Many ultra-conservatives would have us believe that hemp, because of its association with cannabis, is an “unholy” plant. However, the truth is that hemp and cannabis have had many positive associations with religions around the world for thousands of years. To name a few, faiths as diverse as Taoism, Hinduism and Sufi Islam have not demonised hemp or cannabis, but embraced them.
While China is known for its strict cannabis laws now, the plant has seen better days, at least among religious leaders. In the 2000s, a 2,700 year old grave near Turpan was unearthed, and revealed to contain a considerable supply of cannabis. As it is the grave of a shaman, and the remarkably well-preserved herb was analysed to have high levels of THC, it was presumably for ritualistic purposes. A little later, Taoist shamans used blends of cannabis and ginseng in an attempt to see the future, as they believed it could send their spirit forwards in time. Cannabis was reserved for religious officials, but its use died out in around 200 AD when the kingdom shifted towards Confucianism.
Hemp has also had its place in Hinduism for around three thousand years, but a much less exclusive one. The Vedas, sacred Hindu texts written somewhere between 2000 and 1400 BC, give us one of the earliest written mentions of cannabis. It is said that the Hindu gods sent hemp and cannabis to Earth out of compassion for humanity, so we could improve sexual desires, attain delight and lose fear. A more popular story is that when the gods and demons attempted to produce amrita, the elixir of immortality, they got cannabis. It is also described as being one of the five sacred plants and inhabited by a guardian angel. Out of the many Hindu gods, Shiva seems to be the one most closely associated with hemp and cannabis. One legend writes that he discovered the plant’s benefits by walking off into the fields after an argument with his family. Drained by heat and conflict, he fell asleep under a cannabis plant, and decided to try the leaves once he awoke and his curiosity returned. As he felt instantly rejuvenated, he decided it was his favourite food and became known as the Lord of Bhang (cannabis). Today, bhang is consumed during some rituals observing Shiva and the Holi festival, typically as a dairy-based drink or eaten in small balls. Outside of mainstream Indian society, sadhus (ascetics) use cannabis as an aid to achieve transcendence from ordinary reality. Cannabis is so important that even the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report states:
“there is abundant evidence… which shows not only that ganja[cannabis] is offered to the god and consumed by these classes of worshippers, but that these customs are so intimately connected with their worship that they may be considered to form in some sense an integral part of it.”
Legends of the Sikh faith, a much smaller religion than Hinduism, also mention cannabis. One story tells us of the Sikh leader, Gobind Singh’s soldiers being too scared of an enemy elephant with a sword to advance in battle. They almost mutinied, until he gave one of his men a blend of bhang and opium. This gave him the strength, agility and courage (though not everyone would call it that) to slip under the elephant and kill it without harming himself.
Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, has involved hemp in many traditional rituals and stories. Priests in ancient times are said to have used gohei, ceremonial sticks with hemp fibres attached to one end. These symbolised purity, and were waved above one’s head to drive out evil spirits. Hemp fibres were also used to bind together married couples, in order to ensure protection and create happiness in marriage. Many traditions of Buddhism, which is widespread throughout India, Japan and other Asian countries, also mention hemp. Some believe that Buddha only ate hemp for a period of time leading up to his announcement of his truths and “officially” becoming the Buddha. Mystical experience using cannabis is common in some sects too, but the place of hemp and cannabis in Buddhism is not universally agreed upon.
The use of cannabis for religious purposes has traditionally been widespread throughout Africa, from the Bantu and Zulu people all the way up to Ethiopia. The Bantu people had secret “Dagga Cults”, which restricted cannabis use to ruling men. These believed that cannabis was brought to earth by gods, in particular those coming from the “Two Dog Star” system, which we know as Sirius A and B. In the north of Africa, Ethiopia was known in ancient times as “The Land of Incense” because of its potent hashish. The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church carries a strong tradition of cannabis use, which its elders actually trace through oral tradition back to their ancestors living before Jesus Christ. Centuries later, when people native to Ethiopia were captured and sent to the Caribbean as slaves, they brought their spiritual traditions involving cannabis with them – possibly sowing the seeds for Rastafarianism as we know it today.
Rastafarianism was founded in the 1930s, and is the most famous example of cannabis being used for spiritual purposes. Referring to cannabis as “the healing of the nation”, they believe that ritual cannabis smoking purifies the body and mind in preparation for prayer, meditation, receiving wisdom and practicing communal harmony. Despite the strong Afro-centrism, there are also Hindu influences. When the African slaves were freed in the 19th century, indentured labourers from India took over their work, and found cannabis growing wild after a failed hemp farming endeavour. In amongst the Rasta words for cannabis, such as herb, Kaya and lambsbread, one cannot miss the clearly Hindu names: ganja and Kali.
Mainstream Christianity’s relationship with cannabis and hemp has been debated, especially in more recent times. Some argue that Christians should avoid cannabis because of its current negative reputation, even for medical use, or keep their prescription a secret. An article in Christianity Today (2011) even chides medical dispensaries for looking like “recreational amusement shops” instead of clinics for sick people, regardless of whether or not such a design would boost morale in stressful times. It then goes on to state that Christians must submit to authority unless the law is at odds with obeying God, but the authors do not see the potential benefits of cannabis or hemp as evidence-based enough to challenge current laws. On the other hand, Genesis states that God has given us every seed-bearing plant for our benefit. While some would argue that certain seed-bearers (e.g. hemlock) are simply dangerous, hemp’s long history of cultivation for a variety of uses suggests it is not exempt from “gift” status. Some Coptic Christian sects, however, believe that the sacred “green herb of the field” mentioned in Ezekiel, as well as some secret incenses, sweet incenses and anointing oils, are in fact cannabis.
Judaism has had a long-standing relationship with cannabis and hemp too, at least in ancient times. The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states that “one will beautify [Shabbat candle lighting] when the wick is made from cotton, flax or cannabis…”, giving hemp a place in ritual practices. Additionally, as part of Friday night services in the Temple of Solomon, thousands of early Jewish men passed around incense burners that are believed to have contained cannabis, before returning home for the largest meal of the week. And while hardline religions today are associated with anti-cannabis stances, the Essenes of ancient times were all for using the plant therapeutically.
Known in this case as hashish, cannabis has also featured prominently in the Sufi branch of Islam. Sufism is a more mystical interpretation of Islam, with a seemingly anti-establishment stance. It teaches that divine truth and communion with God cannot be articulated by the human mind or obtained through others, only directly experienced. One way that the Sufis could achieve this is through arousal of ecstatic states of mind, with one method of this being intoxication by drugs such as hashish. While this is heavily criticised by mainstream society, hashish use is regarded as simply a means of appreciating the nature of God.
But isn’t that what we should all be doing, regardless of what we do or don’t believe? With all the uses and benefits of hemp, it’s time to once again recognise this plant for what it can do for us, not demonise it.
Robinson, R. (1996). The Great Book of Hemp: The Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World's Most Extraordinary Plant. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press