(For all those neophytes out there, bhang is a drink made from cannabis).
I am still putting the finishing touches on my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution and recently revised some more of the material in my chapter on India:
Excerpt from Cannabis and the Soma Solution:
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
In Hinduism, Samudra manthan or The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas (500-300 BC) and the story is still celebrated in the popular festivals known as the Kumbha Mela. Interestingly, this ancient myth, composed within about two centuries after the initial pogrom against Soma, seemingly takes sacramental hemp use out of the cult of Indra, Lord of Soma, and instills it with the devotees of Shiva, Lord of bhang.
Article on Soma:
Video on Soma:
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk tells the story of the search for the elixir of immortality, amrita, by both the gods in order to restore their waning strength. The myth relates that long ago, Indra, king of the gods and all of the three worlds, had grown rude and arrogant. As a result of this insolence, when the great rishi Duravas, a portion of Shiva, placed a garland as an offering before Indra, who rode upon an elephant, Indra placed the offering on the trunk of the elephant, who grew irritated at its smell, throwing it off and stomping on the garland in front of the insulted Duravas, who called down a curse on Indra for his arrogance.
Due to Duravas’ curse, Indra and all his domain of the three worlds, including the other Gods, were weakened and sent into ruin and this allowed the demons the opportunity to exert their strength against the weakened gods. The Gods turned to Brahma, who advised them to seek Vishnu, the tamer of demons. Brahma led the gods along the edge of the Ocean of Milk to Vishnu’s seat, where they prayed for his aid.
Vishnu promised to restore their strength by ordering them to prepare the amrita, a sacred substance that bestows immortality and vigor, telling them “Do now as I command: cast into the Milky Sea potent herbs, then take Mount Mandara for churning-stick, the serpent Vasuki for rope, and churn the Ocean for the dew of life [amrita]” (Coomaraswamy & Nivedita, 1914). Thus wrapping the huge serpent around the mountain, together they could use it as a giant pestle in order the churn the “potent herbs” they cast into the Ocean of milk and make amrita! Here we see a cosmic account that clearly parallels the use of the mortar and pestle to grind milk and cannabis in order to make the earthly bhang.
Vishnu tells the Gods that the job before them will be far too large for them to complete on their own, and they will need the help of the daityas (demons) to accomplish the task. Vishnu then tells the Gods to promise a share of the amrita to the demons, and to tell them it will bestow immortality upon them. But this was a trick, as Vishnu explained “I shall see to it they shall have no share of the water of life, their share will be of the labor only” (Coomaraswamy & Nivedita, 1914).
As the Gods and demons joined together in churning the Ocean of Milk, various things began to rise out of as a result, first the wish-giving cow, Surabhi, rose out, delighting gods and demons alike, then Varuni, with rolling eyes, the divinity of wine, followed by the Parijata, the fragrant tree of Paradise, then the graceful troops of apsaras. These were followed by the moon, which was grasped by Shiva and placed upon his brow, and then a draught of deadly poison, also taken by Shiva who drank of it, lest it should destroy the world, a selfless act that is said to have turned the God blue when the poison became stuck in his throat. Then appeared Dhanwantari holding in his hand the vessel of amrita, the dew of life, lighting up the eyes of both the Gods and demons with desire.
The story has it that after the amrita appeared in the Kumbha (urn) the demons attempted to gain control of it and as a result a 12 day battle, equal to twelve earthly years , took place between the Gods and the demons in the heavens. During the battle, the celestial bird, the Garuda, (known for his association with Soma) flew away with the Kumbha of amrita to protect it from the hands of the demons.
To insure that the precious amrita did not fall into the hands of the demons, the Kumbha (vessel) of nectar was temporarily hidden at four places on the earth – Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. At each of these places, a drop of the nectar was said to have spilled from the pot and from these drops of this precious water of immortality it is believed that these places acquired mystical power. Kumbha Mela is celebrated at the four places every twelve years for this reason. Ancient tradition has it that one of the miracles that resulted from the spilling of the amrita was the creation of Hemp.
“[Cannabis]… was originally produced, like nectar from the ocean by the churning with Mount Mandara, and inasmuch as it gives victory in the three worlds, it, the delight of the king of the gods, is called Vijaya, the victorious. This desire-fulfilling drug was obtained by men on the earth, through desire for the welfare of all people.” (Grierson, 1893)
With the aid of Vishnu, the Gods finally overcame the demons and eventually gained control of the pot of amrita. Invigorated by the sacred elixir, the Gods were able to drive the demons down to hell and order and prosperity was restored to the three worlds. In honour of their success against the demons the Gods gave cannabis the name Vijaya (“Victory”) to commemorate the event.
