Botanical identity of soma–haoma
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Since the late 18th century, when Anquetil-Duperron and others made portions of the Avesta available to western scholarship, several scholars have sought a representative botanical equivalent of the haoma as described in the texts and as used in living Zoroastrian practice. Most of the proposals concentrated on either linguistic evidence or comparative pharmacology or reflected ritual use. Rarely were all three considered together, which usually resulted in such proposals being quickly rejected.
Candidates for the identity of soma
Soma was generally assumed to be entheogenic, based on RV 8.48 Note, there are numerous similar references in the Vedas, e.g. RV9.4, RV9.5, RV9.8, RV9.10, RV9.42. Some descriptions of Soma are associated with tapas (heat, excitement, "energy"). Soma is associated with the warrior-god Indra, and appears to have been drunk before battle. For these reasons, there are stimulant (amphetamine like) plants as well as entheogenic plants among the candidates that have been suggested. However, the "battles" which Indra fought were obviously of a spiritual nature not involving physical strength. E.g., Indra's "weapon" was the "thunderbolt". Soma is also often associated with Light and Indra is the "Lord of Light" as shown in the following verses from the RgVeda: RV 8.82.25 For thee, O Lord of Light, are shed these Soma-drops, and grass is strewn. Bring Indra to his worshippers. May Indra give thee skill, and lights of heaven, wealth to his votary. And priests who praise him: laud ye him.
From the late 1960s onwards, several studies attempted to establish soma as a psychotropic substance. A number of proposals were made, included an important one in 1968 by Robert Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist, who (on Vedic evidence) asserted that soma was an inebriant, and suggested fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as the likely candidate. Wasson and his co-author, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, drew parallels between Vedic descriptions and reports of Siberian uses of the fly-agaric in shamanic ritual. (Wasson, Robert Gordon (1968). "Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality". Ethno-Mycological Studies (New York) 1. ISBN 0-15-683800-1.)
In 1971, Vedic scholar John Brough from Cambridge University rejected Wasson's theory and again drew attention to ephedrine (in particular to that extracted from Ephedra sinica), and noted that it "is a powerful stimulant, and would thus be a more plausible preparation for warriors about to go into battle than the fly-agaric, which is a depressant." (for use of parahaoma by soldiers, see reference to the Ab-Zohr in Denkard 8.25.24). (Brough, John (1971). "Soma and Amanita muscaria". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (BSOAS) 34.)
This was in turn contradicted in 1974 by Iranologist Ilya Greshevitch, who determined that, in small doses, fly-agaric was indeed a stimulant. (Greshevitch, Ilya (1974). Philippe Gignoux and Ahmad Tafazzoli (eds.), ed. Mémorial Jean de Menasce. Louvain.)
In 1989, David Flattery, with linguistic support from Martin Schwarz, concentrated again on Iranian haoma. The two again paid particular attention to the hallucinogenic properties that may be interpreted from the texts, and discounted Ephedra because they could not observe Zoroastrian priests becoming intoxicated.
They concluded that it was "therefore neither likely that Ephedra was a substitute for *sauma nor that it was *sauma itself" and that the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine alkaloids extracted from Ephedra had to be mixed with the extract from some other plant to achieve the described effects. Flattery proposed the second plant was Peganum harmala (harmal, harmel, Syrian rue, see also harmaline), known in Iranian languages as esfand, sepand or other similar terms related to Avestan word spenta ('sacred', 'holy'). Flattery considered harmel to be the real haoma, with ephedra only being the secondary ingredient in the parahaoma mixture. (Flattery, David Stophlet and Schwarz, Martin (1989). Haoma and Harmaline. Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-09627-4.)
Peganum Harmala contains Harmaline, which is a strong MAO-inhibitor, and it is therefore often used as a 1st component in Ayahuasca ceremonies in order to inhibit the metabolisation of an orally administered DMT molecule (2nd component). Since co-occurrence of DMT-carrying Phalaris grass and Harmala were observed at Yazd, Persepolis, Merv and Termez, the hypothesis stating that Soma/Haoma, was a biochemical Euro-Asian collerate of ayahuasca, cannot be a priori excluded.
