Today’s topic may not make for polite dinner conversation, but it’s an important one to have around the subject of cannabis’ effects on culture. Few things affect people’s underlying philosophies like their religions do. So how has cannabis influenced those religions? Let’s take a look, and I’ll try to break it down by major religions.
Author’s Note: A caveat is that there are a lot of religions in the world. In this article I will attempt to focus on the largest religions (the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism) and a few other notable ones such as Rastafarianism. I shall try my best to be as objective as possible.
The Abrahamic Faiths
We’ll start this piece off with the religions that the majority of the world’s population believes in. Many studies and surveys place the total percentage of believers in Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) at around 55 to 56% of the total world’s population. That’s a lot of believers, so let’s get a little more specific and delineate their views:
Cannabis did not serve a major role in Judaism, and it is almost never mentioned, with one notable exception: the materials used to make traditional “holy anointing oil.” Holy anointing oil was used by priests and rabbis for various rituals, and was forbidden to common folk. In order to make holy anointing oil in the Jewish faith, you needed the following ingredients:
- 6 kg parts pure myrrh (a kind of tree resin)
- 3 kg part sweet cinnamon
- 3 kg part “Kaneh Bosem”
- 6 kg parts Cassia (another variety of cinnamon)
- About 4 liters of olive oil
Notice that third ingredient? “Kaneh Bosem”? This is where the contention lies, because Kaneh Bosem is not defined particularly well and is the subject of debate amongst Jewish scholars. Some speculate that this may refer to sweet cane, some think it is rosha grass, and few have suggested cannabis in the form of hemp. Because Judaism is such an old religion, translation and time have led to confusion over what “Kaneh Bosem” refers to.
Either way, this is the only possible reference to cannabis in the Hebrew Bible, and the only things that seem to get smoked are animal meats.
Christianity, like Judaism, did not generally refer to cannabis in its holy texts. However, there is a general consensus in most Christian denominations that cannabis falls under the purview of “intoxicants.” The Christian Bible generally refers to “wine” as being intoxicating, and several denominations have since expanded the list of intoxicants to include cannabis.
Of note amongst the different denominations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormons as they are colloquially known) prohibits almost all intoxicating substances, but does grant exclusions for non-intoxicating derivatives such as non-psychoactive cannabis.
Catholic popes have generally spoken against cannabis, and while Protestantism features no central authority, most large Protestant groups view cannabis use in a negative light.
The Quran does not say anything explicitly about cannabis, but most Islamic scholars view cannabis as an intoxicant, and thus haram (forbidden). Matter settled, right?
Well, not exactly. See, a lot of the countries that are majority Muslim are also where cannabis grows naturally (and likely originated), and it has become part of their culture. Hashish is historically Middle-Eastern, with origins tracing back to Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. Afghanistan is still one of the largest hash producers, and it’s a majority-Muslim country. Same goes for Morocco and Turkey — cannabis predates Islam, and remains a major cultural symbol. Prohbtd did an excellent piece on this seeming contradiction, and you can read about it here.
Special Case: Rastafarianism
Rastafarianism is considered an Abrahamic faith, and while the number of adherents are relatively small compared to other religions, it is worth mentioning the role that cannabis plays in Rastafarianism. For the Rasta, cannabis is a sacred herb, and ingestion brings them closer to Jah, or God. While cannabis use is not necessary to be a Rasta, many do partake.
Rastas point to Genesis 1:29, Psalms 18:8, and Revelation 22:2 as specific references to cannabis in the Bible, and treat cannabis as the herb to “heal the nations.”
If you would like to read more about the specific spiritual traditions of Rastafarianism and cannabis, you can read about them here.
Lest we be too Eurocentric, there are faiths of very significant size in India and China, as well as the rest of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Of particular note in the Eastern Hemisphere are Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Chinese Folk Religion (including Taoism) due to their large number of adherents. Let’s dive in!
