Throughout Rig Vedic literature, there are many references to a mysterious but extremely potent entheogenic drink known as soma. This drink, described as the “elixir of life” and the “drink of immortality,” played a crucial function in the rituals and mythology of Vedic culture. Variously spoken of as a stimulant, a sedative, and a hallucinogen, soma was most importantly said to bestow upon its users tremendous knowledge, power, and ecstasy— all of which together created a conduit for spiritual union with the gods, one’s heart, and the entire universe. Little is know about the drink outside of what is spoken in Rig Vedic hymns, where it is referred to with the highest degree of respect, and in great reverence of its unequivocally awesome powers: “You try to grab [soma] but he breaks away and overpowers everything (RV 8.73, O’Flaherty, 121).”
Mythologically, the origin of soma can be traced to a great battle between the gods and the demonic asuras. The gods, who were losing, turned to Vishnu for advice. He suggested that they make peace with the demons by asking for their assistance in churning the ocean, which was then made of milk. So together with the demons, the gods took the great mountain Mandara and wrapped the serpent Vasuki around it. As the demons pulled on the snake’s head, the gods alternately pulled on the tail, and mountain began to churn in the milk. Many valuable treasures, including soma, then rose from the deep (Svatmarama, 54). The story symbolically hints at the value of the newly-acquired soma by creating a metaphorical comparison between it and the much-esteemed commodity of butter, which also rises from milk in the churning process.
A divinity named Soma is the embodiment of the soma plant, and is one of the more important gods in the Rig Veda (Wilkins, 69). The knowledge offered by the soma drink can be best understood by examining way in which the deity that shares its name is personified by verse. Rig Veda passage 8.73 pronounces him “a sage and [a] seer (O’Flaherty, 121).” “Soma, the generous asura, knows the whole world,” states another hymn (RV 9.74, O’Flaherty, 123).” He is described as an omniscient and all-knowing god, seeing all deeds with his thousand eyes and destroying sin, placing truth in its place (Keith, 168).
Soma heals mortals of disease and brings happiness. Because he characterizes the most godly of plants on earth, Soma is dubbed both “king of plants” and “king of the earth (Keith, 170).” References to water are often made in the discussion of Soma; his descent to earth from the heavens comes in the form of rainstorms tinged by thunder and lightning. The loud sound of soma being poured is said to resemble a torrential rainfall (Chawla, 64). In later mythology, both Soma and his drink becomes associated with, and are sometimes said to be the moon. The waxing and waning cycles of the moon betray the notion that it is the single source of the world’s soma supply, and is continually being consumed and replenished (Ions, 77). Rig Veda 4.58 states that when soma is imbibed, man’s poetry “flow[s] like rivers, made clear by understanding deep within the heart (O’Flaherty, 127).”Because it is his namesake drink that inspires the poet to write his words, Soma is given the title Vácaspati, “god of speech (Harshananda, 13).” Soma is described in the most praising of terms, and is also recognized as a great beacon of knowledge and power—so great, in fact, that it is requested in one Rig Veda verse that he limit the knowledge he offers to the comparatively diminutive mortal. The verse equates the powers of the divinity Soma to the effects proffered by his drink: “Be good our heart... do not terrify us [or] wound our heart with dazzling light (RV 8.79, O’Flaherty, 133).”
The ecstasy brought by soma is spelled out many times in the Rig Veda, and tends to express a certain feeling of having no physical or mental barriers. “When you [soma] penetrate inside, you will know no limits,” proclaims Rig Veda verse 8.48 (O’Flaherty, 135). Hymns speak of soma’s ability to grant its user with special capabilities, including the ability to levitate, walk on water, and leave the confines of the physical body at will (Spess, 18-19).
Repeatedly, the Rig Veda and other texts make many allusions to light in the discussion of soma. In Rig Veda hymn 9.113, the narrator, addressing the powerful drink, says (emphasis added) “your brightness is sacred,” and asks that the soma place him “where the inextinguishable light shines,” “where the worlds are made of light,” “at the sun’s zenith (O’Flahery, 133).” Another passage, 8.48.3, proclaims, “we have drunk the soma... we have gone to the light.” Indra is sometimes referred to as the “glowing god” because of his love and continual use of soma (Spess, 12). The repeated use of luminous imagery is indicative of soma’s ability to uncover one’s “inner light,” which lies at the the heart of soma’s power. The resulting state of enlightenment is described as a god-like state of wisdom and power that eradicates the spiritual darkness within a man, and renders its user into a state of divine bliss, contentment, and oneness with the universe.
