Holy Smoke – Ancestry of term 420

Its 04.20 and just the right day for us to start a discussion on cannabis and its ancient origins. The numbers “420” have become synonymous with marijuana consumption. On April 20th of each year, folks from all over the world light up at 4:20 pm in honor  of the unofficial cannabis holiday. Today there is much debate in the US with regards to effects of marijuana and its therapeutical benefits. And with good reason as excessive use of cannabis can lead to a state of heightened psychosis and increased risk of heart attacks and cancer. But consumed with care under medical supervision, weed can be of significant benefits to some patients with diseases otherwise not treatable with standard medications.

Beginnings of term 420 in US can be traced back to 1970’s when a group of high school friends called Waldos would get high in their school campus at 4:20 pm everyday. Used as a code word within themselves and teachers, coaches and parents had no clue as to its meaning. By 80’s this secret became quite public with scores of folks joining the 420 brigade and lighting up in groups for easy chill. 420 became quite the popular with term with etchings onto park benches and wall graffiti. By mid 90’s the once secret 420 code became an international phenomenon with rallies being held from Canada to USA to South Africa to support weed use. Today 420 has entered mainstream culture, with activists rallying around the concept and a worldwide following and events to celebrate the term and its users.


Still, concept of weed in western world is still fairly new as compared to its cultural and medical use in East Asia. Consumed since ancient times, cannabis is widely used for recreational as well as medical purposes in India and referred to with its more common name: “Ganja”. Cannabis is considered the least problematic of the ‘intoxicant’ substances; a poison which can be used to great benefit by humans.


Cannabis is at first a stimulant, exhilarant and a aphrodisiac and thereafter a sedative thanks to the way its cooked in India. It passes through a six fold process of separating parts of plants into hemp, bhang and ganja to be smoked, mixed with milk or inhaled. The cannabis portion known as bhang, is also known as pleasure drink of Shiva, Lord of sadhus and ascetics. During medieval period, it was widely consumed in temples and kingdoms for celebrations and of course for being stoned out.

Image courtesy Eric Lafforogue

Till today, you can see wide spread use of different strains of cannabis in temples and groups of folks who swear by its benefits. Most significant visible use of cannabis is in the biggest and most popular Indian festival, Kumbh Mela which is a gathering of more than 100 million pilgrims held every three years. Hundreds of Naga (Nude) Sadhus are ordained here with ancient rituals along banks of sacred rivers. They are revered throughout much of India and sought out for blessings and ceremonies. Henceforth they start their life of Holy Smoke enhanced by regular use of Cannabis induced pleasures.

Image courtesy Eric Lafforogue

It waits to be seen how the Marijuana consumption folds out in the western world and if we take a leaf out of the book from holy men of India for whom weed is a natural non toxic super plant for use in pleasure and to attain that psychedelic state of mind.

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