Shiva and Cannabis on Mahashivratri

Tonight is Mahashivratri – the Great Night of Shiva – globally far and away the most stoned day of the year, when many millions of folks in India and Nepal and around the world take part in celebrations in which Hindu tradition sanctions getting high on bhang.

At centres famous for this festival such as the temple of Pashupatinath – and across much of north India and Nepal – this is a day on which there’s effective decriminalization of open consumption of cannabis.

Some ‘enterprising’ sadhus may also make use of the Mahashivratri moratorium to move large quantities of charas from villages in the mountains to the city. If you’re not a sadhu or mafia don, however, then you’d be wise not to try copying them.

On which note, bhang – i.e., the product shown immediately below – has plenty of sanction from tradition and custom in South Asia and is the most socially accepted form of Cannabis, in sharp contrast to charas smoking. The image above is from nineteenth-century Rajasthan and shows Shiva and family preparing bhang. Nowhere in antique South Asian art are you going to find equivalent scenes of Shiva building or blazing a chillum.

‘Bhang goli’ – as can be found sold at government-licensed outlets in some regions of north India

‘Bhang goli’ are sold at government-licensed shops in states such as Rajasthan and Orissa and perhaps most famously in the great city of Shiva, Varanasi. Cannabis leaf (in practice usually female) and often as not inflorescence cleaned of seed are powdered, sieved, boiled, strained, pounded to a paste, and made into balls. In Rajasthan these are popular taken as a drink with lime and water. A north Indian favourite, particularly at the height of hot season, is thandai, a drink based around milk, almonds, and rose essence, with many potential variations in flavourings and ingredients.

Bhang (i.e., ‘bhāng’) is a term that has several meanings just in the context of cannabis:

1. The Cannabis plant, i.e. the ‘intoxicating’ type of Cannabis plant (e.g., as opposed to Chinese or European hemp)

2. Any ‘intoxicating’ Cannabis products such as charas, bhang, or ganja

3. Wild-growing Cannabis or the northern, coarser and less potent form of Cannabis crop, typically seeded, such as is cultivated under license in the Punjab (as opposed to the more potent refined crop of the tropics, ganja)

4. The product bhang, which is the most basic cannabis product, usually made from leaf and/or rough inflorescences, typically only for eating or drinking

What may come as a shock to some aficionados is that – contrary to the misinformation all over the internet, in most popular Cannabis literature, and in all too many academic works too – there is no evidence whatsoever for knowledge or understanding of bhang’s intoxicating properties anywhere in Sanskrit religious or medical literature until the Indian medieval era, beginning from around the eleventh to thirteenth centuries CE.

Where we first see Shiva and his devotees acquiring a taste for Cannabis is in radical yogic traditions such as those of the bhang-drinking Kaulas, who are closely associated with East India, particularly Bengal. In the Matsyendrasaṃhitā, a thirteenth-century Shakta–Shaiva compilation of ritual and meditation techniques attributed to the first human guru of the Nāth Siddhas, Matsyendranāth, we can find Cannabis equated with manonmanī – the supramental state. High praise, in other words, and when the epithet accorded here is siddhimūlikā – the ‘root of success’ or ‘root of realization’ – this is emphatically sacramental.*

For a Shaiva champion of Cannabis then, one clear contender is Matsyendranāth. One of the semi-legendary Nine Nāths, he also features in a text that’s absolutely pivotal to the history of Cannabis, the Ānandakanda, a vast alchemical compilation which first sets out the ‘sinsemilla technique’ for producing seedless bud (i.e., ganja).

But one habit Shiva himself very definitely does not have a history of indulging in is smoking cannabis – whether ganja or charas. Perhaps you’ve seen kitsch art in which Shiva sports a Bollywood-style steroid physique and sits with a moody look on his face, hunched over a smoking chillum. Stuff like this is a phenomenon of very recent years. One such ‘masterpiece’ recently found its way onto the walls of the ghats in Varanasi, so who knows what Shivas the future holds….

Chillums, steroids, and social media-induced depression – Mahadev has new habits…

At least Mahadev isn’t staring at his mobile phone….



*Less excitingly, in other contexts this might mean nothing more exciting than ‘efficacious root’, i.e. root that achieves what’s required. There is at least one other siddhimūlikā, namely the radish….