In Hinduism, Bhang is a traditional beverage made of ground-up cannabis flowers and various spices, and is traditionally served during the festival of Holi. The act of drinking bhang is supposed to cleanse the body of sins.
In traditional Hindu lore, cannabis is directly associated with the god Shiva, and is considered one of the five most holy plants in the Atharva Veda. There are multiple differing stories about how Shiva is associated with cannabis, but all of them depict cannabis as a rejuvenating and cleansing plant. Many ayurvedic texts (early Indian medicinal books) recommend cannabis as a treatment for pain or as an aphrodisiac, but only in small quantities.
Cannabis is also referred to in several other Hindu holy scripts, including Dhanvantari Nighantu, Sarngandhara Samhita, and Kayyadeva Nighantu. Just in case you’re interested.
- The first precept is against the taking of life unnecessarily.
- The second precept prohibits theft.
- The third precept condemns adultery.
- The fourth precept preaches against lying or false speech.
- The fifth precept (and the most relevant one to us) prohibits intoxication.
The fifth precept is the most important in our discussion. Some practitioners believe that the fifth precept is meant to apply specifically to alcohol, but others believe it also applies to any drug or narcotic as well.
Additionally, after I spoke with a few Buddhists, it became clear that every precept may have exceptions depending on circumstance. If an action does more good than harm, it may be an exception to the precepts. For example, if cannabis is used to resolve a medical issue and not just get high, then it is an exception to the fifth precept. Cannabis is part of traditional Buddhist medicines, so there are established exceptions in place for it.
Some Sikhs celebrate the festival of Holi like Hindus do, and consume Bhang as well. However, the first Sikh guru stated that any mind-altering substance was forbidden, including cannabis.
Chinese Folk Religions
Chinese folk religions include a wide swathe of different religious beliefs, including Taoism and Confucianism.
Editor’s Note: Please note that there is a large amount of variation in traditional Chinese religions, and they don’t always agree on certain subjects.
Cannabis has been traditionally grown in China for thousands of years, and is considered an important part of agriculture in the region. Its fiber was used for rope and bow strings, and it is prescribed in many traditional Chinese texts as part of medicinal formulations.
Traditional Chinese medicines focus on the equilibrium of Yin and Yang (feminine and masculine, respectively). Cannabis was associated with Yin (femininity) because of the fact that female cannabis plants are more productive than male ones. As such, it was used to treat menstruation, gout, rheumatism, malaria, absentmindedness (Probably didn’t help with that!), and more. Later Chinese doctors would use cannabis as an anesthetic.
Certain sects of Taoism also used cannabis as part of the incense in their traditions, providing hallucinogenic properties to various rituals. There is even a Tao deity named “Magu” whose name is literally translated as “hemp maiden.” She is a symbol of longevity and womanhood in this lore.
There are a few religions that are worth a special mention because of their relationship with cannabis. While the number of adherents to these religions is quite low compared to the other religions we have mentioned in this article, we might as well mention them because of their strong emphasis on cannabis:
- THC Ministry
- Church of Cognizance
- Church of the Universe
- Temple of the True Inner Light
- And several other organizations similar to the ones listed above.
Paganism is a very loose term applied to any non-Abrahamic faith. In the context of this article, we are referring to European paganism, and most specifically Germanic Paganism.
There is archaeological evidence in some sites around Norway and Germany that cannabis (typically referred to as hemp) was used in rituals relating to the goddess Freya, the goddess of love, war, and death. We also know that the Vikings used hemp frequently as part of the cordage to sail in their ships, as it was superior to the bast fiber they had been using prior, and hemp was highly valued amongst Vikings for this reason.
Some research I found suggested that cannabis was involved in a fertility ritual in Germanic Paganism, but I could not find an original source to back this claim.
Phew! I hope that brief spiritual lesson was enough to make you want to go smoke a bowl. Either way, let us know your thoughts about this kind of article in the survey below, or in the discussion on the forum!
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About the Author
Hunter Wilson is a community builder with Growers Network. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a Masters in Teaching and in 2007 with a Bachelors in Biology.