Whilst in the West cannabis is a much maligned and demonised plant, for those who share my cultural background it has largely been regarded as benign or beneficial, and even a sacred plant for over 4,000 years.
Growing up I often heard accounts of a ‘mysterious’ substance known as bhang. My granddad would often regale us with stories about parties where they’d imbibe bhang lassi, a milkshake type drink, and then dance the night away.
Talking about bhang wasn’t ever taboo in my family, but then I didn’t exactly know what the word actually meant!! Aged 11 my curiosity finally got the better of me and one weekend I asked my granddad, “What is this bhang that you speak so fondly of?” My granddad looked sternly towards me, “Oh shit!” I thought “I should have kept my mouth shut!!” My granddad got up out of his seat, walked over towards me and told me to follow him. He led me out to the garden and into his greenhouse, there growing amongst the chillies, tomatoes, and peppers was the familiar five fingered leaf I recognised as being associated with hippies or Rastafarianism. “There that’s bhang” he said. “But isn’t that drugs?” I enquired. “Any substance can be abused and that is wrong but this, when used sensibly, is heaven sent and was given to us by Rab (God)…”
Cannabis has a long history in India, veiled in legends, spirituality and religion. It is in The Vedas that you find the earliest mention of cannabis. Sacred Hindu texts, these writings are thought to have been compiled as early as 2000 B.C. It is written that cannabis was one of five sacred plants given to man at the creation of the world, regarded as a source of happiness, the joy-giver, a liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose all fear. The Hindu god, Shiva is frequently associated with cannabis. According to legend, Shiva wandered off into the fields after an altercation with his family. Drained from the family squabble and the beating midday sun, he fell asleep under a leafy plant. When he awoke, his curiosity led him to sample the leaves of the plant, feeling instantly rejuvenated, Shiva made the plant his favourite food and he became known as the Lord of Bhang. To this day it is still commonly consumed by Shivaite yogis, ascetics, and worshippers of Shiva, as an aid to their sadhana (spiritual practice).
During the Middle Ages, soldiers often took a drink of bhang before entering battle, just as Westerners took a swig of whiskey or brandy. One story tells of the Sikh leader Gobind Singh’s soldiers being scared by an attacking elephant with a sword in his trunk. Terrified, the men nearly mutinied until Singh gave one courageous man, who he had named his “colourful midget”, a mixture of bhang and opium. The herbs gave him the strength and agility to slip under the elephant from below and kill it without endangering himself. This act of courage led Singh’s men to victory over the enemy.
My granddad always said that using cannabis helped him achieve a state of mind he referred to as “Charhdi Kala”. He explained that one’s attitude is central to life’s experience, Charhdi Kala in general terms was a positive, buoyant and ever optimistic disposition, it is an equivalence of a mind that never despairs, never admits defeat and refuses to be crushed by adversities. He said that this state of mind was essential to fulfilling one’s duties and obligations as a Sikh.
The Sikhs of Punjab are amongst the biggest consumers of cannabis in religious texts. Created by Guru Gobind Singh, Sukhnidhan (the peace giver) is still prepared today by the Nihangs or Warrior Sikhs just as it was over 300 years ago. A mixture of nuts, poppy seeds, black pepper, rose petals, cardamom seeds, melon seeds which are all ground together with cannabis, then to make it drinkable, water, milk and sugar are added to the mix. Today Sukhnidhan is still consumed by the Sikhs on special occasions, festivals, parties or for spiritual uplift and meditation.