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Cannabis in Āyurveda (Indian medicine)

Āyurveda (which means ‘the knowledge/science of the span of life’) is the traditional system of Indian medicine. Its origins can be traced to the early centuries BCE, when Buddhist monks and other ascetics first began properly investigating the internal workings of the human body (Zysk 2000:27–37).

The three foundational authorities of Āyurveda are Caraka, Suśruta and Vāghbaṭa, who are known as the ‘the great three’ of Indian medicine. The medical texts of Caraka and Suśruta were first compiled in the early centuries BCE, while Vāghbaṭa flourished around 600 CE (Wujastyk 1998:104–5, 238). Thousands of Āyurvedic texts have since been written, most drawing extensively on the three foundational Āyurvedic authorities.

Āyurvedic treatments

Āyurvedic treatment of a patient centres around a diagnostic system that prioritises the predominant constitutional type (prakṛti) of the person, of which there are three, known as dośas (humours):

vāta (air/wind), kapha (water/solid/phlegm) or pitta (fire/choler).

Treatments are specific, according to which dośa predominates in the patient, and also take account of the season of the year. The dośas interact with the seven basic constituents (dhātus) of the body: chyle, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow and semen. In the stomach digested food turns to chyle, which sequentially transforms into the other six constituents. The dośas also interact with the body’s waste products.

Āyurvedic practice employs a range of treatments, including herbal formulas, bodily exercise, diet, enemas, massage, bloodletting, leeching, ointments, douches, sweating and surgery. Traditional Āyurvedic herbal treatments typically employs multiple plant formulas, sometimes comprising dozens of plants. (From around 1000 CE metals and other substances began to be more extensively employed.) This is in distinction from western medicine, which, quite oppositely, generally employs drugs that consist of a single chemical derived from a plant.

Branches of Āyurveda

There are eight traditional branches of Āyurveda, known as the eight petals of a lotus:

1. internal medicine (kāyacikitsā),

2. surgery (śalya tantra),

3. treatment of ears, nose, throat, eyes, jaws and teeth (śālākya tantra),

4. toxicology, study of poisons (agada tantra),

5. psychiatry, possession by ghosts/entities (bhūta vidyā),

6. gynaecology and paediatrics (bāla tantra),

7. geriatrics, rejuvenation, old-age infirmities (rasāyana tantra),

8. aphrodisiacs, sex tonics (vājīkaraṇa).

Cannabis use in early Āyurveda

There are claims by several scholars (including Ray 1939:200; Russo 2005:2; 2007:1631) that cannabis features in the early Āyurvedic texts—which they date variously to between around 800 (or 1000) to 300 BCE—in the classical treatises of Caraka and Suśruta. However, this belief has been challenged by Jan Meulenbeld (1989), one of the world’s greatest authorities on the history of Āyurveda. The issue is complicated because cannabis has so many names, not only globally (Benetown 1972), but also in India, where it has around forty-three synonyms (Dash 1978:143). References in early Āyurvedic texts may be to plants that are not cannabis.

Grierson (1894:260) comments that references to bhaṅga and vijayā (synonyms for cannabis) by Suśruta (Ut. XXXIV, 20; Ut. 39, p. 415), as treatments as an antiphlegmatic, for catarrh accompanied by diarrhoea, and against fever, probably refer to yellow myrolaban (harītakī) and not to Indian hemp (cannabis). Śaṇa, another of the synonyms for cannabis, also refers to Bengali hemp, Crotolaria juncea Linn. or sometimes to other varieties of Crotolaria. The most common Sanskrit name for cannabis in South Asia is bhaṅgā, but this name may also refer to Crotolaria in early Āyurvedic texts (Meulenbeld 1989:62).

Besides śaṇa, bhaṅgā and vijayā (victory), other synonyms for cannabis in medical texts and other literature—from around 1100 CE onwards—include tribhavanavijayā, indrāśana, and bhṛṅgī.   

There are a few references to cannabis in Indian literature before 1100 CE, but very few. One of them is in the 7th/8th century Buddhist text, the Cakrasamvaratantra  (ch. 50 [Gray 2007:373–4]), where śaṇa (cannabis) is mentioned as one of several ingredients to be used in a rite for an abundant life for a yogi.