The God most closely associated with the collecting of the amrita, was Shiva, and his devotees still partake of cannabis in commemoration of this event to this day. “The votaries of Eudra-Siva are addicted to Cannabis sativa” (Chakbraberty, 1944). “According to the old Hindu poems, God Shiva brought down the hemp plant from the Himalayas and gave it to mankind” (Chopra, 1939).  This close association clearly goes back back to the myth of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk: “Shiva on fire with the poison churned from the ocean was cooled by bhang” (Campbell, 1894).
According to one account, when nectar was produced from the churning of the ocean, something was wanted to purify the nectar. The deity supplied the want of a nectar-cleanser by creating bhang. This bhang Mahadev [Shiva] made from his own body, and so it is called angaj or body-born. According to another account some nectar dropped to the ground and from the ground the bhang plant sprang. It was because they used this child of nectar or of Mahadev in agreement of religious forms that the seers or Rishis became Siddha or one with the deity. He who despite the example of the Rishis, uses no bhang shall lose his happiness in this life and in the life to come. In the end he shall be cast into hell. The mere sight of bhang, cleanses from as much sin as a thousand horse-sacrifices or a thousand pilgrimages. He who scandalizes the user of bhang shall suffer the torments of hell so long as the sun endures. He who drinks bhang foolishly or for pleasure without religious rites is as guilty as the sinner… of sins. He who drinks wisely and according to rule, be he ever so low, even though his body is smeared with human ordure and urine, is Shiva. No god or man is as good as the religious drinker of bhang. The students of the scriptures at Beanres are given bhang before they sit to study. At Benares, Ujjain, the other holy places, the yogis, bairagis, and sanyasis take deep draughts of bhang that they may center there thoughts on the Eternal.
The Hindu poet of Shiva, the Great Spirit that living in bhang passes into the drinker, sings of bhang as the clearer of ignorance, the giver of knowledge. No gem or jewel can touch in value bhang taken truly and reverently. He who drinks bhang drinks Shiva. The soul in whom the spirit of bhang finds a home glides into the ocean of Being freed from the weary round of matter-blinded self.
…. So the right user of bhang or of ganja, before beginning to drinker smoke, offers the drug to Mahadev saying, lena Shankar, lena Babulnath:  be pleased to take Shankar, take it Babulnath. According to the Shiva Parann, from the dark fourteenth of Magh (January-February) to the light fourteenth of Asbadh (June-July), that is, during the three months of the hot weather, bhang should be daily poured over the Ling [sacred phallic image]of Shiva every day, bhang should be poured at least during the first and last days of this period. According to the Meru Tantra on any Monday, especially on Shravan (July-August) Mondays, on all twelfths pradoshs, and on all dark fourteenths or shivratris still more on the Mahashivratri or Shiva’s Great Night on dark fourteenth of Magh (January-February.), and at all eclipses of the sun or moon, persons wistful either for this world or for the world to come should offer bhang to Shiva and pour it over the Ling. (Campbell, 1894)
A contemporary depiction shows Shiva partaking of bhang [above right], which is being offered by his wife Parvati while his elephant headed son Ganesh  prepares more of the sacred elixir with a mortar and pestle in the foreground, (by Kailash Raj). Considering this image of family bliss and the making of bhang, it is interesting to note that in one myth about the discovery of cannabis, Shiva “enraged with family worries…withdrew to the fields. The cool shade .of a plant soothed him. He crushed and partook of the leaves, and the bhang refreshed him… So the right user of bhang or of ganja, before beginning to drink or smoke, offers the drug to Mahadev saying, lena Shankar, lena Babulnath: be pleased to take Shankar, take it Babulnath”(Campbell, 1894).
As The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a story that identifies the origins of cannabis with amrita, it is interesting that the ancient Vedic text the Satapatha Brahamana, identifies Soma with both amrita and with cannabis.
Satapatha Brahmana, 18.104.22.168: “Soma is a God, since Soma (the moon) is in the sky. ‘Soma, forsooth, was Vrita; his body is the same as the mountains and rocks: thereon grows the plant Usana,’—so said Svetateketu Auddalaki ‘they fetch it hither and press it; and by means of the consecration and the Upasads, by the Tanunaptra and the strengthening they make it into Soma.’ And in like manner does he now make it into Soma by means of consecration and the Upasads, by the Tanunaptra and the strengthening.”
