Photo by Georgia Love for Herb
There are few forms of cannabis that defy the stigma around its consumption quite like bhang. This traditional Hindu beverage is not only popular among followers of Shiva in Northern India, but it is so sacred that it is exempt from international drug laws.
Regularly consumed during religious festivals, bhang is a dairy-based beverage which comes in two basic preparations: Thandai; which is prepared with milk, sugar, almonds, and spices like cardamom and saffron, and Lassi, which is a yogurt-based blend of spices and cannabis.
The first recorded use of bhang was discovered in the more-than-3000-year-old Atharvaveda holy texts, which form the basis of an alternative plant-based medicinal practice known as Ayurvedic medicine. These practices were westernized in the 60s and are not an accepted form of medicine in the United States today. The original practices, however, have been used and revered in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.
The name Bhang comes from the Sanskrit word used to describe the leaves of the cannabis plant which are used in the drinks preparation. In the same language, resin is referred to as charas, and ganja is the smokable bud according to Dr. Biljana Dušić, a counselor of Ayurvedic medicine.
In modern-day India, where cannabis use is not as prevalent as it once was, the word bhang has come to describe the beverage and is considered a drink of the gods, particularly the god Shiva, who is sometimes referred to as the Lord of Bhang.
Often described as the god of destruction, Shiva is one of the three central gods in the Hindu faith and can be more accurately understood as a god of change in a constant cycle that requires creation, maintenance, and destruction.
Hindu legends describe Shiva as a frequent user of cannabis in the form of bhang. One story describes Shiva falling asleep under a cannabis plant and discovering its effects when he awoke. In one of the central Hindu creation myths, the gods churn a cosmic ocean to create the elixir of life. Where cannabis plants grow naturally today is explained as the location at which drops of this elixir spilled onto the Earth. A version of this story tells the tale of Shiva draining the ocean of poison and using cannabis to heal his wounds.
Whether myth or belief, cannabis holds a sacred place in Hindu culture. Some even say that a dream of the plant is an omen of success. Its deeply religious nature means that bhang is mostly consumed during holidays like Shivratri and Holi, festivals which are held in the spring.
Although India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985 banned cannabis as part of a global push to ban narcotics, parts of Northern India were exempt from the ban due to the importance of bhang in their religious traditions. Bhang is also consumed by the followers of Krishna, in Mathura, and can be purchased legally from government authorized shops in the northern regions of Guwahati, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala.
The difficulty of banning cannabis in India had been understood for decades by the time the war on drugs began. According to the Report of the Indian Hemp and Drugs Commission of 1893, completed by the British Empire when they ruled India, the prohibition of cannabis in India was considered to be completely impractical.
As part of its work, the commission interviewed nearly 2000 people across 30 cities, covering all aspects of life and culture. One of its conclusions was that banning cannabis in India would create more problems than it solves due to the plant’s importance.
“No gem or jewel can touch in value bhang taken truly and reverently,” the report noted, “he who drinks Bhang drinks Shiva.”
Bhang is thought to have many of the same effects that edible cannabis has. Its effects take a while to set in, but also last longer than smokable cannabis since it is being ingested. Some have reported feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety and a high that can last the better part of the day.
Other effects include distorted perception of time, lightheadedness, loss of memory, increased appetite, and laughing at absolutely everything.
“My experience started with an initial happy haze,” writes Charukesi Ramadurai of the BBC, “followed by a paranoid funk that lasted for hours. As I observed a few of Pathak’s regulars queue up for the intoxicating beverage, I marveled at their ability to consume it regularly.”
The intensity of bhang has led some to believe that it is forbidden for mortals to drink it and that only Shiva can handle its effects. Others consume bhang as an offering to Shiva, while many today drink it as a celebratory beverage.
Just like its physical and psychological effects, many of the medical benefits of bhang are similar to that of cannabis in its other forms. Bhang is used by some to relieve anxiety, to treat glaucoma, balance high blood pressure, an appetite stimulant and even as an aphrodisiac. According to Dr. Dušić, martial artists in the region also drink bhang as a pre or post workout supplement to relieve muscle pain.