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A Gift From the Gods: The History of Cannabis and Religion

December 19, 2013

Does cannabis have any ties to religion? What we found may surprise you.

Cannabis has not only been used in religious ceremonies, it has a long-standing tradition in numerous world faiths. Let’s start with the area it’s been used the longest: China.

Cannabis in Chinese Religion

Taoist shamans used cannabis in combination with ginseng to reveal truths about the future, believing the plant had the ability to cast their spirit forward in time. In Taoism, cannabis consumption was reserved for religious officials and not shared with common people, which might explain its strange exclusion from ancient texts. By 200 C.E., the Han Dynasty of Imperial China had embraced Confucianism, abandoned Taoism and, with it, cannabis.

Cannabis in Indian Religion

While spiritual Chinese cannabis consumption may have ended by 200 C.E., it was just coming into its own in India. It is said that the gods sent hemp out of compassion for the human race so that they may attain delight, lose fear, and increase sexual desires. Other Hindu stories suggest cannabis originated from a spot of nectar dropped from Heaven. More popular is a theory that both gods and demons churned the milk ocean to obtain amrita, Sanskrit for immortality, and received cannabis as a result. Whichever story you believe, there’s no doubting that cannabis holds a sacred spot in the Hindu faith. In practice, the locally favored Hindu deity was given offerings of cannabis drinks during religious festivals; community members took part as well, sharing cannabis bowls amongst one another.

Cannabis in Tibetan Religion

India and Tibet share not only a border, but also a rich tradition of religious cannabis consumption. Tibet is a historically Buddhist nation. In Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main branches of the religion, it is said that Guatama Buddha subsisted on one hemp seed a day for six years to aid in his path to enlightenment. Buddha is sometimes depicted holding a bowl of “soma” or cannabis leaves. Buddhist practitioners would often consume cannabis to facilitate meditation or heighten awareness during religious ceremonies.

Cannabis in Ancient Greek Religion

The ancient cultures of Scythia and Assyria were known to use cannabis incense for religious ceremonies. Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth century B.C.E. known as the “Father of History,” wrote that the Scythians held religious ceremonies in tent-like structures where they burned hemp plants in censers on wooden tripods (see image below). Participants communally inhaled smoke vapors for ritualistic and euphoric purposes. Assyrians are believed to have used cannabis incense as early as the 9th century B.C.E., though there is not yet archaeological evidence to support this claim. It is known, however, that Assyrians used cannabis incense to ward off evil spirits. It was commonly burned during funerary rituals and to cast out wicked spirits from children’s rooms.

Scythians placed hemp-filled censers, containers for burning incense, on makeshift tripods over an open flame to produce intoxicating vapors.

Cannabis in the Old Testament

Cannabis is clearly prominent in ancient eastern religions, but there are scholars who believe that Judaic and Christian traditions used the plant as well. In 1936, Polish etymologist Sula Benet proposed a radical new interpretation of Old Testament Hebrew text: according to her, a mistranslation that occurred in the original Greek version of the Old Testament mistook the Hebrew word for cannabis, kaneh bosm, as calamus, a plant traditionally used to make fragrances. If her translation is correct, this would fundamentally change our understanding of the Old Testament. References to kaneh bosm are made in Exodus, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekial. In Exodus, God commanded Moses to make a holy oil consisting of myrrh, sweet cinnamon, kaneh bosm, and cassia.

Cannabis in Jamaican Religion

Our research concluded in the modern western world, focused primarily on the island nation of Jamaica. Made popular in the U.S. first by Bob Marley and reintroduced by Snoop Lion (the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg), the Rastafarian movement focuses on Jah, or God, and involves the spiritual use of cannabis and rejection of materialism and oppression. Rastafarians’ use of marijuana was subject to scrutiny in the 20th century. Drawn-out legal proceedings culminated in the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act which stated that the consumption of cannabis and other substances is legal under U.S. law for spiritual and religious purposes. That’s right, mon!

