Soma (Vedic: sómas, Sanskrit: soma, सोम), or Haoma (Avestan), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-, was a ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the later Vedic and greater Persian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, whose Soma Mandala contains many hymns praising its energizing qualities. In the Avesta, Haoma has an entire Yasht dedicated to it.
It is described as prepared by extracting juice from the stalks of a certain plant. In both Vedic and Zoroastrian tradition, the drink is identified with the plant, 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, but no clear consensus has thus far been established. Various candidates that have been suggested include ephedra, Psilocybin mushrooms, Amanita muscaria Blue lotus, cannabis (Bhang), or even honey.
Both Soma and the Avestan Haoma are 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-) "to press", i.e. *sav-ma- is the drink prepared by pressing the stalks of a plant. The root is probably Proto-Indo-European (*sewh-), and also appears in son (from *suhnu-, "pressed out" i.e. "newly born").
In the Vedas, Soma is portrayed as sacred and as a god (deva). The god, the drink and the plant probably referred to the same entity, or at least the differentiation was ambiguous. Two holy drinks exist: Soma for the immortal soul and Amrita for the immortal body. In this aspect, Amrita is similar to the Greek ambrosia; both is what the gods drink, and what made them deities. Indra and Agni are portrayed as consuming Soma in copious quantities. The consumption of Soma by human beings is probably under the belief that it bestows divine qualities on them.
In the Rigveda
The Rigveda (8.48.3, tr. Griffith) states,
- a ápāma sómam amŕtā abhūmâganma jyótir ávidāma devân
- c kíṃ nūnám asmân kṛṇavad árātiḥ kím u dhūrtír amṛta mártyasya
- 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?
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 sometimes described as growing in the mountains (giristha, cf. Orestes), with long stalks, and of yellow or tawny (hari) colour. The drink is prepared by priests pounding the plants with stones, an occupation that creates tapas (literally "heat"). The juice so gathered is mixed with other ingredients (including milk) before it is drunk.
In ancient times Soma was pressed in almost every temple of the Deva kingdom, using the Linga (or Lingam), a heavy stone-mill. According to the legends, it was their only trump in the long conflict with the Asura. Big Soma factories like Vijayanagar (earlier Matanga) produced millions of doses in average 3-5 harvests per year. Soon Soma became an inner-political instrument. Statues and reliefs showing ingredients or the making of were destroyed, the recipe was hidden and only known to the highest Dravid priests.
Later, knowledge of the ingredients was lost altogether, and Indian ritual reflects this, in expiatory prayers apologizing to the gods for the use of a substitute plant (e.g. rhubarb) because Soma had become unavailable.
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, and so Soma became again identified 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 Somvar in Sanskrit and Sanskritic languages, such as Hindi and Marathi, and alludes to the importance of this god in Hindu spirituality.
The Sushruta Samhita localizes the best Soma in the upper Indus and Kashmir region.
The finishing of Haoma in Zoroastrianism may be glimpsed from the Avesta (particularly in the Hōm Yast, Yasna 9.11), and Avestan language *hauma also survived as middle Persian hōm. The plant Haoma yielded the essential ingredient for the ritual drink, parahaoma.
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 epitheta 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 until the 1960s in a strongly conservative village near Yazd.
But Zoroaster 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 hallucinogenic, based on RV 8.48 cited above. But typical description of Soma is associated with excitation and tapas, not hallucination. Soma is associated with the warrior-god Indra, and appears to have been drunk before battle.
Candidates that have been suggested include honey, and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) which was widely used as a brew of sorts among Siberian shamans for its hallucinogenic and 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 an important one in 1968 by R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist, who 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.
Since the late 1700s, 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 northwest Indian subcontinent which have cool and dry conditions where soma plant can grow. In later vedic texts the mention of best soma plant coming from Kashmir has been mentioned. This is also supported by the presence of high concentration of vedic Brahmans in Kashmir up to the present day who settled there in ancient times because of the easy availability of soma plant.
In 1989, in a highly influential text, 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 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 structurally similar to amphetamine but pharmacologically unrelated. 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) 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)
In Western fiction
In Western fiction, soma often refers to some form of intoxicating drug; it is also the brand name of the prescription muscle relaxant Carisoprodol.
In Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World, soma is a popular dream-inducing drug. It provides an easy escape from the hassles of daily life and is employed by the government as a method of control through pleasure. It is ubiquitous and ordinary among the culture of the novel and everyone is shown to use it at some point, in various situations: sex, relaxation, concentration, confidence. It is seemingly a single-chemical combination of many of today's drugs' effects, giving its users the full hedonistic spectrum depending on dosage.
Soma is the central theme of the poem The Brewing of Soma by the American Quaker poet, John Whittier (1807-1892) from which the well-known Christian hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" is derived. Whittier here portrays the drinking of soma as distracting the mind from the proper worship of God.
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 the TV show Blake's 7, a powerful medicine used on the Liberator is called "adrenalin and soma". It is depicted as having a tranquilizing effect on members of the crew.
In Neil Gaiman's American Gods Soma is described as "concentrated prayer and belief, distilled into a potent liqueur" by Mr. Wednesday (aka: "Odin the All-Father").
In modern times
With the spread of the theory that soma was ephedra, preparations described as Soma have been available on unofficial markets.
- "Botany of Haoma", from Encyclopedia Iranica. Accessed March 15, 2007
- Food of the Gods by Terrence Mckenna
- Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality by R. Gordon Wasson
- "Soma". http://www.erowid.org/library/books/soma_divine_hallucinogen.shtml. Retrieved 2009-02-12.
- Cannabis: A History. http://books.google.com/books?id=O7AoY6ljSygC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
- The Indus script and the Ṛg-Veda. http://books.google.com/books?id=4DZYbWQbKAsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
- The Religion of the Veda. http://books.google.com/books?id=uKeubCiBOPQC&pg=PA205&lpg=PA205&dq=soma+honey&source=web&ots=yilmZXkJrz&sig=FFfHCzPRCpSzO95Kz-iNL_kBm_4. Retrieved 2009-02-12.
- Sushruta Samhita: 537-538, SS.CS. 29.28-31.
- Hermann Oldenberg, The Religion of the Veda 
- (Wasson, Robert Gordon (1968). "Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality". Ethno-Mycological Studies (New York) 1. )
- Aitchison, 1888
- Bakels, C.C. 2003. “The contents of ceramic vessels in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, Turkmenistan.” in Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, Vol. 9. Issue 1c (May 5)
- Jay, Mike. Blue Tide: The Search for Soma. Autonomedia, 1999.
- Lamborn Wilson, Peter. Ploughing the clouds:The search for Irish Soma, City Lights,1999.
- McDonald, A. "A botanical perspective on the identity of soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) based on scriptural and iconographic records" in Economic Botany 2004;58
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