Can I Light Up on the Way to Enlightenment?

Insights into the Yoga-Cannabis Contradiction

Cannabis-friendly yoga is getting as hot as “hot yoga” once was, grabbing press attention across the U.S. However, it’s undeniable that an overwhelming majority of “yogis” are anti-cannabis. This makes some of their alarming condemnations every bit as unsubstantiated and biased as anything Nancy Reagan ever put out, with extra helpings of mumbo jumbo.

Here’s a typical example from the popular webzine, Elephant Journal, in an article titled “Marijuana and Tantrik Kundalini Yoga:”

“Smoking pot is not [a] benign recreational activity…over time it creates an extraordinary amount of heat in the body, thereby taxing the organs and inhibiting overall health and longevity. It further generates an incredible amount of wind in the mind and, for the meditator, only serves to compound “monkey mind.” An excess of wind disturbs prana and diminishes clarity, eventually compromising overall sanity.”
(Marijuana and Tantrik Kundalini Yoga)

Yet ritualized consumption of cannabis is at the root of Hinduism. One of its three main deities, Siva or Shiva, supposedly discovered the plant’s psychoactive properties after napping beneath a cannabis bush. His alternate title, Lord of Bhang, comes from the Sanskrit word “bhangah” or hemp. Bhang can mean pure cannabis or anything consumable made from it, such as the sweet, infused, milk drunk at festivals in Siva’s honor. His most hardcore devotees, the Naga Babas, still roam the Himalayas, equally notorious for their scant clothing, dreadlocked hair, and strikingly painted faces, as they are for their reputation as world-class stoners.

What’s behind this contradiction?

The physical practice we call yoga is really hatha yoga, just one of six categories of the branch of Indian philosophy that offers practical methods for dissolving the individual personality in the oneness of ultimate reality, thereby achieving samadhi or enlightenment. Yoga combines the wisdom of all previous philosophies, as the word’s usually given meaning of union suggests. The ancient texts, Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, written in 400CE, are frequently translated as defining yoga as “the restraint of the agitation of thoughts.”

If the aspiring yogi is serious about attaining samadhi in this lifetime, then it’s usually spiritual community that beckons. For an extreme minority, the monastic life doesn’t offer enough renunciation. To them, enlightenment requires complete removal from normal human society. This is achieved by living as a sadhu, or wandering ascetic, without money or possessions, in pursuit of a spiritual path based on deprivation. They challenge the illusion we mistake for reality, maya, by defying social conventions.

The sadhus of Siva, or Naga Babas, descend from the Himalayas for festivals such as the Khumb Mela, a gathering on the banks of the Ganges river so gigantic, so visually overflowing with brilliant costumes, whirling fire-dancers, and masses of naked, painted, people, it makes Burning Man look like a poorly attended church picnic.

Because of India’s still-rigid caste system, Naga Babas have an unusual position: They live as beggars, and are accorded lowly status, yet they are revered as holy. Their nakedness, matted hair, and performance of torturous penances, like lying on cactus beds, are further affronts to polite society, as is their nearly continuous use of bhang. In “The Sadhus of India,” Robert Lewis Gross writes that they occupy “a marginal cultural space existing in polar opposition to Indian social structure,” which might explain why adopting their habits, like consuming bhang, would be considered outré.

If the Naga Babas, with their dreadlocked hair and bhang-filled chillums evoke Jamaica’s Rastafarians, it’s little wonder. Although its Hindu origins were forgotten as Rastafarianism’s Afro-centric creed developed, the influence is obvious and well-documented. After the end of the African slave trade, tens of thousands of Indian “indentured servants” were brought to the Caribbean, bringing along cannabis, the chillum, and some sadhus with matted locks.

The connection between dreadlocks and smoking cannabis derives from a Hindu myth where Siva’s long matted hair created a celestial ladder for the goddess, Ganga, — who gave her name to both the plant and the river it grows by — to use to descend from heaven. According to Barry Chevannes in “Rastafari and Other Afro-Caribbean World Views,” prior to the 1950s, matted hair was only seen on Jamaica’s homeless and the few Indian sadhus, until the emerging rasta religion adopted dreads as a symbol of outsider status.

So, devotees of Siva brought ganja to Jamaica where it became the ritual focus of a new cult, whose followers occupied a similarly marginal social position to the sadhus. As Vincent Burgess put it in Indian influences on Rastafarianism, “By sanctioning the ritualized smoking of ganja as their primary means of worship, the Rastas were expressing their contempt for the Jamaican state and the dominant social norms imposed by [it].”

As ethnic minorities, jazz musicians, and hippies adopted cannabis, it also became an emblem of outsider-ness and freedom in America.

This brings me to a less-mentioned translation of yoga, “to bind.” Etymological traces of the term remain in the word “yoke.” It’s the opposite of “to liberate,” which points to the core of the yoga-cannabis contradiction. The enlightened ones proclaim direct access to the divine for all, while organized religions install intermediaries. “Spiritual” leaders hoping to retain power must keep a grip on that yoke, even if it means dissuading followers from partaking of an insightful substance.

This is especially compelling since descriptions of the samadhi experience sound similar to revelations attained under the influence of cannabis; an expansive awareness that transcends duality. But, if all illumination takes is a puff of a weed, who needs a guru?

In the end, the reasons for the yoga-cannabis controversy are familiar: Its use induces non-conformist thinking, it’s associated with an outsider class, it provides direct experience of higher consciousness, and thus represents a potential tool of social upheaval. This makes it dangerous to existing power structures and attractive to people like me, and presumably you dear reader, who want to change them.

If in doubt of whether cannabis is an aid to enlightenment or just a trick of maya, don’t ask a guru or even a yoga instructor, just ask yourself this: what would Siva, Lord of Bhang, do?

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