Social Aspects of the Use of Cannabis in India Print
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by Khwaja A Hasan   


Cannabis in India is used .in three forms — ganja, bhang, and charas. Bhang is obtained from the dried leaves of Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. The oleo-resinous exudate of the plants is called charas and the flowering tops are called ganja. Ganja and charas are mixed with tobacco and smoked in clay pipes; bhang is eaten orally in the form of small balls or used as a beverage called thandai. While alcohol is generally looked down upon in Hindu society as it is tabooed to the Brahman and Bhagats (devotees), the use of cannabis is socially sanctioned and is associated with religio-social ceremonies of the Hindu god, Shiva. Cannabis is offered to Shiva on Shivaratri day in temples as "food of god." This paper examines what role cannabis plays in the social life of the peopleeparticularly in villages, and whether freedom to obtain and use these drugs results in addiction as a massive problem.



The use of intoxicating drinks and drugs is known to have existed in ancient India. Aryan settlers are believed to have used a drink called somarasa, the juice of a mysterious plant called soma. The Grihya and Dharamsutras do not mention anything about soma but the Srautasutras, which describe the religious practices of the Aryans, do mention the sacrifices connected with the drinking of somarasa. Some substitutes of soma are also suggested by the Srautasutras. For example, a beverage called masara is mentioned as a substitute for somarasa.

Masara was prepared from germinated rice or germinated barley, fried grains, and certain roots, herbs, and spices known under the generic name nagnahu, which mainly served as yeast (Gopal 1959: 166-167). It is also mentioned in the Srautasutras that masara was used in the preparation of sura which was a common liquor of the Sutra period and was offered to deities. However, Dharamsutras, the literature dealing with the interaction between religion, family, and society, condemns drinking of ,sura and prescribes severe punishment for a Brahman who drinks it. It is recommended in this literature that a Brahman who drinks sura should be branded on his forehead with the sign of a sura pot and condemned to exile (Ibid.). Thus it seems likely that the use of liquor was confined to the so-called lower castes.

The Buddhist Age in India began in the sixth century before Christ, and Buddhism gradually supplanted Brahmanism as a national religion. Buddhism prohibited the use of intoxicants to its followers (Report 1955: 4). However, Brahmanism was revived in the tenth century of our era. Modern day Hinduism, therefore, is the result of cumulative influence of post-Vedic times (Mackenzie 1913: 120). Historically, the consumption of alcoholic drinks and hemp drugs is reported to be in use up to the 8th or 9th century A.D., i.e., prior to the advent of Muslims into the country (Mitra 1955: 234). Opium was brought to India by the pre-Islamic Arab traders during 570-632 A.D. (Terry 1931: 242-251). During the medieval period the habit of drinking developed considerably. This may be attributed in part to the example set by the kings and their courtiers. However, not all the medieval kings indulged in drinking. It is reported that King Allauddin Khilji in the year 1310 had imposed a total prohibition on the capital city of Delhi, and Aurangzeb, a king in the Moghal dynasty who was a staunch follower of Islam, abstained from drinking (Report, op.cit.). One wonders what the situation was regarding the use or abuse of hemp drugs and opium during the medieval period.

The British introduced the system of excise taxation in India for the first time in the history of the country. The East India Company and its successor, the then Government of India, enacted laws in the year 1790 in consonance with the policy that was followed in the United Kingdom. The Royal Commission of 1893 to inquire into the prevalence of the opium habit, and another commission appointed by the Government of India two years later, collected a mass of information on the prevalence and effects of these drugs (both opium and hemp). In 1907 an agreement to reduce the export of opium to China was reached, which was stopped completely in 1913-1914 (Report, op.cit.).

Legislative measures against the production, possession, and sale of intoxicating drinks and drugs were also taken in India. For example, in 1910 an act, known as the United Provinces Excise Act IV, was passed by the legislature of that province which under article 17 (1) includes the following measures:

(a) No excisable article shall be manufactured,
(b) No hemp plant shall be cultivated,
(c) No portion of hemp plant, from which any intoxicating drug can be manufactured, shall be collected,
(d) No liquor shall be bottled for sale,
(e) No person shall use, keep or have in his possession any materials, distilling utensils, implements or apparatus whatsoever, for the purpose of manufacturing any excisable article other than toddy; except under the authority and subject to the terms and conditions of license granted in that behalf by the Collector.