Ephedra sinica 'Ma Huang'
The most likely candidate of the non-hallucinogenic, stimulant hypothesis is a species of the genus Ephedra. Ephedrine, the agent substance in this plant, has a chemical structure similar to amphetamines, and it results in high blood-pressure; according to anecdotal reports, it has a stimulating effect more potent than that of caffeine.
In the late 19th century, the highly conservative Zoroastrians of Yazd province in Iran were found to use Ephedra (genus Ephedra), which was locally known as hum or homa and which they exported to the Indian Zoroastrians. (Aitchison, 1888) The plant, as Falk also established, requires a cool (but not cold) and dry climate, i.e. it does not grow in India (which is too hot and/or too humid) but thrives in central Asia. Ephedra distachya is native to southern Europe and northern Asia. Later, it was discovered that a number of Iranian languages and Persian dialects have hom or similar terms as the local name for some variant of Ephedra.
Ephedra plants are shrubs, measuring between 0.2 and 4 meters, with numerous green or yellowish stems. There are about 30 species, mainly Eurasian. The species growing in mountainous regions have the highest ephedrine content (up to 3% in the case of Ephedra equisetina). The marrow in the stems is brown-coloured in some species, reminiscent of Sanskrit babhru ("greyish-brown"), used exclusively in the Vedas to describe the extract.
The different species of Ephedra are not well known, and their taxonomy is in a state of confusion. Assuming a Pontic-Caspian home of Indo-Iranian religions (see Kurgan), the only likely candidate is Ephedra distachya, still used in Iranian folk medicine.
In 1989, in a highly influential text, Harry Falk pointed out that both the Flattery and Wasson arguments assumed that haoma was hallucinogenic, although the effect desired by Zoroastrian and Vedic ritual use was not. Falk noted that, in the texts, both haoma and soma were said to enhance alertness and awareness, did not coincide with the consciousness altering effects of an entheogen, and that "there is nothing shamanistic or visionary either in early Vedic or in Old Iranian texts," (Falk, 1989) nor could the small doses administered in living Zoroastrian custom justify its consideration as an inebriant. Living custom also does not give the extract enough time to ferment.
Falk established that the effect of the alkaloid ephedrine was, in many respects, similar to adrenaline, but "its actions are less intense but more prolonged than those of adrenaline, and, most important, it prevents sleeping." Chemically, ephedrine is similar to amphetamine (amphetamine itself originating as an innovative "upgrade" of an ephedrine prototypical base). Falk also asserted that the three varieties of ephedra that yield ephedrine (geradiana, major procera and Ephedra intermedia) also have the properties attributed to haoma by the texts of the Avesta. (Falk, 1989)
In 1994, Viktor Sarianidi claimed that ancient ritual objects found at BMAC archeological sites in Central Asia bore traces of Ephedra stalks and Papaver (poppy) seeds. In 1995, Harri Nyberg investigated the specimens provided by Sarianidi but could not confirm the claim (cited in Houben, 2003). Another site provided material which Sarianidi had declared contained traces of Ephedra, Papaver and Hemp (Cannabis) in 1998–1999]. It was analysed in 2002–2003 by three independent teams, but they found no traces of the claimed contents. (Bakels, 2003)
Nonetheless, in the conclusion of his observations on the 1999 Haoma-Soma workshop in Leiden, Jan E. M. Houben writes:
- Despite strong attempts to do away with Ephedra by those who are eager to see *sauma as a hallucinogen, its status as a serious candidate for the Rigvedic Soma and Avestan Haoma still stands" (Houben, 2003). This supports Falk, who in his summary noted that "there is no need to look for a plant other than Ephedra, the one plant used to this day by the Parsis. (Falk, 1989)
Cannabis was also suggested, also based on Tibetan clues. The Tibetan word for Dekkan hemp Hibiscus cannabinus, is So. Ma.Ra. Dza., apparently a borrowing from the Sanskrit soma-raja "king Soma" or possibly "soma rasa" / "soma juice" which could be the same as "bhang". Additionally, the Chinese word for cannabis hemp is Huo Ma or literally "fire hemp". The choice of Cannabis as a candidate is further supported by the traditional Zulu use of this drug for energizing warriors. Other candidates include Peganum harmala (Syrian Rue, suggested by David Flattery and Martin Schwartz in the 1980s), and psilocybin mushrooms.
