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Soma

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Soma (Sanskrit) or Haoma (Avestan) (from Proto-Indo-Iranian *Sauma) is a ritual drink of importance in Vedic and early Iranian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, which contains many hymns praising its energizing or intoxicating qualities. It is described as prepared by pressing juice from the stalks of a certain mountain plant. In both Indian and Iranian tradition, the drink is identified with the plant, and also personified as a god, the three forming a religious or mythological unity.

Contents

Etymology

Both Soma and Haoma are derived from 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 also preserved in Persian hom. The word is derived from an Indo-Iranian root *sau- (Sanskrit su-) "to pressed", i.e. *sau-ma is the drink prepared by pressing the stalks of a plant (c.f. Espresso). The root is probably Proto-Indo-European (*seuh-), and also appears in son (from *suhnu-, "pressed out" i.e. "newly born").

Soma in Indian tradition

Vedas

In the Vedic scriptures, Soma is portrayed as sacred and as a god (deva). The god is the plant and the drink; there is no difference. The plant is the god and the drink is the god and the plant is the drink — they are all three the same. Soma is similar to Greek ambrosia (cognate to amrita); it is what the gods drink, and what made them deities. Indra and Agni are known for drinking massive amounts of Soma. Mortals also drink it, giving access to the divine. 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 plant is described as growing in the mountains (giristha, c.f. 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.

Hinduism

In 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. Soma kidnapped Tara, wife of Brihaspati. This began a war, and Brahma eventually forced Soma to let her go. She gave birth to his son, Budha.

Persian Haoma

The Iranian peoples called the drink Haoma. In Persia, the early Aryan rituals were reformed by Zoroaster. Our knowledge is sketchy, but evidence of the formerly great importance of the ritual may be glimpsed from the Avesta (particularly in the Hōm Yast, Yasna 9–11), and Old Iranian *hauma also survived as Middle Persian hōm. The plant Haoma yielded the essential ingredient for the ritual drink, parahaoma.

In the Hōm yašt, the god (yazata) Haoma appears to Zoroaster "at the time of pressing" (havani ratu) in the form of a beautiful man and exhorts him to gather and press Haoma plants (Y.9.1,2). 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-).

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" (Y. 9.22). As the religion's chief cult divinity he came to be perceived as its divine priest. Ahura Mazda is said (Y. 9.26) to have invested him with the sacred girdle, the aiwyånghana- and (Y. 10.89) to have installed Haoma as the "swiftly sacrificing zaotar" (Sanskrit hotar) for himself and the Aməša Spəntas. Haoma services were celebrated until the 1960s in a strongly conservative village near Yazd.

Haoma has been associated with Biblical tradition, and Christian mythology. According to the Parsi translator of the Zend Avesta, James Darmesteter, Haoma

comprises the power of life of all the vegetable kingdom ... the zarathustri scriptures say that Haoma is of two kinds, the White Haoma and the Painless Tree ... could it be that soma is the Tree of Life? the giver of immortality?

Marcel Eliade speculated on a Zoroastrian origin for the Grail Myth:

In a work published in 1939, the Parsi Scholar Sir Jahangir C. Coyajee has also remarked upon the analogy between the Grail and the Iranian Glory, xvarenah, and the similari­ties between the legends of Arthur and those of the fabulous King Kay Khorsaw. Let us add that in the cycle of compositions posterior to Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Grail is won in India by Lohengrin, Parzival's son, accompanied by all the knights.

Candidates for the Soma plant

Even in the Rigveda, Soma is described as growing far away, in the mountains, and has to be purchased from travelling traders. This is connected with the Aryan invasion theory, i.e. the plant supposedly grew in the homeland of the Indo-Iranians, probably the Hindukush, but the migration of the Aryans into the Punjab removed them from the area of its occurrence, and it had to be imported. 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.

There has been much speculation as to the original Soma/Haoma plant. It was generally assumed to be hallucinogenic, based on the verse of 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 Haoma 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.

Hallucinogenic

There is no direct indication in the Rigveda that Soma is a mushroom, and indeed it would be difficult to imagine how juice is won by pounding the stalks of a mushroom. Nevertheless, the Vedas do not state that Soma was not a mushroom either, and several mushrooms have been suggested, most frequently (originally by R. Gordon Wasson in the 1960s) Amanita muscaria (Toadstool). The mushroom theory is supported by later Tibetan Buddhist legends connected with urine-drinking, and it is indeed possible that in Tibet, the shamanistic practice of eating psychedelic mushrooms, and subsequently drinking the urine of the one who has taken the mushroom, still containing much of the agent substance, has been connected with Vedic teminology surrounding Soma, but this would of course not imply that the plants used in Tibet were identical to the original Indo-Iranian Soma plant.