Thus, the British did not impose prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs in India. Instead, they introduced a system of licensing the manufacture of alcoholic beverages and the production and sale of narcotic drugs. They also followed a policy of restricting consumption by raising taxes from time to time. The production of opium in India was curtailed drastically through governmental control. For example, in 1910 about one million acres of land was planted to poppies. This was curtailed to one-fifth of a million acres in 1948 and to about 75,000 acres in 1958 (Times of India, New Delhi, May 24, 1959, Sunday Magazine Section).

In the post-independence period, the concept of the Welfare State was promoted in India and the followers of Mahatma Gandhi demanded a system of prohibition throughout the nation. Several states introduced prohibition. In some states "wet" and "dry" districts were declared while in some other areas "wet" and "dry" days of the week were introduced. This gave a fillip to illicit distillation, smuggling and even to resorting to the use of denatured spirits. The system of control on the production and sale of hemp resulted in smuggling of ganja from Nepal. Newspaper reports reveal that new methods are continually adopted in the smuggling business. In January of 1972, about 100 deaths were reported from methanol poisoning in the Capital City of Delhi (Overseas Hindustan Times, New Delhi, dated January 29, 1972, p. 1).


While our knowledge of ethnohistorical aspects of the use of alcohol and drugs in India is by no means complete, the above account throws some light on how present day sociocultural norms are derived from the past and on differences in the use or non-use of different intoxicants at present. This paper is an attempt to discuss differences in the cultural goals and orientation toward the use or non-use of different intoxicants in Hindu society. These differences are based on an individual's membership in a varna and caste, or other groupings such as the "holy" as against the "ordinary," or are related to the nature of interaction between members of a kinship group as against others. While the objective of this paper is to discuss mainly the use of cannabis in India, reference to the use of alcohol is inevitable since the use or non-use of these two groups of intoxicants represents differing cultural values in Hindu society.

Consumption of alcohol in villages in India is confined to the use of daroo or sharaab (wine), tharra (country-made liquor), taari (toddy — the juice of fan palm, date palm and coconut trees), and denatured spirits. Among the hemp drugs in common use are ganja, bhang, and charas. Bhang is obtained from the dried leaves of hemp plants. The oleo-resinous exudate is called charas and the flowering tops are called ganja. While the use of hemp drugs seems to have social sanction among Hindu castes, alcoholic beverages do not find a place of honor or even proper conduct. This does not mean that there is no use of alcohol among Hindus. It only indicates a differential in cultural and religious orientation toward these two groups of intoxicants. Alcohol in any form is absolutely prohibited to the Brahman, the highest varna in the Hindu caste system. The prohibition of alcohol goes back to the Vedic periods. Among the twice-born castes, the Kshatriya are known to use alcohol and meat as mentioned by Carstairs (1954). The Kayasthas of north India also use alcoholic beverages. However, even in these castes, individuals who drink alcohol try to give up wine and meat with the coming of old age and begin to devote themselves to religion — a cultural goal to die "pure" and pious (Hasan 1967).

Among the Shudra and the untouchable castes, the use of alcohol is not prohibited. It is in this group of castes that we find that some alcoholic beverages are used quite commonly. In a study of a village inhabited predominantly by the so-called lower castes near the City of Lucknow, in 1959-1960, I found that out of 62 respondents among Hindu castes, 45 (75%) did not object to using wine and country liquor, while 41(66.1%) did not object to using denatured spirits (methyl alcohol), while 42(67.7%) did not object to using toddy. However, 54 respondents out of 62(87.1%) did not object to using one or more forms of hemp drugs. Table 1 gives the exact number of respondents by caste showing no objection to using one or more of the intoxicants.

