In exploration of finding new pathways for consciousness and spiritual exploration, GTUx examines the intersection of Dharma studies and psychedelics with Dr. Laura Dunn, the GTU faculty member behind the latest GTUx lecture “Dimensions of Hinduism.” In this fascinating interview with Dr. Dunn, she examines the ways in which certain yoga and tantric traditions intersect with state changing, ritual practices.
GTUx is exploring the intersection of Dharma studies and psychedelics. How do you see these areas of study intersecting? How can one inform the other?
The earliest indication of the use of psychedelics is found in the Yajurveda, which mentions soma—an elixir that was used for Vedic yajña, or ceremonies, to the gods. The text states that soma is a distillation of various herbal extracts, used to heal physical disease and provide spiritual nourishment. Soma is described as “intense” and “joyous,” which doesn’t tell us much about what kind of herbs are used to produce this divine concoction. Many people have speculated about soma, saying that it is drawn from psilocybin mushrooms or cannabis. Some yoga sampradayas (yogic lineages) employ the use of cannabis or bhaang (cannabis drink) in their rituals and contemplative practices.
Are there any specific traditions that you have studied that blend meditative thought, wisdom traditions, or ritual and plant induced practices? Non psychedelic or otherwise?
I’ve read many etic analyses on traditions that blend contemplation and ritual with plant-induced practices, but if you are asking about emic, direct studies, then I’d have to say that my exposure has been very limited. In some tantric pujas, and the use of these substances is very effective in terms of bringing one to a state of non-difference between the self and the divine. However, in my typical research and involvement in nondual traditions, the use of plants or other types of substances, like alcohol, is almost nil. Asceticism and abstinence predominate within the Dharma traditions, so while psychedelics can be found in some schools, most Dharma traditions, such as most types of hatha yoga, Vedānta, Bhakti, Jainism, and most forms of Buddhism, prescribe practices and ways of living without the use of substances.
How has plant consumption or use historically evolved with Dharma rituals and practices?
Hindu texts are very diverse, as is the tradition we now call “Hinduism.” Therefore, there is no clear evolutionary line that one can trace regarding the use of plant consumption or psychedelics. Certain tantric schools advocate for vamacara, particular rites that allow the ritual consumption of wine and meat. However, most forms of Hinduism did not and do not allow for the use of intoxicants. Even so, as noted earlier, one observes how the early texts, such as the Yajurveda, speak of soma, who was deified. Gods, such as Indra, drank soma in order to become immortal. Soma is thus known as the god of the yajña who bestows blessings of healing, riches, and power. These accounts indicate that soma was a substance that, in ritual contexts, brought one closer to the divine.
A superficial attempt to trace the evolution of psychedelics and/or substances would lead one to the Upanishads and Yoga Shastras, both of which discuss brahmacharya (abstinence) and sauca (purity). The texts are often unspecific about what one should be abstaining from other than wine and sex, but these terms are thought to include intoxicants more generally, which would fall very much in line with Buddhist philosophy. The last chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra also acknowledges that herbs (oshadhi) give rise to mystical powers (siddhi), echoing the Vedic discourses on soma.
Yogic and early Buddhist scriptures point to a shift in Indian religious history. This shift shows a marked focus on liberation (moksha and nirvana), rather than the acquisition of spiritual and worldly power. Since soma is associated with siddhi, it makes sense that the rishis and sages interested in moksha would be more inclined to explore the contemplative value of the discipline of mind and body. Some Śākta and Śaiva traditions continued the use of herbs, evidenced by their mention in certain tantras that prescribed ritual use of intoxicants and in stories of the Siddhas (perfected beings), who were known for unconventional behavior. Hatha and later forms of Tantra drew from both the ascetic wisdom of the Upanishads and the embodied wisdom of the earlier Kaula tantras to create a system that sees the body as divine. These paths, when appraised alongside earlier texts, exhibit creative synthesis between methods, acknowledging the sacredness of the body, sensation, and experience.
How do practitioners engage with the natural world to enhance or deepen their experiences?
In many Hindu traditions, the most direct way to engage with the natural world is through embodiment and engaging the senses. This happens through the breath, sacred sound, scent, color, and all manner of visual, aural, and olfactory stimuli.
Dr. Laura Dunn is an associate faculty member for the Center for Dharma Studies at GTU, where she teaches courses on non-dual Tantra, yoga studies, and Śāktism. She is also the director of the Master of Theological Studies program and the Writing Program at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. Additionally, she is the co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Dharma Studies: Asian and Transcultural Religion, Philosophy, & Ethics, a peer-reviewed academic journal that employs theoretical and empirical methodologies for the intersubjective understanding of and critical-constructive reflections on Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions (Dharma Studies). Laura’s Ph.D. is in historical and cultural studies of religion, with a focus on Hinduism, from the GTU.