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 the squeaky-clean new age, says Saurabh Bhattacharya
“...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 microcosm 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 the passages earlier or are plain lucky. Or, of course, if you have had what is popularly known as the ‘psychedelic experience’ and can recognise a high when you see one.
The similarities between a drug-induced experience and a mystical vision are far too alarming for our overtly liberal mind to completely appreciate. All over the world, drug visions have always been considered redundant, if not downright heretical, by mainstream spiritual traditions. The term ‘drug’ itself has been sufficiently, and successfully, stigmatised by society and governments. Not without cause, as is evident in the havoc wreaked by drugs on the world’s youth from the ‘60s and ‘70s till today.
Yet, it is also a 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. Nearer home, the Aghoris and a significant section of Shaivite Tantrics ritually partake of ganja and bhang as part of their Sadhana.
Obviously, none of these historical facts gave the whole picture. The truth about drugs lies somewhere between the bogey of suicidal addiction and the cult of mind expansion. But before this truth is unravelled, a bout of deconditioning is mandatory.
Trips sacred and profane
What we term as ‘drugs’ – substances whose use (or abuse) lead 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 tranquillisers, 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, antidepressants 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, charas and ganja), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), 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 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. “I divide the blanket term ‘drugs’ into two parts,” he explains. “There are the ‘hard drugs’ such as morphine, heroin or opiates, that are part of a distinct category of medicines. They are used to anaesthetise during pain. Then there are the ‘soft drugs’. These include not only the well-known cannabis family, but also alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and cocaine. All these drugs, when abused, definitely have bad effects. He says, “Why should our society condone alcohol and cigarettes and shiver at the mere thought of ganja?”
Why indeed? Every Holi or Shivratri is celebrated in India with the churning of Bhang. Historian Akhilesh Mithal in a newspaper column, writes: “In ancient India, intoxicants did not raise moral hackles. There are numerous paintings showing the Lord and the whole Holy Family busy preparing bhang.” Mithal also notes that earlier, travelers used to carry their quota of Ganja or hashish on long journeys to help them relax, not dissimilar to the way we carry our cigarette packs or bottles of alcohol today.
Says Dr. Amiya Banerjee, a psychiatrist at the Delhi-based Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (VIMHANS): “Traditionally, in India, we had a good adaptation to ganja and afim (opium), which was sufficiently low in potency. But then, the Western chemist 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. A West-dominant anti-narcotic policy was thus forced down India’s throat, which never had a serious drug problem.”
But are the psychedelics really a passport to the ultimate high that every spiritual seeker thirst for? Or are they a load of dangerous rubbish packaged in the mystique of myth and tall tales?
Highs of Faith...
“Pehle sutte mein Shivji ne akash dala, dusre sutte mein prithvi daali, aur teesre sutte mei yeh duniya bana di (with the first drag, Shiva 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 Delhi, is how the Gaddi tribals of Himachal Pradesh describe the act of Creation. The sutta here, of course, refers to a drag of Ganja.
As she tells me this, Madhusudan Baul, a folk singer from West Bengal who belongs to the Sahajiya spiritual tradition, chips in: “These three suttas are extremely important. There is a proper vidhi (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. Further smoking will not make any difference.”
And what does he feel when he is on such a high? Madhusudan closes his eyes as he recalls: “Ganja 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, 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.” But such a harmony comes with a rider: that of ritualized discipline, a well-guided and properly followed path of sadhana. “You can’t reach this state of divine bliss in a disco, merrily tripping on a joint,” she cautions. “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. In this context, Saunders uses the words ‘set’ and ‘setting.’ ‘Set’ means the proper frame of mind for a spiritual experience through drugs. Ideally, says Saunders, an aspirant should be at peace and should have a thirst to experience. Next comes the ‘Setting’, the physical state. The aspirant should be relaxed, and in a comfortable place.
There is no place for frivolity in a serious psychedelic experience. Author and scholar Aldous Huxley, whose book The Doors of Perception, where he highlights 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.”
Neither is there any place for foolhardiness. In an interview published in the book Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, noted scholar of religion Huston Smith answered a query on psychedelics thus: “They are like a two-edged sword. They can cut through samsara to get to nirvana, while at the other extreme they can behead us.”
