“We beseech, kindle the perfect ambrosia: the supreme nectar of sacred knowledge, the sacramental substance, here for all the assembled yogis.”
~ The Mahakala Tantra*
With legalization in Washington and Colorado and over a dozen states allowing cannabis for medical use, it seems there is a buzz spreading through North America these days. Some members of the yoga community have caught it as well, leading to some recent news stories about the development of Ganja Yoga. However, not all schools of yoga, nor advocates of the Eastern practice approve of cannabis-enhanced asana sessions, and this has led to some debate.
Most of the critics of the combination of cannabis with yogic practice seem to assume this is a rather new development; an offshoot of the medical marijuana movement and the growing cultural use in the West of cannabis, but the reality is the combination of marijuana and Hatha Yoga is considerably old as can be seen from a thorough examination of the historical record, which shall be cited here.
However, it is first important to note that one of the causes of this debate, is the confusion that yoga is simply a form of fitness and exercise, as it has become largely seen in the West. This actually just represents one branch of yoga, Hatha Yoga—or the yoga of postures.
There are many different types of yoga: Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion; Jnana Yoga, the yoga of the mind; Karma Yoga, the yoga of service; Tantra Yoga, the yoga of rituals; Kriya Yoga, the yoga of medtiation and Raja Yoga, the yoga—which comes down to us from the sage Patanjali and his ancient codification of yogic practices, with its eight limbs of Yoga:
1. Yama: universal morality
2. Niyama: personal observances
3. Asanas: body postures
4. Pranayama: breathing exercises, and control of prana
5. Pratyahara: control of the senses
6. Dharana: concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana: devotion and meditation on the Divine and Samadhi: union with the Divine
However, all these various forms of yoga have a common goal, and that call is the merging of subject and object reality into the classical cross cultural mystic state and experience of oneness: samadhi or union with the divine.
Yoga means union, and it is here that cannabis can offer its beneficial qualities to the seeker of this state which is the true original goal of yoga, not how one looks in their yoga pants. The goal of Hatha Yoga is so that one can sit comfortably in a meditative state, without the distraction of various body irritations and achieve this mystic trance of oneness.
In relation to cannabis’ potential role in achieving this state, as Kriya Yoga master Swami Satyananda Saraswati noted in his Kundalini Tantra (1984):
“You know what happens if you take a dose of ganja (marijuana)? Take a few puffs and see what happens to your mind. It slows down and the brain waves change from theta to beta, from alpha to delta. Suddenly you feel calm and quiet. What happened to your mind? You didn’t fight with it. I’m not advocating the use of ganja, I’m just giving you a very gross example of how Kriya Yoga works on your mind. By infusing ganja or some hallucinogenic drug, the chemical properties of the gross body change. The heart slows down, the breathing rate changes, the brain waves alter and the mind becomes calm and still. Is it not possible to arrive at the same point through Kriya Yoga? Yes, this is exactly what is accomplished through Kriya Yoga.”
A similar analogy occurs in Hooper and Teresi’s stellar book on the human brain, The Three Pound Universe (1986);
“‘One can look at some religious aphorisms as a form of psychological noise reduction,’ says Charles (Chuck) Honorton, who directs the Princeton Psychophysical Research Laboratories in New Jersey. Purity, poverty, contemplation and so on aren’t just for the sake of piety. These are methods of removing sensory distraction and increasing mental concentration. A good example is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, composed in the second century B.C. in India. All the practices can be seen as systematic noise reduction, which eventually culminates in samahdi, a transcendental state in which normal boundaries between the self and others disappears. It may not be dissimilar to what people experience on marijuana when they find themselves staring at the wallpaper for twenty minutes.”
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali itself records that the powers acquired through yogic practices could also be gained through the ingestion of certain herbs.
Yogasutras 4.1: The subtler attainments come with birth or are attained through herbs, mantra, austerities or concentration.
Some modern aspirants have suggested that by herbs, things such as cardamom are indicated, rejecting the idea that this was a reference to cannabis, or other psychoactive plants. But this is just an assumption, not based on any textual reference and cardamom has little psychological effect.
Clearly, Patanjali was referring to something with a profound psychological effect. We do know from the Vedas, Puranas and other sources, which directly refer to cannabis under its known names of sana and bhang, that cannabis, datura and other psychoactive plants were in use in India at that time, and had been for centuries prior as well.
