Category Archives: Vedic Rituals (Yajna)

Agni (God of Fire)

Agni is said to be one of the closest connected gods with humans than any of the other deities in the Hindu tradition. The god Agni is identified with being the producer of fire and referred to as being Indra’s (god of thunder and lightning) brother (Macdonell 57). There are many different myths as to how Agni was born; some say that the deity was born three times, once from water, then air and last on Earth. A common myth is that Agni was made from the coupling of the god of the earth (Prthivi) and god of the heavens (Dyaus) and is said to be the son of Brahma. Agni was born fully-grown and was said to be ravenously hungry which led him to devour his parents (McLeish 1996). Agni is the intercessor between the deities and humankind, and is of the few gods in the Hindu tradition that has retained its power to this day (Chandra 9-10).

Agni is identified as one of the first deities to take human form. He is said to be a red man who has seven tongues with which he licks up the butter offered in sacrifices. He is also portrayed as having seven arms, three legs and two heads. Agni is almost always portrayed with a ram as his vehicle, and is occasionally shown riding in a chariot with fiery horses or goats (Jansen 64). His eyes and hair are both black, and on his head he often bears the horns of a bull. He is usually seen wearing a yellow waistcloth. He appears to be young man, which is due to his rebirth everyday through the friction of two sticks. Agni is immortal and lives amidst humankind, yet in heaven he is portrayed as the sun. Agni’s image of fire is a symbol of destruction, which explains why his attributes include an axe, torch and flaming spear, as well as prayer beads (Jansen 64).

Soma (the moon) is a deity who is regarded as a link between the human and the divine, just like Agni. Soma is identified with the moon, which is said to “contain the ambrosia of immortality” (Flood 46). Agni and Soma are said to be the most significant gods (devas) placed at the level of the Earth. They are connected in the sense that the moon is identified with Soma, as Soma is with Agni, and Agni is with the Sun. The public (srauta) rites are primarily focused on Agni and Soma in which vegetarian and non-vegetarian items are offered into multiple sacrificial fires. The (srauta) rites require the burning of three sacred fires. Items such as milk, animals, vegetable cakes and stalks of the soma plant are all offered into the fires (Flood 41-54).

Agni is addressed in approximately one third of the hymns in the Rg Veda. He was central in sacrificial ritual because it was the fire that transformed the offerings into something accessible to the gods (Fowler 98). Agni was a very important deity, and this was evident through the high degree to which he was worshipped. He is described as a divine sage and a swift messenger between the gods and humans, which is why he is still widely worshipped to this day. His worshippers are said to thrive and have a prolonged life (Wilkins 24). He announces hymns to immortals and brings them down from heaven above to sacrifice them. Without Agni, the deities do not experience any satisfaction. Agni is worshipped in many forms such as, a wise director, a protector of all ceremonies and a successful accomplisher (Wilkins 23).

Agni is portrayed in the Mahabharata as being drained of all his energy. Through devouring the Khandava forest he regains his strength. In that story, Indra attempts to stop Agni, but with the assistance of Krsna, Agni ends up consuming the forest (Wilkins 27). Agni is known by multiple names such as, Vahni which means “burnt sacrifice”, Jivalana as “He who burns”, and Dhumketu which is “He whose sign is smoke” (Wilkins 27). Agni is said to have formed heaven and earth and is spoken of as the son of both worlds. He is said to have created the sun and decorated heaven with stars.

The importance of fire in Hindu rituals remains today, as does the deity Agni. Among the directional guardians, Agni was in control of the southeast, which is where dawn breaks. Agni was born fully mature and was able to consume everything, pure and unpure.  (Andrews 8). Fire was widely worshipped because it represented heat and light and was believed to have come from the sun. Fire was a very important part in Hindu rituals because it allowed people a way to give sacrificial offerings to the gods. This is why Agni is still important in today’s society. Agni is known to forgive sin, and offers boons that usually have to do with offspring, prosperity and domestic welfare. Indra’s boons give power, glory and victory (Macdonell 98). All gods had equal power at one time, but after acquiring immortality through sacrifices, Agni, Indra and Surya became grander than the other gods (Jansen 63). The god of war, Skanda, later became the successor of Agni and Indra.

