Religious experiences can be had by many methods; meditation, fasting, feats of endurance, the list goes on. One method in particular, however, has proven consistently reliable – psychedelics. In the 60s, a generation of young people were gifted direct religious experiences thanks to the discovery of LSD. This led to a fascination with Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, that had maps for such experiences. Many uncovered the mystic strands in the faiths of their culture of origin. Many questions arose. Why did these substances evoke religious experiences? Could they have played a role in the development of religion? If so, why was this strand of psychedelic gnosis ultimately lost?
What Are Entheogens?
In the 1970s, a small group of ethnobotanists, ethnomycologists, and scholars of mythology found themselves concerned with these questions. For the previous four decades, Western academia had been fumbling around for the right term for these mind-altering compounds. Early on, psychiatrists had opted for “psychotomimetics”, as they hypothesized that these chemicals could produce temporary psychosis. The ecstatic visions of many who took chemicals such as mescaline and LSD, however, made it clear that a new name was needed. “Hallucinogen” was tried out in an attempt to capture the visionary aspect of their effects, but it missed out on the spiritual qualities of the experience. “Psychedelic”, meaning “mind manifesting”, really caught on, but, in the eyes of some, was contaminated by the association with 60s pop culture. This group felt a new term was needed, one that captured the religious nature of the experience. They settled on “entheogen”, a substance that generates the divine within.
The World’s First Religion
Humans have likely been consuming psychoactive plants and fungi since before we were even human. Life in the wild requires hard-won knowledge of the effects of different naturally occurring substances. Our ancestors could hardly have missed the profoundly mind-altering effects of psychoactive vegetation and mushrooms. Plant-based shamanism can be considered as humanity’s first religion, suggesting a role for psychedelics in religious practice right from the start. Given the prevalence of visions and of divine sacraments in the major religious traditions of the world today, is it possible that psychedelics may have had a profound influence on them?
The Entheogen Theory of Religion
One member of this group of scholars was R. Gordon Wasson, the ethnomycologist who first brought psilocybin mushrooms to the west. Profoundly impacted by his experience with psilocybin mushrooms, Wasson argued that mind-altering substances, particularly the Amanita muscaria mushroom, lay at the roots of religion. He went on to argue for his Entheogen Theory of Religion by analyzing a multitude of religious texts. His work promoted controversy that has persisted to today. Was he right? Or were these simply the wild speculations of a psychedelic enthusiast? To answer these questions, we have to go back to the religious texts of the ancient world.
Ancient Psychedelic Sacraments
The oldest religious text in existence is the Rig Veda of Hinduism. If one is interested in the possibility that psychedelic shamanism may have morphed into the religions we recognize today, this is the place to look. In the Rig Veda, it is said that the writers consumed a plant they called Soma. Soma referred to not only the plant, however, but also a God in a pantheon of gods. This indicates a continuity with the animistic beliefs of humans everywhere, prior to the emergence of civilization.
From Animism to Gods
Before the large societies that could support what we would recognize as organized religion developed, humans appeared to have held variants of animistic beliefs. In animistic worldviews, every natural thing, whether living or not, is seen as being animated by a non-material spirit. The spirit of the river is responsible for making the river flow, the spirit of the tree is responsible for making the tree grow. This pantheon of animating spirits can be seen as one step away from a pantheon of gods, especially if some of those gods are identified with plants and natural processes. Soma may reflect the moment shamanic medicine transformed into a religious sacrament.
What Was Soma?
“We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” These lines from the Rig Veda show that whatever Soma was, it was profoundly psychoactive. The botanical description, however, indicates that this was no normal plant. It had no leaves, blossoms, or seeds; no roots, trunk, or branches. R. Gordon Wasson argued that Soma was the psychoactive Amanita muscaria toadstool, used today by indigenous peoples of Siberia in their shamanic practices. Psychedelic plants typically require preparation in order to reveal their psychoactive properties, while psychoactive fungi can be eaten directly. The Rig Veda attests that Soma could be eaten directly, fitting with it being a fungus. It also indicates that its mind-altering effects could be attained by drinking the urine of someone who has consumed Soma, something that is true of the Amanita muscaria toadstool and is practiced in Siberian shamanism. Whether or not the sacrament was Amanita muscaria, the writers of the Rig Veda tell us directly, this substance was seriously entheogenic.
Ancient Mystery Religions
Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, another entheogenic sacrament was being enjoyed. We have no name for the religion in which this sacrament was used but it represents a key cultural force during this period that was crucial to the development of Western civilization. During this period, the ancient Greeks took part in an autumnal ritual in the city of Eleusis, where the rites of Demeter were performed. Demeter was a goddess of agriculture, and during the harvest celebrations in her honor, participants would consume an entheogenic beer made from barley. This potion was known as the Kykeon, meaning mixed beverage. The entheogenic effects of this drink were recorded by Plato following his participants in the rituals, known today as the Eleusinian mysteries. In his Phaedo, Plato writes ”our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods”.
