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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 greater Indian 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 Hindu 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 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. According to Mayrhofer, the root is Proto-Indo-European (*sew(h)-)
According to Anthony, Soma was introduced into Indo-Iranian culture from the Bactria–Margiana Culture. The Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran. It was "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements", which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices" from the Bactria–Margiana Culture. At least 383 non-Indo-European words were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink Soma. According to Anthony,
Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with Soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from Ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.
In the Vedas, the same word is used for both the drink and the plant. 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-, Cf. Greek Sokrates).
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. As noted by Sarianidi, Bakels’ examination of the material took place after several years of exposure in the open air and elements, which could well have caused the decomposition of the cannabis remains in the gypsum from inside the ancient clay vessels. There is a clear possibility that as with the seed impressions, which we have shown were clearly cannabis, Bakels is once again mistaken. For alternatively, as Mark Merlin, who revisited the subject of the identity of Soma more than thirty years after originally writing about it in light of Sarianidi’s finds, has pointed out: "According to Miller (2003), photographs of the Ephedra, Cannabis, and Papaver, and archaeological specimens presented in the Togolok-21 report by Meyer-Melikyan (1990), appear to be consistent with the respective species; however, the determination of the Papaver species needs further study to confirm that it is P. somniferum." (Merlin, 2008) 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 'Cannabis and The Soma Solution' (2010), Chris Bennett, disputes the amanita muscaria and Syrian Rue theories in detail, although partially accepting the Ephedra identification, and asserts the solution is hemp, suggesting that recent finds of 2,700 year old cannabis with the mummified remains of a shaman the Indo-European Gushi culture in China, led to the adoption of the Chinese term for cannabis Hu-Ma, and this became Haoma in the Bactria region Sarianidi found evidence of cannabis at ancient temple sites, referred to above, becoming Soma in India.
The view that Soma was cannabis has been held by a variety of Indian authors, most prominently by Chandra Chakraberty who has made this association clear in a number of different books; “Soma was... made of the flowering tops and resins of Cannabis sativa which is an aphrodisiac and stimulant, and a nourishing food...” (Chakraberty, 1952); “Soma.... Cannabis sativa... a nervine aphrodisiac” (Chakraberty, 1963; 1967); “Of all the plants Soma (Cannabis indica) is the king (X, 97,19)” (Chakraberty, 1944); “...[I]t is safe to conclude that Soma is Cannabis sativa” (Chakraberty, 1944).
The view of cannabis as soma was also put forth by Joseph Chandra Ray, 'The Soma Plant' (1939) and B. L. Mukherjee (1921) and they are far from alone amongst Indian researchers who have regarded the identity of Soma with hemp; “...the plant now known as Bhanga in India (Indian hemp)... was used as H(a)oma or Soma” (Shrirama, 1999); “Soma (a kind of hemp)” (Ramachandran and Mativāṇan̲, 1991); “Soma was a national drink. This was a green herb which was brought from the mountain and pounded ceremoniously with stones. It was mixed with milk and honey and drunk. Probably this was a type of hemp (Bhang…) which is still drunk by some people in India” (Vikramasiṃha, 1967).
In 1976, the Indian botanist B. G. L. Swamy, put forth cannabis as a candidate for Soma in a well thought out, but little recognized, article The Rg Vedic Soma Plant, in the Indian Journal of History of Science. Swamy built on the presentations of Mukherjee (1921) and Ray (1939) noting that the Vedic descriptions of the plant indicated leaves, stalks and branches; that Soma was green, hari; that cannabis grows wild in areas associated with the Aryan ancestors of the Vedic authors such as the “Caspian sea, in Siberia, in the desert of Kirghiz. It is also referred to as wild in Central and Southern Russia and to the south of the Caucasus... it is almost wild in Persia and it appears to be quite wild on the Western Himalayas and Kashmir” (Swamy, 1976); that Soma was pulverized, filtered and consumed immediately as with the Indian beverage bhang, noting that it must “be borne in mind that there were three pressings in a day and that the juice once expressed was useless for a second offering...Therefore, the brief interval between pressing and consuming is too short a period for fermentation to set in, even should the juice be mixed with milk, curd, etc.... It was essential not only to soak them [the branches] in water but also pound the pieces with stones in order to express the juice.... The dry twigs of Soma (Cannabis) were soaked in water; crushed in flowing water; the last washing was filtered and used almost immediately..." (Swamy,1976) Based on such clearly thought out evidence B. G. L. Swamy rightly felt that: “The summation of evidence leads to the irresistible conclusion that the Rg-vedic Soma was prepared from Cannabis sativus” (Swamy, 1976).
