Returning from Khajuraho on Swami Satyananda's recent All India Tour (February to April 1979), the entourage was passing by a small, white, one-roomed Shiva temple. Outside, three sadhus were smoking a chillum (a small clay pipe) filled with marijuana. With each puff they shouted, "Bam Shankar!" in what appeared to be blissful reverie. Perhaps it was the power of the mantra, or the prana-charged atmosphere combined with the natural beauty of the environment that made such a striking impression. We were watching a ritual that had existed in India for thousands of years, virtually unchanged.

Thousands of miles away from the small, one-roomed temple in the middle of India, special squads of police were converging on Sydney's International Airport. They were armed with dogs, sensitive detection equipment and all types of weapons. Above the airport, helicopters patrolled the cordoned off area. All this activity focused on the movements of one man, a well known criminal who was bringing a fortune in cannabis (otherwise known as marijuana, bhang, ganja, charas, hashish, subzee, Vijaya, hemp, pot, grass, weed) into Australia in order to sell it to the thousands of users.

Every day we hear of many cases of drug smuggling, of the conviction of drug users and 'pushers', and the destruction of thousands of tons of the plant by the special 'drug squads' organised to deal with the growing use of marijuana in our society. Many world governments have made the use of marijuana illegal, for reasons better known to themselves, however, the use of the plant continues to increase. 'Time Magazine' (USA) estimates that in 1979 the consumption of marijuana in America is at 130,000 pounds per day, totalling up to 25 billion US dollars annually. The 'New York Times' (December 28, 1978) priced an ounce of marijuana at between 25 to 50 US dollars and stated that the US government had estimated the marijuana industry as totalling up to 48 billion US dollars annually. This places marijuana trade as the third largest US industry, just behind the automotive and petrochemical industries.

The question emerges as to where is all this marijuana going? Why is there so great a demand and who is using it? Why do people like to use marijuana and continue to do so? Scientists have surveyed the questions and have found that almost one quarter of Americans have tried the plant. Over half of these are under thirty, mostly between 18 to 24 years of age. Twenty million Americans are casual smokers. The reasons given for smoking include:

  1. Disillusionment with our present state of society, precipitating a search for deeper mental and spiritual insight
  2. The need for an escape from tensions resulting in a search for mental, emotional and physical forms of relaxation
  3. A new way to gain pleasure

Knowledge of the ancients

The recent upsurge in the social use of marijuana has led to a deeper study of its history and possible application to various physical and mental diseases, and guidelines for its correct use. We find that it has been described by Chinese, Indian, Persian, Assyrian, Greek and Arab physicians for thousands of years.

The Chinese called it 'ma'; the North Africans, 'kif; the Russians, 'anascha'; in Turkey and Persia, 'esrar'; by the Spanish speaking Americans, 'marihuana'; in Brazil, 'macoha'; and in South Africa as 'dagga', 'mbanzhe', 'mbangi', 'matakwane' and 'intsangu'.

The first recorded statement of its use comes from the reign of the Chinese emperor Shennung (2800 BC) who taught his people to grow hemp for rope. Its use in China as a painkiller is not described until 200 AD, however, when it was used in annulling the pain attendant upon cauterisations and surgical operations. (Its potential surgical use has been again reported in the late 1950's but this time for its ability to profoundly lower body temperature in brain and traumatic surgery.)

The ancient Indian ayurvedic system of medicine is full of references to the use of marijuana, dating back to before 1000 BC. The leaves of the plant are said to relieve pain, induce sleep, counteract muscle spasms, induce the excretion of urine, aid digestion, and stop bleeding and excessive secretions of body fluid. A paste of the fresh leaves is used to resolve tumours and a poultice of the fresh leaves is said to alleviate conjunctivitis, piles and orchitis (inflammation of the testicles). The smoke of the dried leaves is passed through the rectum to help relieve strangulated hernia and for the griping pain of dysentery. The leaves are also used as a remedy for blood poisoning, dandruff and vermin, ear pain, painful periods, as a dressing to fresh wounds and sores, and in diarrhoea and dysentery.

Various preparations of marijuana are described in the ayurvedic texts. Bhang, the cheapest and least potent form made from the dried leaves and flowers, is used for indigestion, gonorrhoea, bowel complaints and as an appetiser and nerve stimulant. Charas (hashish), the pure resinous exudate containing the active chemicals collected from the flowering tops is used in malaria, tension and migraine headaches, acute mania, delirium, whooping cough, tuberculosis, asthma, nervous vomiting, tetanus, nervous exhaustion, pain on passing urine, to relieve the pain and itch of eczema and other more severe conditions, and to induce sleep.