The figures from Table 1 reveal that more people in the village used hemp drugs than alcohol. This difference is due to the religious and cultural sanctioning of hemp drugs, while alcohol is seen differently. For example, a person who wants to become a Bhagat (devotee) must pledge before his guru (religious preceptor) that he will not consume liquor, meat, onion, garlic, etc., nor will he have sexual intercourse (even with his own wife) after becoming a devotee. However, hemp drugs are not forbidden to him. Bhagats and holy men (saints) are, therefore, free to use these drugs while they are forbidden to take alcohol (Hasan 1971). Since Brahmans are accorded the highest status in Hindu society, their practices, (fasting, vegetarianism, ablution) and avoidances (teetotalism) are valued and respected, and Bhagats of other castes adopt many of these practices to bring themselves closer to the supernatural. Many lower-caste individuals, generally those over 40 years old, become Bhagats and must, therefore, give up alcohol although they can continue to use hemp drugs.


The use of ganja, bhang, and charas is associated with religio-social ceremonies among the Hindus. It is believed that the god Shiva (also known as Shankar) was very fond of hemp drugs; and these drugs are still offered to Shiva on Shivaratri day in temples as being "foods of the god." It was due to this religious association that Brahmans and Bhagats did not abstain from using these drugs while they abhorred alcoholic drinks.

The festival of Shivaratri is observed on the fourteenth day of the dark half ofthe month Phalgun (February-March). People celebrate by expressing happiness as they believe that Shiva was married on this day.

Shiva is considered to be both the Creator and Destroyer of men, and is a god to be feared. In Hindu mythology, it was Shiva who swallowed the poison that came out of the churning of the sea, which otherwise would have destroyed mankind. Thus, people also observe a fast on this day to honor Shiva.

It is not clearly known why Hindus associate hemp drugs with Shiva. According to Underhill (1921: 66, 70), the plant soma was identified with the moon and so was Shiva. The Satapatha brahmana mention the importance of offerings to the spirits of the dead on the new moon days, for the moon comes to earth on this day and soma, the food of the gods and the departed, is unobtainable on that day, therefore the spirits will be without food unless the worshipper provides it (Ibid.: 112). Some scholars believe that soma, the mysterious plant, is cannabis (O'Flaherty 1971: 128), however, the idea has been strongly opposed by Wasson (1971: 10). In this book, Soma: divine mushroom of immortality, Wasson argues that Rg Veda placed soma only on the high mountains, whereas hemp grows everywhere; and that the virtue of soma lay in the stalks, whereas the leaves and the resin of cannabis are used as intoxicants, while the stalks of hemp are woody (Ibid.: 16). Wasson's scholarly analysis of numerous verses from Rg Veda and ethnohistorical and ethnobotanical data advance very convincing arguments for identifying soma as the mushroom, fly-agaric ( Amanita muscaria).


In villages as well as cities ganja is usually mixed with tobacco and smoked in a funnel-shaped clay pipe (Plate 1). Charas is also used in the same manner. However, bhang is eaten in the form of small balls or used as a beverage. The famous decoction prepared from bhang is called thandai. In cities, bhang may also be added to the milk of the indigenous ice cream, called gulfi. A slang term for gulfi mixed with bhang in north India is hani gulfi (green ice cream).

Preparing thandai is a time-consuming process. A number of dry fruits, condiments, and spices are used in its preparation. Almonds, pistachio, rose petals, black pepper, aniseed, and cloves are ground on the toothed stone grinding plate (silauti); water is added so that a thinly ground paste is obtained. This paste is dissolved in milk and then bhang is added to the mixture. Some people add asafoetida also because of its medical properties. A few spoons of sugar or jaggery (boiled brown sugar) are added finally and then the decoction is ready for consumption.

It is generally believed that thandai (literal meaning: cold drink) makes the body of the user cool and comfortable. It is obvious that the drink has good nutritional value for it contains many protective foods. Almonds are fairly rich in proteins and fats which have a high calorie value. The drink, thandai, therefore, serves as a supplement to a diet poor in proteins and the condiments supply mineral salts. During the hot summer months from March to October people perspire heavily, the consequent loss of salt is compensated by its intake in food as well as in decoctions like thandai. Finally, dehydration is also offset, at least partially, by the consumption of thandai.

The preparation of thandai and the social atmosphere it creates has great significance. Members of the same family, caste or a circle of friends from the village or the neighborhood gather in the parlor of a friend. Different ingredients of the drink are collected and ground on the toothed stone grinding plate. The whole process takes an hour or so. While preparing the drink, individuals talk about friends, family members, prices of goods and services and a host of other problems. However, members of the Shudra and the untouchable castes do not join the thandai parties of the twice-born castes. They generally have their own parties.