In 1921 an article by Braja Lal Mukherjee, The Soma Plant, which appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Mukherjee explained that the ‘u’ in ‘usana’ was a prefix carryover from the Kiratas, with whom Soma originated, and when the ‘u’ is dropped you return to one of the original Sanskrit names for cannabis ‘sana’.
The Satapatha Brahamana, also records of the amrita that this “same nectar of immortality is Soma.”  “In some Puranic texts Soma, the moon god, was seen as the receptacle of the amrita. amrita and soma are often conflated. Like amrita, soma is also compared in the Rg Veda to rain or the milk from the heavenly cows, which are the clouds” (Duncan, 1990). “In the Vedas, the name amrita is used to signify various items that are sacrificed, but it is particularly applied to soma juice” (Coulter & Turner, 2000). “amrita: … ‘Immortality.’ Literally ‘without death (mrita)’… This word is apparently related to Greek ambrotos, ‘immortal,’ hence ambrosia the food or drink of the Gods, which has its Vedic equivalent in the legendary elixir called soma, a central element in Vedic rites…” (Subramuniyaswami, et al., 2007).
Literal meaning [of amrita]: ‘non-dead’. The water of life in Hindu mythology. It was recovered by the Churning of the Ocean….
Probably identical with soma, the favorite beverage of Indra, amrita is an echo of practices that must antedate the Aryan invasion…. “We have drunk Soma,” the Vedas recall, “we have become immortal, we have entered into the light, we have known the gods.” Its exhilarating qualities serve to remind us of the role of drugs in ancient religions. (Cotterell, 1979)
Thus the amrita of the Puranas can be seen as the “Heavenly Soma” which was drunk by the gods from the receptacle of the moon, and when the nectar spilled from the khumba (vessel) which held it fell upon the earth, the earth produced cannabis, the worldly portion of amrita, an identification clearly marking hemp as the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Soma/amrita.
Drinking of cannabis in the form of bhang can be traced considerably back in time. The current form follows the tradition of ritual use prescribed for soma, such as washing, grinding, mixing with milk and spiritual invocation…. The use of bhang by Brahmans and householders at festivals has a form and style that may be traced to soma… (Morningstar, 1985)
To this day, Hindu Holy men, sadhus, and other worshippers, celebrate their most important festival, the Kumbha Mela, smoking chillums of hashish, and drinking draughts of bhang in honour of Lord Shiva every 3 years at one of the four sacred spots that the amrita is believed to have been spilled, returning to each of the four holy sites in a twelve years cycle. Over 60 million worshippers are said to have attended the 2001 Kumbha Mela, making it the largest human gathering ever. The next Kumbh Mella begins in February 2010 in Haridwar, India.
2. Image from www.exoticindiaart.com
3. As quoted in (Merlin, 1973).
4. Mahadev , Shankar, Babulnath are all epithets of Shiva.
5. Ganesh’s acquisition of an elephant’s head is also another story that accounts the degradation of the former king of the Gods Indra. Ancient Puranic myths relate that at bathing time, the Goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva, created Ganesh as a Suddha, or pure white being, out of the essence of her body, and placed Him at the entrance of the house. Parvati commanded her son not to allow anybody inside and then went for a bath. After a long sojourn away, Shiva returned home to Parvati, and Ganesh blocked Shiva’s way. In the ensuing battle Shiva took Ganesh to be an outsider and cut off the head of Ganesh. Shortly after, as Parvati emerged from their home and he witnessed her sorrow and grief upon seeing the body of her beheaded son, he realized the grievous mistake he had made. Vishnu, seeing the tragedy that had befallen this holy family, went to bring the head of any creature that might be sleeping with its head northwards and thus, the head of the Iravat (The elephant of Indira) was cut off and Vishnu joined the head of the elephant to the beheaded body of Ganesh.
7. Fifth Adhyaya First Brahmana: 8
Chris Bennett is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the history of cannabis, having written dozens of articles in Cannabis Culture, High Times, and other magazines as well as three books dealing with the subject; Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (Access Unlimited, 1995), Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (Forbidden Fruit Publishing, 2001) and the upcoming Cannabis and the Soma Solution (TrineDay, 2010). Read his CC Blog here.