In the epic Ramayama, the king of demons abducted Rama’s wife Sita. After Rama wins a battle with the army of demons, he is able to take his wife home, but doubts her loyalty. He accuses her of being unfaithful while she was away from him and in response, Sita throws herself into a fire to prove herself loyal. Agni, god of fire, did not harm Sita in any way and placed her into Rama’s arms without injury. This led Rama to believe his wife’s words (Jansen 78). This reveals aspects of how Agni has the power to control outcomes such as Sita being harmed or not.

Agni takes part in blessings at occasions such as marriages and deaths, and he commands riches in earth and heaven. He is prayed to by individuals and worshipped as a forgiver of sins, and it is said that he surrounds other gods as the “circumference of a wheel does the spokes” (Wilkins 24). The god Siva has three eyes: the sun, the moon and fire. His third eye is the eye of inner vision and is often invoked at the time of meditation. The third eye also burns with desire (Kama) (Badlani 95).

Agni is also said to be the son of Angrias and grandson of Sandila who is one of the great sages. Agni is the eldest son of Brahma and his wife is Swaha. Through this marriage, he has three sons, Pavak, Suchi and Pavman, and forty-six grandsons for a total of forty-nine descendants (Chandra 10). Agni’s attendant, Matarisvan, is a minor messenger god (Chandra 220). Agni symbolizes a spark in nature through the image of two pieces of wood being rubbed together. This produces the fire in that Agni dwells. (Andrews 8).

Another story in the Mahabharata is one in which Bhrigu curses Agni. Bhrigu married a woman named Puloma who was promised to a demon. Through seeing her exquisiteness, Bhrigu decides to take her away without the knowledge of anyone. Agni assists the demon in finding the bride’s hideaway and claims her back. Bhrigu curses Agni because he helped the demon and says, “from this day you shall eat everything.” Agni did not understand why he was being cursed because he had been honest and accomplished his task of assisting the demon in finding the bride’s hideout. He refers to himself as the mouth of the gods and ancestors. Bhrigu alters his curse by changing it so that Agni purifies all that is passed through him (Wilkins 366). Agni is a Kravyad (flesh-eater), and is represented under an unsightly form. He is called upon to devour meaning he places his enemies into his mouth and engulfs them. He sharpens his tusks and eats his enemies (Wilkins 27).

Agni is the lord of knowledge and fire; he is the chief deity and he is the power of inner and outer illumination. He is the mouth of the gods and the wealth giver (Danielou 64). He is said to have two shapes: one being fearful and the other benevolent. He is called Rudra. Agni is known as a devourer and a god of many powers, one being fire. He is of great importance and is highly worshipped. He is one of the highest gods in the Hindu tradition.

 

References and Related Readings

Andrews, Tamra (2000) Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky. Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press.

Badlani, Hiro G (2008) Hinduism: Path of the Ancient Wisdom. New York: iUniverse Inc.

Chandra, Suresh (1998) Encyclopaedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.

Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.

Findly, Ellison B. 2005. “Agni.” In Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, 178-179. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Accessed February 3, 2016.

Flood, Gavin D (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, Jeaneane D (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Jansen, Eva Rudy (1993) Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning. Havelte: Binkey Kok Publications.

Leeming, David (2005) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lochtefeld, James G (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group

Macdonell, Arthur Anthony (1898) Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Agni.” Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc: Accessed February 4, 2016.

Wilkins, W.J (2003) Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: W. Thacker and Co.

 

Related Research Topics

 Deva

Fire

Siva

Indra

Srauta

Soma

Mahabharata

Sages

Rama

Surya

Deities

Ramayama 

 

Websites Related to the Topic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agni

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/hmvp/hmvp09.htm

https://www.thebuddhagarden.com/agni.html

http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/dcg-6

http://www.onlinepuja.org/gods/god_agni.php

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Agni#References

http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-agni.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_deities

http://hinduism.about.com/od/godsgoddesses/a/Agni-The-Fire-God-Of-The-Hindus.htm

 

Article written by: Kimberly Sitter (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Agnicayana Ritual