Raw bhang in the form of small balls is also eaten in the villages and cities. Bhang eating is usually accompanied by eating any kind of sweets — jaggery, or sweetmeats. It is said that the intensity of intoxication is greatly enhanced by combining bhang with sweets. Both ganja and bhang are easily obtainable in small quantities from licensed dealers. These items are relatively cheap for small quantities can be purchased by spending a few paises for a single dose.


Ganja and charas also play an important role in the social life of the people in villages as well as cities. Charas may be mixed with tobacco and sometimes cigarettes of this mixture may be prepared by the user. No commercial cigarettes of this mixture are found or sold in India. Ganja is smoked in a funnel-shaped clay pipe called chilam. Almost anybody except the untouchables (sweeper caste) can join the group and enjoy a few puffs. The base part of the bowl portion of the funnel-shaped clay pipe is first covered with a small charred clay filter. Then the mixture of ganja and tobacco is placed on this filter. A small ring, the size of the bowl of the funnel-shaped clay pipe, of rope fiber called baand, is first burnt separately and then quickly placed on top of the smoking material. The pipe is now ready for smoking. Usually four or five persons gather around a pipe. One person starts taking puffs slowly. After igniting the fire material by taking small puffs he finally takes a really big puff and immediately passes the pipe to the person sitting next to him. Thus, in reality it is the last big puff which is inhaled fully by the smoker, the earlier smaller puffs are merely to ignite the fire; the smoke of those smaller puffs goes to the mouth and is released but not inhaled. In this way, the smoking pipe takes one or at the most two rounds and is enjoyed by several persons.

The smoking of ganja or even of ordinary tobacco may bring members of different castes or ordinary, individuals and •Bhagats together over a common pipe. However, ritual purity of the pipe is always preserved for the clay pipe is never touched by the lips of the smoker. The tubular part of the chilcun at its bottom is held in the right hand and the left hand also supports it. The passage between the index finger and the thumb of the right hand is used in taking puffs from the pipe. Since nobody touches the pipe with his lips, the ritual purity of the pipe is maintained.

The first man before taking his first puff offers the smoke to hankar (another name of Shiva) by saying in a high pitched voice, "Jai Shankar, Kata Lage na Kankar." In so doing, he fortifies himself as well as others in the smoking party with the knowledge that the great god Creator-Destroyer relishes the smoke and prays that the smoke will not give trouble to their throats. Again, while they sit in squatting position on a chabootra (raised platform) in front of one person's house or gather in an open space while the host prepares the chilam, they talk about social problems, weather, crops, prices, marriage negotiations and so forth. Such gatherings may take place any time during the day except early morning. After a smoke they again go back to work. Thus such smoking parties are like "coffee breaks" in the American culture.


Vegetarianism, fasting, observing proper ablution practices, and teetotalism are highly valued in Hindu society for these are associated with Brahmans, the highest varna in the Hindu caste system. The members of lower castes adopt these practices when they become Bhagats (devotees) under the influence of a holy man. In the village Chinaura many individuals over 40 years of age and some younger individuals became Bhagats (devotees). One who becomes a Bhagat is given respect for superior knowledge and wisdom and ties with Shiva. Members of both sexes could become Bhagats. A Bhagat can be recognized from his or her outward appearance as he or she wears a kanthi, a necklace of small wooden beads. Since ordinarily individuals over 40 years of age become Bhagats, the latter usually are senior citizens as average longevity in India is considerably lower than in industrial societies.

Becoming a Bhagat does not necessarily mean that one is required to use hemp drugs, although one must not use alcohol, meat, onion, garlic, and must abandon sexual activity. I found only one Bhagat in Chinaura who did not even smoke tobacco. This man belonged to the Ahir caste (milk producing caste), and was also chairman of the gaon sabha (village assembly). However, generally Bhagats were seen smoking and using hemp drugs, although with the exception of a few individuals, regular and excessive use was not noted.

