Some of India’s sadhus have long smoked marijuana and hashish. HINDUISM TODAY asks why.

THE LEGAL STATUS OF CANNABIS—marijuana and its related products such as hashish—is evolving around the globe, with tough laws softening in some places. While it remains illegal in most nations, its restricted use is permitted in Italy, Germany, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Recently it has been legalized in Colorado and Washington and decriminalized in twelve other US states, ostensibly due to its proven medical uses. In India it is technically illegal, yet one can find it for sale at designated government-owned shops.

Western documentarians who cover the Kumbh almost always include a scene of sadhus smoking a chillum, a type of pipe, within the first few minutes. The recent National Geographic documentary on the Kumbh (which we do not recommend, because of this and other anti-Hindu stereotypes) managed it at the 60-second mark. In past Kumbh reports, HINDUISM TODAY has overlooked the matter, not wanting to criticize a long-standing practice among a group living austere lives, nor wanting to endorse what for the general population is regarded as a real menace. At this festival we decided to ask the saints and sadhus, chillum smokers and not, to explain.

What is smoked in the conical clay pipes is a varied mixture of ganja (marijuana flower and leaf), charas (a form of hashish handmade in India from the cannabis plant, which grows wild in the Himalayas) and tobacco. Smoking chillum is most common among the naga sadhus, those who go about naked at the Kumbh even in the coldest weather.

Sri Mahant Ganeshananda Saraswati of Taponidhi Shri Ananda Akhara, based in Nashik, explains, “Our naga sadhus have chillum as part of their sadhana, to keep their mind established in God and connect to the higher power. This is only one aspect of their life; presentation of it by the media in a flashy manner is not desirable.”

Sthanapati Mahant Ghanashyam Giri points out, “On certain things our religion has no clear-cut directions. The tradition of chillum-smoking is one of them. Though I myself do not smoke chillum, I feel it may not be that bad. The purpose is to increase one’s ability to focus and strengthen one’s energy for meditation and penance. It is also supposed to reduce sexual desire. The purpose has never been intoxication. It is OK—if you control it, rather than allowing the chillum to control you.”

Digambar Amar Bhati, also known as Tyagi Baba, of the Mahanirvani Akhara, echoes Ghanashyam’s view: “The traditional experience is that these natural herbs are helpful in concentration and meditation. These are not drugs, as such, but natural herbs. However, if one becomes addicted, even these herbs can be harmful to our health. I personally feel that the young sadhus should keep themselves away from all kinds of drug addiction.”

Naga Baba Mahant Sawan Puri of Awahan Akhara explains, “People should understand that naga sadhus have chillum to connect to God and not as an addiction. This is allowed for them; but drug consumption is not appropriate for a householder, who can ruin his life through addiction.”

Our reporting team did not observe any women sadhvis taking chillum in any of several visits to their camps. Sri Mahant Aradhana Giri, a woman saint of the Juna Akhara, shared her view. “I had a problem adjusting to the many swamis who had chillum. I myself do not take any kind of drugs and have just one meal a day. But chillum helps the young saints pass their entire youth by directing their thoughts to higher consciousness.”

Sri Mahant Divya Puri, head of the women’s wing of the Juna Akhara, said the practice should end: “I do not think chillum is needed today, though it was needed or permitted in the past. It is, however, very difficult to bring changes in the many areas which need change.”

Mahant Daya Shankar Puri of Juna Akhara finds it “unfortunate that in today’s time neither the householders nor the sannyasins are abiding by the boundaries that religion has set for them. Chillum is OK for sadhus but should not be taken up by householders. I, too, have chillum. I can also certainly do without it. My own Guruji, who is older than I by ten years, does not even touch it, nor will anyone take it in his presence. For sadhus staying in seclusion, it keeps their brains peaceful and in control. Those who smoke chillum also have to realize it is a cause of lung disease. Everything, after all, has a limit.”

Of those we interviewed, neither saints nor pilgrims condemned the long-standing practice. All opined that the tradition among sadhus does not give license to householders or youth to smoke chillum. A related practice among some sadhus of cigarette smoking may actually have a more deleterious impact on the youth. This habit is not only more addictive but meets with less discouragement from society, not carrying the same stigma as the chillum.

Media rush: Eight photographers, apparently all Westerners, eagerly snap a sadhu taking chillum during a break in the initiation ceremonies on the Ganga banks
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