Growing up in a Muslim household, Hinduism was always painted as an obscure religion that had more to do with finding spirituality within than praying to a benevolent presence up above. My views on the religion radically changed when I read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna last summer whilst travelling through the rugged Indonesian mountains on a dirt bike.
I'm not the first person to think Hinduism is cool. The religion has fallen victim to a lot of appropriation by non-Hindus seeking enlightenment. Artists like Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Salinger and La Monte Young popularised Hindu philosophy, and the West is still obsessed with it in the form of thriving "spiritual" retreats such as Vipassana and Kundalini Yoga.
Still, as futile as I knew my efforts to achieve nirvana would likely be, I became increasingly fascinated by the promise of transcendental Hindu meditation—especially because I'd heard of bhang, the ceremonial cannabis lassi popular in Hindu ceremonies and festivals. In honour of 420, I thought I'd hit peak Byron Bay Boho and give the drink a go. For guidance I enlisted Kresh, my Hindu mate from high school.
What is bhang? As Kresh explained, first you need to know about Shiva. Shiva is the principal deity in the Hindu religion, and the oldest known god figure in the world. Some say that Shiva's half-closed eyes signify that he is fully conscious of the within and the without. Others say he is simply stoned. Either way, he is said to be the one who discovered bhang.
The drinking of bhang is believed to cleanse sins, unite you with Shiva, and avoid the miseries of hell in the future life. However, it's clearly stipulated that foolish drinking of bhang without rites is considered a sin. So I wanted to get it right.
Kresh and I meet at the back of his Dad's Bollywood DVD shop to begin our spiritual odyssey. His only advice? "Be open, don't hesitate, remain calm and all will be revealed into you." We travel to the Shri Shiva Temple in silence, I drink three glasses, and we plan to spend the afternoon through to sunset meditating on Shiva whilst listening to a playlist of devotional songs performed by Pandit Jasraj.
As you can imagine, I wrote some pretty profound iPhone notes during the experience:
"The presence felt like a light smoke was weaving in and out of my mouth and ears, like a gentle breath infusing and cleansing the weight from within. There was a complete joyful stillness that overwhelmed me, like a hand on my shoulder from a friend, assuring me that everything is all right. The past and the future had infused into a single moment, everything seemed redundant and the only natural path that flowered open was the unity with fate. Everything has happened before and after. Everything outside is within. Seeking answers from the world is totally meaningless. It all lies within, you just need time to assist in its unravelling."
I was probably the worst guy that the temple had ever seen.
We couldn't take pictures with Shiva, but here's Ganesh
The possibility of mixing weed with religion is pretty tantalising, and after a little research I realised that Hinduism isn't the only faith to go green. In the fifth century B.C.E. Herodutus wrote that the Scythians held religious rituals in tent-like structures where they burned cannabis plants in censers on wooden tripods. According to the Wushang Biyao, the Taoists added cannabis into ritual incense burners and often experimented with "hallucinogenic smokes" in their quest for purification. Followers of Sebastião Mora de Melo from the Amazonian religion of Santo Daime refer to cannabis as Santa Maria, a healing plant teacher. And then, there's the most famous cannabis-loaded religion of all, Rastafarianism, where cannabis smoke is the primary ritual in the process of "healing the nations".
So, bhang. Did I reach nirvana? No. But the experience was fascinating. And I achieved a therapeutic sense of peace and relief that actually made me feel much more proactive and happy in the following days. Was it all placebo? Maybe. Will I buy a tie-dye T-shirt? No. But I'll be back, that's for sure. As the Rigveda illuminates, "Now I have drunk soma and become immortal; I have attained the light… that God discovered."