Somewhere down the line, however, this emphasis on discipline got swept away by the manic intensity and the accessibility of the experience.
...Lows of Frenzy
Leary in 1960s launched a full-scale study called the Psilocybin Project at Harvard University. The aim of the project was, in the words of Robert Forte, editor of Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, to “understand the revelatory potentials of the human nervous system and to make these insights available to others.” During this period, Leary also conducted the controversial Good Friday Experiment, which “produced religious insights under psilocybin in theology students that were indistinguishable from those of the most renowned mystics and saints”.
In 1963, Leary was expelled from Harvard, thrusting him and the drugs he promoted into national prominence. He became a teen icon of sorts, touting LSD as the wonder drug of the century. His oft-quoted-words ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ became the slogan for a youth tired of Vietnam, conventional education and morally uptight religion. The boom had begun in earnest.
“The early trips of the 1960s were done reverently,” recalls Tal Brooke, a member of the psychedelic generation. “But by 1967, it had reached its frenzy. People would OD (overdose) at rock festivals or watching a film...In shopping plazas stoned people were getting the cosmological eye and could discern nuances of truth from the most pedestrian things.”
Unable to control the effect of the LSD-generated visions and without prior preparation, many people began committing suicide. Often, an overdose led to a comatose state that continued for hours. The storm triggered by Leary claimed far too many victims.
Despite the negative backlash, which finally led to a widespread ban on all psychedelic drugs, the movement did help open the portals of consciousness for many. As scholar and politician Dr. Karan Singh notes in his book Essays on Hinduism: “With all its aberrations, the drug phenomenon, especially LSD, has opened the minds of many in the West who previously had dismissed the whole Kundalini phenomenon as either a fraud or a self-imposed hallucination.”
When mind fields explode
An overall scientific impression is that psychedelics impact the brain cells, often to the extent of harming them irreparably. Says Dr. Banerjee: “There is scientific proof that psychedelics have chemicals that act upon the brain cells to produce ‘visions.’ But what is the meaning of these visions? Science cannot answer this question.”
“What you get from dope is all in your subconscious,” declares Sukhi, a Delhi-based musician. Sukhi has gone through the whole gamut of psychedelics - LSD, magic mushrooms, hashish, bhang. “Drugs merely give you the fillip to come closer to the real you,” he says. “If you’ve got shit in your head, shit is what you’ll see.”
Suresh, a corporate trainer, felt he was blending with the cosmos and could see the world from the eyes of his dog! “The theory that drugs can be used as a mode of spiritual growth is as much of a belief pattern as the concept that drugs are the worst thing on earth,” Suresh says. “Drugs are not a path. They do create altered states of consciousness but to that extent alone. To read meaning into this altered state is to again create a belief pattern. The desire for a drug or a state of intoxication, wherein you float above reality per se, is there in every human being.”
The Psychedelic Spirit
Obvious questions arise in this context. If a shift from reality is the reason for psychedelic use, is not a transcendence of reality the aim of meditation? If a psychedelic ‘trip’ can give you an experience similar to that of sages and mystics, why not go for it? Is there any harm if nirvana comes in the form of a reefer?
Famous saints such as Baba Muktananda states: “It is not correct to say that LSD helps you evolve spiritually. However, LSD draws the mind inward and it is then able to have some inner experiences, seeing sights of the inner worlds.” But, he adds, this is possible as long as the effect of the drug lasts. After that it is back to square one.
The whole drugs vs. spirituality argument have been synthesised by author and founder of Creative Psychology Robert S.D Roth in his well-known book The Master Game. “The high ends of Creative Psychology,” he says, “can no more be attained by taking drugs than the high ends of art can be achieved by slopping paint about at random. However, if psychedelics are taken under the right conditions, with proper preparation, under the supervision of a guide who knows the territory the aspirant will enter, they can, be of some value.
If that can be the case, perhaps it is time the psychedelic experience is retrieved from the cobwebs of a justifiable, legislation and social mindset to breathe free in the next millennium. There are pitfalls on the psychedelic path. You may never even reach your destination. But then, haven’t our own saints declared frequently: “There are as many paths to the ultimate High as there are beliefs”?
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