Cannabis has an ancient history of ritual usage as an aid to trance and has been traditionally used in a religious context throughout the Old World. Herodotus wrote about early ceremonial practices by the Scythians, which are thought to have occurred from the 5th to 2nd century BCE. Itinerant sadhus have used it in India for centuries, and in modern times it has been embraced by the Rastafari movement. Anthropologist Sula Benet claimed historical evidence and etymological comparison show that the Holy anointing oil used by the Hebrews contained cannabis extracts, "kaneh bosm" (קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם), and that it is also listed as an incense tree in the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament. Early Christians used cannabis oil for medicinal purposes and as part of the baptismal process to confirm the forgiveness of sins and "right of passage" into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Unction, Seal, laying on of hands, the Counselor, and the Holy Spirit are all often synonymous with the Holy anointing oil. Early Gnostic texts indicate that the Chrism is essential to becoming a "Christian". Some Muslims of the Sufi order have used cannabis as a tool for spiritual exploration.
The sinologist and historian Joseph Needham concluded "the hallucinogenic properties of hemp were common knowledge in Chinese medical and Taoist circles for two millennia or more", and other scholars associated Chinese wu "shamans" with the entheogenic use of cannabis in Central Asian shamanism.
The oldest texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine listed herbal uses for cannabis and noted some psychodynamic effects. The (ca. 100 CE) Chinese pharmacopeia Shennong Bencaojing 神農本草經 ("Shennong's Classic of Materia Medica") described the use of mafen 麻蕡 "cannabis fruit/seeds", "To take much makes people see demons and throw themselves about like maniacs (多食令人見鬼狂走). But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits, and one's body becomes light (久服通神明輕身)". Later pharmacopia repeated this description, for instance the (ca. 1100 CE) Zhenglei bencao 證類本草 ("Classified Materia Medica"), "If taken in excess it produces hallucinations and a staggering gait. If taken over a long term, it causes one to communicate with spirits and lightens one's body." The (ca. 730) dietary therapy book Shiliao bencao 食療本草 ("Nutritional Materia Medica") prescribes daily consumption of cannabis, "those who wish to see demons should take it (with certain other drugs) for up to a hundred days."
Beginning around the 4th century, Taoist texts mentioned using cannabis in censers. Needham cited the (ca. 570 CE) Taoist encyclopedia Wushang Biyao 無上秘要 ("Supreme Secret Essentials") that cannabis was added into ritual incense-burners, and suggested the ancient Taoists experimented systematically with "hallucinogenic smokes". The Yuanshi shangzhen zhongxian ji 元始上真眾仙記 ("Records of the Assemblies of the Perfected Immortals"), which is attributed to Ge Hong (283-343), says, "For those who begin practicing the Tao it is not necessary to go into the mountains. … Some with purifying incense and sprinkling and sweeping are also able to call down the Perfected Immortals. The followers of the Lady Wei and of Hsu are of this kind." Lady Wei Huacun 魏華存 (252-334) and Xu Mi 許謐 (303-376) founded the Daoist Shangqing School. The Shangqing scriptures were supposedly dictated to Yang Xi 楊羲 (330-386 CE) in nightly revelations from immortals, and Needham proposed Yang was "aided almost certainly by cannabis". The Mingyi bielu 名醫別錄 ("Supplementary Records of Famous Physicians"), written by the Taoist pharmacologist Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536), who also wrote the first commentaries to the Shangqing canon, says, "Hemp-seeds (麻勃) are very little used in medicine, but the magician-technicians (shujia 術家) say that if one consumes them with ginseng it will give one preternatural knowledge of events in the future." A 6th-century CE Taoist medical work, the Wuzangjing 五臟經 ("Five Viscera Classic") says, "If you wish to command demonic apparitions to present themselves you should constantly eat the inflorescences of the hemp plant."
Cannabis has been cultivated in China since Neolithic times, for instance, hemp cords were used to create the characteristic line designs on Yangshao culture pottery). Early Chinese classics have many references to using the plant for clothing, fiber, and food, but none to its psychotropic properties. Some researchers think Chinese associations of cannabis with "indigenous central Asian shamanistic practices" can explain this "peculiar silence". The botanist Li Hui-Lin noted linguistic evidence that the "stupefying effect of the hemp plant was commonly known from extremely early times"; the word ma "cannabis; hemp" has connotations of "numbed; tingling; senseless" (e.g., mumu 麻木 "numb" and mazui 麻醉 "anesthetic; narcotic"), which "apparently derived from the properties of the fruits and leaves, which were used as infusions for medicinal purposes." Li suggested shamans in Northeast Asia transmitted the medical and spiritual uses of cannabis to the ancient Chinese wu 巫 "shaman; spirit medium; doctor".
The use of Cannabis as an hallucinogenic drug by necromancers or magicians is especially notable. It should be pointed out that in ancient China, as in most early cultures, medicine has its origin in magic. Medicine men were practicing magicians. In northeastern Asia, shamanism was widespread from Neolithic down to recent times. In ancient China shamans were known as wu. This vocation was very common down to the Han dynasty. After that it gradually diminished in importance, but the practice persisted in scattered localities and among certain peoples. In the far north, among the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Siberia, shamanism was widespread and common until rather recent times.
