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Soma

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Soma

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Soma (Sanskrit), 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, which contains many hymns praising its energizing or intoxicating qualities. In the Avesta, Haoma has an entire Yasht dedicated to it.

It is described as prepared by pressing juice from the stalks of a certain mountain plant, which has been variously hypothesized to be a psychedelic mushroom, cannabis, peganum harmala, or ephedra. 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.

Contents

Etymology

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 (cf. es-presso). The root is probably Proto-Indo-European (*sewh-), and also appears in son (from *suhnu-, "pressed out" i.e. "newly born").

Vedic Soma

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. In this aspect, Soma is similar to the Greek ambrosia (cognate to amrita); it is what the gods drink, and what made them deities. Indra and Agni are portrayed as consuming Soma in copious quantities. In vedic mythology, the eagle Aquila brought soma to Indra during her battle with the serpent Hydra. The consumption of Soma by human beings was probably under the belief that it bestowed divine qualities on them.

In the Rigveda

The Rigveda (8.48.3, tr. Griffith) states,

a pāma smam amŕtā abhūmganma jytir vidāma devn
c kṃ nūnm asmn kṛṇavad rātiḥ km u dhūrtr amṛta mrtyasya
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.

The plant is 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 stalks with stones, an occupation that creates tapas (literally "heat", later referring to "spiritual excitement" in particular). The juice so gathered is mixed with other ingredients (including milk and honey) before it is drunk.

Growing far away, in the mountains, Soma had to be purchased from travelling traders. The plant supposedly grew in the Hindukush and thus it had to be imported to the Punjab region. Later, knowledge of the plant 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 Hinduism

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, and became associated with the underworld. The moon is the cup from which the gods drink Soma, and so Soma became 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 daughters of Daksha, who felt he paid too much attention to just one of his wives, Rohini. He cursed him 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.

The famous ayurvedic scholar Susruta wrote that the best Soma is found in the upper Indus and Kashmir region (Susruta Samhita: 537-538, SS.CS. 29.28-31).

Avestan Haoma

The continuing importance 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 yat 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" (aavan-), "furthering righteousness" (aa-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.

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 note that this is the only evidence of hallucinogenic properties, in a book full of hymns to Soma. The typical description of Soma is associated with excitation and tapas. Soma is associated with the warrior-god Indra, and appears to have been drunk before battle. For these reasons, there are energizing plants as well as hallucinogenic plants among the candidates that have been suggested. Including the mushroom amanita muscaria, which was widely used as a brew of sorts among Siberian shamans for its hallucinogenic and 'religious experience' inducing properties. In fact, several texts like the Atharva Veda extol the medicinal properties of Soma and he is regarded as the king of medicinal herbs (and also of the Brahmana class).

Since the late 1700s, when Anquetil-Duperron and others made portions of the Avesta available to western scholarship, several scholars have sought a representative botanical equivalent of the haoma as described in the texts and as used in living Zoroastrian practice. Most of the proposals concentrated on either linguistic evidence or comparative pharmacology or reflected ritual use. Rarely were all three considered together, which usually resulted in such proposals being quickly rejected.

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. (Aitchison, 1888) The plant, as Falk also established, requires a cool and dry climate, i.e. it does not grow in India (which is either too hot or too humid or both) but thrives in central Asia. Later, it was discovered that a number of Iranian languages and Persian dialects have hom or similar terms as the local name for some variant of Ephedra. Considered together, the linguistic and ritual evidence appeared to conclusively establish that haoma was some variant of Ephedra.

In Western Culture

  • Soma is mentioned in the well-known Christian hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind", by the American Quaker poet, John Whittier (1807-1892) who saw the drinking of soma as causing a distraction of the mind from the proper worship of God. Verse four of the original is usually omitted, but includes the phrase, "In sensual transports - wild as vain, we brew in many a Christian fane the heathen soma still..."
  • In Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World, Soma is a popular hallucinogenic drug which is sometimes used in a pseudo-religious capacity.
  • In Blake's 7, Soma is used as a tranquiliser and sedative. Frequently imbibed as a green liquid, Soma is used as a social drug almost like alcohol.

References

  • Jay, Mike: Blue Tide: The Search for Soma (Autonomedia 1999)
  • Frawley David: The Rig Veda and the History of India, 2001.(Aditya Prakashan), ISBN 81-7742-039-9
  • Parpola, Asko, The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: Textual-linguistic and archaeological evidence, in: The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia ed. G. Erdosy, de Gruyter (1995), 353381.
  • Nyberg, Harri, The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: The botanical evidence, in: The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia ed. G. Erdosy, de Gruyter (1995), 382406.
  • Soma article from The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances by Richard Rudgley Little, Brown and Company (1998) (huxley.net)
  • PBS Secrets of the Dead. Day of the Zulu (pbs.org). Retrieved Feb. 5, 2005.
  • Susruta Samhita. Transl. Kunjalal Bhishagratna, Varanasi: Chowkhama Sanksrit Series. 1981.
  • Bakels, C.C. 2003. The contents of ceramic vessels in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, Turkmenistan. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. Vol. 9. Issue 1c (May 5) http://users.primushost.com/~india/ejvs/ejvs0901/ejvs0901c.txt
  • McDonald, A. A botanical perspective on the identity of soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) based on scriptural and iconographic records. Econmic Botany 2004;58:S147-S173

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