What Was in the Kykeon?
In addition to theorizing about Soma, Wasson also performed research into the Kykeon. He teamed up with the discoverer of LSD Albert Hoffman and Boston University classicist Carl Ruck in order to write The Road to Eleusis. This landmark book proposed that the psychoactive component of the Kykeon came from ergot, a fungus that commonly grows on barley, and from which LSD was first extracted. Ergot contains other psychoactive alkaloids, but also toxic substances. The team proposed that the brewers of the Kyekon knew how to prepare a potion from ergotized beer that reduced the toxicity while preserving the psychoactivity and it was drinking this potion that inspired the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius.
From Shamanism to Religion
Could the Soma and the Kykeon both be sacraments inherited from shamanic traditions that predate even these ancient cultures? Ancient Greek and Sanskrit are both linguistic descendants of another language, Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. Little is known about the speakers of PIE, but they are thought to have lived around the Black Sea and likely served as the cultural foundation for both the ancient Greeks and ancient Hindus. We can’t know for certain, but it is possible that PIE culture had a psychedelic sacrament that first developed out of shamanic practices and subsequently evolved into the Kykeon in the East and Soma in the West.
The World’s Major Religions
Psychedelics continue to be used as religious sacraments today. The mescaline-containing cactus, Peyote, is currently used by the Native American Church in the US, while the DMT-containing ayahuasca is used by the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime churches of Brazil. Go to any Catholic mass today, and you’ll see people eating a cracker and drinking wine in a ritual fashion. These substances do not produce altered states, so why are they consumed? Given that actual substances exist that can produce religious experiences when ingested, could it be that these sacraments were originally psychoactive and what we’re left with today is an empty initiation of the real thing? We have written evidence that entheogenic sacraments were being consumed in the ancient world, East and West. These cultures evolved into some of the major world religions of today. Were their psychoactive sacraments carried over, or were they lost along the way?
The sacraments of bread and wine are central to Christianity. Why consume these substances during a religious ceremony? Could it be that the original sacraments contained something more entheogenic than alcohol? In The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name, author Brian Muraresku argues that the tradition of the psychedelic potion continued from the Kykeon of ancient Greece to the wine cult of Dionysis. He provided evidence that this was no ordinary wine and suggested that the Christian sacrament may have been a similar wine, spiked with a psychedelic substance.
If Christian holy wine used to be psychedelic, why isn’t it anymore? Entheogenic sacraments represent a gnostic strand in religion, one where all can have access to direct spiritual knowledge. This is in stark contrast to hierarchical forms of organized religion, where gatekeepers attempt to control access to religious revelation. We know that the second camp has historically come to dominate Christianity, driving out the gnostic influences. A psychedelic sacrament may have been a central casualty of the suppression.
There is no doubt about the psychoactivity of the Christain sacrament used by one particular strand of this religion, the ayahuasca churches of Brazil. The Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) churches consume ayahuasca during their ceremonies, a ritual that reflects the integration of indigenous shamanic traditions into the Chrsitian mass.
While wandering in the desert, the Israelites are said to have received a divine food from heaven called manna. This food that emerged from the ground overnight has been argued to have been a psychedelic fungus. Cognitive scientist Benny Shannon has speculated that during this time, the ancient Hebrews may have been drinking their own version of ayahuasca, brewed from the bark of the acacia tree and Peganum harmala. According to this theory, the vision of God’s presence in the burning bush was fueled by DMT. While this theory is speculative, one thing is known for sure–cannabis was being used. Archeochemical evidence of burnt cannabis and frankincense have been found on the altar of an ancient Jewish temple, where it was presumably used as a particularly powerful incense.
After looking at the dazzling interiors of a few mosques, you could be forgiven for assuming that there’s some deep connection between psychedelics and Islam. As an Abrahamic religion that builds on the foundations of Judaism and Christianity, Islam can be argued to inherit their potential psychedelic legacy. Islam itself, however, favors an abstinence-based approach when it comes to mind-altering substances. This even includes alcohol, itself a word that comes from the Islamic world. Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam, has had connections to hashish smoking for spiritual purposes. Today, the Fatimiya Sufi Order has embraced ayahuasca as its sacrament.
The texts of the Soma-drinking peoples of the Indus River Valley eventually became the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. In addition to this mystery plant or fungus, cannabis has played an important role in the spiritual practice of devotees of Shiva. Shiva is said to have fallen asleep under a cannabis plant after an argument with his family. After waking and trying the leaves, they became his favorite food.