The Amanita muscaria theory is supported by later Northern Siberian legends connected with urine-drinking, and it is indeed possible that in Tibet as well as parts of Siberia, the shamanistic practice of eating Amanita muscaria mushrooms, and subsequently drinking the urine of the one who has taken the mushroom, still containing much of the agent substance, has been connected with Vedic terminology surrounding Soma, but this would of course not imply that the plants used in Tibet were identical to the original Indo-Iranian plant.
Terence McKenna in his book "The Food Of Gods" takes issue with the Amanita muscaria theory and suggests the psilocybin-containing Psilocybe cubensis mushroom as a Soma candidate. McKenna argues that effects of the Amanita muscaria mushrooms contradict the description of the properties described in the Rigveda. Amanita muscaria mushrooms have properties that are arguably more deliriant than psychedelic. Psilocybin, the active psychoactive component in Psilocybe cubensis, has a strong mind-altering effect.
Based on a detailed botanical analysis of iconography and ancient texts, Nelumbo nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus, is another candidate for Soma. The description of Soma in the Vedic texts somewhat resembles the Sacred Lotus. Sacred Lotus is a waterlily that produces golden-red flowers on stalks. These flowers resemble portions of the ancient texts comparing Soma to an arrow and the sun. Other Vedic hymns describe Soma as having a "ruddy radiance", reflecting the color of the flowers of the Sacred Lotus. Soma is also described in the Vedic hymns as growing "joint by joint, knot by knot", which is a good description of a plant that grows by producing procumbent shoots with nodes and internodes. In addition, benzoisoquinoline alkaloids found in the Sacred Lotus, including aporphine, proaporphine, and nuciferine, are psychoactive, producing feelings of euphoria when ingested.
Account by Swami Rama
In his autobiography, Swami Rama recalls contacting an Indian herbologist and Vedic scholar named Vaidya Bhairavdutt, who is described as "the only living authority on soma". Bhairavdutt comes to visit the swami, bringing about a pound of the herb with him. He informs the swami that though the plant's effects can be likened to that of psychedelic mushrooms, it is definitely not a mushroom, but rather a succulent plant. Bhairavdutt convinces the swami to join him in partaking the soma. The taste, says Swami Rama, is "a little bit bitter and sour." Bhairavdutt becomes inebriated and dances wildly, claiming he is Shiva. Several students attempt to restrain the apparently slightly built Bhairavdutt, but are unable to do so. Meanwhile, Swami Rama develops a crippling headache, a symptom which is compatible with the effects of ephedrine overdose. No hallucinogenic effects are described by Swami Rama.
Other, less-popular candidates
- Papaver somniferum
- Argyreia nervosa
- Claviceps purpurea
- Periploca aphylla
- Sarcostemma brevistigma
- Sarcostemma viminale
- Fermented milk from mare
- Fermented honey
- A mixture of these and other substances (e.g. Peganum Harmala and Phalaris Aquatica)
- Hromada, Daniel Devatman (2015),The Somahuasca Hypothesis
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- McDonald, A. "A botanical perspective on the identity of soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) based on scriptural and iconographic records" in Economic Botany 2004;58
- Swami Rama, p. 274
- Swami Rama, pp. 275–276
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