By Saurabh Bhattacharya November 1999 For most, the psychedelic generation is thankfully dead and buried under heaps of marijuana ash and acid drops. But the ghost of that era may still have a few spiritual lessons for New Age …On one level, I was still a fetus experiencing the ultimate perfection of a good womb. On another level, I became the universe; I was witnessing the macrocosm with countless pulsating galaxies and was it at the same time… …I expanded all at once into a glowing conscious circle, growing larger and larger, until a maximum was reached, the ‘I’ remaining as it was, but instead of a confining unit, now encompassed by a shining globe of vast dimensions.. The excerpts given above describe two spiritual-mystical experiences-one resulting from meditation and the other from a drug ‘trip’. Can you figure out which is which? In all probability, you can’t, unless you have either come across these passages earlier or are plain lucky. Or, of course, if you have had what is popularly known as the ‘psychedelic experience’ and can recognize a high when you see one. The similarities between a drug-induced experience and a mystical vision are far too alarming for our anti-drug conditioned mind to completely appreciate. It is a historical fact that, all over the world, drug visions have always been considered redundant, if not downright heretical, by established mainstream spiritual traditions. Over the years, the term ‘drug’ itself has been successfully stigmatized by society. Not without cause, as is evident in the havoc wreaked by drugs on the world’s youth from the ’60s till today. Yet, it is also a historical fact that for centuries, psychedelic drugs such as marijuana, mescaline and psilocybin have been integral to the spiritual practices of various tribal cultures and yogic traditions respected even today for their wisdom. Shamans of South America’s Yaqui tribe use psilocybin and mescaline extensively during meditation. In India, the Aghora sect of Tantra and a significant section of Shaivite Tantrics ritually partake of marijuana as part of their sadhana (spiritual exercise). The third most important deity in the Vedas, after Indra and Agni, is Soma, symbolized by the intoxicating plant soma and its juice. Even the first sutra of Kaivalya Pada in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra recognizes the path of drugs thus: ‘Janmaushadhi-mantra-tapah-samadhi-jah siddhayah (The siddhis (occult powers) are the result of birth, drugs, mantra, austerities or samadhi).’ What we term as ‘drugs’—substances whose use (or abuse) leads to physical and/or psychological addiction—are technically known as psychoactive drugs. These can roughly be divided into three groups: •Sedative/Hypnotic—This group includes tranquilizers, barbiturates, opium and its derivatives such as heroin or brown sugar. The potential for physical addiction here is particularly high and the results are far from healthy. •Stimulants—This comprises caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, anti-depressants and amphetamines. All these drugs, although low on physical dependence, range from moderate to high in the psychological dependence scale. •Psychedelics—The drugs in this category include cannabis and its various derivatives (hashish, marijuana, bhang, charasand ganja), LSD (lysergic acid diethyl amide), psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and mescaline (found in the peyote cactus). The potential for physical dependence on these drugs is nil, and the psychological dependence ranges from moderate to zero. Most spiritual traditions that use drugs concentrate primarily on this group, because of their vision-generating capacities. According to Pradeep Guha, a senior journalist based in New Delhi, India, who has been studying the world of psychedelics both in theory and practice for the past 30-odd years, the stigma attached to the word ‘drug’ today is unwarranted. ‘There are the ‘hard drugs’ such as morphine, heroin or opiates,’ he explains, ‘and there are the ‘soft drugs’, which include not only the well-known cannabis family, but also alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and cocaine. All these drugs, when abused, definitely have bad effects. But this does not justify the moralistic tenor the word ‘drug’ itself has been burdened with. Why should society condone alcohol and cigarettes and shiver at the mere thought of ganja?’ In fact, according to a news report published in the New Scientist magazine (February 21, 1998), a December 1997 study by the World Health Organization noted that cannabis use is much safer than alcohol or tobacco. The article, however, adds that the relevant section never saw the light of day, thanks to pressure from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse and the UN International Drug Control Program! Says Dr Amiya Banerjee, a psychiatrist at the New Delhi-based Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (VIMHANS): ‘Traditionally, in India, we had a good adaptation to cannabis and opium, which was sufficiently low in potency. But then the western chemist came upon the wonder plant of opium, brought it to exceedingly purified levels, and began marketing it. The resultant addiction havoc worried the Big Brother of the West so much that it decided to clamp down on the drug source.’ The result: a bane on the word ‘drug’ and the gradual death of a significant, albeit peripheral, spiritual means. But are the psychedelics really that spiritual? Can they be passports to the ultimate high that every spiritual seeker thirsts for? Or are they a load of dangerous rubbish packaged in the mystique of myth and tall tales? ‘With the first drag, Shiva (a Hindu deity) made the sky. With the second, he made the earth and with the third he made this world.’ This, according to Dr Molly Kaushal, research officer at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, is how the Gaddi tribals of the northern Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh describe the act of Creation. The ‘drag’ here, of course, refers to a puff of cannabis. As she tells me this, an excited Madhusudan Baul, a folk singer from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, chips in: ‘These three puffs are extremely important. There is a proper ritual involved in taking them. There should be a gap of at least 90 seconds between each puff. And the high that you reach after three puffs is the climax. No further smoking will make any difference.’ And what does he feel when he is on such a high? Madhusudan closes his eyes in bliss as he recalls: ‘We all know that God resides everywhere. But we see Him in bits and pieces. Cannabis makes me see God in His entirety. It is a sight of such unalloyed joy that tears well up in my eyes.’ A junkie’s gobbledygook? Not quite, points out Madhu Khanna, New Delhi-based Tantra scholar. ‘When you are on the spiritual path,’ she explains, ‘your body energies and vital centers are already in a heightened state of awareness. At this point, when you take ganja, you become completely in harmony. The drug allows you to get focused.’ But such a harmony comes with a rider: that of ritualized discipline. You can’t reach this state of divine bliss in a disco, merrily tripping on a joint. A mystical experience with psychedelics demands a complete overhaul of your attitude towards life. Come to think of it, almost every serious psychedelic tradition has underscored the importance of discipline in using drugs. As Nicholas Saunders, the man known to popularize the synthetic drug Ecstasy, once said: ‘Spiritual experiences are special events. There is no known way that they can be induced reliably, although various religious techniques, such as meditation, can help to create a situation where they are more likely to occur.’ In this context, Saunders uses the words ‘set’ and ‘setting’—both terms popularized in the ’60s by psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. ‘Set’ means the proper frame of mind for a spiritual experience through drugs. Ideally, says Saunders, the mind should be thirsting for the experience and should be completely at peace. Next comes the ‘setting’, the physical state. The aspirant should be relaxed, and in a comfortable situation and place. Over and above, Saunders emphasizes the need for a proper ‘sitter’, a guide who will help the aspirant through the ‘trip’. The importance of a proper guide is nowhere more highlighted than in the works of enigmatic anthropologist-turned-sorcerer Carlos Castaneda. The acolyte of Yaqui Indian shaman don Juan, Castaneda began his journey into the mystical world by eating the mescaline-rich peyote cactus given by his guru. The resulting bizarre visions that make up his books apparently helped open the floodgates of his own consciousness. There is no place for frivolity in a serious psychedelic experience. Even author and scholar Aldous Huxley, whose path-breaking book The Doors Of Perception was one of the first works to highlight the spiritual element in psychedelic drugs, cautioned: ‘There is a feeling that the experience is so transcendentally important that it is in no circumstance a thing to be entered upon light-heartedly or for enjoyment.’ Somewhere down the line, however, the emphasis on discipline got swept away by the manic intensity and the accessibility of the experience. In 1943, a Swiss chemist called Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered the chemical LSD, colloquially known as ‘acid’ and by far the strongest psychedelic drug around. Huxley, whose experience with mescaline had made him a serious student of psychedelics, experimented with
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