SOMA is a Vedic god; a drink offered to the gods and shared among ritual participants; and the plant that yields the juice for this drink. Middle and late Vedic literature describe the classical Vedic rituals in detail, and among these rituals, the soma rites are among the most prestigious and complex. In these rites, stalks of the soma plant are soaked in water and then crushed. The extracted liquid is poured through a filter into vessels. Left plain, or mixed with milk and various oblations, it is then offered into the fire for the gods and drunk by the priests and by the sacrificer of the rite. During the principal day of a soma sacrifice, there are three rounds of soma preparation and offering, one each in the morning, midday, and evening.
The later Vedic literature and the rites they describe often continue traditions already well established in the Ṛgveda. Indeed, although it contains hymns created for various rites, the core Ṛgveda is primarily a liturgical collection for soma rites. The principal collection of hymns dedicated to Soma in the Ṛgveda is book 9, which contains 114 hymns to the Soma Pavamāna ("Soma purifying himself"). These hymns were chanted as the soma was pressed and poured through the filter into vessels.
In the early tradition, participation in the soma rite was essential for both gods and men—Goddesses and women were both excluded from drinking the liquid. Among the gods, the principal recipient, Indra, is the dominant divinity in the soma rite and therefore in the Ṛgveda itself. Receiving the soma strengthens Indra and enables him to perform the deeds that have made, and continue to make, life possible. Indra drinks the soma —three lakes of soma according to Ṛgveda 5.29.7—in order to strike down Vṛtra, the paragon and paradigm of all obstacles. "Sharpened by soma " (Ṛgveda 10.108.8), Indra, together with a band of priests, releases the cattle, the symbol of dawn and substance of prosperity in Vedic India, by breaking open the cave in which they had been imprisoned. Offered soma, Indra defeats the human and semi-demonic enemies of his worshippers.
Because men participate in the soma rite as both offerers and drinkers of soma, they too are transformed by it. A family lord, clanlord, or king legitimately rules because he possesses the soma, and together with Indra, he too overcomes obstacles and gains cattle and other forms of wealth. By performing the soma rite he becomes truly an Ārya, a full participant in the elite culture of Vedic India, and he enlists the help of the gods in overcoming all those who do not sacrifice, those who are not Āryas. By drinking soma, he extends his lifetime. Soma "knots me together in my joints," says the poet of Ṛgveda 8.48.5. "Let the soma -drops guard me from my foot slipping, and let them keep me from lameness." Soma himself is the "deathless" (amṛta ), and therefore those who drink the liquid become "deathless." In the core Ṛgveda, this "deathlessness" is the prevention of premature death, although, in later hymns and in the succeeding tradition, deathlessness becomes "immortality," and soma becomes the drink that sustains the life of ancestors in heaven.
Soma the god is a warrior who is victorious in battle. The Pavamāna hymns describe Soma's descent through the filter as an assault or a raid. Soma overcomes all obstacles and thereby wins freedom of movement. Mixing soma with milk signifies the capture of cattle, and after Soma has won all such good things, he becomes the generous king who distributes them. In another image of a victorious soma, these hymns depict soma as a racehorse, which wins rich stakes for those who prepare the drink.
In the Ṛgveda, soma is also compared to the sun or even kindles it. According to various descriptions, Soma illuminates the sun (Ṛgveda 9.37.4), begets the sun in the waters (9.42.1), stands above like the sun (9.54.3), makes the sun shine (9.63.7), and harnesses the steed of the sun (9.63.8). Soma 's association with the sun reinforces its connection with kingship and with life, for the sun rules in heaven and represents life and freedom. At the end of the Ṛgvedic period, this association of soma and the sun began to shift in favor of an identification of soma and the moon. According to the later Veda, as the moon fills with soma, it waxes; and as the soma is depleted, it wanes. The soma in the moon sustains gods and ancestors, and even drips down to earth where it gives birth to plants and animals.
The roots of Vedic soma and the soma rite extend beyond the Veda itself. Like Indian soma, the haoma —its equivalent in the Zoroastrian ritual—is both a drink and a deity associated with well-being and deathlessness. Beyond the Indo-Iranian tradition, soma likely inherits Indo-European traditions of the drink of deathlessness—"ambrosia," a word etymologically corresponding to amṛta "deathless"—and replaces Indo-European rit/es of offering and drinking mead. In the Ṛgveda, soma is termed madhu (honey), which is etymologically equivalent to "mead." There may be a mythological link between mead and soma as well. According to one Ṛgvedic narrative, the soma plant grew on a mountain, protected by a hundred concentric fortress walls and guarded by an archer. Manu, the first sacrificer, sends a falcon to steal the soma and bring it back to him, so that he can offer it to Indra. The story evolved in the later Vedic and Epic traditions, according to which the eagle Garuḍa steals the soma from heaven and from Indra, although he eventually returns it to Indra. This narrative of the theft of soma may share a common ancestor with a myth of the Snorra Edda, according to which Odin, taking the form of an eagle, flies away with the mead of Suttung, hidden in the mountain Hnitbjorg.
