Ah, the life of a Sadhu. Sadhu’s are Indian yogis, mostly men, who have relinquished mainstream life in pursuit of spiritual gains. Here in Rishikesh, these men are easily identified by their monochromatic, (usually) orange-flavored robes, long beards and matted hair peeking out from some sort of head-dress, and by their side, an Indian style knapsack containing what little worldly goods they still possess. They seem to run the gamut between true spiritual ascetic and local entertainment for the tourists… and at first pass, one might be hard pressed to tell the difference.
Traditionally, certain sects of Sadhu’s who were highly devoted to a particular god or a particular practice might present themselves in more unusual ways that are in alignment with their beliefs… faces heavily painted with symbols of the divine, excessive trinkets and accouterments of faith, bodies covered in ash etc. In this way, emulation of a god-incarnation or using certain objects as a gateway toward higher realms becomes an extreme form of devotion.
But as might be expected, this display of true devotion provides ample inspiration for the most skillful business-minded, non-aspirants who, in turn, emulate the true seekers while merely seeking “donations” from the tourists. This is, of course, where the line gets a bit blurry, as the true seekers, devoting every waking hour toward their spiritual practice, have no source of income and rely on the kindness of strangers to feed them (either directly or with money for food.) Hence, both the ‘seekers’ and the ‘entertainers’ walk the same busy streets, hands held out.
After spending more and more time here however, I’m beginning to think that most of the serious ascetics remain out of sight focusing on, well, spiritual matters. Still, even the serious souls must come into town on occasion if they are to find sources of food, and as such, one can begin to discern the difference between the earnest look of gratitude found in the eyes of the true aspirants as they passively leave their bowl out for donations, verses the imitators who are seeking nothing more than your rupees in their orange wallet.
Despite the serious look on most of their faces (not just the Sadhu’s, but Indians in general) many of them are quite friendly and will return your smile or greeting. The man looking at the camera in the photo above smiled at me after I took the picture and then asked if I “needed anything…” and it took me a moment to realize that if I were looking for some ganja (not to be confused with Ganga, the Indian pronunciation for the Ganges) he’d be happy to help me out. On my first couple of visits here I would not have caught on to his meaning, but the presence of cannabis here has made it’s way on to my radar and has piqued my curiosity about its place, if any, in the spiritual world.
Here in India, cannabis holds a strange juxtaposition… particularly in Rishikesh, which is a city comprised of equal parts spiritual hub and hippie hang out. The cannabis/hippie connection makes sense, of course. But as a spiritual aspirant, getting high initially seems a bit far from the sacred agenda. But upon closer examination, I’ve learned that the historic presence of cannabis in the spiritual yogic culture is etched fairly deep.
The first and most prominent connection between cannabis and yoga/spirituality comes from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the ancient and authoritative text on yoga written around 2500 years ago. “The Sutras,” as the text is known, actually mentions the use of “medicinal herbs” as one of the routes toward moksha, or enlightenment. One of these medicinal herbs is interpreted by many leading yogic philosophers to mean cannabis, which when used with pure spiritual intention is a direct route toward expanding and understanding one’s individual states of consciousness. And this is actually the main tenet of yoga: understanding (and controlling) your entire realm of consciousness and vast mind-field.
This inclusion of “medicinal herbs” in the Yoga Sutras stems from the fact that in The Vedas, some of the earliest texts known to mankind that pre-date the Sutras by thousands of years, and from which many of the teachings of yoga were extracted, there is a clear mention of “five sacred plants” known for their healing properties… one of which is cannabis, or “bhang” as it is referred to in the Sanskrit texts.**
The mention of cannabis in these ancient texts alone, sets a precedence in the yogic culture, as the entire range of yogic practices, the philosophy and the science of yoga as well as the birth and evolution of Hinduism all stem from this same source… The Veda’s. And it is the kindred spirit between Yoga and Hinduism which brings me to the next correlation between cannabis and spirituality: Shiva.
In Hinduism, one of the most prominent and highly revered gods is Shiva. Here, I must confess that still, after all my time and interest in yogic studies and Indian culture, Hinduism, with its thousands of deities, remains rather confusing… and Shiva is perhaps one of the most confusing deities of all, as he holds an incredibly large and diverse number of personifications, each with its own legend. The multitude of stories and identifications surrounding this great god quickly blurs the narratives between myth, metaphor, fantasy, archetype and historical account, and what he ultimately represents varies greatly depending upon who you talk to.
While Shiva is sometimes known as Shambho, the king of benevolence and the ultimate source of kindness and understanding, he is most often (and with understandable contradiction) seen as the daunting “destroyer,” representing the destructive prong of the creation-preservation-destruction trinity seen not just in Hinduism, but in many other religions as well. But a closer look tells us that his destruction is not just about annihilation, but rather, about the transformation it can bring. In nature, absolutely everything undergoes the same predictable process of birth, life and eventual death… that last part being a necessity for inevitable rebirth to occur… and Shiva is the lord that will transform you through that process. This alone makes his appeal understandable, particularly in the spiritual context.