So what have we learned? Cannabis has not only been around a very, very long time, it’s been an important part of world religious traditions for thousands of years. So this year when you’re taking part in your own holiday traditions, be sure to light one up for the religious cannabis consumers of times past. If you’re lucky, your spirit may just commune with the Taoists of old.

  • joni50

    I’ve been doing a little research on this. One thing I’ve uncovered is that not all of the Hindu deities like cannabis; for example, Shiva likes it very much, but his son Ganesh doesn’t care for it. One mystic reported: “Shiva and Ganesh don’t always see eye to eye. So when Ganesh smells cannabis, it reminds him of his father, of his absences and rages, and it’s not a happy smell to him (Ganesh).” On the other hand, many Hindu deities like cannabis, and, at festivals, a drink is made with milk and cannabis leaves and other spices, and enjoyed by all. One more thing: the Plains Indians do not and never did smoke cannabis in the Sacred Pipe, this is forbidden. Although it may be used in the Native American Church when Peyote is not available, this is a different and distinct tradition. Although, for some, it may be permissible to use in other forms, but never in the Sacred Pipe. In Genesis we read that God gave humans all seed bearing plants for food, and in Revelations we read of the Tree of Life, which bears year round and “the leaves are for the healing of the nations.” Finally, when using cannabis for spiritual
    purposes, it is important to keep the spine straight, the breath deep
    and even, and the mind focused. This discipline can lead to great
    revelations, while lacking this discipline can lead to dissipation. Hail Mary! Praise JAH!

    • Amy Mellen

      Thanks for the info! One Love 💚

  • Sy Katus

    You say “…the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act which stated that the consumption of cannabis and other substances is legal under U.S. law for spiritual and religious purposes.” So where were all the lawyers when (as I gather from articles) more than half the busts (that they at all still exist) in America were for Marijuana. My lawyer told me it was legal in the ’80’s, when we spoke on a say hello call I made, since the law prohibiting the trade and use violated free fair enterprise laws but I had not heard of the legislation you mention. So how can it be listed by the government as having no use at the same time? Why does not the courts strike down prohibition of weed (or all so called street drug) laws and forbid over regulation? Why was alcohol legalized by the congress not the courts? How can Marijuana be legal but one point off regulation is a crime. That was what they did with opium laws. (Establish monopolies). It was okay with the doc and prescription but off on the regulation, (some might have liked to smoke it and have anonymity of sorts) was not a simple ticket and low grade misdemeanor but a crime that some are doing life sentences for, (for marijuana too) Why is government doing that again. Think of the stress on the legal market too. One step out and goodbye to one happy future. Has this creature from the ID mentality actually debased the human element that they would plot to gain advantage in the world, by removing competition? In a South American nation plagued by overdoses they made heroin shots free from facilities to prevent overdoses and no one died, crime was reduced enforcement funds were saved treatment facilities for voluntary rehab was established from the savings. So what is causing crime and killing people? This is going on for what a hundred or more years. How many persons do you have to kill, how many peoples life prospects does one ruin. How much do they have to be responsible for to be stopped.

    I thought the definition of genocide was persecuting and killing persons who live their lives differently and meanwhile haven’t ‘infringed unjustly into others lives.

    What is wrong with the USA’s court system that this genocide has not been forbidden.

    Yes that is how bad some parts of our country is. But we always remember this country stands for fair free enterprise. It is what our nation is founded on, It is why nations of persons migrated here. It is what soldiers have died for to preserve.

    Some call it ‘freedom.’

    I call it ‘a fairly unimposing freedom for all in all things always.’

  • John Davis

    I can smoke a joint while I am on the lake. Get stopped before I get home. I will have no truck ,I will have no boat and have 180 days in jail=six months wages lost. We do not have a good d. c. Congress needs to graduate from their 88888tttttttthhhhhhhh grade science. They killed jfk. What else do I need know. La Buscador. davisjohn5071@gmail.com