One of the perennial questions in the study of soma has been the identity of the Ṛgvedic and Indo-Iranian soma plant. Already in the later Vedic period, sacrificers were using various plants to perform the soma rite. Such substitutions were possible because soma is as much the product of the words, chants, and acts of the ritual as it is the juice of a plant. The Ṛgveda, however, does mention a particular soma plant (perhaps called aṃśu ) that grows on mountains. Of the various identifications of this soma plant, ephedra has been an enduring candidate and has dominated much of the recent discussion. It is a stimulant, whose effect might be suggested by the description of soma as jāgṛvi (wakeful). Other scholars, however, have argued that soma was a hallucinogen in part because of soma 's connection with light and possibly with visionary experience. Numerous other possibilities have also been suggested. Fortunately, the precise identification of the soma plant, while interesting and significant, is not critical for the interpretation of most soma hymns and of the soma rite.
Essential to the study of soma is Thomas Oberlies, Die Religion des Ṛgveda (Vienna, 1999), which focuses particularly on the role of soma in Vedic religion. Two volumes have appeared, with one more yet to come. Volume 2 is a compositional analysis of soma hymns. A very helpful study of the meaning of soma is Tat'iana Elizarenkova, "The Problem of Soma in the Light of Language and Style of the Ṛgveda " in Langue, style et structure dans le monde indien: Centenaire de Louis Renou, edited by Nalini Balbir and Georges-Jean Pinault (Paris, 1996): 13–31. There is much of value in older discussions of soma, and, in particular, apart from an implausible interpretation of Ṛgvedic soma as the moon, in Alfred Hillebrandt, Vedic Mythology, vol. 1 (Delhi, 1980): 121–266 (a translation of the second revised edition of Vedische Mythologie [Breslau, 1927]). On the narrative of the theft of soma, see Ulrich Schneider, Der Somaraub des Manu (Wiesbaden, 1971), and on the later development of the story, Jarl Charpentier, Die Suparṇasage (Uppsala, 1920).
S. S. Bhawe has published an English translation of more than half the hymns of the Soma Pavamāna book in The Soma-Hymns of the Ṛgveda, parts 1-3 (Baroda, 1957–1962). Karl F. Geldner, Der Rig-Veda, 4 volumes (Harvard Oriental Series, vols. 33–36: Cambridge, 1951-1957) gives German translations of all the soma hymns, and Louis Renou, Études védiques et pāṇinéennes, vols. 8–9 (Paris, 1961), gives French translations.
For the soma ritual, Willem Caland and Victor Henry, L'Agniṣṭoma: Description complète de la forme normale du sacrifice de Soma dans le culte védique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1906–1907), details the model Vedic soma rite, and Ramachandra Narayan Dandekar, Śrautakośa, vol. 2 (English section), parts 1 and 2 (Poona, 1973–1982), provides translations of Vedic ritual texts' descriptions of that rite. For recent performances of the Agnicayana, an elaborate form of the soma ritual, see Frits Staal, Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 1983) and T. M. P. Mahadevan and Frits Staal, "The Turning-Point in a Living Tradition: Somayāgam 2003" in the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 10, no. 1 (2003), available from http://users.primushost.com/~india/ejvs/.
On the various possibilities for the identification of the soma plant, a good analysis is Jan E. M. Houben, "The Soma-Haoma Problem: Introductory Overview and Observations on the Discussions," in the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 9, no. 1 (2003). A judicious botanical appraisal of various possibilities is Harri Nyberg, "The Problem of the Aryans and the Soma: The Botanical Evidence," in The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia, edited by George Erdosy (Berlin, 1995): 382–406.
Joel P. Brereton (2005)
A term found in the hymns of the Rig-Veda, one of the four sacred scriptures of ancient India (the others are the Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Artharva Veda ). The essential teachings of the Vedas were recast in the form of the Upanishads, of which there are 108 principal scriptures and a number of minor ones.
The ninth chapter of the Rig-Veda comprises 114 verses in praise of soma, the ambrosia of the gods and the elixir of immortality. It is clear that soma was also an intoxicating drink (possibly made from the milk-weed asclepias acida described in the Yajur Veda as a dark, sour creeper without leaves). This drink was offered by the priests as a libation to the gods, much as wine is used sparingly in the sacraments of the Christian religion for symbolic purposes.