In earliest forms of Aryan religion [1000 BCE] there are Vedic hymns, the oldest being the Rg Veda Samhita, which consists of over 1000 hymns in praise (Rg) of various deities. Two other samhitas were produced through the Rg Veda Samhita, being Sama Veda Samhita and Yujur Veda Samhita, which together count as early orthodox Aryan scripture. The Sama Veda Samhita contains mainly scriptures of the Rg Veda which explained ways of sacrificial offerings and Vedic rituals performed with chanting (saman) performed by a certain group of priests (udgatrs) (Rodrigues 54). Included in the majority of the rituals in the sacrifice of soma, a hallucinogenic plant, and the construction of fire altars. The Agnicayana ritual exemplifies the Rg Veda chants requiring the construction of a fire altar (agni) as a gateway to pour sacrifices into over a twelve day period where it is believed that to have the host performing the sacrifice for personal gain[wealth, offspring, vitality, etc] (Rodrigues 64). It has been dated as originating around 1000 B.C., however it has been an on again-off again ritual, and has only been captured and observed once in 1975. The ritual has been best translated from the Vedic Yajnavalkya section of the Satapatha Brahmana (SB), stating that the Agnicayana rite is for a yajamana (the patron of sacrifice) to instill an immortal body on himself, in the rebuilding of the “unstrung” body of the god Prajapati (Converse 83).

A fire altar must be built in order for the Agnicayana ritual to take place. The preparation can take up to a year before the ritual can fully take place, and the timing of the ritual must be precise as well. The ritual must take place in between the time of the new moon and the full moon in spring (Rodrigues 64-65), and then preparations for the ritual space must be concise and made in sequences “The ritual site is a recon­struction of the cosmos itself, whose dimensions are mirrored in that of the human microcosm. One sees, in this ancient rite, early applications of the astronomical sciences in the necessary timings of each event, of mathematics, in its computations and structural geometries, and of the physical sciences in the casting of bricks, the making of fire, and the offering of oblations” (Rodrigues 65). The fire altar can be made into different shapes, however the most common shape is that of the bird of prey (syena) that is dedicated to the god Agni. Agni has been described as eating the forest, a killer of demons and enemies, and although a god, he is never disengaged from his element, fire. Agni is closely interconnected with the home/family/clan/rituals, being represented by domestic fires that burn constantly; Agni guards the home and all within it (Staal Vol. I). Through the Agnicayana ritual, one prays to Agni to help in the desired outcome of the ritual.

Agnicayana is the building of the fire alter, which is an important part of the ritual. The fire altar includes placing of a minimum of 10 800 kiln-fired bricks, placed in a specific and detailed layout, in five layers with the sacrificial layer placed on top. Fire altars in other rites are normally made of packed earth.  The Agnicayana ritual uses bricks, and every brick is placed with a special mantra attached to each individual one; with special actions carried out, and the religious meanings of each part of the rite carefully explained (Converse 83). Recently, the most common shape of the alter is that of a falcon, syena or suparna; even though the altar can be made into different shapes, the bird shaped alter is most common. The altar dimensions and brick pilings have been considered to be partly based on the cosmos, where every piece has a number and that number signifies a time and place, which fits into the ‘astronomical code’ or symbolic associations with shapes and time. The bricks are classified into two different kinds: ordinary (lokamprna) and special (yajusmati). For the yajusmati bricks, each brick is shaped a certain way and labeled/marked in a unique way, and the total of the bricks made is to be 396. This aids in the symbolism, as there are 360 days in a year and then the additional 36 days left as the days of the intercalary month. The first layer laid out with the yajusmati bricks has 98, the second 41, and third 71, the fourth 47, and the fifth 138; all containing certain equations within each of the numbers and together to form the number of days in a lunar year, half year, and a naksatra year. For the lokamprna bricks, there are a total of 10 800, and this refers to the number of muhurtas in a year, and are divided up in 3 ways for the layout: 21 go into the garhapatya, 78 to the eight dhisnya hearths, and the rest to the ahavaniya altar (Kak 7(1995)). The five layers of the bricks indicate the five divisions of the year, the five physical elements, and five senses (Kak 1 2005). Many of the sequences and numbers are grouped together in triples; this symbolizes the relevance to the cosmos during the Agnicayana ritual. At the home, the patron will have three altars: one circular (earth), half-moon (atmosphere), and the last square (sky), which symbolizes the head, heart, and body of the Cosmic Man (purusa). During the Agnicayana ritual, the two altars representing the sky and the atmosphere will be built to the east end of the ceremony (Kak 2 (2005)). After the five layers a wooden mortar is placed on top (a ‘sixth layer is the heavenly world’), and on top of the mortar the ukha will be placed (which represents a ‘seventh layer, immortality’) (Kak 3 (2005)). The connectedness of the cosmos with the construction of the fire altars are very precisely practiced and honored during the Agnicayana ritual.