It has been suggested that yoga itself was a means of naturally mimicking the psychological effects of the Vedic elixir Soma. Due to the suppression of the Vedic Soma cult, which partook of a sacred elixir made from a psychoactive plant of that same name, the identity of such was lost to history.
In my book, Cannabis and the Soma Solution, I offer archeological, etymological and ancient documents to show that Soma was originally a cannabis preparation, although over time a variety of plants were used.
It is important to remember Patanjali—that he was not the creator of yoga, but rather a codifier of a tradition that had existed for some time prior to his composition of the Yoga Sutras, composed sometime between 100 BC to 300 AD.
In regards to yoga’s origins, that is generally credited to, at least on a mythological level, to the pre-Vedic god Shiva. The Pashupati seal, (2900BC-1900BC) which according to its discoverer, Sir John Marshal and others, depicts Shiva in the cross legged yoga position, dates back to the Stone Age. The discoverer of the seal, Sir John Marshall, and others have claimed that this figure is a prototype of Shiva. The archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who is the current co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project in Pakistan, and Indologist Heinrich Zimmer are amongst those who believe that the posture of the Pashupati indicates yogic practices.
As the Times of India has noted, “Yoga originated from Shiva:”
“In the yogic culture, Shiva is not known as a God, but as the first Guru or the Adi Guru; he is the Adi Yogi or the first Yogi. Out of his realization, he became ecstatic and danced all over the mountains or sat absolutely still. He was constantly into bouts of stillness and bouts of mad dancing.
All the gods who saw him, saw something was happening to him that they themselves did not know. Suddenly, heaven felt like a bad place, because this guy is having such a good time! They felt, “We are missing out on something.” When they finally got him to teach the method, Shiva expounded various types of yogas depending upon the level of preparedness of the person who was sitting in front of him.”
~ Times of India, Sadhguru, Mar 19th, 2009
Shiva is also, ‘The Lord of Bhang [Cannabis].’ “The votaries of Eudra-Siva are addicted to Cannabis sativa” (Chakbraberty, 1944). “According to the old Hindu poems, God Shiva brought down the hemp plant from the Himalayas and gave it to mankind” (Chopra, 1939).
The Mahanirvana Tantra (XI,105-8) recorded: “Intoxicating drink (containing bhang) is consumed in order to liberate oneself, and that those who do so, in dominating their mental faculties and following the law of Shiva (yoga), are to be likened to immortals on earth…” This same text contains a prayer or mantra to be used before one consumes the sacred herb: “Bhava na sana hridayam,” which means: “May this sana (Sanskrit for cannabis) be a blessing to my heart.”As the 19th century Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report recorded of the Adi Yogi, Shiva’s cultic connection to cannabis:
“It is chiefly in connection with the worship of Siva, the…great god of the Hindu trinity, that the hemp plant, and more especially perhaps ganja, is associated. The hemp plant is popularly believed to have been a great favorite of Siva, and the drug in some form or other is extensively used in the exercise of the religious practices connected with this form of worship.
Religious ascetics, who are regarded with great veneration by the people at large, believe that the hemp plant is a special attribute of the god Siva, and this belief is largely shared by the people. There is evidence to show that on almost all occasions of the worship of this god, the hemp drugs in some form or other are used. These customs are so intimately connected with their worship that they may be considered to form in some sense an integral part of it.”
~ IHDCR, 1894
This close association clearly goes back back to the myth of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, “Shiva on fire with the poison churned from the ocean was cooled by bhang,” (IHDCR, 1894).
“According to one account, when nectar was produced from the churning of the ocean, something was wanted to purify the nectar. The deity supplied the want of a nectar-cleanser by creating bhang. This bhangMahadev [Shiva] made from his own body, and so it is called angaj or body-born.
According to another account some nectar dropped to the ground and from the ground the bhang plant sprang. It was because they used this child of nectar or of Mahadev in agreement of religious forms that the seers or Rishis became Siddha or one with the deity.
He who despite the example of the Rishis, uses no bhang shall lose his happiness in this life and in the life to come. In the end he shall be cast into hell. The mere sight of bhang, cleanses from as much sin as a thousand horse-sacrifices or a thousand pilgrimages. He who scandalizes the user of bhang shall suffer the torments of hell so long as the sun endures. He who drinks bhang foolishly or for pleasure without religious rites is as guilty as the sinner of sins. He who drinks wisely and according to rule, be he ever so low, even though his body is smeared with human ordure and urine, is Shiva.
