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Soma (Sanskrit सोम sóma), or Haoma (Avestan), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-, was a Vedic ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the subsequent Vedic and greater Persian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, whose Soma Mandala contains 114 hymns, many praising its energizing qualities. In the Avesta, Haoma has the entire Yašt 20 and Yasna 9-11 dedicated to it.
It is described as being prepared by extracting juice from the stalks of a certain plant. In both Vedic and Zoroastrian tradition, the name of the drink and the plant are the same, and also personified as a divinity, the three forming a religious or mythological unity.
There has been much speculation concerning what is most likely to have been the identity of the original plant. There is no solid consensus on the question, although some Western experts outside the Vedic and Avestan religious traditions now seem to favour a species of Ephedra, perhaps Ephedra sinica.
Both Soma and the Avestan Haoma are thought to be derived from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-. The name of the Scythian tribe Hauma-varga is related to the word, and probably connected with the ritual. The word is derived from an Indo-Iranian root *sav- (Sanskrit sav-/su) "to press", i.e. *sau-ma- is the drink prepared by pressing the stalks of a plant. The root is Proto-Indo-European (*sew(h)-)
In the Vedas, the drink, and the plant refer to the same entity. Drinking Soma produces immortality (Amrita, Rigveda 8.48.3). Indra and Agni are portrayed as consuming Soma in copious quantities. The consumption of Soma by human beings is well attested in Vedic ritual.
The Rigveda (8.48.3) says:
- a ápāma sómam amŕtā abhūmâganma jyótir ávidāma devân
- c kíṃ nūnám asmân kṛṇavad árātiḥ kím u dhūrtír amṛta mártyasya
Ralph T.H. Griffith translates this as:
- We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
- Now what may foeman's malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man's deception?
Swami Dayanand Saraswati translates it as:
- Som (good fruit containing food not any intoxicating drink) apama (we drink you)
- amŕtā abhūmâ (you are elixir of life) jyótir âganma (achieve physical strength or light of god)
- ávidāma devân (achieve control over senses);
- kíṃ nūnám asmân kṛṇavad árātiḥ (in this situation, what our internal enemy can do to me)
- kím u dhūrtír amṛta mártyasya (god, what even violent people can do to me)
The Ninth Mandala of the Rigveda is known as the Soma Mandala. It consists entirely of hymns addressed to Soma Pavamana ("purified Soma"). The drink Soma was kept and distributed by the Gandharvas. The Rigveda associates the Sushoma, Arjikiya and other regions with Soma (e.g. 8.7.29; 8.64.10-11). Sharyanavat was possibly the name of a pond or lake on the banks of which Soma could be found. It is described as "green-tinted" and "bright-shining" in the RigVeda. (R.V., 9.42.1 and 9.61.17)
The plant is often described as growing in the mountains (giristha, cf. Orestes), notably Mount Mūjavant. It has long stalks, and is of yellow or tawny (hari) colour. The drink is prepared by priests pounding the plants with stones. The juice so gathered is filtered through lamb's wool, and mixed with other ingredients (including cow milk) before it is drunk. It is said to "roar". It is said to be the bringer of the gods.
Later, knowledge of the ingredient was lost altogether, and Indian ritual reflects this, in expiatory prayers apologizing to the gods for the use of a substitute plant (somalataa, e.g. the pūtīka) because Soma had become unavailable. In the Vedic ritual Agnistoma (or Somayaga), Soma is to be presented as the main offering. The substitution of one element in a sacrifice for another was in harmony with an underlying principle of Vedic ritual - the victim is a substitute for the sacrificer. The texts provide an extensive list of plants that can be used as substitutes and end the list by saying that any plant is acceptable, provided it is yellow.
The ritual of Somayajna is still held with unbroken continuity in South India. The Somalatha (Sanskrit: Soma creeper) which is procured in small quantities from the Himalayan region is used to prepare Soma rasam or Soma juice. It is also used in these areas in Ayurveda and Siddha medicine streams since time immemorial. The herb which is used is Sarcostemma acidum.
The finishing of Haoma in Zoroastrianism may be glimpsed from the Avesta (particularly in the Hōm Yast, Yasna 9), and Avestan language *hauma also survived as middle Persian hōm. The plant Haoma yielded the essential ingredient for the ritual drink, parahaoma. It is to be noted here that the Persians used the phonetic "Ha" instead of "Sa" in their language. For example they called river Sarasvati, Haravati; River Sindhu is called Hindu ( some believe this is the root of the Hindu nomenclature), and here we see them call Soma - Haoma.
In the Hōm yašt of the Avesta, the Yazata (divine) Haoma appears to Zoroaster "at the time of pressing" (havani ratu) in the form of a beautiful man. Yasna 9.1 and 9.2 exhort him to gather and press Haoma plants. Haoma's epithets include "the Golden-Green One" (zairi-, Sanskrit hari-), "righteous" (ašavan-), "furthering righteousness" (aša-vazah-), and "of good wisdom" (hu.xratu-, Sanskrit sukratu-).
In Yasna 9.22, Haoma grants "speed and strength to warriors, excellent and righteous sons to those giving birth, spiritual power and knowledge to those who apply themselves to the study of the nasks". As the religion's chief cult divinity he came to be perceived as its divine priest. In Yasna 9.26, Ahura Mazda is said to have invested him with the sacred girdle, and in Yasna 10.89, to have installed Haoma as the "swiftly sacrificing zaotar" (Sanskrit hotar) for himself and the Amesha Spenta. Haoma services were celebrated at least until the 1960s and 1970s in a strongly conservative village near Yazd.
But the Avesta also warns of misuse. He distinguishes between the currently used drug-like Haoma, including Opium, and the real Divine Haoma.