In India, cannabis is consumed in many forms. Bhang is the weakest, consisting of the ground leaves of the cannabis plant, which are added to drinks such as lassi during the festival of Holi. Ganja, made from the flowers and upper leaves of the female plant, is a stronger preparation. The strongest are charas and hashish. Charas is made from flowers when they are in bloom and contains high amounts of resin. Similar in strength is hashish, which is made by pressing the small hairs of the cannabis plant, called trichomes, that act as resin-producing glands. While bhang is eaten or drunk, the rest are smoked in a clay pipe called a chillum. Smoking is typically a communal activity. Religious ascetics called Sadhus often smoke cannabis through chillums on their path to transcendence.
While most drugs, including alcohol and tobacco are prohibited in Sikhism, one exception is made–cannabis, or “sukha”. Cannabis can be smoked but, in some strands of Sikhism, edible cannabis, called “Shaheedi Degh”, is also used in a ritual context. During the middle ages in the Indian subcontinent, bhang was sometimes drunk by soldiers before battle. It is said that in one battle, the army of Sikh leader Gobind Singh was faced with an elephant wielding a sword in its trunk. One soldier was given a cocktail of bhang and opium by his leader, and this potion gave him the courage to face and kill the elephant. Today, the Nihang Sikhs of Punjab consume bhang and opium. It is defended as an old tradition and is intended to help with meditation. Sikhism draws a lot on Hinduism, accounting for the common use of cannabis in both religions.
Mike Crowley, author of Secret Drugs of Buddhism, has argued that in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the blue peacock acted as a symbol for psilocybin mushrooms. Psilocybin breaks down into psilocin and, when this happens, the chemicals give off a blue appearance. As a result, mushrooms like psilocybe cubensis turn blue when bruised, and this color may have resonated with the appearance of the peacock. The soma of the Vedas is also referred to as amrita, and this is the name of the sacrament consumed in Tibetan Buddhism. In this tradition, amrita is also associated with peacocks. Furthermore, the name of a Hindu order of monks who worship Shiva, matta-mayuri, translates as “the intoxicated peacocks”. According to Crowley, this may be explained by the peacock symbolizing a psychedelic mushroom sacrament.
The deliriant datura has traditionally been used in Tibetan Buddhism. A paste made from the seeds can be applied to the skin, formed into pills, placed in the eyes, or the wood can be burnt and the smoke inhaled in religious ceremonies. Datura has been found at the site of cave paintings, indicating that it may have a strong legacy of being used in visionary religious ceremonies. As with the other major religions of the Indian subcontinent, cannabis appears to have also been used. Tibetan Buddhism formed out of the merger between Buddhism and the indigenous, shamanistic Bon religion of Tibet. It may be this direct link to a shamanistic religion that accounts for the presence of mind-altering substances in this particular Buddhist tradition.
Western Buddhism has had a deep link with psychedelics, both emerging on the US scene in the 50s and 60s. Both acted as avenues for self-transcendence and have been linked in Western culture ever since. An exploration of the relationship between psychedelics and Buddhism can be found in a collection of essays entitled Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics.
Psychedelic Sacraments of the Future
We are living through a renaissance of research into psychedelics. In addition to the clinical work, however, there is interest in the links to religion. Since Harvard’s Marsh Chapel experiment of the 60s, where seminary students were dosed with psilocybin during a Good Friday ceremony, theology and psychedelic research has been connected. This connection has been explored in the book Sacred Medicine by one of the key experts in the area, Bill Richards. More recently, the best-selling Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku opens with an expression of hope for a psychedelic religious reformation, in which psychedelic sacraments will be central to the Christianity of the future. Similarly, Rabbi Zac Kamenetz has founded a non-profit called Shefa, with the aim of integrating psychedelics into Jewish spiritual practice. Alongside the ayahuasca churches that exist today, the connection between psychedelics and religion looks set to no longer be confined to the past.
CONTRIBUTING RS AUTHOR: Dr. James Cooke
Dr. James Cooke is a neuroscientist, writer, and speaker, whose work focuses on consciousness, with a particular interest in meditative and psychedelic states. He studied Experimental Psychology and Neuroscience at Oxford University and is passionate about exploring the relationship between science and spirituality, which he does via his writing and his YouTube channel, YouTube.com/DrJamesCooke. He splits his time between London and the mountains of Portugal where he is building a retreat centre, The Surrender Homestead, @TheSurrenderHomestead on Instagram. Find him @DrJamesCooke on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, or at DrJamesCooke.com