Entheogenic use of cannabis
Cannabis has been used in an entheogenic context - a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context - in India and Nepal since the Vedic period dating back to approximately 1500 BCE, but perhaps as far back as 2000 BCE. There are several references in Greek mythology to a powerful drug that eliminated anguish and sorrow. Herodotus wrote about early ceremonial practices by the Scythians, thought to have occurred from the 5th to 2nd century BCE. Itinerant Hindu saints have used it in Nepal and India for centuries.
Ancient and modern India and Nepal
The earliest known reports regarding the sacred status of cannabis in India and Nepal come from the Atharva Veda estimated to have been written sometime around 2000–1400 BCE, which mentions cannabis as one of the "five sacred plants".
There are three types of cannabis used in India and Nepal. The first, bhang, consists of the leaves and plant tops of the marijuana plant. It is usually consumed as an infusion in beverage form, and varies in strength according to how much cannabis is used in the preparation. The second, ganja, consisting of the leaves and the plant tops, is smoked. The third, called charas or hashish, consists of the resinous buds and/or extracted resin from the leaves of the marijuana plant. Typically, bhang is the most commonly used form of cannabis in religious festivals.
During the Indian and Nepalese festival of Holi, people consume bhang which contains cannabis flowers. According to one description, when the amrita (elixir of life) was produced from the churning of the ocean by the devas and the asuras, Shiva created cannabis from his own body to purify the elixir (whence, for cannabis, the epithet angaja or "body-born"). Another account suggests that the cannabis plant sprang up when a drop of the elixir dropped on the ground. Thus, cannabis is used by sages due to association with elixir and Shiva. Wise drinking of bhang, according to religious rites, is believed to cleanse sins, unite one with Shiva and avoid the miseries of hell in the future life. It is also believed to have medicinal benefits. In contrast, foolish drinking of bhang without rites is considered a sin.
Although cannabis is regarded as an illegal drug, many Nepalese people consume it during festivals (like Shivaratri) which the government tolerates to some extent and also for their personal uses and recreation purposes.
In Buddhism, the Fifth Precept can be interpreted to be "abstain from wines, liquors and intoxicants that cause heedlessness." How this applies to cannabis is variously interpreted. Cannabis and some other psychoactive plants are specifically prescribed in the Mahākāla Tantra for medicinal purposes. However, Tantra is an esoteric teaching of Hinduism and Buddhism not generally accepted by most other forms of these religions.
Historical and modern Africa
According to Alfred Dunhill (1924), Africans have had a long tradition of smoking hemp in gourd pipes, asserting that by 1884 the King of the Baluka tribe of the Congo had established a "riamba" or hemp-smoking cult in place of fetish-worship. Enormous gourd pipes were used. Cannabis was used in Africa to restore appetite and relieve pain of hemorrhoids. It was also used as an antiseptic. In a number of countries, it was used to treat tetanus, hydrophobia, delirium tremens, infantile convulsions, neuralgia and other nervous disorders, cholera, menorrhagia, rheumatism, hay fever, asthma, skin diseases, and protracted labor during childbirth.
In Africa, there were a number of cults and sects of hemp worship. Pogge and Wissman, during their explorations of 1881, visited the Bashilenge, living on the northern borders of the Lundu, between Sankrua and Balua. They found large plots of land around the villages used for the cultivation of hemp. Originally there were small clubs of hemp smokers, bound by ties of friendship, but these eventually led to the formation of a religious cult. The Bashilenge called themselves Bena Riamba, "the sons of hemp", and their land Lubuku, meaning friendship. They greeted each other with the expression "moio", meaning both "hemp" and "life."
Each tribesman was required to participate in the cult of Riamba and show his devotion by smoking as frequently as possible. They attributed universal magical powers to hemp, which was thought to combat all kinds of evil and they took it when they went to war and when they traveled. There were initiation rites for new members which usually took place before a war or long journey. The hemp pipe assumed a symbolic meaning for the Bashilenge somewhat analogous to the significance which the peace pipe had for American Indians. No holiday, no trade agreement, no peace treaty was transacted without it (Wissman et al. 1888). In the middle Sahara region, the Senusi sect also cultivated hemp on a large scale for use in religious ceremonies (Ibid).
The sinologist and historian Joseph Needham concluded "the hallucinogenic properties of hemp were common knowledge in Chinese medical and Taoist circles for two millennia or more", and other scholars associated Chinese wu (shamans) with the entheogenic use of cannabis in Central Asian shamanism.
The oldest texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine listed herbal uses for cannabis and noted some psychodynamic effects. The (ca. 100 CE) Chinese pharmacopeia Shennong Ben Cao Jing (Shennong's Classic of Materia Medica) described the use of mafen 麻蕡 "cannabis fruit/seeds":
- To take much makes people see demons and throw themselves about like maniacs (多食令人見鬼狂走). But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits, and one's body becomes light (久服通神明輕身).