Candidates for the Soma plant
There has been much speculation as to the original Proto-Indo-Iranian Sauma plant. It was generally assumed to be entheogenic, based on RV 8.48 cited above (we have attained the light). Many descriptions of Soma are associated with excitation. Soma is associated with the warrior-god Indra, and has been drunk by him before his battle with Vṛtra. For these reasons, there are stimulant (amphetamine like) plants as well as entheogenic plants among the candidates that have been suggested. 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.
There are several references in the Rig Veda, associating Soma with the visionary seeing of Light e.g. RV 9.4, RV 9.5, RV 9.8, RV 9.10, RV 9.42.
Candidates that have been suggested include honey, and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which was widely used among Siberian shamans for its entheogenic properties. Several texts like the Atharvaveda extol the medicinal properties of Soma and he is regarded as the king of medicinal herbs (and also of the Brahmana class).
From the late 1960s onwards, several studies attempted to establish soma as a psychoactive substance. A number of proposals were made, including one in 1968 by the American banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur ethnomycologist, who asserted that soma was an inebriant, and suggested fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as the likely candidate. Since its introduction in 1968, this theory has gained both detractors and followers in the anthropological literature.
Since the late 18th century, when Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron and others made portions of the Avesta available to western scholars, several scholars have sought a representative botanical equivalent of the haoma as described in the texts and as used in living Zoroastrian practice. In the late 19th century, the highly conservative Zoroastrians of Yazd (Iran) were found to use Ephedra (genus Ephedra), which was locally known as hum or homa and which they exported to the Indian Zoroastrians. There are numerous mountain regions in the northwestern Indian subcontinent which have cool and dry conditions where ephedra plants can grow. Later Vedic texts mention that the best soma plants came from Mount Mūjavant, which may be located as in northern Kashmir and in neighboring western Tibet. (Ephedra is not, however, used in any type of sacrificial activity by Hindu priests today, nor is it actively cultivated in the open trade economies of South Asia.)
In 1989 Harry 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) Falk made a crucial error is assuming that ephedra reacts like ephedrine; ephedra is less like adrenaline and more a potent bronchodilator. Falk also asserted that the three varieties of ephedra that yield ephedrine (geradiana, major procera and intermedia) also have the properties attributed to haoma by the texts of the Avesta. (Falk, 1989) At the conclusion of 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).
The Graeco-Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi claims to have discovered vessels and mortars used to prepare Soma in 'Zoroastrian temples' in Bactria. He claims that the vessels have revealed residues and seed impressions left behind during the preparation of Soma. This has not been sustained by subsequent investigations Besides the residue of ephedra, the archeologists discovered the residues of Poppy seeds and Cannabis. The vessels also had impressions created by Cannabis seeds. Cannabis is well known in India as Bhang and sometimes Poppy seeds are used with Bhang to make the ritual drink Bhang Ki Thandai.
In his book Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna postulates that the most likely candidate for Soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis, a hallucinogenic mushroom that grows in cow dung in certain climates. In India, Wasson identified Psilocybe cubenis as "easily identified and gathered, and are effective", and went so far as to hypothesize, "the possible role of Stropharia cubensis growing in the dung of cattle in the lives of the lower orders remains to this day wholly unexplored. Is P. cubensis responsible for the elevation of the cow to a sacred status?" McKenna cites both Wasson's and his own unsuccessful attempts using Amanita muscaria to reach a psychedelic state as evidence that it could not have inspired the worship and praise of Soma. McKenna further points out that the 9th mandala of the Rig Veda makes extensive references to the cow as the embodiment of soma. He draws comparison to other cultures who venerate the source of the ecstatic state such as the Chavin in Meso-America who venerate the cactus as the source of peyote.
In his 2005 book Amanita Muscaria; Herb of Immortality Donald E. Teeter has expanded upon Wasson's work and extends Soma to include other Indo-European ritual foods and drink. These include: Haoma, Ambrosia, Nectar the Wine of Dionysus, the Christian Holy Host, and communion wine, among others.
Teeter also proposes and experimentally tests a mechanism for the reported uses and ceremonies associated with these rituals, as well as accounting for the mechanism of the Holy grail and similar bountiful religious artifacts mentioned in historical references.
In Hindu art, the god Soma was depicted as a bull or bird, and sometimes as an embryo, but rarely as an adult human. In Hinduism, the god Soma evolved into a lunar deity. Full moon is the time to collect and press the divine drink. The moon is also the cup from which the gods drink Soma, thus identifying Soma with the moon god Chandra. A waxing moon meant Soma was recreating himself, ready to be drunk again. Alternatively, Soma's twenty-seven wives were the star goddesses, the Nakshatras - daughters of the cosmic progenitor Daksha - who told their father that he paid too much attention to just one of them, Rohini. Daksha subsequently cursed Soma to wither and die, but the wives intervened and the death became periodic and temporary, and is symbolized by the waxing and waning of the moon. Monday is called Somavāram in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, such as Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Marathi and Telugu, and alludes to the importance of this god in Hindu spirituality.
In Western artistic and cultural depictions, Soma often refers to some form of intoxicating drug.
In the 19th century, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem called The Brewing of Soma. The last part speaks of how Christians should draw near to God without such things as soma. This part of the poem has been made into a well-known hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind".
Soma is the name of a fictional drug in Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Brave New World. In the novel the drug produces both intoxicating and psychoactive properties and is used in celebratory rituals. It is described as "All of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects." Another drug derived from mountain growing mushrooms is featured in his 1962 novel, Island, in which it is used in a Hindu-based religious ceremony worshipping the god Shiva. Called moksha medicine it is portrayed in a positive light, as a key to enlightenment.
The single "Soma" by the indie rock band The Strokes focuses on soma and its effects.
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