In this village, I also found an example of how members of lower castes or even untouchables can get higher individual status by becoming Bhagats and by using hemp drugs. A man belonging to a sweeper caste (untouchable) worked as an employee of the Railways in the city. His duties included cleaning toilets in the railroad cars and at the Railway Station in the city. He learnt the use of ganja, bhang, and charas under the influence of some holy man. Later he left his well-paid job and became a Bhagat; he returned to the village and indulged excessively in smoking ganja. Even members of higher rank Shudra castes like Pasi, Chamar, and Bhujwa joined his smoking parties. Normally, Pasis, Chamars, and Bhujwa Would not sit with a member of the sweeper caste and smoke through a common chilam. Leaving a well-paid job did not lower his prestige; in fact, this enhanced his status for this meant renunciation of the material world. After becoming a Bhagat, he started working as a naut (exorcist and medicine man) in the village.

The two basic elements of Hindu social organization are kinship and caste and the use of alcohol or cannabis has an interesting relationship with the nature of social interaction that can take place over a smoking pipe or a bottle of alcohol. While to members of Shudra castes, alcohol may serve as a unifying force, it may be responsible for isolating an individual in other castes. For example, Brahmans and orthodox Vaish families denounce the use of alcohol and those who drink are looked down upon. On the other hand, marriage parties or biradari panchayats (caste assemblies) are occasions on which drinking among the members of the same caste of the Shudra group are common Among the Pasi, Chamar, Dhobi, Dom, and many other low caste groups, usually toddy is offered to guests at feasts. If an individual is "outcasted" by the caste assembly for violating any of the rules, some cash fine is imposed upon him and he is supposed to give a feast to the members of the caste. The number of individuals to whom the feast is to be given, is specified by the chowdry (Chairman of the caste assembly); this may range from one hundred to two hundred individuals. Outcasting means total isolation of the individual and his family from the caste. No one will smoke from the hubble-bubble of a person who has been outcasted nor will water be accepted at his hands. If an outcasted member agrees to give a feast to the biradari (caste) in which toddy or some other alcoholic beverages are served, he can be taken back at the very meeting of the assembly in which the feast is given.

Drinking among the kinship groups is ordinarily permissible. Male and female members of the same family among the Pasi, Chamar, Dhobi, Dom, and many other castes, can sit and drink together. But a woman may feel shy to drink in the presence of her son-in-law and she may sit separately to drink. Similarly, the housewife may feel shy to drink in the presence of her father-in-law. Drinking among kinship groups is usual at festivals or during harvest or when a close relative comes to stay. Drinks may also be offered to the would-be-in-laws at the time of negotiations for marriage. Drinking outside one's kinship or caste groups is rare in the village unless one goes to the toddy shop or a bar.


The use of cannabis has generally been described to have threefold effects on human beings: (1) physiological changes, (2) neuro-psychiatric manifestations, and (3) sociological aspects of chronic use (Goodman and Gilman 1955: 170-174). Cannabis is used both orally and smoked by the Hindus of north India. We do not know the physiological effects of the consumption of thandai nor the effects that eating bhang may have on the body. However, it is important to note that smoking ganja in its cultural context involves taking only one big puff at a single smoking party. There is certainly a need to conduct physiological studies of the use of cannabis in these forms.

Reports of sociological effects of the use of cannabis suggest effects on the personality associated with prolonged use: loss of desire to work, loss of motivation, and loss of judgment and intellectual functions. Chopra et al. (1942) have studied sociological, psychiatric, and criminological aspects of the use of Cannabis sativa in India. The inquiries they conducted in various jails and mental centers revealed that in many cases even a single dose of ganja or charas smoke was reponsible for a heinous crime.

It would be interesting to know how many users of the drug did not commit crimes and how many criminals committed crimes of similar nature without having used the drug.

Although it is true that the use of hemp drugs is not looked down upon among Hindu castes, there is no evidence of physical dependence. People use these drugs sometimes as a means of recreation but usually there is no desire to continue usage nor is there any tendency to increase the dosage. Only occasions of festivity and ceremonial functions are meant for using these drugs in most cases. The number of regular users is negligible. In Chinaura, with a population of 1190 at the time of study, not more than four individuals were found to be regular users.


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Our valuable member Khwaja A Hasan has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.