The following essay is excerpted from Cannabis in Spiritual Practice by Will Johnson, published by Inner Traditions.
The great Hindu god Shiva was the original pothead, the first ever personage of record who is said to have enjoyed cannabis. For him, cannabis was a sacred plant, a spiritual sacrament, and legends that have been passed down to the present day recount that Shiva would enjoying drinking bhang, that his body would then start making spontaneous movements, and that out of these movements the body-oriented practices of yoga and dance were brought into being. Whether Shiva was an actual human being or a mythical figure—and most scholars defer to the latter interpretation—his story speaks to a spiritual path that cannabis directly supports and catalyzes.
For me, he was most likely a bit of both, an actual human onto whom a good deal of elaborate, mythic dazzle would be subsequently superimposed. The stories of his early life are all too human, and you get a sense of a young man with strong spiritual presence but no particular social pedigree, who nevertheless fell in love with the daughter of high princely society, wooed and wed her, but almost blew the whole deal when he showed up for the wedding, which the bride’s parents were already none too pleased about, along with his rowdy homeboys, all of whom were said to be “high on intoxicants.” After much pleading on Parvati’s part—she was just as smitten with him as he with her—her parents relented and the marriage went ahead. If the ancient bards were going to invent mythic accounts of a supreme god, it doesn’t strike me as all that likely that this would have been the story they would have come up with. Add to this that he enjoyed using cannabis—on which society probably had just as dim a view then as it does today—and very little of this sounds like the stuff of mythic legend.
But what a grand couple on whom to paint such an extraordinary story, raising Shiva to the level of a god, Parvati to the level of a goddess, both of them at once so human and divine, both of them so immersed in spiritual practices. Nor is it all that hard to differentiate the story of the human lovers from the taller bard’s tales, as some of the events sound so eminently human, while others . . . well. Smoking cannabis and falling hard for a beautiful partner are one thing. Cutting off your child’s head in a jealous fit, and then healing that child through affixing the head of a baby elephant to the severed neck, is altogether another. Equally fantastic are the stories of eons of meditation, or his angry decapitation of a snake (cutting off heads was, evidently, one of his favored ways of acting out his anger) and subsequent remorse that moved him to bring the snake back to life by attaching twelve heads to its lifeless body (he also, rather obviously, had a decidedly peculiar sense of what was aesthetically, as well as societally, acceptable, both of which are evidently a mythic god’s prerogative) and appointing it his protector.
Miraculous stories have been attached to the historical Buddha as well and tell us how, as soon as he was born, he stood up and walked in the four directions of the earth, blessing each one with each perfectly graceful and balanced step. But it’s the man, Siddhartha Gautama—who fled the anesthetizing comforts of the palace to sit in meditation for long years in the forest, wrestling with the dreams of his mind that would have him believe they were reality, not dreams—that we resonate with through doing the same kinds of meditation practices that he was doing and for many of the same reasons as well.
And so it is with Shiva. Let’s let go of the mythology and fabulous tales, and instead meet him as a human, just like you or me—and whoever enjoys cannabis as a spiritual sacrament that makes their bodies move spontaneously.
The earliest mention of cannabis in the context of Hindu spiritual practice can be found in the Atharva Veda, a sacred Hindu text that may be as many as three thousand years old and that speaks of cannabis as one of the five most sacred plants that are here on earth to help and heal us. Even so, the use of cannabis for spiritual practices is as controversial today in India as it is in the West, and the use of cannabis is generally frowned upon by contemporary Indian spiritual figures, just as it would be by a church deacon in the United States. The somatophobic* bias of our culture—which seeks to support a consciousness based on linear thought but is uncomfortable with, even fearful of, the felt presence of the body and the quality of consciousness it supports—is highly suspicious of, even antagonistic toward, the notion that cannabis could actually enhance our spiritual understanding, rather than detract from it. In India, millions of people call themselves devotees of Shiva, but many are still bound by this pervasive bias, which views the very sacrament that Shiva evidently used to help him discover yoga and dance as somehow taboo for them. They may give themselves permission to drink bhang one day a year on a special Shiva holiday, but that’s it.
*Somatophobia refers to the fear of—and anger directed toward—the soma, the feeling presence of the body. The term soma has different—but perhaps related—meanings in both the Greek and Hindu languages. When referring to the body, soma comes directly from the Greek language. But in the Vedas, the ancient texts of the Aryan people who migrated down into India around 1500 BCE, soma refers to a mind-altering substance that can reveal glimpses of the god realm. In the 1960s and ’70s a number of psychedelic researchers, assuming that soma must be some kind of mushroom or plant, combed the Himalayas in hopes of finding it, but came away empty-handed. An intriguing possibility exists in that both Greek and Hindu derive from a common, much earlier Indo-European language. Might soma—for the Greeks as well as for the writers of the Vedas—actually be referring to the same thing? Might the mind-altering soma of the Vedas actually be the awakened feeling presence of the body? Somatics is now the accepted term for the wide range of body-oriented psychotherapies and techniques that have developed in the West since the late nineteenth century, all of which share the common goal of awakening and healing the body as a path to greater personal realization.