There is a great deal of agreement between Ayurveda and other indigenous medical systems, such as those from Africa where marijuana was also used for anthrax. The pain killing, anaesthetic and ecstatic effects of marijuana have long been known in Africa.

Sir Joseph Banks, the 18th century English botanist, states that it is taken in Barbary, when it can be procured by criminals condemned to suffer amputation. It is said to enable the poor wretches "to bear the rough operations of an unfeeling executioner better than we Europeans can the keen knife of our most skilful surgeons". In more pleasant surroundings rural Africans used marijuana in their recreational games. Mine workers were encouraged by their bosses to use it about three times per day as after a smoke their energy levels increased, they could work harder and with very little fatigue.

More recent discoveries

Marijuana is thought to have first been introduced into western medicine at the beginning of the 19th century by doctors attached to Napoleon's occupying forces in Egypt. They were sufficiently impressed by its sedative and pain killing properties to use it in the army. One of the first reports of marijuana from a western doctor was by W.B. O'Shaughnessy a 30 year old physician serving with the British in India ('Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bengal', 1838-40, pp. 421-6). In 1839 he described its preparation, therapeutic, religious and recreational uses, documenting some remarkable cures in tetanus and epilepsy, the amelioration of rheumatism and the alleviation of the wrenching muscle spasms of rabies.

In 1860, the Committee on Cannabis Indica of the Ohio State Medical Society (USA) reported the successful treatment of conditions such as stomach pain, childbirth, psychosis, chronic cough, gonorrhoea, local nerve pains and inflammatory pains by using marijuana. (See T.H. Mikuriya, 'Marijuana: Medical Papers', Medi-Comp Press, California, p. XV.) Since then the list of possible uses compiled by doctors and researchers has grown to include: appetite stimulation, topical anaesthesia, the treatment of insomnia, nerve pains, migraine, asthma, infections, glaucoma, neurosis, anxiety, depression, mania. It can also be used as a means of childbirth analgesia, speeding up the contractions during labour (oxytocic), and as a withdrawal agent for alcohol and other drugs.

Dr Van M. Sim, conducting research at the Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, USA, from 1954-59, reported to 'Medical World News' (July 16, 1971, pp. 37-43) that: "Marijuana... is probably the most potent anti-epileptic known to medicine today". (See Mikuriya, p.xxii)

Today, the Federal Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Food and Drug Administration Joint Committee (USA) have authorised clinical trials using marijuana on humans in order to find out how the drug works, its short and long term effects, and so on. As yet, there is little conclusive evidence, but the results in glaucoma and cancer seem to be the most promising.

Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, USA, have shown that the active drug from marijuana, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) acts to relieve the nausea caused by anticancer drugs and irradiation.

Some important added extra effects of marijuana include its actions as a mood elevator, tranquilliser, mild antidepressant and appetite stimulant, all of which may prove a boon in helping to overcome many of the agonies of cancer.

Marijuana and sex

Indian sadhus and some sincere yogic aspirants have used marijuana in order to remove fatigue, to raise the spirits and to help open up different areas of reality to perception and awareness. Its prolonged use is reputed to help in the attainment of brahmacharya, the sublimation of sexual energies, so as to reach higher states of consciousness.

In the initial stages of its use marijuana has been reported to act as a stimulant and aphrodisiac, relaxing and reducing the inhibitions. However, in long term users it affects the sexual centres in the brain and decreases desires and passions. One scientific study using 20 subjects aged from 18 to 28 years, who had smoked an average of 9 times per week, showed that there was a reduction in the secretion of the male sexual hormone testosterone by approximately 44 %. 6 subjects showed highly reduced sperm counts and 2 were sterile. Discontinuation of marijuana use led to normal sexual function in every case (see R. Lehnert, "Seeds, Stems and Roach Clips", 'East West Journal', 9, 3:45, 1979). This could indicate that the energies that would normally have gone into the maintenance of sexual function were diverted elsewhere. Marijuana may therefore prove useful for those people who want to reduce their sexual drive.

There are some people in whom the passions, desires and fantasies are so strong that they are rarely satisfied. The extreme of this condition is called nymphomania. There are also those people who suffer from certain physical and mental diseases in which it is undesirable or impossible to exert themselves physically, as is required in sexual intercourse, for example, invalids, victims of heart disease, diabetes, paralysis, and so on. These people may still have to handle their sexual cravings and in their condition these become a kind of mental torture as there is insufficient means of expression.

There are also some spiritual aspirants who wish to gain control of their sexual drives, to divert their minds from passion and worldly affairs. It is said that the use of marijuana over a long period of time cuts the channels of sexuality so that the nerves exciting the physical centres in the brain no longer work. One no longer thinks about sex and in this state he does not work towards satisfying it. The energy can then be used in the higher psychic centres of the body.

