I took a break from writing before lunch today to peruse Exquisite Corpse, looking for the second part of that Burroughs interview I linked to last week. (It’s Here). And lo and behold, what did I find but a strange, well-documented article which seems to have as its mission to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that not only were illicit narcotics a part of Mircea Eliade’s early experience, but may have played an important and formative role in some of his earliest (and still best) works: Yoga, and Shamanism.
For those not already familiar with Eliade, whose cachet and importance has declined over the years as the encyclopedia ‘perennial philosophy’ style of religious studies has lost its disciplinary validity, and with increasing revelations that he was an active member of a fascist youth group in his Romanian youth, Eliade remains one of the most important figures in the study of religions. He trained some of the most important current scholars of religion, and his name adorns a chairship at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where I am writing my dissertation.
Here are some of the more interesting (to me) paragraphs from the piece. You can go to the Corpse to read more.
What he dared not recount in his volume of Memoirs (published in his old age), namely his own experience with narcotics, he did in his Indian travelogue (published in his young age). On this occasion, Eliade described several plants with medicinal and hallucinogenic properties from the garden of the Nepalese Brahmacari, including “a species of cannabis that causes an intoxication similar to opium.” “Many of the plants I picked,” confesses Eliade, “I experimented either personally, or in the hospital of Laksmanjula.” Among other psychotropic plants, close to the Nepalese recluse’s hut grew several “bhang bushes” (cannabis indica), “whose leaves,” Eliade writes, “boiled or smoked in a wooden hookah [a kind of narghile – my note] induce a state of torpor much praised by the saddhus, for it is said to facilitate mental concentration and to clarify meditation”.
These pages in the volume India are also highly interesting in virtue of the fact that Eliade tried to describe there (with uncertain language) the mental states that he had experienced during narcosis: “Once I smoked bhang and I recall that I had a vertiginous night, for the sense of space had shifted and I felt so light that whenever I wanted to turn on one side, I would fall from the bed. […] [The plant] bhang has a curious quality to focus and to deepen the thought, any thought that dominates consciousness at the moment of intoxication. Certainly, if it is a religious thought – as it is assumed to be – the meditation is a perfect one. I remember, nonetheless, that I had had that evening a literary discussion with a visitor of the ashram and that that night was for me riddled with nightmares […].”15
In the period 1930-1932, in Calcutta, Rishikesh and Bucharest, Eliade prepared his doctoral thesis. He presented this thesis, entitled The Psychology of Indian Meditation. Studies on Yoga [Psihologia meditaţiei indiene. Studii despre Yoga], in 1933, at the University of Bucharest, in front of a commission presided by Dimitrie Gusti, and published it in French in 1936. A few paragraphs are dedicated there to the way in which Indian ascetics used psychotropic plants: “the majority of the yogi and the sanyasis have been using plant drugs for centuries, in the form of boiled leaves, roots, narcotics – either for precipitating a dubious trance, or for revigorating the nervous system. In Himalayan monasteries, plant drugs are still in use today, a sizable part of which make up the Indian folk pharmacopoeia.”16