No god or man is as good as the religious drinker of bhang. The students of the scriptures at Beanres are given bhang before they sit to study. At Benares, Ujjain, the other holy places, the yogis, bairagis, and sanyasis take deep draughts of bhang that they may center there thoughts on the Eternal.
The Hindu poet of Shiva, the Great Spirit that living in bhang passes into the drinker, sings of bhang as the clearer of ignorance, the giver of knowledge. No gem or jewel can touch in value bhangtaken truly and reverently. He who drinks bhang drinks Shiva. The soul in whom the spirit of bhang finds a home glides into the ocean of Being freed from the weary round of matter-blinded self.
So the right user of bhang or of ganja, before beginning to drinker smoke, offers the drug to Mahadev saying, lena Shankar, lena Babulnath: be pleased to take Shankar, take it Babulnath. According to the Shiva Parann, from the dark fourteenth of Magh (January-February) to the light fourteenth of Asbadh (June-July), that is, during the three months of the hot weather,bhang should be daily poured over the Ling [sacred phallic image] of Shiva every day, bhang should be poured at least during the first and last days of this period. According to the Meru Tantra on any Monday, especially on Shravan (July-August) Mondays, on all twelfths pradoshs, and on all dark fourteenths or shivratris still more on the Mahashivratri or Shiva’s Great Night on dark fourteenth of Magh (January-February.), and at all eclipses of the sun or moon, persons wistful either for this world or for the world to come should offer bhang to Shiva and pour it over the Ling.”
~ IHDCR, 1894
A contemporary depiction shows Shiva partaking of bhang, which is being offered by his wife Parvati while his elephant headed son Ganesh prepares more of the sacred elixir with a mortar and pestle in the foreground. Considering this image of family bliss and the making of bhang, it is interesting to note that in one myth about the discovery of cannabis, Shiva “enraged with family worries…withdrew to the fields. The cool shade .of a plant soothed him. He crushed and partook of the leaves, and the bhang refreshed him.”( IHDCR, 1894).
In Sadhus—India’s Mystic Holy Men, Dolf Hartsuiker explains more about Shiva’s special relationship with cannabis and the later development of smoking it:
“…the smoking of charas [cannabis] is… regarded as a sacred act…Intoxication as a ‘respected’… method of self-realization is related to soma the nectar of the gods, which is recommended in the Vedas as a sure means of attaining divine wisdom.
Mythologically, charas, is intimately connected with Shiva: he smokes it, he is perpetually intoxicated by it, he is the Lord of Charas…Babas offer the smoke to him; they want to take part in his ecstasy, his higher vision of reality.”
~ Hartsuiker, 1993
Thus, since its inception, the use of ganja has been synonymous with Yoga, and the original goal of Yoga, cosmic union.
The Adi Yogi Shiva, who is by tradition said to have brought down both to mankind, and to this very day, if one were to stroll down the sacred Ganges River, which flows from Shiva’s matted dreadlocks at the crown of his head, they would see Yogis, partaking of bhang, ganja and charas, all cannabis preparations, before beginning their daily asanas and mediation rituals, as they have done for thousands of years prior to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras themselves composed thousands of years ago.
Those Indian teachers who prescribe against it, opinions are often times remnants of the British Raj which tried with all its might to suppress its use, and those Westerners who treat it as some sort of new phenomena, quite frankly, are misinformed.
*The Mahakala Tantra includes cannabis in a long list of medicinal recipes and describes it as the perfect medicine.
Chris Bennett has been studying the historical role of cannabis—particularly in the realms of religion, spirituality and magic—for over 20 years. He is one of our most passionate and committed advocates for reclaiming and honouring cannabis’ potential as a medicine and spiritual ally. Chris is also considered one of the leading scholars on the history of the spiritual use of cannabis. He is the author of three books: Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2000); and Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010), as well as dozens of articles on this same theme for a variety of magazines and journals. Chris currently resides in Vancouver, where he owns and runs an ethnobotanical shop, The Urban Shaman.
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Assistant Ed: Christa Angelo/Ed: Bryonie Wise