After all the preparation and during the correct time, the Agnicayana ritual is officially held over a twelve day period, where each day signifies the beginning of a new layer to the altar and sacrifices given to certain deities. The first day begins with the yajamana (patron of sacrifice) and 17 different priests carrying three sacred fires in different pots (Staal Vol. I); the ukha pot, the main ritual vessel which symbolizes Sakti, the womb of all creation, is prepared from clay. The yajamana goes through various rites of passage [one instance has the yajamana given a sacred garment and staff to wear for the remaining twelve days until the final bath on the twelfth day (Staal Vol. I)], and a vow of silence for the remainder of the ritual aside from during the Vedic prayers (Rodrigues 66). During the second day the mahavira pot, the main vessel of the Pravargya, is prepared from clay, and on the third day measurements of mahavedi and the bird-shaped offering altars are laid out in the east of the enclosure. The fourth day consists of the starting of the construction of the first layer of the fire altar, where mantras are spoken to each brick by the advaryu priest on behalf of the yajamana; a new domestic altar is constructed to replace the old hearth; soma, a hallucinogenic plant, is purchased while the subrahmanya priest invites Indra, Agni (as Rudra), and other Brahmins to join the Soma ingestion on the sutya day; and the first Pravargya (offerings of boiled milk) and Upasad (offerings and oblations of clarified butter (ghee)) are executed in the morning and at night. On the fifth, sixth, and seventh day a morning practice of the Pravargya and Upasad is performed, followed by the building of a new layer to the altar accompanied by prayers and hymns, and then closes with the Pravargya and Upasad. On the eighth day the Pravargya and Upasad open the morning with the laying of the fifth layer to the altar while the yajamana prays for the original desires of the ritual for himself, and a oblation of substances are made into the fire for Rudra (Agni) with the Udgata priest singing chants around the altar, and then closes with the evening Pravargya and Upasad. The ninth day opens the same, with the Pravargya and Upasad performed, and then the mahavira pot and other things used in the Pravargya are put down on the new offering altar in the shape of a man; the ukha pot is placed in the middle of the bird shaped altar; oblations of ghee are made into the sacrificial fire with a large wooden ladle (preseka) called the ‘flow of wealth’ and is followed by many more offerings and oblations; and the Agnisomiya animal sacrifice is performed. From the tenth – twelfth day the pressing of the Soma is conducted and ceremonies will continue for two days and nights with the constant consumption and offerings of Soma to the priests and gods; fires are installed on the hearths in the sadas; eleven animals are sacrificed for various deities; the yajamana and his wife and the priests take the avabhrtha bath; a final goat is sacrificed for Mitra-Varuna. In closing, the yajamana and his wife go back home bringing with them three of the fires from the ceremony where he will then place them in the home, and keep performing the morning and evening Agnihotra for the rest of his life (Staal Vol. I). The last step helps in the patron keep the connection with the gods and his promise to them he had made throughout the Agnicayana ritual.

The Agnicayana ritual was traditionally performed as an important aspect to the Vedic literature in India, and preserves the earlier features of India’s culture in distinguishing between Buddhism and Hinduism (Staal Vol. I).

References and further recommended readings

Converse, Hyla S. (1974) History of Religions: the Agnicayana Rite: Indigenous Origin?. The

University of Chicago Press.

Kak, Subhash C. (1995) From Vedic Science to Vedanta. Louisiana: Adyar Library.

Kak, Subhash C. (2005) The Axis and the Perimeter of the Temple. Los Angeles: Sangama 2005.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – the Ebook: An online introduction. Journal of Buddhist

Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Staal, Frits (1983) Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

publishers.

Tull, Herman W. (1989) The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth

and Ritual. New York: State University New York Press.

