“Reality, as you currently experience it, is something like a waking dream. It is disguising deeper and more intensified levels of being and knowing. For those who are ready and willing, the doors to those other levels now stand open.”
– Daniel Pinchbeck
There is a certain psychedelic charm to Hinduism—something surreal about polymelian beings and reincarnation. If you walk into most record stores in Austin, Texas, two things are inevitable: the palpable aroma of marijuana and at least one poster of Ganpati, the elephant god of wisdom, drowning in an 80s-esque neon haze. Leaving aside the blatant appropriation, there is some justification for why it isn’t Jesus in rose-tinted glasses or a spaced-out Thor on posters instead. While most other religions disagree on the specifics of the afterlife, Hinduism preaches the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. The paths to enlightenment are heavily documented in the Vedas, the primary Hindu scriptures, but some Hindus are medicating instead of meditating in order to achieve it.
The year is 1500 BC and the Brahmanas are brewing Soma, the drink of the gods. To these Brahmins or priests, enlightenment is easiest found by entering the same state of mind as their divine patrons. The Brahmanas who were privy to the mind-expanding nature of the drink often brewed it in an effort to communicate with the gods. However, the recipe for Soma can’t be found in some ancient Hindu cookbook. The only evidence we have of its ingredients and methodology is in the Vedas’ descriptions of consumption. Those who drank Soma were described as entering a trance-like state—a state familiar to recreational users of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD. Scholarly analyses of the Rig Veda indicate that the mind-expanding substance Soma was most probably a derivative of amanita muscaria or magic mushrooms. This poses an important question: how do these substances translate into religious experiences?
Today in Varanasi, India, people are lining up at a street stall in the Godowlia Chowk waiting to purchase another kind of “awakening” brew called bhang. Bhang is a sweet drink made with cardamom, honey, masala, and a healthy dose of THC, the active component in cannabis. Most people in line are probably casual users or rebellious teenagers trying something more accessible than alcohol. But there is a reason the government of India has permitted certain establishments to distribute marijuana. Some believe that the “high” from the drink is reminiscent of the sort of awakening achieved from years of meditation.
Sadhguru, a Hindu mystic and yogi, gave an interesting response when asked about the use of substances like cannabis, LSD, and ayahuasca, a drink similar to Soma that was consumed in South America. He was asked why the brain contains THC receptors if cannabis wasn’t meant to be consumed. He responded by saying people are already capable of producing the cannabis response without using the substance. But what Sadhguru says next probably wouldn’t be said by most religious leaders: substances like marijuana and LSD do play a role in the pursuit of enlightenment.
In western society, meditation is seen as the stereotypical path to enlightenment. Stories about meditating monks who spend years without food and water pop up in the news frequently. There are legends about human beings ascending to higher planes of understanding through sheer focus and others who can maintain normal body temperatures in environments below freezing—both of which sound more like scenes from an episode of Avatar the Last Airbender. Hindu monks report having transcendent thoughts and meeting divine beings from whom they gain a deeper understanding of the universe. But are these recesses of the mind only accessible to people who devote their lives to meditation?
A group of subjects dosed with DMT, a psychedelic chemical present in all living beings and an active ingredient in ayahuasca, reported experiences strikingly similar to that of the monks: out of body experiences, interactions with divine beings, newfound existential understanding, and loss of the fear of death were various reactions to the substance. People dosed with one-hundred micrograms of pure LSD reported similar symptoms: a sense of clarity and relaxation, a feeling of oneness with the natural world, and intense euphoria. In yet another controlled experiment, subjects dosed with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) reported profound religious experiences and a newfound understanding of their role in the physical world. If all of these substances produce effects so similar to religious devotees who commit their lives to harnessing the full potential of their minds, what does this mean for entheogenic (drug use for religious purposes) use in Hinduism?
Sadhguru would say that drugs only offer a temporary solution that in most cases result in more harm than good. These substances only offer a glimpse at the experience of enlightenment. One would go mad knowing that such a sensation is within reach yet so impermanent. Still, many sects of Hinduism try anyway. Bhang is handed out during Holi festivals in places where marijuana is legal, and various recipes of Soma are still brewed and consumed by brahmanas.
But the vast majority of psychedelic drug use is no longer for spiritual purposes. College students taking tabs of LSD at raves are not looking for a deeper understanding of the existential experience of humanity. Most are looking for nothing more than a memorable night and a story to tell. But people who are actually trying to find out more about the potential benefits of these substances face legal barriers. Serious research into psychedelics and their spiritual potential is difficult because of the overwhelming amount of legislation banning both the study and use of these substances. Waltzing into a gas station and picking up a package of magic mushrooms isn’t an option in most parts of the world, and most of the time exceptions aren’t made for research. For centuries magic mushrooms, cannabis, and ayahuasca have been used as methods of healing and understanding, but because of modern drug stigmas, very few people are trying to harness the potential of psychedelics.
There was a reason ayahuasca was consumed by South American tribes as a method of cleansing parasites from the body, and a reason the ancient brahmanas felt closer to god under the influence of Soma. The people performing these rituals were not considered outcasts from their respective religions but rather devotees who were assured that these substances were a bridge to the transcendent. Hinduism is just the forefront of the entheogenic experience because of western pop culture, but it is far from alone. These faiths just realized their beliefs in the divine were complemented by psychedelics—as a vehicle of devotion not debauchery.
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Ramadurai, Charukesi. “Travel – The Intoxicating Drug of an Indian God.” BBC, BBC, 13 Mar. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170307-the-intoxicating-drug-of-an-indian-god.
Sadhguru, ISHA. “Ayahuasca and Parasitic Purging.” The Isha Blog, ISHA Sadhguru, 21 July 2017, isha.sadhguru.org/blog/lifestyle/health-fitness/ayahuasca-parasitic-purging/.
“Soma.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/Soma/.