“He Who Drinks Bhang, Drinks Shiva”
- J.M.Campbell, On The Religion of Hemp.
(Busy receiving court summons about how the above line is a Western conspiracy to malign Hinduism)
Bright colours. Unpredictable water balloons. Adults with squirt guns. Lecherous teasing. Holi in urban India can be a mixed bag of fun and fear with overtones of commercialization. The disruptive nature of modern life has diluted and simplified the charms of our rituals and festivals, dwarfing them to a symbolic exercise of socialization and community. For example, how many of us even remember why Holi is celebrated? Or how does a true celebration of Holi happen? Fear not, we’re here to quell your curiosity about both.
Holi, a celebration of the arrival of spring, commemorates the victory of Vishnu devotee Prahlad over evil when he survived an attempt to kill him in fire by his Aunt Holika on the behest of Prahlad’s evil father Hiranyakashyipu. The festival is said to have gained prominence since Lord Krishna played Holi with Radha and the Gopis in Mathura, which presently hosts an extensive 16-day celebration of colours, dancing and a slighter lesser-reported element - Bhang.
Made from the buds and leaves of the female cannabis plant, bhang offers a strange insight into a country which often takes a prudish view of ‘intoxicating vices’. Bhang has held a position of spiritual and religious significance since ancient times, with many accounts referring to it as ‘God’s Gift’. One account states that when nectar was being churned from the ocean, Lord Shiv supplied the bhang from his own body in order to purify the concoction. Another account states that some nectar fell on the ground resulting in the bhang plant. Bhang is regarded as an anxiety-reliever in the Atharvaveda and is frequently associated with Lord Shiva, who is said to have discovered and avidly consumed it.
Lord Shiva’s endorsement and the medicinally relaxing aspect of Bhang has made it a staple consumption for the Sadhus and Ascetics of North India. The cannabis leaves and buds are grounded into a paste with mortar and pestle which is mixed with ghee, spices and milk to create the Bhang base, which is then used to make the thandai, Bhang lassi, halwa, laddoos and pakoras. The Bhang preparations are consumed during Mahashivratri and Holi and, in the case of some communities, daily.
The 1961 Single Convention On Narcotic Drugs clubbed marijuana with hard drugs and forced many countries including India to put in place a policy to control drugs nationally. India was given 25 years to act against recreational drugs and in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi’s government enacted the ‘Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act’ which prohibited the consumption of marijuana, after mounting international political pressure. The Act seems like it would be deemed a dangerous over-reaction by no one other than our former colonists themselves.
A comprehensive study was undertaken in the 1890s by the British to ascertain the extent and kind of bhang use in the country. British and Indian Medical experts conducted over 1,000 standardized interviews and collated their data in a systematically and thoroughly. The Indian Hemps Drug Commission Report went on to offer the following conclusion, “To forbid or even seriously restrict the use of so holy and gracious a herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance, and too large bands of worshipped ascetics, deep-seated anger. It would rob people of solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from attacks of evil influences.”
The study traced back the origins of intense reverence of the drug in Hindus, as well as use, since ancient times. The Sadhus had developed beliefs and rules around the herb such as, “He who despite the example of Rishis uses no bhang at all, shall lose happiness in this life and the next’, ‘he who drinks foolishly or for pleasure without religious rites is as guilty as the sinner of lakhs of sins’ and ‘he who scandalises the user of bhang shall suffer the torments of hell as long as the sun endures.’
While there are restrictions on cannabis resin and the flowering parts of the plant, Bhang is saved from the prohibition. Bhang is available in specially-licensed Bhang Shops as well as a few restaurants which cater to foreign tourists. The consumption skyrockets inarguable during Holi in the cities of Mathura and Varanasi in particular (and the rest of the country in general), adding to the revelries and festivities of the day.
While we live in a time where western influences and practices are constantly being questioned, the curb and social stigma on Bhang serves as a stark reminder of the things we actually let Western influences dictate. While cannabis does possess some harmful side-effects, the deep cultural relationship which India shares with the substance in the form of Bhang remains largely under-reported.
Perhaps it’s time we question if Bhang can once again be made a part of the Indian Mainstream in the existing environment. Till then, have a Happy High Holi!
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