In The RgVedic Soma, the indigenous Vedic scholar Dr. N.R. Waradpande, who identified cannabis as the ancient sacred drink, suggests that based on the Vedic meaning of the words involved in the descriptions given in the 9th and 10th Mandalas of the Rig Veda, the Soma plant was an indigenous Indian plant with roots, branches, leaves, and resin on the leaves and flowers. “The Soma in the Rgveda is unmistakably hemp and its derivatives marijuana and hashish” (Waradpande, 1995).
"... Waradpande has highlighted with great ingenuity three interesting issues, namely, 1) repudiation of the mushroom and urine theory of Richard Wasson, 2) identification of Soma as hemp-plant, and its three products, hemp-juice (vamsu), marijuana and hashish (charas), and 3) interpretation of the Rgvedic mantras referring to Soma.... Waradpande ingeniously agitates that the Soma plant was an indigenous Indian plant with roots, branches, leaves, resin on the leaves and flowers on the basis of the hymns RV* 10.85,3; 9,86,46; 9.5,1; 9.25,2; 9.38,2; 9.67; 9.61,13; 9,70,1 and so on, He demonstrates that ‘all these verses can be interpreted as referring to both the Soma plant and the Moon’ and the adjectives referring to them can be interpreted accordingly. The descriptive characteristics of the Soma plant and the physio-psychological effects caused on consumption of the Soma can be compared with the contemporary knowledge about the intoxicating drugs hemp, marijuana and hashish. The leaf (patra) of the hemp plant is called bhanga (Hindi biarig), the flower (puspamanjari) ganja and the resin (niryasa) charas. Because of its medicinal qualities it is also called vijaya, jaja and matulai and because of intoxicating qualities it is called bhanga, madini and ganja. He concludes that Soma was nothing but bhang, ‘hemp’ and it was consumed by the Vedic Aryans in three ways, as a hemp-juice (soma-rasa) by drinking, the flowers of hemp known as marijuana by smoking and the resin on leaves known as hashish by smoking." 
Dr. Waradpande believes that by the time of the Indian commentator Sayana (died 1387) the identification of the Soma was lost, explaining that if Sayana had known that Soma was hemp, he would not have been puzzled by the description of Soma as samiddha, i.e., kindled and as being ’blown’ or ‘puffed’, now it is common practice to smoke bhanga as well as drink it, (Waradpande, 1995). Waradpande feels much of the confusion is due to the fact that many Vedic terms remain obscure regarding their derivation and denotation for want of adequate knowledge of the contemporary Vedic society. Patanjali, the grammarian of second century B.C. recorded that even during his time some of the Vedic words were considered to be obscure. Sayana's interpretations of Vedic terms are also doubted by later Western as well as Indian scholars. Besides the language factor, Waradpande feels that the loss of the knowledge of Soma’s identity was through the decline of the Vedic ritual, the Yajna, which came about under the influence and development of Buddhism. (Waradpande, 1995).
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, Nepali 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." In the books Junkie and Naked Lunch, author William S. Burroughs refers to soma as a non-addictive, high-quality form of opium said to exist in ancient India. In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, soma is referred to as "concentrated prayer", a drink enjoyed by the gods (who feed on people's worship), such as Odin.
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