The concept of soma being a token of divine protection is affirmed by verse 8.48.11 in the Rig Veda, which triumphantly declares that in the moments after soma’s consumption, “weaknesses and diseases have gone,” and the “the forces of darkness have fled in terror (O’Flaherty, 135).” Soma “give[s] the force of life on every side, enter[ing] into us, finding the sunlight, and protect[ing] us,” adds Rig Veda verse 8.48.15 (O’Flaherty, 136). In it, one will “avert the wrath of the gods (RV 8.48, O’Flaherty, 134)” and find “joys and pleasures, gladness and delight, where the desires of desire are fulfilled (RV 9.113.11, O’Flaherty, 134).”
Through this “inner radiant ecstasy,” mortals were allowed access to amrta, a notion of deathless life. Hence it was said that those who partook of the soma became immortal, a notion echoed by Rig Veda passage 8.48: “we have drunk the soma, we have become immortal... we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now? ... the drop that we have drunk has entered our hearts, an immortal inside mortals (O’Flaherty, 134).” Here it is important to note that although soma was credited with having rejuvenating powers, the immortality spoken of is not a literal immortality. It is a deathlessness that is brought by the sudden and intense expansion of the human consciousness, extending a communion with the cosmos and a deep understanding of the difficult-to-grasp concepts of the atman and amtra. The implication of such hymns suggests that with the aid of soma, a mortal transcends the worldly realm and can overcome the limitations of human knowledge and emotion. The sentiment echoed by Rig Veda 8.48.6 is common: “When I am intoxicated with you, I think myself rich (O’Flaherty, 135).” Many passages also refer to same “good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme” and feelings of being “set free in wide space” proclaimed by Rig Veda 8.48 (O’Flaherty, 135). Again, the manner in which the soma’s effects are illustrated suggests that it is not the soma, per se, but the full understanding of one’s heart that gives these powers. Indeed, as Rig Veda 4.58 points out, the “whole universe is set... within the heart” when a man is under the influence of soma (O’Flaherty, 127).
One notable depiction of soma’s effects on a mortal comes in verse 10.119 in the Rig Veda. O’Flaherty remarks, “as he [the unidentified speaker] drinks, his boasts become progressively more Gargantuan (O’Flaherty, 131).” The narrator begins by bragging that he “will win a cow and a horse,” but within a few verses claims that “in [his] vastness, [he] surpass[es] the sky and this vast earth,” eventually declaring that he is leaving the earth, headed for heaven with a stomach full of oblational soma for the gods.
In the following hymn, the deity Soma hints at Indra’s weakness without the drink and corroborates that it was in large part the soma that rendered Indra capable of orchestrating the daring heist: “[Indra] did not drag me out against my will, for I surpassed him in energy and manly strength. In a flash, [Indra] left his enemies behind as he outran the winds, swelling with power (O’Flaherty, 129).”
At the end of the hymn, the narrator offers a toast to the “generous Indra” for rescuing the much-desired soma: “Let the hero raise it to drink until ecstatic with soma (O’Flaherty, 130).” The sentiment that the potent soma drink run plentiful for the great god Indra is one repeated many times within the Rig Veda. Verse 10.94.1 requests that the “mountains full of soma rush to bring the rhythmic sound to Indra (O’Flaherty, 124).” Verse 9.74.9 asks that the “soma [that] brings supreme ecstasy, be sweet for Indra to drink (O’Flaherty, 123).” The narrator of 9.113 asks in the first verse to “let Indra, the killer of Vrtra drink soma in Saryanavat [the mountains where soma can be found] gathering his strength within himself to do a great heroic deed,” ending that and every one of the ten subsequent verses with the line, “O drop of soma, flow for Indra (O’Flaherty, 133).” The Rig Vedic poets thus offer their prayers that Indra can obtain the soma he desperately needs in order to continue performing his magnanimous feats. Soma, as it is can be repeatedly inferred, is an essential force for Indra; without it he is unable to continue enacting the great and noble accomplishments that he is associated with during the Vedic period.
Of the many medicines known in India at the time of the Rig Veda, the soma drink was thought to be the best, and was considered to be a sort of panacea (Spess, 21). Rig Veda 8.79 declares that soma “covers the naked and heals all who are sick (O’Flaherty, 121).” Various other hymns describe in further detail the effects of soma on disease and other human conditions; it gave the ability to walk to the crippled, sight to the blind, healed broken and dislocated bones, prolonged life, and to top it off, served as an aphrodisiac that promoted fertility and virility (Spess, 21). Not surprisingly then, soma was also a said to be a highly precious commodity to the Asvins, the twin physicians of the gods. Under their medical role, the Asvins distributed the self-prepared juice of the soma plant to bring “healing, rejuvenation, [and] longevity” to both mortals and the gods (Spess, 42). Spess suggests that the magical waters that transformed the aging Cyavana to a young man is a reference to the rejuvenating powers of the Asvins’ soma: “you Nãsatyas [“unfailing” Asvins] stripped away the sheath of flesh from Cyavana when he had grown old, as if it were a cloak... and stretched out his life-span... (RV 1.116.10, O’Flaherty, 183.” These divine doctors themselves were said to be in the perpetual indulgence of soma drinks, which granted them their trademark eternal youth.
