Pat Beggan

The Word Ganja: Origins and Meaning

The word Ganja has had an interesting history. While many people believe the word originated in the Rastafarian religion, it is in fact a word that entered the English language from Hindi.

Full story after the jump.

The Hindi word is inherited from the ancient language Sanskrit, believed to be the origin language of the term. The word took an interesting path to the modern American language, traveling from India through Jamaica and into mainland North America and Europe over nearly 100 years.

Jamaican Cane Cutters

Ganja from East to West

Britain stole the island of Jamaica, taking it over from Spanish colonizers, in 1655. The English siphoned Jamaican resources and the island became a world source for sugar, using the labor of enslaved West Africans to harvest. In 1838 Britain fully emancipated all enslaved people in the empire, after having banned human trafficking in 1807. Most emancipated peoples in Jamaica no longer chose to work for British sugar cane operations so Britain needed to begin to search for a new source for plantation labor.

In 1845 Britain began trafficking enslaved people from India to work the sugar cane plantations. Between 1845 and 1917, Britain brought nearly 40,000 enslaved people from India to Jamaican plantations. With these workers came cannabis plants and their knowledge of the many preparations, including ganja. Ganja specifically refers to the buds of the flower.  In Hindi Charas is the resin and Bhang refers to the leaves and seeds of the plant, as well as a milky tea prepared from the same. The gift the Hindi-speakers brought to the island would change Jamaica forever.

From Jamaica to the World

Over time, Jamaica began to develop a fusion culture from the influx of Christian missionaries over the centuries and the African origin of a large portion of the population of the island. Comprised mostly of the poorest people on the island, this movement crystallized into what we now know as Rastafari–or Rastafarianism–starting in 1930. Encapsulated in that movement was a ritual, religious usage, and respect for the mind-expanding and restorative powers of Ganja, introduced to the island by the Indians and still called by the same Hindi name. Rastafari was not what brought the word Ganja to Jamaican shores, but it was a great influence on one of the many who did.


Though born into Roman Catholicism and raised as a member of that church, Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley became interested in and eventually converted to Rastafari once away from his mother’s influence.

The Rastafari respect for Ganja quickly became important to Marley. Despite being arrested for possession in 1968, Bob Marley continued to consume the herb in accordance with his spiritual beliefs. Though just one of several Reggae musicians who helped introduce the word Ganja into our lexicon, Bob Marley was one of the most popular. His use of the word Ganja as well as his love for the plant has helped keep the term relevant today.

Ganja Word Usage in Movies and TV

One of the earliest usages of the word Ganja in film is the 1980 UK-produced movie “Babylon”, a story about the trials of black youths in London during the international rise of Reggae. This was the final step in Ganja becoming a mainstream word instead of a term known mostly by the Reggae community. Over the years the using the word ganja in reference to cannabis has been on the increase. Several major films have used the word ganja over the years:

  • Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
  • 8 Mile
  • Children of Men
  • This Is the End
  • Bad Boys
  • Adventureland

It is a term also featured in many TV shows, including the 1990s Tales from the Crypt and the Sopranos, through the later Scrubs and Breaking Bad. The word made its final transition through the ultimate American mediums, film, and television. Today its use is mixed with a myriad of other terms used interchangeably for cannabis but with a unique history and vibe all its own.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from its original version.

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