In the realm of Hinduism, Soma can be recognized as, and is considered to be, a god (deva), a magical and hallucinogenic plant, and the juice of that plant. Soma is extraordinary in that it is recognized as one of only a few plants humans have ever deified (see Wasson 3). There are a large variety of other sacred plants (even within India), but none of which have had quite the impact, influence, and controversy that Soma has. Soma is directly related to the RgVeda and plays an important part in understanding the text. This is because 120 of its thousand or so hymns are entirely devoted to the plant-god Soma. I shall separately discuss Soma as a god (deva) first and then Soma as a plant, placing more emphasis on the latter.
The Vedic god Soma, in the Rg Veda, was considered to be the king of plants, and the bestower of immortality (amrita) (Basham 14). Turner and Coulter (2000) describe Soma thus: “The deity Soma is a moon god, a god of the flowing waters, a god of inspiration, ecstasy and inspiration” (Turner & Coulter 438). Soma was originally known as the god of ecstasy, with his nectar, amrita, being the food of the gods (Jansen 67). Soma, as a god, is believed to be the personification of Soma juice. There are a few myths that surround the origins of Soma as a god. One of the most popular indicates that Soma is a form of Indra (lord of the thunderbolt), and that it was Indra who first discovered Soma. Another popular myth claims that the goddess Sarasvati (She who is Full of Juice) found Soma in the Himalayas and then brought Soma to share with the other deities (Turner & Coulter 436). Soma is said to have given Indra, through its highly intoxicating serum, supreme powers that he used against his enemies, which eventually uplifted him to the highest status among Vedic devas. The common lineage account for Soma is that he was the son of either Dharma (deity who embodies righteousness) or Varuna (god of the oceans). Soma is sometimes said to be married to Surya (the sun-god) to whom he holds a strong bond (Ions 77).
Scholars surmise that Soma was a form of a plant that was naturally produced high in the mountains of India that, after extracting and consuming the juices, was thought to be hallucinogenic and empowering, invoking a surrealistic religious experience. Soma was not only contained to India. For instance, Soma appears to be very similar, if not the same, as hoama, which was consumed by the Zoroastrians, in what is modern-day Iran, around the same time Soma was popular in India (approximately 3250 years ago). The Zoroastrians, like the Hindus, also discussed the rituals that used the sacred plant hoama in their sacred scripture known as the Avesta. The Avesta is thought of as the Zoroastrian version of the Hindu RgVeda (Basham 14).
Many possibilities have been put forth in the attempt to identify Soma, some of them being ephedra, rhubarb, chicory, and hashish or cannabis sativa. One of the most accepted theories of Soma is that espoused by R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson proposed that Soma was, in fact, not a plant but a wild mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or the fly-agaric. This was the first time that a mushroom had been identified as Soma. In 1968, Wasson published his book entitled Soma: the Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The main hypotheses of Wasson is explained as: “In a word, my belief is that Soma is the Divine Mushroom of Immortality, and that in the early days of our culture, before we made use of reading and writing, when the RgVeda was being composed, the prestige of this miraculous mushroom ran by word of mouth far and wide throughout Eurasia, well beyond the regions where it grew and was worshipped” (Wasson 9). Using the RgVeda as his primary source, Wasson was able to decipher what he thought to be the identity of Soma. Wasson believed that the other theories for Soma did not reflect the clues hidden in the RgVeda and were therefore not relevant to the identity of Soma. Wasson also believed that the origins of Soma could be traced as far back as the “Sacred Element” in shamanic rites of many northern Siberian tribes (Wasson 10). The fly-agaric, as Wasson attested, is an inebriant in two forms:
1. Taken directly in the form of raw mushroom, juice, or mixed with another substance such as water, milk, curds, or honey.
2. Taken through the urine of a person who has ingested the fly-agaric.
It is only in these two forms that Soma could be ingested or consumed (Wasson 25). Wasson’s argument has gained much popularity because of its reference to historical, scientific, and religious means to solve the mystery of Soma.
In the form of an entheogenic plant or similar substance, Soma was used, primarily, if not always, by Brahmin priests as a state-altering substance that allowed themselves to be intimately connected with the gods during Vedic rituals. This connection was regarded as being the conduct through which one could possibly see a god (deva) in an earthly light through an incarnation made possible by the priests’ consumption of Soma (see Williams 110-111). Soma, therefore, offered sustenance and energy to the devas and ecstasy to the Brahmins. Williams clearly explains the importance of the Brahmin priests and Soma during rituals: “As the Soma experience of seeing and hearing the devas began to be referred to in ancient hymns, the magical formulas of the prayers (mantras) and the science of control of the universe through the Vedic sacrifices placed the priests (Brahmin) at the center of the Vedic worldview” (Williams 271). Through this view, Brahmin priests and Soma were equated as being the center of all Vedic religious experience.
As mentioned above, Soma played an extremely important role in Vedic rituals. Some of the most famous rituals are the consecration of the king (rajasuya), the “drink of power” ritual (vajapeya), and various fire rituals (agnistoma). Soma has also been compared to and equated with many Vedic deities. For example, the Vedic deity Indra (lord of the thunderbolt) was the most popular of the Vedic deities and was known to be the ultimate consumer of large amounts of Soma (Fowler 100). Many poets of the RgVeda compare Soma directly with Surya (sun-god) and his mythological horses, hari. Also, Soma has an intimately close connection with Agni (fire-god) because of the equality that is drawn between its inebriating qualities and the subtlety of flames, respectively (Wasson 39). Both Soma and Agni were the major sacrifices described in the RgVeda; therefore, they were both distinctly connected in their roles regarding communication with the other Vedic deities. Through the close connection and comparison between itself and devas, Soma had a very influential role in developing and sustaining the Vedic tradition.
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Related Research Topics
RgVeda, Vedic rituals, Brahmin priests, mantra, immortality (amrita), Indra, Sarasvati, Dharma, Varuna, Agni, agnistoma, vajapeya, rajasuya, hari, Zoroastrian, hoama, Avesta, Amanita muscaria.
Article written by Jamie Lalonde (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.