Like in China, right through history, long-lasting textile manufactured from sturdy hemp stems have been of incalculable importance in the Western civilizations too. Hemp was known as kannabis in Greece and ancient records on kannabis trade show that as early as the sixth century B.C., the Greek sailors did brisk business in the herb across the Aegean Sea. During the 20th century, archeologists discovered hemp fiber in the cargo space of a Carthaginian cargo vessel that had gone down near Sicily approximately 300 B.C. Mention of use of hemp fiber by the Greek is also found in the writings of the great Greek historian Herodotus. In 450 B.C., Herodotus wrote about the superior value of hemp textile produced by the Greek-speaking Thracians.
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Another Greek historian Plutarch wrote that the Thracians followed a custom of throwing the apex of the kannabis plants into fire in order to get intoxicated by the smoke billowing out of the flames. Incidentally, this custom was unknown to the Greeks, who loved wine a lot. A piece of Greek literature from approximately 400 B.C. gives some hint about the usefulness of kannabis as a remedy for backache and this, incidentally, is the only known reference of medical use of the herb in ancient Greece. On the other hand, the Hebrew as well as the Arabic medical practitioners were aware of the different therapeutic advantages of kannabis during the same period and used it to cure various disorders.
Incidentally, in 70 A.D. a Greek medical practitioner called Dioscorides utilized the opportunity of the victory over the Roman masses by pulling together valuable information on different medicinal plants. In his book titled 'Materia Medica', Dioscorides poured out his experiences during his journeys with the Roman army and has described various herbs and their usefulness in healing different diseases. In all, Dioscorides has recorded 600 different medicinal plants and provided detailed descriptions, local names, normal habitations as well as their uses in treating different symptoms or ailments. Cannabis sativa L. that has been derived from the Greek work kannabis also finds mention among the 600 different varieties of herbs listed by Dioscorides. In his book, the physician wrote that the herb was valuable for rope manufacture as well as generation of seeds whose juicy extract was effectual in healing earaches as well as withdrawing sexual urge. 'Materia Medica' written by Dioscorides proved to be a huge success and was translated into several languages around the globe. Most importantly, the book remained an important medical manual and essential reference text of the Western medical world for over 1500 years.
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It is interesting to note that the English term 'canvas' has derived its name from the Greek word cannabis. This is ample evidence of the utmost importance accorded to the hemp textile by the European maritime technology. There is a firm belief among a section of historians that it would have been impossible for the different European empires to extend their territories across the seas without the advancement of the technologies involving the cannabis fiber. For instance, in 1492, during one of his trans-Atlantic missions, a vessel of Columbus carried over 80 tons of hemp rigging (ropes) and sails that were manufactured by people over hundreds of thousand hours. Significantly, history suggests that numerous imperial riches were a result of the hard work of the peasants in the fields cultivating hemp. It may be mentioned here that in those days, hemp had emerged as the most vital industrial crop in many developing countries across the world. It would be noteworthy that while hemp was the most important industrial crop, during the same period the European physicians' knowledge about the medicinal benefits of cannabis was only restricted to the references made by Dioscorides in his prized text 'Materia Medica' and some folk references that were handed over from the medieval period.
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Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, compiled the all inclusive reference handbook of the botanical categorization titled 'Species Planetarium' in 1753 and this is still regarded as the best work on this subject. In his manual, Linnaeus had included all the classifications on Cannabis sativa done by the Greek physician Dioscorides. However, soon after Linnaeus published 'Species Planetarium', a group of botanists from Europe came forward with the argument that the newly researched Indian variety of the cannabis plant was markedly different from the better known European Cannabis sativa that was widely cultivated for both industrial as well as therapeutic use. Few years later, in 1783, a French botanist called Jean Lamarck scrutinized both the varieties of cannabis in his compendium (a comprehensive but brief account of a subject, especially in book form) titled 'Encyclopedia' and observed that the Cannabis sativa variety normally cultivated for its fiber used by the textile industry was distinguished by its height (usually 12 to 16 feet), long stems, meager undergrowth and lean leaves. In contrast, the cannabis that was indigenous to India normally grew up to a height of four to five feet when mature and had intense foliage in unkempt clusters and bore relatively expansive leaves. Lamarck named the new variety or the species found in India as Cannabis indica keeping in view the country of the plant's origin.
