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How Cannabis Has Shaped World Religions

The use of cannabis for spiritual purposes predates the development of institutionalised religion, and archaeological findings suggest that the plant may have played a prominent role in the formation of several major faiths. Having first evolved in the highlands of Central Asia, cannabis became venerated for its ability to generate a sense of communion with the spiritual realm, as evidenced by the discovery of the famous Yanghai Tombs in Turpan, China, where an ancient shaman was found buried alongside a large stash of marijuana[i].

As the revered plant was carried across the globe, it was adopted as a spiritual sacrament by innumerable communities and cultures, and played a central role in the emergence and proliferation of many different belief systems. In fact, it’s fair to say that religion as we know it probably wouldn’t be what it is today without cannabis.

Cannabis and Hinduism

Given that marijuana originates in the Himalayas, it should come as little surprise to learn that it has been used for religious purposes in India for thousands of years. Today, it is typically consumed during Holi and other Hindu festivals in the form of bhang, which is an edible mixture made from the cannabinoid-rich flowers of female cannabis plants.

According to the ancient Hindu texts – or Vedas – cannabis was first discovered on a holy mountain by the deity Shiva, who then spread it across the land so that humankind could benefit from its transcendental properties. The Atharva Veda even lists cannabis as one of the five most sacred plants, and states that its leaves are inhabited by a guardian angel[ii].

Sadhus, the ascetic holy men who dedicate their lives to following Lord Shiva, often smoke cannabis from clay pipes called chillums, while bhang shops are particularly prominent in Varanasi, the city most strongly associated with Shiva. Yogis also smoke marijuana in order to enhance their meditation and attain a higher level of spiritual connection during rituals of worship.

Bhang is consumed in large quantities during Holi, the Hindu festival of colour

Cannabis and Buddhism

It is said that Guatama Buddha lived a life of asceticism for six years while seeking enlightenment, with some legends claiming that he ate nothing but one hemp seed a day throughout this period. Given the high nutritional value of hemp, it’s a pretty good choice of food if you’re trying to survive on minimal quantities, and cannabis is also sometimes used to enhance meditation in certain Buddhist traditions.

This is particularly true of Vajrayana, a form of Tantric Buddhism that first became prominent in Tibet. According to some reports, bhang is often consumed to lower inhibitions during sexual rituals that are supposed to facilitate religious awakening, while cannabis is also used extensively in Vajrayana medicine[iii].

Cannabis and Islam

Cannabis is something of a controversial topic in Islam, as clerics and religious scholars are divided on whether or not is permissible in accordance with the Quran. The religious text clearly bans alcohol and certain other intoxicants, yet is ambiguous as to whether marijuana should be considered haram, meaning forbidden.

To try and settle the debate, eight of Iran’s leading Shia authorities, who hold the title of marja’ and wield considerable religious and legal power, recently took part in a study that was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, with the aim of determining how the country’s religious leaders view the status of cannabis. Interestingly, only two considered the plant to be haram, with the other six all saying that its use is acceptable in certain situations[iv].

Historically, marijuana has typically been associated with a form of Islamic mysticism called Sufism, which is based on the principles of love, tolerance and transcendence of the ego in order to connect to one’s higher self. Famous for their iconic dancing and poets, Sufis consider hashish to be a religious sacrament that stimulates feelings of joy and friendship towards others[v].

Cannabis and The Bible

For millennia, marijuana was thought to be completely absent from the Old Testament, yet all that changed when a Polish etymologist named Sula Benet dropped an absolute bombshell on the Judaeo-Christian world in 1936. According to Benet, the original Hebrew text mentions a plant by the name of kaneh-bosm­ on five separate occasions, which was mistakenly translated as calamus by early Greek Christian scholars[vi].

Benet says that calamus possesses none of the qualities ascribed to kaneh-bosn, and that kaneh is in fact the root of the word kannabus – which in modern English is pronounced cannabis. While this theory has never been widely accepted and remains pretty controversial, it will at least have made some Bible study sessions a bit more interesting.