Later pharmacopia repeated this description, for instance the (ca. 1100 CE) Zhenglei bencao 證類本草 ("Classified Materia Medica"):
- If taken in excess it produces hallucinations and a staggering gait. If taken over a long term, it causes one to communicate with spirits and lightens one's body.
The (ca. 730) dietary therapy book Shiliao bencao 食療本草 ("Nutritional Materia Medica") prescribes daily consumption of cannabis in the following case: "those who wish to see demons should take it (with certain other drugs) for up to a hundred days."
Beginning around the 4th century, Taoist texts mentioned using cannabis in censers. Needham cited the (ca. 570 CE) Taoist encyclopedia Wushang Biyao 無上秘要 ("Supreme Secret Essentials") that cannabis was added into ritual incense-burners, and suggested the ancient Taoists experimented systematically with "hallucinogenic smokes". The Yuanshi shangzhen zhongxian ji 元始上真眾仙記 ("Records of the Assemblies of the Perfected Immortals"), which is attributed to Ge Hong (283-343), says:
- For those who begin practicing the Tao it is not necessary to go into the mountains. … Some with purifying incense and sprinkling and sweeping are also able to call down the Perfected Immortals. The followers of the Lady Wei and of Hsu are of this kind.
Lady Wei Huacun 魏華存 (252-334) and Xu Mi 許謐 (303-376) founded the Taoist Shangqing School. The Shangqing scriptures were supposedly dictated to Yang Xi 楊羲 (330-386 CE) in nightly revelations from immortals, and Needham proposed Yang was "aided almost certainly by cannabis". The Mingyi bielu 名醫別錄 ("Supplementary Records of Famous Physicians"), written by the Taoist pharmacologist Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536), who also wrote the first commentaries to the Shangqing canon, says, "Hemp-seeds (麻勃) are very little used in medicine, but the magician-technicians (shujia 術家) say that if one consumes them with ginseng it will give one preternatural knowledge of events in the future." A 6th-century CE Taoist medical work, the Wuzangjing 五臟經 ("Five Viscera Classic") says, "If you wish to command demonic apparitions to present themselves you should constantly eat the inflorescences of the hemp plant."
Cannabis has been cultivated in China since Neolithic times, for instance, hemp cords were used to create the characteristic line designs on Yangshao culture pottery). Early Chinese classics have many references to using the plant for clothing, fiber, and food, but none to its psychotropic properties. Some researchers think Chinese associations of cannabis with "indigenous central Asian shamanistic practices" can explain this "peculiar silence". The botanist Li Hui-Lin noted linguistic evidence that the "stupefying effect of the hemp plant was commonly known from extremely early times"; the word ma "cannabis; hemp" has connotations of "numbed; tingling; senseless" (e.g., mamu 麻木 "numb" and mazui 麻醉 "anesthetic; narcotic"), which "apparently derived from the properties of the fruits and leaves, which were used as infusions for medicinal purposes." Li suggested shamans in Northeast Asia transmitted the medical and spiritual uses of cannabis to the ancient Chinese wu 巫 "shaman; spirit medium; doctor".
The use of Cannabis as an hallucinogenic drug by necromancers or magicians is especially notable. It should be pointed out that in ancient China, as in most early cultures, medicine has its origin in magic. Medicine men were practicing magicians. In northeastern Asia, shamanism was widespread from Neolithic down to recent times. In ancient China shamans were known as wu. This vocation was very common down to the Han dynasty. After that it gradually diminished in importance, but the practice persisted in scattered localities and among certain peoples. In the far north, among the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Siberia, shamanism was widespread and common until rather recent times.
Joseph Needham connected myths about Magu, "the Hemp Damsel", with early Daoist religious usages of cannabis, pointing out that Magu was goddess of Shandong's sacred Mount Tai, where cannabis "was supposed to be gathered on the seventh day of the seventh month, a day of seance banquets in the Taoist communities."
Ancient Central Asia
Both early Greek history and modern archeology show that Central Asian peoples were utilizing cannabis 2,500 years ago.
[T]hey make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. … The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.
What Herodotus called the "hemp-seed" must have been the whole flowering tops of the plant, where the psychoactive resin is produced along with the fruit ("seeds").
Several of the Tarim mummies excavated near Turpan in Xinjiang province of Northwestern China were buried with sacks of cannabis next to their heads. Based on additional grave goods, archaeologists concluded these individuals were shamans: "The marijuana must have been buried with the dead shamans who dreamed of continuing the profession in another world." A team of scientists analyzed one shamanistic tomb that contained a leather basket with well-preserved cannabis (789 grams of leaves, shoots, and fruits; AMS dated 2475 ± 30 years BP) and a wooden bowl with cannabis traces. Lacking any "suitable evidence that the ancient, indigenous people utilized Cannabis for food, oil, or fiber", they concluded "the deceased was more concerned with the intoxicant and/or medicinal value of the Cannabis remains."
