed brought the word ‘ganja’ to Jamaica. By the early 20th century, smoking ganja had become common practice among young, black Jamaican field workers. The black-power, pan-African message of Rastafarianism found fertile ground among this disenfranchised population.

As many of these workers were displaced and moved to poor, urban areas, the message of spiritual ganja-use, pan-Africanism, and black liberation grew stronger. Jamaica’s elite felt threatened by this movement, and in 1948, ganja was made illegal. Thus, by the mid 20th century, ganja had become an integral part of the anti-establishment movement that is Rastafarianism.

Historical Cannabis Use in India, Pt. 2

One of the most commonly consumed preparations of cannabis in India is called Bhang. Bhang is offered to Shiva images and statues throughout India, especially on the festival of Shivratri.

Cannabis is such an important part of the religious culture of Benaras, the main city of Shiva worship, that it is sold in government-run shops and used by pilgrims and common folks alike, being part of the religious culture.

In reviewing the use of cannabis in India, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission conducted a government study on the matter and made the following conclusions in their report: “…It is inevitable that temperaments would be found to whom the quickening spirit of bhang is the spirit of freedom and knowledge. In the ecstasy of bhang the spark of the Eternal in man turns into the light the murkiness of matter.

“…Bhang is the Joy-giver, the Sky-filler, the Heavenly-Guide, the Poor Man’s Heaven, the Soother of Grief…No god or man is as good as the religious drinker of bhang…The supporting power of bhang has brought many a Hindu family safe through the miseries of famine. To forbid or even seriously restrict the use of so gracious an herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to large bands of worshipped ascetics, deep-seated anger. It would rob the people of a solace on discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from the attacks of evil influences…”

Ayurvedic and Indian doctors still prescribe cannabis to treat a range of conditions. Slowly the west is finally beginning to recognize the true values of this remarkable plant.