Related Topics

Srauta

Agni

Yajamana

Adhrarya

Pravargya

Upasad

Agnicayana

Syena

Mahavedi

Sutya

Udgata

Sada

Acchavaka

Agnihotra

Veda

Agni

Cosmos

Aryan

Soma

Article written by: Erica Wendland (2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Women’s Roles in Vedic Rituals

The role and importance of women in earlier Vedic literature is much more apparent, and observable than it is today. The participation of women was vital, and much more significant in previous centuries, during Vedic srauta [an extensive body of sacrifices performed on specific occasions; see Leslie (1992)] ritual (Leslie 1992:21). Two myths that are said to be the main cause of women’s restrictions in sacred Vedic ritual are Varuna’s noose and Indra’s curse (Leslie 1992:20). Indra’s curse is said to be the mythic catalyst that led to restrictive rituals that must be adhered to when a woman is participating in religious sacrifice. The Taittariya Samhita reveals that when Indra (God of lightning and thunder) killed Visvarupa, he transferred one third of the “stain” of murdering a Brahmin to women ( 2.5.1). The “stain” that was transferred to women comes in the form of menstrual blood, and is seen as dangerous and impure. It is regarded in this way because the menstrual blood is literally Indra’s curse. Therefore when a woman is menstruating she is not able to perform her religious duty; a ritual must be postponed or a substitution is made in her place. The Taittariya Brahmana states that half the ritual dies if it is performed while the wife is menstruating (3.7.1.9) and for this reason she is prohibited from entering the sacrificial area.

Varuna’s noose is the other mythic tale that has given authority to the types of restriction that women must endure. Although the notion of Varuna’s noose is to restrain the power of women, it also represents the many aspects of femininity that are crucial for worship and religious sacrifices. The wife of the sacrificer is bound with a species of grass called munja, which occurs once the wife enters the sacrificial area. She is bound while sitting because it is said that she becomes virile while in this type of position (Leslie 1992: 25). The binding of the waist is a symbolic representation of Varuna’s noose, which he uses to ensure that the propagation of the created world occurs within the bounds of a properly conceived cosmic order (Leslie 1992:20). Women are an important aspect because they contain a certain kind of power that is attributed exclusively to females, and is expressed primarily through their sexuality and reproductive capacity. Leslie has found support for this notion in the Taittiriya Brahmana, declaring that a sacrifice without the wife is no sacrifice at all; her presence in the ritual assures effective cosmic reproduction which coincides with human reproduction (1992:24). The tying of the “noose” symbolically ties the wife to her husband, and brings her into a meaningful relationship with the gods. The Taittiriya Brahmana concludes that through this working relationship with the gods the wife causes the sacrifice to copulate with her; bringing the sacrifice within her thereby intensifies and expands her feminine creative power (3.3.3.5). Since many Vedic sacrifices include the element of reproduction, the woman is an essential participant. It is through her feminine creative power and the symbolic tying of the rope, which promotes proper or controlled human procreation (Leslie 1992:26).

The asvamedha (horse-sacrifice) is one of the most well known Vedic rituals and has been in existence since the time of the Rg Veda. (Dange 361) Although this ritual has not been performed for centuries, it exemplifies the importance that the wife plays in relation to its concerns with reproduction. Historically the asvamedha is performed by a king partly to gain offspring and gain royal glory [see Dange (2000) for the complete process and variations of the asvamedha]. At one point in the beginning of the ritual the king lies between the thighs of the wife who is named vavata (who is the beloved one) (Dange 377). This physical action between husband and wife is a symbolic act, to bring fertility to the wife; it also mimics the action that the queen performs with the horse after one year. At the end of the year, with the finishing of the ritual, the king’s queens perform a short ritual after the horse has been exterminated, which infuses the horse with vital breath, and brings fertility. As Dange has briefly explained, the three wives circle the horse clockwise and then counter-clockwise, repeating this three times on both sides for a total of nine times. While they are circling the horse they are also fanning it which is said to instil vital breath within themselves and the horse. After this is completed the mahisi (chief queen) lies near the horse, is covered with a large cloth, and performs a mock copulation. This mock copulation is supposed to infuse the queen with the symbolic seed of her husband in hopes that she will produce children. The ability to produce offspring is very important in Vedic tradition, especially in terms of producing a male heir. The need for the presence of the wife is undeniable; without the female power, ritual reproduction would not be possible.

