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Opinion | A brief history of getting high in India

During the current probe by the NCB into drug use in the Hindi film industry in the wake of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, many have moralized like Dev Anand’s character in Haré Rama Haré Krishna

Dev Anand's character tries to moralize a group of stoner hippies, including his sister played by Zeenat Aman, in 'Haré Rama Haré Krishna'.
Dev Anand's character tries to moralize a group of stoner hippies, including his sister played by Zeenat Aman, in 'Haré Rama Haré Krishna'.

Before her interrogation by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) last week, Deepika Padukone’s primary link with drugs in the public’s mind was a brief appearance in the decade-old film Dum Maaro Dum. Padukone danced to a number which sampled and mangled a justly famous tune composed by R.D. Burman and sung by Asha Bhosle for Dev Anand’s 1971 release Haré Rama Haré Krishna. That song was filmed on a 20-year old Zeenat Aman who played Jasbir, aka Janice, a confused girl who falls in with a group of stoner hippies in Nepal.

After Janice and her companions sing Dum maro dum mit jaaye gham, bolo subah shaam Haré Krishna, Haré Rama (Take another hit, kill all pain with it, chant at dusk and dawn, Haré Krishna Haré Rama), their sentiments are countered by Janice’s brother Prashant, a role Dev Anand assigned himself though he was far too old to be a convincing sibling. In Kishore Kumar’s voice, Prashant responds, Dekho o divaano, tum yeh kaam na karo, Rama ka naam badnaam na karo (You crazy lot, don’t play that game, don’t insult Rama’s good name).

During the current probe by the NCB into drug use in the Hindi film industry, many media outlets and individuals have moralized like Prashant and Haré Rama Haré Krishna as a whole. Ironically, Sushant Singh Rajput, the actor whose tragic suicide triggered a tidal wave of outrage and the NCB investigation, held views about drugs and religion that were closer to those of hippies and new agers.

The roots of the 1960s counterculture and rise of new age beliefs are complex but I will trace one thread that connects to India and to Rajput. It begins with Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical movement which claimed to uncover occult truths unifying all religion, philosophy and science. In 1882, Madame Blavatsky set up the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, a suburb of Chennai. Theosophy appealed to people estranged from established faiths but drawn to spiritual enquiry, and its eclecticism would become a central feature of new age beliefs.

Decades later, the British author Aldous Huxley published a book called The Perennial Philosophy, which gathered together passages from diverse religious texts in an attempt to reveal their common philosophical foundations. Huxley went on to add an important feature to the Theosophists’ efforts at synthesizing religious thought. In a book titled The Doors Of Perception, from which the rock group led by Jim Morrison later took its name, he proposed that psychedelic drugs were legitimate catalysts of mystical experience.

Around the time Dev Anand was shooting Haré Rama Haré Krishna in Kathmandu, a young American ethnobotanist named Terence McKenna, deeply influenced by Huxley, travelled to Nepal to seek out Tibetan shamans who used entheogens, or drugs employed ritually. For a while, he smuggled cannabis from India to the US, before returning to his home country and focusing his academic attention on the shamans of Amazonia.

McKenna became an evangelist for naturally derived hallucinogens, including marijuana, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca. The last of these is a traditional drink consumed in the Amazon basin, whose effective chemical is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. DMT occurs naturally not only in many plants but also in animals, humans included. In 1986, McKenna attended a lecture by Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist engaged in studying the pineal gland, a rice-grain sized organ located in the brain which regulates sleep cycles by secreting the hormone melatonin. Strassman believed the pineal gland was also the source of DMT in the human body.

After the talk, McKenna offered Strassman a personal DMT trial, and the resulting trip, which Strassman has described as “mind-altering, life-altering", spurred the psychiatrist to study the chemical’s effects rigorously. A number of subjects who participated in his research reported deeply emotional encounters with divine entities, while others felt something comparable to luminous near-death experiences. Strassman published his conclusions in a book titled The Spirit Molecule.

Both the pineal gland and the spirit molecule made an appearance in an Instagram post published on 6 April 2019 by Sushant Singh Rajput. The image he uploaded was taken from the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes’ Treatise Of Man. It was a diagram showing the functioning of the pineal gland according to Descartes, who viewed the tiny organ as the seat of the soul. The accompanying text by Rajput read, “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. (“I doubt, therefore I think, I think therefore I am") ~ René Descartes. But when you don’t doubt, you could still think, even when you don’t think, you could already know, what you know is, exactly what you always were and will be." The philosophical post ended with a sequence of hashtags which included “#paradoxical #pineal #Dmt".

Descartes’ belief in the importance of the pineal gland never gained wide acceptance, but was revived with a twist by Madame Blavatsky over two hundred years after his death. Blavatsky linked the gland with Shiva’s third eye, claiming it was an organ of spiritual sight that had atrophied in modern humans. This notion was echoed in a note recovered from Rajput’s farmhouse containing a column of five traditional Hindu scriptural and philosophical terms paired with words relating to new age beliefs and practices. The coupled terms were: Kailash = Gaia, Somras = DMT, Tapasya = Transcendental meditation, Yoga = cymatics / binaural beats, and third eye = pineal gland. The implication of the text is clear: The wisdom and insight that the ancients derived through the terms on the left column are available today through those on the right. For instance, the mystical illumination produced by drinking Somras, the lost entheogen imbibed by the early Vedic people, can be replicated by smoking DMT.

I have no idea if Rajput ever attempted such replication. I presume the authorities have been exploring the possibility alongside their investigation into purchases of cannabis-derived drugs that are safer for health than tobacco, traditionally consumed in India in vast quantities, and legal in an increasing number of international jurisdictions. Unlike cannabis, DMT has been known to cause serious adverse effects, especially in people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

What is evident from Rajput’s speculations is that he was profoundly interested in mystical connections between traditional beliefs and modern science, placing himself in a tradition marked by pioneers like Blavatsky, Huxley, McKenna and Strassman. His friends and colleagues may have used drugs recreationally but if his posts on social media and notes discovered after his death are trustworthy indicators, any consumption of hallucinogens he may have undertaken appears to have been at least in part for esoteric and metaphysical ends.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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