Altering consciousness

Certainly the research into altered states of consciousness and marijuana ranks as the most relevant to today's world situation for it is the mind altering effects of marijuana that have attracted most of its users. The therapeutic aspects are more a specialised sideline to its effects on mind, energy and perception.

From the earliest times it has been used in religious and sacred settings. Marijuana is regarded by Hindus as the holy plant sacred to Lord Shiva. The appellation, "Bam Shankar!" is a call to Shiva, the highest consciousness, the lord of yogis, who is said to remain perpetually in a state of 'bam bam', eternal bliss, his eyes in unmani mudra, the same stare seen in those who are 'blown out' on marijuana. Certain sufi sects are said to have regarded the plant as an embodiment of the spirit of the prophet Khizer Elijah. The link between marijuana and higher consciousness is ages old.

The Greek historian Herodotus states that the Scythians inhaled the fumes of burning marijuana seeds to attain altered states of consciousness. The use of marijuana and other resinous plants by magicians, yogis, tantrics, shaman, medicine men, witchdoctors and men of knowledge all over the world is well documented.

While in Gangotri in 1948, Swami Satyananda himself experimented with marijuana. This was at a time when very little was known about yoga, even amongst sannyasins. Very few people actually practised it. Swamiji spent nine months practising intense sadhana and smoking chillums. It was then that he had a great vision which pierced the veils of ignorance and opened the doorway into the future, revealing to him that yoga was destined to play a vast role in the transformation of human consciousness. Since that time we have seen how far and how fast yoga has spread to all the four corners of the earth.

The growth of both marijuana use and yoga practice seems to reflect the growing need to attain relaxation and peace of mind. Aushadi, the use of herbs, is one of the six ways prescribed by the ancient sages to attain peace and the resolution of the eternal conflicts within man. This practice, however, requires a guru to be successful. Aushadi, as for ail spiritual sadhana, aims at the unification of the divergent forces within each individual, the integration of man's dual personality. Freud called this the battle between the ego and the superego while religions called it the conflict of the demonic and the divine in man.

In purely physiological terms, man's conflicts arise because of the battle between the two parts of the brain, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, the pingala and ida nadis of yoga. One side is excitatory and the other side is inhibitory, causing continual tension within. When the brain is not unified, the two parts are imbalanced and function in an uncoordinated manner causing physical, emotional and mental turmoil. Sadhana aims at rebalancing and unification of the sides so that there is no longer any conflict, only harmony and peace.

R.R. McMeens, MD, quotes various sources on the effects of marijuana on our consciousness. It is said to provoke a wonderfully keen perception of the ludicrous in even the most simple and familiar objects, lifting the veil of our preconceptions and conditioning and showing us a completely new reality. Reason is said to sit coolly watching while the nerves are thrilled with the bliss of the gods. It may be this fact that makes marijuana so popular. ("Report of the Ohio State Medical Committee on Cannabis Indica", 'Transactions of the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the Ohio State Medical Society at Ohio White Sulphur Springs', June 12-14, 1860, pp.75-100.)

T.H. Mikuriya, MD, has conducted experiments using marijuana to help in the withdrawal of alcohol from addicts. Alcoholism is a form of physical, mental and emotional suffering. It makes one violent, nasty, irritable, belligerent, aggressive, and results in progressive depression, guilt and psychic pain. Mikuriya claims that, though he did not completely cure his patient of alcoholism, by using marijuana he helped her to free herself of the repetitious frustration-rage-guilt cycle amplified by alcohol. She became more gentle, sociable, able to work, relaxed, able to enjoy music and colour, more self-controlled, being able to direct her anger more directly and in a controlled and appropriate manner. She was minus her depression and in possession of a new awareness and sense of well-being. (See Mikuriya, p.169.)

Andrew Weil, MD, and his associates have shown in a double-blind experiment, that marijuana did not impair the mental abilities of regular smokers, but on the contrary, they performed better in some psychological tests while 'stoned' than in a normal state and in some tests performed better than they thought they were performing. (See "Clinical and Psychological Effects of Marijuana in Man", 'Science', 162: 1234-42, December 13, 1968.)

Charles Tart, in his book 'Altered States of Consciousness' (Doubleday Anchor, N.Y., 1972, p.364) records that in the marijuana 'high', sensations are enhanced and clarified, time perception changes, attention becomes more unified and moves into more preconscious material and the state of pure awareness. Inhibitions and suppressions relax, allowing emotions, thoughts, fantasies and memories to flow more freely. It may well be that the increasing incidence of neurosis, high anxiety, psychosis and mental illness in general in our society is because we lack the master chemical in our brain and bloodstream that is to be found in marijuana.