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.