Both early Greek history and modern archeology show that Central Asian peoples were utilizing cannabis 2,500 years ago.
[T]hey make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. … The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.
What Herodotus called the "hemp-seed" must have been the whole flowering tops of the plant, where the psychoactive resin is produced along with the fruit ("seeds").
Several of the Tarim mummies excavated near Turpan in Xinjiang province of Northwestern China were buried with sacks of marijuana next to their heads. Based on additional grave goods, archaeologists concluded these individuals were shamans: "The marijuana must have been buried with the dead shamans who dreamed of continuing the profession in another world." A team of scientists analyzed one shamanistic tomb that contained a leather basket with well-preserved cannabis (789 grams of leaves, shoots, and fruits; AMS dated 2475 ± 30 years BP) and a wooden bowl with cannabis traces. Lacking any "suitable evidence that the ancient, indigenous people utilized Cannabis for food, oil, or fiber", they concluded "the deceased was more concerned with the intoxicant and/or medicinal value of the Cannabis remains."
In ancient Germanic paganism, cannabis was associated with the Norse love goddess, Freya. The harvesting of the plant was connected with an erotic high festival. It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant's feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force. Linguistics offers further evidence of prehistoric use of cannabis by Germanic peoples: The word hemp derives from Old English hænep, from Proto-Germanic *hanapiz, from the same Scythian word that cannabis derives from. The etymology of this word follows Grimm's Law by which Proto-Indo-European initial *k- becomes *h- in Germanic. The shift of *k→h indicates it was a loanword into the Germanic parent language at a time depth no later than the separation of Common Germanic from Proto-Indo-European, about 500 BC.
There are three types of cannabis used in India. The first, Bhang, consists of the leaves of the marijuana plant. It is usually consumed as an infusion in beverage form, and is the weakest form of the drug. The second, Ganja, consisting of the leaves and the plant tops, is smoked. The third, called Charas or Hashish, consists of the resinous buds and/or extracted resin from the leaves and stems of the marijuana plant. Typically, Bhang is the most commonly used form of cannabis in religious festivals.
Cannabis or ganja is associated with worship of the Hindu deity Shiva, who is popularly believed to like the hemp plant. Bhang is offered to Shiva images, especially on Shivratri festival. This practice is particularly witnessed at temples of Benares, Baidynath and Tarakeswar.
Bhang is not only offered to the deity, but also consumed by Shaivite (sect of Shiva) yogis. Charas is smoked by some Shaivite devotees and cannabis itself is seen as a gift ("prasad," or offering) to Shiva to aid in sadhana. Some of the wandering ascetics in India known as sadhus smoke charas out of a clay chillum.
During the Hindu festival of Holi, people consume a drink called bhang which contains cannabis flowers. According to one description, when the elixir of life was produced from the churning of the ocean by the devas and the asuras, Shiva created cannabis from his own body to purify the elixir (whence, for cannabis, the epithet angaja or body-born). Another account suggests that the cannabis plant sprang when a drop of the elixir dropped on the ground. Thus, cannabis is used by sages due to association with elixir and Shiva. Wise drinking of bhang, according to religious rites, is believed to cleanse sins, unite one with Shiva and avoid the miseries of hell in the after-life. In contrast, foolish drinking of bhang without rites is considered a sin.
Researchers claim that in the 5th century BCE Siddhartha ate only hemp seeds for six years, prior to becoming the Buddha. Cannabis continues to play a significant role in the meditation ritual of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, and has been a practice since 500 BCE when cannabis was regarded as a holy plant.
According to Aryeh Kaplan, cannabis was an ingredient in the Holy anointing oil mentioned in various sacred Hebrew texts. The herb of interest is most commonly known as kaneh-bosem (קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם ) which is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as a bartering material, incense, and an ingredient in Holy anointing oil used by the high priest of the temple.
The Septuagint (300 BCE) translates kaneh-bosem as calamus, and this translation has been propagated unchanged to most later translations of the Torah (1500 BCE+). However, Polish anthropologist Sula Benet published etymological arguments that the Aramaic word for hemp can be read as kannabos and appears to be a cognate to the modern word 'cannabis', with the root kan meaning reed or hemp and bosm meaning fragrant. Both cannabis and calamus are fragrant, reed-like plants containing psychotropic compounds. While Benet's conclusion regarding the psychoactive use of cannabis is not universally accepted among Jewish scholars, there is general agreement that cannabis is used in talmudic sources to refer to hemp fibers, as hemp was a vital commodity before linen replaced it.
Although cannabis use in some societies in Islamic countries has been present, often but not exclusively in the lower classes, its use explicitly for spiritual purposes is most noted among the Sufi. An account of the origin of this:
According to one Arab legend, Haydar, the Persian founder of the religious order of Sufi, came across the cannabis plant while wandering in the Persian mountains. Usually a reserved and silent man, when he returned to his monastery after eating some cannabis leaves, his disciples were amazed at how talkative and animated (full of spirit) he seemed. After cajoling Haydar into telling them what he had done to make him feel so happy, his disciples went out into the mountains and tried the cannabis for themselves. So it was, according to the legend, the Sufis came to know the pleasures of hashish.