The medical treatise of Vaṅgasena

What is now generally agreed by scholars (Meulenbeld 1989; Wujastyk 2002) is that around 1100/1200 CE cannabis begins to feature significantly in Indian medical plant formulas; it was also known as an intoxicating drug. The earliest significant references to cannabis occur in the Cikitsāsārasaṃgraha (‘Compendium of the essence of medicine’), a medical treatise by Vaṅgasena, who lived in Bengal.

One of the treatments discussed by Vaṅgasena for consumption (rājayakṣma) is a formula called jātīphalādi cūrṇa (powder), which contains bhaṅgā. It is said to destroy various maladies similarly to the way a thunderbolt destroys trees (Vaṅgasena 2004:279, Diagnosis of Rājayakṣmā, v. 83). Vaṅgasena also prescribes cannabis for grahaṇī (diarrhoea or dysentery), and states that if one eats cannabis (indrāśana) every day, with milk and sugar, one “becomes free from all diseases, handsome, young and lives long” (Vaṅgasena 2004:1103, Rasāyanādhikāra,v. 408). Vaṅgasena also notes some similarities between cannabis and opium (though he does not discuss the use of opium).

References to cannabis in Āyurveda after 1100 CE

Other references to cannabis subsequently occur in several other medical texts dating from 1100 to 1250. In the 13th century Śārṅgadhara mentions bhaṅgā as an intoxicating (mada) drug, which may be used for treating several medical conditions, including cough, loss of appetite, anaemia and diarrhoea (Meulenbeld 1989:64). In the following centuries references to cannabis proliferate (Grierson 1894:261; Meulenbeld 1989:64; Wujastyk 2002:46).

The most comprehensive, early account of the effects and uses of cannabis, including its mythology and cultivation, are in a chapter devoted to it in the Ānandakanda, a voluminous text on tantric alchemy and yoga, dating from the 12th or 13th centuries (Wujastyk 2002:59–60).

From the 13th century onwards cannabis begins to appear not only in numerous medical treatises, but also, from the 15th century, in Tantras (Sanderson 2003:365), where the most commonly used synonyms for it are bhaṅgā and saṃvidā/saṃvit.

Cannabis is rarely prescribed alone; it is typically an ingredient of a multiple-plant formula, prepared in the form of either a powder, round ball, tablet, linctus or a decoction. It is also prepared as a sweet or in a drink. Around fifty medical formulations containing cannabis can be found in Āyurvedic works, where it is prescribed for healthy people as an aphrodisiac. Besides use for diarrhoea and dysentery, cannabis preparations are prescribed for sterility, indigestion, epilepsy, insanity and colic pain. Its use is indicated in the treatment of around another thirty other ailments (Dash 1989:145–146).

The rediscovery of cannabis by western doctors

One of the earliest publications by a western doctor on cannabis was an account of ‘Ganjah’ by Whitelaw Ainslie in 1813. However, it was the great pioneer of cannabis research, the Irishman, William Brooke O’Shaugnhessy, who was most influential in bringing the attention of western doctors to the therapeutic potential of cannabis for a variety of ailments (O’Shaughnessy 1843). As a consequence, during the Victorian era cannabis began to be used by western doctors for numerous conditions and disorders. However, by the end of the 19th century opponents of cannabis began a propaganda campaign against it (Mills 2013), resulting in its global prohibition by 1921 (see my blog ‘How cannabis became illegal’).

Although cannabis has been used as a common folk remedy for minor ailments for many centuries throughout India (Chopra and Chopra 1957; Dwarkanath 1965), most modern commentators on Āyurveda (for example, Heyn 1993; Lad 2011; Joshi 2013) do not mention cannabis at all, even though they discuss the therapeutic uses of numerous other medicinal plants. (However, the method of preparation of bhaṅg as a domestic Indian medicine is detailed in the Hand Book of Domestic Medicine and Common Āyurvedic Remedies [1999:343], though no specific remedies are given.) This is doubtless due to the negative associations that cannabis has acquired since prohibition.

Interestingly, the medicinal applications for cannabis detailed in medieval Āyurvedic texts are—naturally—very similar to those that have been more recently explored in western medicine (Grinspoon and Bakalar 1997; Mikuriya 2007; Lee 2012:ff.).


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Matthew Clark

Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).