It was not until 2020 that archaeologists finally unearthed solid evidence to back up Benet’s claim, when cannabis residues were discovered on a sacred shrine housed within the temple fortress of Tel Arad in what is now Israel. Dating back to 750 BCE, the shrine is often referred to as the ‘Holy of Holies’, and was the site of important religious rituals in the Biblical kingdom of Judah.

Sufis are known for their iconic dancing

Cannabis and Rastafarianism

Cannabis is thought to have arrived in Jamaica with the Indian laborers who were brought to the island by white plantation owners following the abolition of slavery in 1834 – hence the widespread use of the Hindi word ganja in Jamaica. However, in spite of these reforms, racism and inequality remained a major part of life throughout the Caribbean, resulting in the emergence of Rastafarianism as a religious black consciousness movement in the 1920s and 30s.

As Rastafarianism spread around the world, its followers incorporated the use of ganja as a key sacrament. This is sometimes explained by citing The Book of Genesis, which states: “And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:12)[vii].

Rastafarians believe that those who smoke cannabis are elevated above the false consciousness of Babylon, which is characterised by materialism, injustice, inequality and racism, and can therefore achieve transcendence and connect to a purer state of being.

Cannabis in Latin America

The Americas are famously rich in religious diversity and sacred plants, many of which have psychoactive properties. Peyote, San Pedro, Ayahuasca, Yopo and various species of psychedelic mushroom are among the plants used for spiritual purposes in Latin America.

However, some indigenous groups in Mexico – such as the Tepehuan and Tepecano – have been known to occasionally use marijuana as a substitute for peyote in their rituals[viii]. Cannabis is also used in the syncretic Santo Daime sect, which fuses Christianity with indigenous beliefs and the use of ayahuasca. Originating in Brazil, Santo Daime now has a global following, with some branches including cannabis in their ceremonies, referring to the plant as Santa Maria.

Cannabis Churches

The First Church of Cannabis was founded in Indiana in 2015 by a Jewish man named Bill Levin, after the state passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Charging members a monthly due of $4.20, the group was forced to hold its first service without the use of marijuana after being threatened with legal action.

Levin has taken the title of Grand Poobah, a term that is used to denote the leaders of a secret cult in the famous cartoon The Flintstones[ix].

Other cannabis-based religions have emerged in recent years, particularly in the United States where the relaxation of prohibition has allowed for the legal use of marijuana in many places. The International Church of Cannabis, for example, opened in Denver, Colorado in 2017.

[i] Jiang HE, Li X, Zhao YX, Ferguson DK, Hueber F, Bera S, Wang YF, Zhao LC, Liu CJ, Li CS. A new insight into Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae) utilization from 2500-year-old Yanghai Tombs, Xinjiang, China. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2006 Dec 6;108(3):414-22. – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378874106002935

[ii] Touw M. The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. Journal of psychoactive drugs. 1981 Jan 1;13(1):23-34. – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.1981.10471447?journalCode=ujpd20

[iii] Ferrara MS. Peak-experience and the entheogenic use of cannabis in world religions. Journal of Psychedelic Studies. 2020 Jul 17. – https://akjournals.com/view/journals/2054/aop/article-10.1556-2054.2020.00122/article-10.1556-2054.2020.00122.xml

[iv] Ghiabi M, Maarefvand M, Bahari H, Alavi Z. Islam and cannabis: Legalisation and religious debate in Iran. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2018 Jun 1;56:121-7. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6153265/

[v] Khalifa, A. (1975). Traditional patterns of hashish use in Egypt. In V. Rubin (Ed.) Cannabis and culture (pp. 195–205). Paris: Mouton.

[vi] Benet S. Early diffusion and folk uses of hemp. Cannabis and Culture, Rubin V, Ed. Mouton, The Hague. 1975. – https://www.xn--4dbcyzi5a.com/wp-content/PDF/EARLY-DIFFUSION-AND-FOLK-USES-OF-HEMP-SULA-BENET.pdf

[vii] Edmonds, E. (2012). Rastafari: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[viii] Lee, M. (2013). Smoke signals: A social history of marijuana: Medical, recreational, and scientific. New York: Scribner.

[ix] https://www.timesofisrael.com/meet-the-jewish-grand-poobah-of-the-first-church-of-cannabis/

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Ben Taub