When it comes to cannabis history, India and the Indian subcontinent have about as long of a history with cannabis as is possible. Indigenous to the area, wild indica plants have been growing at the foot of the Himalayan mountains and across the Indian plains for centuries. India is currently - and has been since its independence in 1947 - the most populous democracy in the world. With a population of 1.4 billion people and a long and storied history with cannabis, today we will be exploring the ancient history of cannabis in India and what’s changed over the last 4 millenia.
It is believed that the first mentions of cannabis in India comes from the Vedas, ancient Hindu texts compiled between 2000 and 1400 BCE. Meaning “knowledge”, the four Vedas are believed to be one of, if not the oldest religious scriptures still in use today, having existed as oral traditions passed down from masters to students for generations prior to its compilation into text. Referred to as bhang in the Atharva Veda, cannabis is among the five sacred plants listed in the text, which include barley and a mysterious plant used in rituals called soma. It is given as a gift to bring happiness, said to help overcome anxiety and revered for its psychoactive properties as a way to get closer to the divine. While the general consensus seems to be that the occurrence of bhang in the Vedas is referring to cannabis, there was an indication that there may be some debate on this topic, if less prevalent.
In the ancient practice of holistic Indian medicine called Ayurveda, cannabis was used to treat phlegmatic illness, pain, and anxiety. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine would make cannabis based concoctions that were tailored to an individual's needs.
Not only is cannabis included as a sacred plant in an ancient religious text, it also holds a special place in the worship and legend of the Hindu deity Shiva. One of the three major deities in Hinduism, Shiva is often associated with the sacred plant and from what I was able to find, there are multiple legends and stories associated with the god, who is associated with destruction, creation and meditation. According to one source, Shiva wandered into a field and after a fight with his family and, exhausted from the heat and the fight, fell asleep underneath a leafy plant. When he woke up he ate one of the leaves out of curiosity and was “instantly revived” and came to be known as the Lord of Bhang. The Cannabis Museum of Amsterdam says that Shiva stumbled upon the “euphoric and meditative properties” of cannabis while wandering the Himalayas.
In the Ancient Cannabis article I wrote in 2021, I mentioned that though China is believed to have the longest history of cannabis cultivation in the world, India’s religious, ritual and medicinal use of cannabis dates back possibly over 4 millenia. This long and sacred history has and still influences current attitudes towards cannabis in India.
Not So Ancient History
Despite cannabis’ wide variety of uses in both religious and medicinal practices, it wasn’t until the 1800s, under British occupation, that hemp started to be cultivated on a large scale across the country. One PubMed article I found stated that with the boom of the cash crop that was industrial hemp in the 1800s, there was a subsequent increase in cannabis use. The widespread use of cannabis in India while it was colonized by the British prompted the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894. Sometimes regarded as one of the “first systematic studies on cannabis use”, the study set out to determine the “social and moral impact” of cannabis use”, in the end determining that only “very heavy” use of cannabis has detrimental impact. In perhaps one of my favorite declarations regarding cannabis regulation, it was determined that “To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance”.
Though cannabis would quickly lose out to steel in the industrial race, India would continue to grow cannabis for about another hundred years, until the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act was passed in 1985. As a signatory to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, India was now following in the footsteps of the US and some European countries, “effectively banning the cultivation, production and consumption of cannabis” as well as 70 other psychotropic substances.
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985 is still in effect today, and according to the code, prohibits pretty much everything related to cannabis. Possession, consumption, manufacturing, cultivating, you name it - it’s illegal. Depending on the severity of the crime, law breakers can face fines from 10,000 to no more than 200,000 Rupees (about $120 - $2,400) and up to twenty years of “rigorous imprisonment”. Amounts are qualified between “small” to “commercial” amounts of cannabis, which, surprising no one, impacts the severity of the punishment.
In India, there are three distinct types of cannabis that are most commonly consumed; bhang, fresh, mature cannabis leaves ground to a paste (though I have seen instances where bhang may also refer to ground seeds), charas which is compared often to hashish, and ganja, which is what we would like recognize as flower, or bud, ie. the smokable part of the plant. Charas is listed as 100 grams for a small amount and 1 kilo as commercial, with ganja considered “small” at 1 kilogram and commercial at 20 kilograms.
Despite the illegality, cannabis remains the “highest consumed and trafficked and frequently seized illicit substance in India”, with Delhi and Mumbai in the top ten cities in the world for cannabis consumption.
Comprised of 28 states and 8 union territories, India is similar to the United States in that there is a federal government and state governments in India, and while the federal government has said that cannabis is illegal across the board, there are some states that are adopting more modern approaches to cannabis regulation. In 2016, legislation was introduced to parliament that would have allowed for medicinal and commercial cannabis and in 2019 the states of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh began allowing cannabis cultivation for the same purposes. Though India seems ready to make efforts toward policy change, from what I have been able to gather, a lack of sufficient research is contributing to what some might consider stagnation. Although popular opinion is shifting towards updating current cannabis policies, research in relative fields “appears inadequate and with gaps in terms of providing key information for molding policies on cannabis use”.
During the holiday Shivaratri, sometimes called Maha Shivaratri, “Night of Shiva” or “Great Night of Shiva”, it’s not uncommon to consume ganja, what they call flower, in cylindrical earthenware or stone pipes called chillums. It was while I was researching this article that I learned that the pipes I preferred most when I first started smoking originated as a traditional pipe sometimes used during religious festivals. In a 2016 piece on NPR about a Shivaratri festival in Nepal, Hindu practitioners from all over the Indian Subcontinent, and probably a few from farther afield, gathered at a temple in Kathmandu to celebrate Shiva’s marriage with bonfires and by sharing his prasad, or offering. They believed, like the ancient practitioners and partakers that came before them, that consuming cannabis helps them forget the material world and connect with Shiva.
Holi, a holiday of colors and a celebration of divine love, is a holiday where one might celebrate with bhang, sometimes called thandai bhang, a drink made with bhang paste (or dried, decarbed flower if you want something perhaps less traditional) warm milk and spices.
Less traditionally, there seems to have been an increase in college age students partaking of cannabis for what might be called strictly recreational purposes, though women consume cannabis (and other substances for that matter) at a significantly lower rate than men in India.
We are only two countries into our series “Remembering Places” so I wouldn’t recommend beginning to compare the places, but it’s hard not to consider what Japanese cannabis policy might have been like if American reefer madness had never taken hold. What if the British occupation had had a less relaxed response to what they considered a shocking amount of cannabis use in colonized India? Cannabis has influenced the history of India for millenia, from wild plants discovered by the gods to chillums full of ganja shared by ascetic Hindu holy men who believe that “The only thing humans need is to share love with each other and share our culture."