In ancient Germanic paganism, cannabis was associated with the Norse love goddess, Freya. The harvesting of the plant was connected with an erotic high festival. It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant's feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force. Linguistics offers further evidence of prehistoric use of cannabis by Germanic peoples: The word hemp derives from Old English hænep, from Proto-Germanic *hanapiz, from the same Scythian word that cannabis derives from. The etymology of this word follows Grimm's Law by which Proto-Indo-European initial *k- becomes *h- in Germanic. The shift of *k→h indicates it was a loanword into the Germanic parent language at a time depth no later than the separation of Common Germanic from Proto-Indo-European, about 500 BC.
The Celts may have also used cannabis, as evidence of hashish traces were found in Hallstatt, birthplace of Celtic culture. Also, the Dacians and the Scythians had a tradition where a fire was made in an inclosed space and cannabis seeds were burnt and the resulting smoke ingested.
Hashish is known as the real Dionysos "wine".
It is generally held by academics specializing in the archaeology and paleobotany of Ancient Israel, and those specializing in the lexicography of the Hebrew Bible that cannabis is not documented or mentioned in early Judaism. Against this some popular writers have argued that there is evidence for religious use of cannabis in the Hebrew Bible, although this hypothesis and some of the specific case studies (e.g., John Allegro in relation to Qumran, 1970) have been "widely dismissed as erroneous" (Merlin, 2003).
The primary advocate of a religious use of cannabis plant in early Judaism was Sula Benet (1967), who claimed that the plant kaneh bosm קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם mentioned five times in the Hebrew Bible, and used in the holy anointing oil of the Book of Exodus, was in fact cannabis, although lexicons of Hebrew and dictionaries of plants of the Bible such as by Michael Zohary (1985), Hans Arne Jensen (2004) and James A. Duke (2010) and others identify the plant in question as either Acorus calamus or Cymbopogon citratus.
The Quran does not directly forbid cannabis; however, cannabis is deemed to be khamr (an intoxicant) by many religious scholars and therefore generally believed to be haraam (sinful). Generally in orthodox Islam, conservative scholars deem cannabis an intoxicant and therefore, according to the Hadith, it is classified as haraam. The Hadith is the book of sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, which states: "If much intoxicates, then even a little is haram." There are dissenting voices, however, who say that the word used in the Quran itself is khamr - which means "fermented grape" - and that this classification doesn't cover use of marijuana.
It is not known when Rastafari first claimed cannabis to be sacred, but it is clear that by the late 1940s Rastafari was associated with cannabis smoking at the Pinnacle community of Leonard Howell. Rastafari see cannabis as a sacramental and deeply beneficial plant that is the Tree of Life mentioned in the Bible. Peter Tosh, among many others, has quoted Revelation 22:2, "... the herb is the healing of the nations." The use of cannabis, and particularly of long-stemmed water-pipes called chalices, is an integral part of what Rastafari call "reasoning sessions" where members join together to discuss life according to the Rasta perspective. They see the use of cannabis as bringing them closer to God (Jah), allowing the user to penetrate the truth of things more clearly, as if the wool had been pulled from one's eyes.
While it is not necessary to use cannabis to be a Rastafari, many use it regularly as a part of their faith, and pipes of cannabis are dedicated to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I before being smoked. According to the anti-cult group the Watchman Fellowship "The herb is the key to new understanding of the self, the universe, and God. It is the vehicle to cosmic consciousness" and is believed to burn the corruption out of the human heart. Rubbing the ashes into the skin from smoked cannabis is also considered a healthy practice.
Other modern religious movements
Elders of the modern religious movement known as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church consider cannabis to be the eucharist, claiming it as an oral tradition from Ethiopia dating back to the time of Christ.
Other organized religions founded in the past century that treat cannabis as a sacrament are the Santo Daime church, the THC Ministry, Cantheism, the Way of Infinite Harmony, the Cannabis Assembly, the Church of Cognitive Therapy (COCT Ministry), Temple 420, Green Faith Ministries, the Church of Cognizance, the Church of the Universe, The Free Marijuana Church of Honolulu, and the federally tax-exempt inFormer Ministry Collective of Palms Springs, CA. The Temple of the True Inner Light believes that cannabis is one of the parts of God's body, along with the classical psychedelics: mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. The First Church of Cannabis Inc. officially gained legal recognition in Indiana in 2015 following the passage of that state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 
Modern spiritual figures like Ram Dass openly acknowledge that the use of cannabis has allowed them to gain a more spiritual perspective and use the herb frequently for both its medicinal and mind-altering properties.
In Mexico, followers of the growing cult of Santa Muerte regularly use marijuana smoke in purification ceremonies, with marijuana often taking the place of incense used in mainstream Catholic rituals.
- Church of Cognizance
- Entheogenic drugs and the archaeological record
- Free Exercise Clause
- Freedom of thought
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