When most of us hear the word "Rastafarian," what pops into mind is likely a dark-skinned Jamaican with long dreads smoking a big joint. The image isn't necessarily inaccurate. But its connotations--danger, illegality, irresponsibility--don't give much of a picture of Rastafarianism. Most Americans, even those who have inhaled on occasion, first need to understand the centrality of mystical experience in Rastafarianism, and of "ganja" as a tool for achieving it.

Rastafarianism was born with the coronation of Ras Tafari as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. Crowned "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," Ras Tafaritook as his throne name "Haile Selassie." For many blacks, the event was seen as a fulfillment of a "prophecy" of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born pan-African author and Black Nationalist leader thata black emperor would be crowned in Africa and would herald the repatriationof the African Diaspora. "Look to Africa for the crowning of a BlackKing," wrote Garvey. "He shall be the Redeemer."

Soon, Selassie took on other Christ-like attributes. Rastas assert that Selassie was the Jesus that Christianity spoke of, but that white people tricked the world into believing that he was a white man. Rastafarians proclaim Selassie "the living God for the black race," citing Genesis 49:8, Isaiah 43:3, Revelation 5:5, as well as the Psalms and Amos.

Like Christian mysticism (and, in some ways, Jewish and Muslim mysticism) early Rasta mystical experience emphasized the possibility of the immediate presence of Jah within the "dread," or "God-fearer." God's presence brought on an understanding of the fundamental unity of all humanity, expressed in the pronoun "I&I" (which can mean I, we, or even you, with Jah present). Discerning the will of God is an almost Talmudic process, achieved through night-long "reasoning" sessions, part theological debate, part prayer meeting andmeditation, which lead to an "overstanding" (rather than understanding) of thetruth through union with Jah.

The dispossessed descendants of slaves living in Jamaica in the 1930s wereripe for this millenarian-salvationist movement. Melding Garvey's thoughtwith the ideas of escaped slaves ("maroons"), who had set up autonomous communities in the interior of the country in the 16th century, Rastafarianism also had plenty of political implications. Since actual repatriation to Africa was impossible for most Jamaicans, the act of return came to be interpreted mystically, the biblical exiles in Babylon analogous to oppressed blacks subject to the illegal and corrupt government of Jamaica.

Marijuana has a long and unique history in Jamaica. The indigenous Arawaktribes used ganja as medicine and taught the African Jamaicans how to use it. Although not all Rastas smoke, the ritual use of ganja is sanctioned for most. Scholars and Rastas alike consider marijuana use among the most dominant force in the movement's religious ideology and their strongest shared experience. Rastas say its use is prescribed by biblical verses such as Psalm 104:14, where it is written "He causeth the grass for the cattle, and herb for the service of man"; Exodus 10:12: "Eat every herb of the land"; Proverbs 15:17: "Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith"; and Genesis 1:11-12 or 3:18: "thou shalt eat the herb of the field." The controlled ritual smoking of "wisdomweed" is advocated as "an incense pleasing to the Lord"; it is a core activity in their daily life, both a "sacrament" and an aid to meditation.

Rasta use of ganja can't be compared with its recreational uses elsewhere in the West. Rastafarians emphasize harmony with the world and nature, and ganja is used in the context of the Rastas' "I-tal" diet, which involves not just being a vegetarian, but eating foods free of salts, preservatives, condiments, avoiding coffee, alcohol, or other drugs, and living off the land whenever possible.

As with most things Rasta, smoking marijuana must also be understood as afundamentally political act: It symbolizes the refusal to abide by the laws and customs of "Babylon," while fulfilling the commandments of the Bible not to cut one's hair and to utilize all the herbs of the earth.

Many Rastas decry the politicization of their ritual use of ganja, feeling that it has become "a political herb, which it is not. Instead, it is considered a divine herb, the focus of an intensely religious experience, and part of a larger ritual system that includes meetings, prayers, and biblical interpretation.

Ganja for Rastas is the key to a new understanding of the self, the universe, and even God, and the highest insight of all mysticism-that man is basically God-is believed to come to man only with the use of the Holy Herb with its special power to "loosen up" the mind (there are clear parallels here with the use of Hashish historically within Muslim mysticism (Sufism), although such practices were always denounced within orthodox Islam.