Cannabis was also suggested, also based on Tibetan evidence. The Tibetan word for Cannabis is So.Ma.Ra.Dza., apparently a borrowing from the Sanskrit soma-raja "king Soma". The choice of Cannabis as a candidate is further supported by the traditional Zulu use of this drug for energizing warriors. Other candidates include Peganum harmala (Syrian Rue, suggested by David Flattery and Martin Schwartz in the 1980s), and species of Stropharia.

Ephedra

Missing image
Ephedra_distachya.jpg
Ephedra distachya

The most likely candidate of the non-hallucinogenic, stimulant hypothesis is a species of the genus Ephedra. Ephedrine, the agent substance in this plant, has a chemical structure similar to amphetamines, and it results in high blood-pressure, and according to anecdotal reports, it has a stimulating effect more potent than that of caffeine. Ephedra plants are shrubs, measuring between 0.2 and 4 meters, with numerous green or yellowish stems. There are about 30 species, mainly Eurasian. The species growing in mountainous regions have the highest ephedrine content (up to 3% in the case of Ephedra equisetina). The marrow in the stems is brown-coloured in some species, reminiscent of Sanskrit babhru ("greyish-brown"), used exclusively in the Vedas to describe the Soma extract. The different species of Ephedra are not well known, and their taxonomy is in a state of confusion. Assuming a Pontic-Caspian home of Indo-Iranian religion (see Kurgan), the only likely candidate is Ephedra distachya, still used in Iranian folk medicine, and most notably still used as haoma by the Parsis. The native name for Ephedra in most Indo-Iranian languages of Central Asia is derived from *sauma- (e.g. Nepali somalata, Pashto oman/unan, Baluchi hum/huma/uma).

Archaeological evidence

Excavations of a early 2nd millennium BC BMAC site in the Kara Kum desert, Turkmenistan (Gonur South) revealed ceramic bowls in the context of a temple or shrine. The vessels were analysed by Professor Mayer-Melikyan and yielded traces of both Ephedra and Cannabis. In an adjacent room, ceramic pot-stands were found which appear to have been used in conjunction with strainers designed to separate the juices from the twigs, stems and leaves of the plants. A shrine at a later site (Togoluk 1, mid-second millennium) revealed a similar pottery strainer, but without traces of hallucinogenics. The late second millennium site Togoluk 21 yielded vessels containing traces of Ephedra again,in conjunction with pollen of poppies. These finds support the theory that the Indo-Iranian Sauma drink was a composite psychoactive substance comprising of Ephedra and variously Cannabis or Opium, and probably other ingredients, and the identification of the Sauma plant with Ephedra.

Soma and psychiatry in Huxley

The term "Soma" was used in Aldous Huxley's dystopic novel Brave New World (1932) in which it describes a drug. This is an 'opium of the people' that replaces religion in an oppressive futuristic science-based society. Soma is a pill consumed as an anti-depressant by workers who lead emotionally repressed and regimented lives. The use of the term satirically refers to the revived interest in ancient Aryan culture at the time. Huxley's society is caste based, like that of Brahminical India.

Huxley's soma was taken by the Anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s as a model for their claim that anti-depressants and other drugs functioned to emotionally control people whose distress and mental illness arose from the oppressive nature of modern society.

After experiencing what he called the consciousness-expanding effects of mescaline and other psychedelic drugs, Huxley wrote the novel Island (1962), in which the fictional psychedelic mushrooms known as "Moksha" played a central role as an active sacrament in the spiritual lives of the citizens of a utopian society. The term 'Moksha' is also Hindu in origin, referring to the liberation of the soul from reincarnation. The social and religious roles of Soma in ancient proto-Hindu-Vedic and Persian culture were probably closer to those ascribed to Moksha than to those of the Soma of Brave New World, which was written before Huxley became closely acquainted with Hinduism and psychedelic drugs.

References

  • 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), 353–381.
  • 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), 382–406.
  • Soma (http://www.huxley.net/soma/) article from The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances by Richard Rudgley Little, Brown and Company (1998) (huxley.net)
  • Haoma (http://www.iranica.com/articles/v11f6/v11f6059.html) article from Encyclopædia Iranica (http://www.iranica.com/) (iranica.com)
  • PBS Secrets of the Dead. Day of the Zulu (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/case_zulu/clues.html) (pbs.org). Retrieved Feb. 5, 2005.

See also

External links

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