Historically, the ancient preparation and rituals of Soma were matters of utmost secrecy, known only to priests who passed the information down orally. In fact, the only place where any information regarding these mysterious ceremonies was written was in an ancient text known as the Madhu Brahmana, whose existence is mentioned by other texts, but of which no known copy can be found (Spess, 3-4). It is known that at some point in the Vedic period, soma ceremonies were conducted on a daily basis, perhaps as many as three times a day. Ritual priests, who were always under the influence of soma during the very important ceremony, extracted the juice from fresh soma plants with rocks and subsequently strained the juice through wool. So holy is the soma that hymn 10.94 in the Rig Veda is dedicated to the stones with which the plants are crushed—simply because they aid in the procurement of the divine drink.
Given its integral and important function in the practice of Vedic religion, it is curious that such the soma plant —so powerful in its every description— would fall into disuse and eventually be forgotten. Spess explains that the plant had become an increasingly rare find on the plains of India due to massive consumption, and was becoming arduous to obtain from the “mountainous lakes and rivers of Kashmir.” Compounding this problem, the high demand for the soma rendered it very costly to buy from the non-Brahmanical groups that by this time controlled the land. Eventually, the constant high cost and low supply of the desired soma forced the substitution of other plants into soma ceremonies, the continued performance of which were considered crucial for cosmic order. Soon, the substitutions became the norm, and since these plants did not offer the same divine experiences afforded by the great soma plant, the soma ceremonies became increasingly focused on the ritual aspects and eventually “overshadowed the entheogenic experience at its core (Spess, 36-37).”
Hindu mythology itself has an altogether different explanation of how soma fell into disuse in the post-Vedic era, but is no less compelling. It is said that the divinity Soma abducted the goddess Tara. Her husband Brihaspati, unable to do anything about the kidnapping, turned to Indra and asked that he bring back Tara by force. While Indra consolidated his forces by enlisting other gods, Soma sealed a partnership with the asuras. Eventually, a violent but indecisive war erupted between Soma’s and Indra’s respective entourages. Finally, Soma, who began to tire of Tara decided to return her to a her husband.
Unfortunately, Tara happened to be pregnant and Brihaspati refused to take her back until the child was born. Brahma, who wanted closure on the situation divinely commanded for the immediate birth of the child. After the birth, the gods were “dazzled by [the infant’s] great beauty,” and suddenly both Soma and Brihaspati claimed fathership. Tara herself remained tight-lipped, but after much browbeating, admitted that Soma was the father of the child. Brihaspathi, naturally, was incensed. He turned to Brahma to resolve the issue. Brahma ruled in favor of Brihaspathi, banishing Soma from heaven and furthermore forbidding his re-entry (Ions, 78). Thus, Soma became a more and more infrequently heard name among the Hindu people.
There has been much uncertainty and speculation about the identity of the soma plant, whose description has fascinated and captured the imagination many Hindu scholars and students alike. Various proposals have been submitted and bandied about, almost all at least slightly unconvincing.
Webster’s New World Dictionary (admittedly not a prime source for information on such a topic) states with firmness that soma is the Sarcostemma acidum, a plant belonging to the milkweed family. One recent theory suggests that soma is not a leafy plant at all but the Amanitas muscaria, a popular hallucinogenic mushroom that at least marginally resembles the physical description (tawny color and large stem, among other things) and psychological effects of soma. Another proposition is detailed by David Spess, in his exhaustive history Soma. Spess claims to have produced “convincing” evidence that soma is derived from the Nelumbo nucifera, the sacred lotus of India.
Regardless of what the soma plant might be, or whether it even existed at all, we are left with a rich history of the plant’s effects on the Hindu religion and its gods. In its current state, the Hindu religion (like most of the world’s religions) forbids the use of intoxicants— ironic, considering that Rg Veda passage 9.87.9, suggests that it was only through the consumption of soma that there became awareness of the gods to begin with (Spess, 7). Nevertheless, it is certainly fascinating to note how at one time, in an earlier incarnation, the culture found itself quite entranced by the seemingly magical powers of the soma plant, integrating it wholly into the mythology and the daily rituals of the religion.
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