The Rg Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda are the earliest known texts of Indian religion that mention the involvement of women (Leslie 1992:17). Although women are present during sacrifice and play a role in the ritual, they are not able to offer sacrifice. This restriction placed upon women is reinforced by The Laws of Manu. It is stated that sacrifice performed by a woman is displeasing to the gods and inauspicious for men (Manu IV. 205-6). In orthodox Hindu tradition, women are not educated in Vedic verse or ritual; therefore they are not able to perform sacrifice due to lack of experience and understanding. A wife attempting to make a sacrificial offering on her own could bring on a multitude of negative effects to herself and those around her, especially her husband, because of her inexperience. While a woman is not “traditionally” able to perform sacrifice on her own, her presence is essential for her husband to properly perform the ritual. Julia Leslie has found that although The Laws of Manu prohibits women from performing the role of sacrificer, the laws insist that a wife is ordained to take part in joint religious rituals (1989:109). The epics and puranas also have textual evidence that enforces the role of the wife as the individual who shares in her husband’s religious duties (Leslie 1989:110). The magnitude of the woman’s presence is compounded by the fact that a man has no authority to act alone. A man cannot fulfil his religious duties to gods, ancestors and guests without a wife: for the wife shares the sacrifice, bears the children and prepares the food ( Markandeyapurana 21.70-2). The relationship between husband and wife may seem unequal in the orthodox tradition of Vedic rituals, but it is a shared partnership; one may not act without the other.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Buhler, Georg (1964) Laws of Manu/ translated with extracts from seven commentaries. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Dange, Sadashw Ambodas (2000) Vedic Sacrifices Early Nature.New Delhi: Aryan Books International

Leslie, Julia (editor) (1992) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Rutherford; Madison; Teaneck; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

Leslie, Julia (1989) The Perfect Wife. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge

Vesci, Uma Marina (1992) Heat and Sacrifice in the Vedas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Asvamedha (Horse-sacrifice)

Atharvaveda

Brahmana

Indra’s Curse

Laws of Manu

Rg Veda Samhita

Sama Veda

Satapatha Brahmana

Srauta

Taittiriya Brahmana

Taittiriya Samhita

Vajasaneyi Samhita

Varuna’s Noose

Noteworthy websites related to the topic

www.srivaishnava.org/scripts/veda/rv/rvtop.htm

www.sanskritweb.org/yajurveda/index.html

www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra

www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbr/sbe12/sbe1257.htm

Written by Danielle Nail (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Soma: Mysterious Vedic Plant and Deity

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.

Bibliography

Basham, A.L. (1989) The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ions, Veronica (1984) Library of the Worlds Myths and Legends: Indian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

________ (1980) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stutley, Margaret (1989) Hinduism: The Eternal Law. Northampton, England: Aquarian Press.

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell Coulter (2000) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wasson, R. Gordon (1968) Soma, The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Ethno-Mycological Studies 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC: CLIO.

Zaehner, R.C. (1966) Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

Kalyanaraman, Srinivasan (2004) Indian Alchemy: Soma in the Veda. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Knipe, David (1991) Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Patton, Laurie L. (2005) Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. New York: Crossroad.

Spess, David L. (2004) Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press

Staal, J. F. (2001) “How a psychoactive substance becomes a ritual: the case of Soma.” Social Research, Fall.

Chakraborty, Uma (1997) Indra and Other Vedic Deities: A Euhemeristic Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Wasson, R. Gordon. “The Soma of the Rig Veda: What Was It?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 91, no. 2 (1971): 169-91.

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.
Related Websites

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01091.htm
http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01093.htm
http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rvi09.htm
http://www.somamushrooms.org/Speakers/Urine/body_urine.html
http://www.huxley.net/soma/index.html
http://peyote.com/jonstef/flyagaric.htm
http://www.erowid.org/culture/characters/wasson_r_gordon/
wasson_r_gordon.shtml
http://www.huh.harvard.edu/Libraries/wasson.html
http://www.usao.edu/~usao-ids3313/ids/html/vedism.html
http://hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/vedicgods.htm
Article written by Jamie Lalonde (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.