Somatophobia runs deep. Its principles so saturate the tissues of our cultural body that many people pass their entire lives rarely ever waking up from its spell. To embody its gospel is to stifle sensation, to enter into conflictual resistance with the world of nature and the felt current of the life force. By dampening and putting a dimming lid on the feeling presence of the body, somatophobia relegates the experience of human ecstasy to a nonacceptable, hence nonexistent, dimension of consciousness and causes the brilliant energies of the whole pantheistic realm of organic life to go dark. Somatophobia would like to suppress any awareness of these realms from accessible experience, and herein lies its problem with cannabis, which, used as a spiritual sacrament in conjunction with body-oriented meditation practices, powerfully supports the very dimensions of experience that the somatophobic bias would like to prohibit.
The wandering ascetics and sadhus who are devoted to Shiva don’t just worship him as an arms-length object of veneration. They invoke him every day as they begin their spiritual practices through smoking ganja (what cannabis is called in India) to awaken the feeling energies of the body and, in a real and palpable way, activate in themselves the same energies that Shiva would have stimulated when he would drink bhang. Christian devotees, by eating a communion wafer, participate in a ritual that symbolically partakes of the body of Christ. For Shaivite sadhus, however, there’s nothing at all symbolic about smoking cannabis. They’re not just symbolically partaking of Shiva’s body. They’re actively transforming the state of their bodies into the bodily experience of Shiva. By doing what Shiva did, they’re able to tap into what Shiva must have experienced.
When my wife was a young woman, she spent time in retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas, exploring yoga practices that she’d learned in Varanasi. She would often awaken in the morning to find a group of wandering Shiva babas—ascetics following Shiva’s practices—on her porch where they had sought shelter during the night. They always treated her with great respect and would invite her to participate with them in their morning yoga practices, which always began with a ritual invocation to Shiva by the passing around of a small clay pipe called a chillum, which was filled with cannabis. From one person to the next, the chillum would be passed. Everyone would inhale deeply, holding the sacred smoke in their lungs as long as possible. Only after the chillum had made several rounds would they begin to do their yoga asanas, and they told my wife that the ganja was what allowed them to feel their way so deeply into their practices.
Contemporary Indian commentators may attempt to explain away Shiva’s use of cannabis by suggesting that drinking bhang gave him more energy, but this is a specious and inadequate answer, most likely proposed by scholarly commentators who’ve rarely, if ever, smoked cannabis themselves. Cannabis, especially the purer strains of sativa, does not just give you energy. Cannabis wakes the unfelt body up. It powerfully stimulates awareness of the body as a field of minute tactile sensations—vibrating, shimmering, flowing, buzzing. It stimulates the current of the life force, which can be felt as waves of tactile sensations and energies spreading through the entire body. It shifts awareness away from the mind and redirects it back into the body. It exposes the resistance and tension of the somatophobic body and offers in its place the possibility of an alternative, highly embodied consciousness based on the conscious relaxation of those tensions.
If the path of the Buddha primarily follows along the stepping-stones of the mind on its way to freedom, the path of Shiva traverses a different route as it moves through the loamy soil of the cellular energies and feeling presence of the body. On every part of the body, down to the smallest cell—and perhaps even smaller, down even to the smallest subatomic levels of energy and matter—minute little pinprick blips of sensation can be felt to exist, and even though these sensations are unimaginably small and oscillating at incredibly rapid rates, they can still be distinctly felt as a mass or flow of vibrations. To start reexperiencing this literally sensational dimension of our consciousness, all we have to do is let go of our obsession with the thinking mind and turn our attention instead back to the feeling body.
Buddhism relaxes the body through calming the mind. The path of Shiva illuminates the mind through awakening and liberating the potent energies of the body. And, while this illumination and awakening are equally accessible to meditators exploring deeply body-oriented approaches to Buddhist practice, it is especially true for Shaivite practitioners who use cannabis to support and catalyze their practices. The Buddha’s path is about purification of mind and body. The practices of Shiva are about celebration—awakening, honoring, surrendering to, exulting in the feeling current of the life force that passes through the body. They’re about waking up the body’s sensations and dancing on the currents of its liberated energies, like a body surfer riding a wave in the ocean.
Shiva wants to wake the body up from its long slumber, viewing the awakened body as the direct doorway to the dimensions of embodied consciousness described in the Vedas. To awaken the body from its hibernation from feeling is to become ever more grounded in the sensory experience of the present moment. Thoughts jump to the future or retreat into the past, but the felt awareness of the body can only be experienced right now. And then right now again as we soon discover that the felt presence of the body, passing through what we call time, is more a phenomenon of flow than stasis. Shiva celebrates our miraculous participation in the pulsing current of organic life, which courses through every single moment, taking all of the natural world along with it on its journey from here to here. His practices can so ground you in dynamically felt presence that past and future, which can be known only as thoughts, momentarily disappear. In the chapters that follow, we’ll present specific practices that, catalyzed by cannabis, can guide us to an awakened celebration, rather than a habitual blockage, of the felt presence of sensations and the river of the life force.