As a practising Hindu (practising makes perfect), I am always concerned for the well-being of my co-religionists. Have they enough freedom? Are they persecuted for following their faith? Sadly, I have come to conclude that the answers to these questions are: No, and Yes.
I’m referring to the idea of getting wasted and contemplating the universe. Stoner Hindus are as old as Hinduism itself. Martin Booth in Cannabis—A History writes: “The Aryans’ religion was animistic and cannabis played an important role in their rituals.”
The Rig Ved, the oldest text of our faith, contains poems called “We have drunk som” (8.48), “The ecstasy of som” (9:113) and “The som drinker praises himself” (10.119). In verse 4:26-27, “Som and Indra and the eagle”, Indra has taken so much of the good stuff that he hallucinates. The Rig Ved also has instructions, “Som pressed in the bowls” (9.74), which tell users how to sieve it.
What exactly is som? Scholars are divided. JP Morgan’s Robert Wasson thought som was the hallucinogen we call magic mushrooms. Pakistan’s Dr S. Mahdihassan, who studied Indian alchemy, thought it was the stick-like plant ephedra. The BBC’s Michael Wood in his sweeping story of 10,000 years of Indian history claimed to have located som in Peshawar’s markets. It is a twig that local pharmacists call mahu (though for some reason the box it’s from was labelled “Basfanj” in Pashto as best as I could make out).
Heavenly haze: In India, there is a connection to cannabis through religion and medicine. Photo: Sanjay Arora
My own explanation is that som is cannabis in its various forms: bhang, ganja, charas. The Rig Ved says som is brown, which is the colour of dry ganja and sometimes of charas. It is also the colour of Wood’s twig, which gives him a tingling sensation. But the Rig Ved says it’s best had with milk, which inclines me towards bhang. Som is our name for Shiva after whom Vallabhbhai Patel rebuilt Somnath. Shiva is present in the Rig Ved as Rudra, and cannabis is Shiva’s prasad, whether as bhang or as hashish.
In The Roots of Ayurveda, Dominik Wujastyk writes that smoking “is a normal procedure in Ayurved and advised by all the early authors”. And what were they smoking? “Tobacco was unknown in ancient times, of course,” he adds.
Given this strong connection to cannabis through religion and medicine, it is not surprising that there is a legitimacy to its use in India.
The Drugs and Cosmetics Act says cannabis, bhang and opium can be prescribed freely by Ayurveda and Siddha physicians. Muslim hakims can prescribe charas and bhang under the Unani system of medicine. Unani, or Yunani, refers to the Greeks through “Ionian”. Muslim physicians such as those who make Hamdard’s Rooh Afza follow the medical tradition of ibn Sina, who copied and developed the Greek traditions of Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen.
So both Hindus and Muslims have a religious, cultural and somewhat legal right to be stoned.
The reality is that India’s middle class has a Victorian horror of such things.
When member of Parliament Jaswant Singh was photographed offering scented opium to his guests (to be licked from his hand—what an outstandingly civilized tradition), he was immediately set upon by moralist Hindus. His son Manvendra pointed out that Rajasthan’s government itself took the theka (contract) of distributing cannabis. But the matter went to the narcotics department before being dismissed for lack of evidence.
Rajputs are not the only warriors partial to mystical experience. It is thought that the word assassin comes from the word hashishi, or user of hashish. This refers to Hassan Sabbah, a predecessor of the Aga Khans, whose followers apparently smoked up before going out to assassinate those Muslims they thought were heretics.
I have always found this story difficult to swallow based on my own experience with the stuff. It is not easy to imagine working oneself up to an act of violence after a few tokes. Booth in Cannabis: A History is also sceptical of this claim and says that the two words are, in fact, not linked.
For that reason, I have also not subscribed to the story of Rajputs getting stoned first before their magnificent suicide charge against Akbar the Great at Chittor in 1568. My hypothesis is that they charged because the stuff had run out inside the fort.
Our President Pratibha Patil has attacked the tradition of Rajputs distributing opium to mark the 12th day of a man’s death. “This is costly and also not good for health,” Patil said. “Give up the tradition of serving opium at once.” Someone please give her a toke.
While the middle class has a moral problem with this, the consumption of cannabis was not illegal in India till recently. I can find no mention of a punishment for it in the Indian Penal Code, written 150 years ago by Macaulay. Even under Nehru (who, to my surprise, in Walter Crocker’s biography is described as a non-drinker) the law did not punish users. Criminalizing happened so far as I can tell only in 1985, under Rajiv Gandhi when the NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) law was legislated. I suspect this happened because the Congress, influenced by Sunil Dutt, jerked its knee at his son Sanjay’s apparent addiction.
Today, legal access to cannabis in any form is a vague space. Nobody is sure whether it is legal or not. Dealers face 10 years and there is a six-month jail term for users who are found with a kilo of ganja. Smokers are synonymous with addicts in this awful society that rejects itself, and must behave like criminals to score. There are government-licensed shops in Rajasthan and also Bengal, but none in most other states leading to more confusion.
In Gujarat, bhang is had on festivals—Holi, Mahashivratri—but is not otherwise available. One cannot in all honesty expect Narendra Modi, who, as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak is vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking and celibate, to be sympathetic to those seeking to experiment with truth.
Booth says bhang is the most potent form of cannabis. Second is ganja and third is charas.
To verify this and in the interests of truth, I wandered one morning down to the government bhang stall near Jaipur station. I could not immediately locate it and was pointed towards it by a helpful policeman. A little man behind the counter ground me a 3-inch slug of liquid which I downed.
Forty minutes later, the universe opened itself up to me. Its mystery stood revealed in vivid clarity, and it was simple. Parmenides was right: All things are one and there is no duality. Or perhaps it was that Parmenides was wrong: Nothing is one and all is duality (unfortunately I passed out and by the time I awoke, the answers had again receded).
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.
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