The Sikh religion developed in the Punjab in Mughal times. Cannabis use in Sikhi is made as Sukhnidhan, sometimes referred to as Bhang, is a war beverage, first created and prepared by Guru Gobind Singh, consisting of a mixture of water, almond nuts, milk and cannabis. Narrated by many Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Persian native accounts, the Singhs used Sukhnidhan and consumed Sukhnidhan daily and it customary among the Sikhs generally to drink the bhang.
The wrong impression is given that the common use of bhang in religious festivals by Hindus carried over into Sikh practice as well. Sikhs were required to observe Dasehra with bhang, in commemoration of the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak.
The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report describes the traditional use of cannabis in the Sikh religion.
Among the Sikhs the use of bhang as a beverage appears to be common, and to be associated with their religious practices. The witnesses who refer to this use by the Sikhs appear to regard it as an essential part of their religious rites having the authority of the Granth or Sikh scripture. Witness Sodhi Iswar Singh, Extra Assistant Commissioner, says :"As far as I know, bhang is pounded by the Sikhs on the Dasehra day, and it is ordinarily binding upon every Sikh to drink it as a sacred draught by mixing water with it. Legend--Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, the founder of the Sikh religion, was on the gaddi of Baba Nanak in the time of Emperor Aurangzeb. When the guru was at Anandpur, tahsil Una, Hoshiarpur district, engaged in battle with the Hill Rajas of the Simla, Kangra, and the Hoshiarpur districts, the Rains sent an elephant, who was trained in attacking and slaying the forces of the enemy with a sword in his trunk and in breaking open the gates of forts, to attack and capture the Lohgarh fort near Anandpur. The guru gave one of his followers, Bachittar Singh, some bhang and a little of opium to eat, and directed him to face the said elephant. This brave man obeyed the word of command of his leader and set out on horse back with his shield and spear to attacked the elephant, who was intoxicated and had achieved victories in several battles before, with the result that the animal was overpowered and the Hill Rajas defeated. The use of bhang, therefore, on the Dasehra day is necessary as a sacred draught. It is customary among the Sikhs generally to drink bhang, so that Guru Gobind Singh has himself is said to have said the following poems in praise of bhang: "Give me, O Saki (butler), a cup of green colour (bhang), as it is required by me at the time of battle. "Bhang is also used on the Chandas day, which is a festival of the god Sheoji Mahadeva. The Sikhs consider it binding to use it on the Dasehra day-The quantity then taken is too small to prove injurious." As Sikhs are absolutely prohibited by their religion from smoking, the use of ganja and charas in this form is not practised by them. of old Sikh times, is annually permitted to collect without interference a boat load of bhang, which is afterwards. distributed throughout the year to the sadhus and beggars who are supported by the dharamsala. Sukhnidhan is offered as a holy drink or Kara Parshad to all visitors in a Gurdwara. This is regarded as food blessed by the Guru and should not be refused.
Members of the Rastafari movement use cannabis as a part of their worshiping of God, Bible study and Meditation. The movement was founded in Jamaica in the 1930s and while it is not known when Rastafarians first made cannabis into something sacred it is clear that by the late 1940s Rastafari was associated with cannabis smoking at the Pinnacle community of Leonard Howell. Rastafari see cannabis as a sacramental and deeply beneficial plant that is the Tree of Life mentioned in the Bible. Bob Marley, amongst many others, said, "the herb ganja is the healing of the nations." The use of cannabis, and particularly of large pipes called chalices, is an integral part of what Rastafari call "reasoning sessions" where members join together to discuss life according to the Rasta perspective. They see cannabis as having the capacity to allow the user to penetrate the truth of how things are much more clearly, as if the wool had been pulled from one's eyes. Thus the Rastafari come together to smoke cannabis in order to discuss the truth with each other, reasoning it all out little by little through many sessions. They see the use of this plant as bringing them closer to nature. In these ways Rastafari believe that cannabis brings the user closer to Jah, Haile Selassie I, and pipes of cannabis are always dedicated to His Imperial Majesty before being smoked. While it is not necessary to use cannabis to be a Rastafari, some feel that they must use it regularly as a part of their faith. "The herb is the key to new understanding of the self, the universe, and God. It is the vehicle to cosmic consciousness" according to Rastafari philosophy, and is believed to burn the corruption out of the human heart. Rubbing the ashes from smoked cannabis is also considered a healthy practice.
Elders of the modern religious movement known as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church consider cannabis to be the eucharist, claiming it as an oral tradition from Ethiopia dating back to the time of Christ.
Other organized religions founded in the past century that treat cannabis as a sacrament are the THC Ministry, the Way of Infinite Harmony, Cantheism, the Cannabis Assembly, the Church of Cognizance, the Sinagogue of Satan, the Church of the Universe., The Free Marijuana Church of Honolulu.