In another of his primary manifestations, and perhaps one of the most important, at least in the non-dualistic yogic philosophy, Shiva represents Purusha, the ultimate Divine Consciousness that is embedded in all of life. Purusha is the source from which all life springs and is the inherent foundation for all of creation. Creation itself… all manifest form… is the other side of the non-dualistic coin, known as Shakti, the Divine Feminine, or in the yogic philosophy, Prakriti. Here, Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti, pure consciousness and all of creation, are the basis of everything in the universe.
Lastly, but most relevant to this discussion, is Shiva’s personification as Adiyogi (although one should note, all the aforementioned are Shiva’s primary personifications… there are many more.) “Adi” means ‘first’ in Sanskrit, naming Shiva as the “first yogi.” According to some, this identity is less of a mythological one and more of a historical one.*** It is said that at one point in time, somewhere pre-dating The Veda’s some 15,000 years ago, Shiva, the god of consciousness, was manifest in human-god form, and it was through him that the Veda’s and all subsequent teachings of yoga were created and presented to mankind.
It is said that during this timeframe, one of Shiva/Adiyogi’s most outlandish yet entirely appealing incarnations was born: Nataraja, the crazed, ecstatic dancer… the one who is so drunk on the ecstasy of life itself, that to pull him into your consciousness is to pull yourself into his never-ending, blissfully ecstatic state. You might want to think of this next time you are practicing natarajasana, or “dancer” pose in yoga class… this is where the pose and name comes from!
It is here, in this particular storyline, that the sacred cannabis plant becomes associated with this great god and has woven a permanent place in the prolific lore around Shiva. Some interpret the mythology as Shiva ‘using’ cannabis as a sacred vehicle toward extremely blissful states of consciousness, and others say that it is his enlightened, blissfully pure nature itself that has been infused into the surrounding indigenous bhang plant, thus making it sacred and making that bliss available to any true seeker. Personally, I find this latter line of thought most appealing.
It was on my first trip to Rishikesh a couple years back, when walking through the rural area surrounding the city, that I got a bit lost. Two Sadhu’s sitting by the side of the road called me over and asked if I needed help, and offered to assist me in finding my way back to the road I was looking for… but first, they offered me a pipe. That moment was my first encounter with the use of cannabis in India by seemingly spiritual men. At the time, I had no context around any of this, and although it probably would have been an engaging experience, or at the very least a lot of fun, better judgement told me it wasn’t the right scenario for me to explore.
Since then, on my subsequent trips, I’ve come to realize that many of the Sadhu’s around town get high on a regular basis, which is what led me to do some research on understanding whether this was simply for fun, out of habit, a cultural thing, to kill time, or if there was a deeper, spiritual purpose. After all, many ancient cultures worldwide have deeply rooted affiliations with indigenous plants that have been used as part of their spiritual evolutionary process for millennia… peyote, ayahuasca and san perdro, just to name a few. All in all, I now see that the use of cannabis as a spiritual aid has a deep history here in India, but like any substance used anywhere in the world, people approach things with very different intentions, and sometimes those lines of intention are bit blurry… even for the user.
For some of these yogis, like the man who asked if I needed anything, there might be equal parts spiritual aid and side hustle. For some of the serious yogis, cannabis might be used in the way it was originally outlined in the ancient texts, although I’ve not had the opportunity to meet or talk to any of those people. For others still, getting high is simply akin to what it is in the rest of the world…a fun pastime. As a yogi, but an outsider to this culture, I couldn’t make any judgments or come to any hard conclusions, but I do know from personal experience that when used mindfully and with specific intention, the heightened states of awareness and expansion of one’s own consciousness induced by cannabis is unquestionable… and in yoga, this is one of the single most important things to understand: the entire yogic philosophy is based on experiential understanding. No true teacher will ever tell you what to feel, what to believe, or what to understand. Instead, yoga will ask you to look at your own experience first and foremost… to feel it, examine it, contemplate it and let your own understanding evolve from there… for it is in the realm of experience and nowhere else, that true wisdom can be accessed.
Meanwhile, my intnetion for next time I’m in India, is to have a conversation with a Sadhu or two…
** Reference can be found in Yoga Sutra IV.1. The ancient Vedic text is harder to dig up, as the Veda’s are not widely studied nor is interpretation widely available, but I found several sources with reference to Atharva Veda, XI.6.15.
*** I found this book to be an engaging and beautifully written account of Shiva’s “history,” chronicled from the perspective of a highly-evolved mystic and guru.