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All said and done, factually there are numerous sub-species of cannabis and the botanists still persist on disagreeing over their precise as well as systematic categorization. Meanwhile, most experts have agreed that broadly there are two discrete varieties of cannabis that encompass all the properties existing in the current sub-species of the plant.
Cannabis seems to have originated in China and then it seemingly spread westward across Asia, Minor Asia and the Mediterranean. As it spread over various regions, over the years different ancient cultures adopted the plant. The theory propagated by historians in the West, cannabis spread all over the world and was ultimately accepted by all civilizations across the globe. However, the conventional Hindu scriptures have a completely different story to tell. In fact, the origins of Cannabis indica, according to the Western historians and botanists, are recorded in the Vedas - the four ancient sacred books dating back to the Aryan-dominated Hindu India. The Vedas were written about 4000 years ago and cover almost all aspects of conventional Hindu life, including great myths or legends of invasions, conquests, fight back and religious as well as spiritual advancement. Among several other legends and vibrant myths, the Vedas narrate the story of how Lord Shiva, one of the three main Hindu Gods, reinvigorated himself in the heat of the sunlight by consuming leaves of the marijuana plants. As Lord Shiva is said to have adapted leaves of the marijuana plant as his favorite diet, he is aptly known as the 'Lord of Bhang'.
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For the uninitiated, 'bhang' is a conventional and popular Indian beverage prepared by blending cannabis with different herbs and spices. Liked by people over the ages, 'bhang' is reported to be less potent than 'ganja' - a substance prepared from the flowering marijuana plants and used for smoking as well as eating. On the other hand, 'charas' comparatively more powerful than both 'bhang' and 'ganja' is prepared from the apex of the cannabis flowers while they are in full blossom. Incidentally, 'charas' - thick with muggy resin (a semi-solid substance secreted in the juice of some plants) - is as powerful an intoxicant as the intense or concentrated cannabis resin product called 'hashish'. For several thousand years such invigorating marijuana products have been a part of many important facets of conventional Indian or Hindu life. They are a part of many rituals as well as plain survival issues. Interestingly, soldiers gearing up for a battle, couples who are to wed and even devout Hindus worshipping Lord Shiva have invoked their Lord with the holy herb on almost every important occasion.
Athavaveda - the fourth book of the Vedas that has been translated into English and titled 'The Science of Charms' - says that 'bhang' is one of the 'five kingdoms of herbs, which relieves anxiety'. Notably, this Western logic or perception does not entirely tally with the South Asian astuteness which is not restricted by Newtonian judgment. According to a Hindu myth or allegory, long before the creation of the universe the Gods had churned a cosmic mountain with a view to obtain nectar for an eternal life. It is said that marijuana plants germinated at all places where the nectar dropped on or touched the earth.
The personal physician to Queen Victoria, Sir John Russell Reynolds asserted in 1890 that cannabis was beneficial for curing dysmenorrhea or painful menstruation, migraine, neuralgia (an intermittent and often severe pain in a part of the body along the path of a nerve, especially when there is no physical change in the nerve itself), convulsions and even insomnia. Reynolds described cannabis as undoubtedly the most useful medication to cure all painful problems or disorders. However, it is yet unknown whether Reynolds or any other Western physician of the period knew about the medicinal benefits of 'Ma' or marijuana as was recorded by the naturalist Chinese emperor Shen-Nung over two thousand years before them.
It is interesting to note that more than 100 medical papers relating to the usefulness of cannabis for curing loss of appetite, insomnia, migraine, headache, involuntary twitching, pain, excessive coughing and withdrawal symptoms in conditions like opiate or alcohol addiction were published between 1840 and 1890. According to Sir William Osler, who is known as the 'father of modern medicine', cannabis was the best medicine to cure migraines. Osler wrote about this quality of cannabis in his dependable medical manual published in 1915. Although hypodermic (using needles) injection of morphine as well as the use of aspirin and other chemically prepared medicines had begun to replace the conventional herbal remedies in America at that time, still there were at least 30 different medicines prepared from cannabis available with the leading pharmaceutical firms in the country.