In the twentieth century, several writers, most notably R. Gordon Wasson in his book Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968), have speculated that soma was the amanita muscaria (a mushroom with hallucinogenic properties) and that Hindu mysticism arose from intoxication of the priests. This suggestion stemmed from Wasson's research in Mexico, when he discovered a Mazatec Indian religious practice based on the use of a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Wasson's soma theory became attractive during the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, and it became fashionable to expand upon Wasson's view to assert that transcendental revelation had always been stimulated by the use of psychedelic drugs. Another writer, John M. Allegro, suggested in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) that the crucifixion story of Jesus was a symbolic myth of the ecstasy produced by a psychedelic drug.
Intoxicating (as opposed to psychedelic) beverages have certainly been known since ancient times in Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome. Warnings about intoxication abound in ancient writings, notably in the Bible, in the Proverbs of Solomon, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea. In the Christian religion, the apostle Paul complained of drunkenness at the agape, or love feasts, celebrated in common. Novatian, a Church father of the third century, spoke of Christians who, in the morning after fasting, began the day by drinking, pouring wine into their still "empty veins," and were drunk before eating.
In India, the Manava Dharma Shastra (Ordinances of Manu), a code of religious and civil duties, prohibited intoxication on the part of Brahmin priests and made it clear that the soma drink was from a plant, not a mushroom. This plant is sometimes called the "moon plant," and soma was traditionally associated with the moon.
Yoga treatises on meditation suggest that the true soma, or elixir of life, is the union of the twin currents of kundalini energy in the human body, culminating in higher consciousness. Some Hindus believe in kundalini as a latent energy situated at the base of the spine that is activated in normal life in sexual activity, but which may also be drawn upward in subtle channels of the spine to a center in the head, illuminating the consciousness with mystical awareness. The goal of some forms of yoga practice is often referred to as the union of the sun and moon, the fiery and cool kundalini currents in the spinal column. At the junction of these currents, the blissful condition is described as "drinking the soma juice," and the energy flow as "amaravaruni " (wine drinking).
The elaborate symbolism and metaphor of Hindu mysticism has often misled commentators into literal interpretations. While intoxicants and hallucinatory drugs may produce transcendental experiences, throughout history great prophets and mystics, as well as scientists and geniuses, have been inspired by a higher consciousness that owed nothing to intoxication or hallucinogenic mushrooms. The twentieth-century discovery of psychedelic drugs and their power to transform normal consciousness have misled many people into vastly overstating the role of such substances in the history of mystical experiences. Critics of drug use have also complained that the use of drugs for mystical purposes has yet to "produce a single inspiring statement on the philosophy and meaning of life comparable with the wisdom of the prophets and mystics of history."
In the 1960s, several groups were formed in the United States to promote the idea of the religious use of psychedelics, but most of these dissolved following negative court actions. Outside of these circles, as recently as 1988, a short-lived attempt to defend the psychedelic/soma connection was made in the journal ReVision (vol. 10, no. 4, spring 1988). There was little positive response and a strong rebuttal by Gene Kieffer, a follower of Indian teacher Gopi Krishna.
Allegro, John M. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.
Gopi Krishna. The Awakening of Kundalini. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973.
Iyangar, Yogi Srinivasa. Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika of Svatmarama Svamin. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1933.
Kieffer, Gene. "An Appeal for Common Sense." SFF Newsletter [Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship] (October 1988).
——. "It's Not the Soma that the Brahmans Know!" SFF Newsletter [Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship] (September 1988).
——. "ReVision Revisits the Sacred Mushroom." SFF Newsletter [Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship] (August 1988).
Masters, R. E. L., and Jean Houston. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. New York: Delta, 1967.
Rele, Vasant G. The Mysterious Kundalini: The Physical Basis of the "Kundalini (Hatha) Yoga" in Terms of Western Anatomy and Physiology. Rev. ed. Bombay, India: D. B. Taraporevala, 1950.
Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism: Sacred and Profane. London: Clardenon Press, 1957. Reprint, Galaxy Book, 1961.
SOMA As a god, Soma is the most prominent deity in the Rig Veda after Indra and Agni; Soma as god and soma as sacrificial substance are one and the same in Vedic tradition. The ninth book of the Rig Veda is devoted solely to Soma, and some 120 hymns address him. The ritual texts of later Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and Shrauta Sūtras are structured by sacrifices, many featuring two essential offerings: soma and pashu (animals). The god's name is also the name of a plant and its "pressed" juice (from su- "to press"). Haoma, the corresponding name of the plant, juice, and cult in the Avesta, attests to an Indo-Iranian origin, although mythologies of a divine plant or elixir that brings immortality, visions, and insight suggest an even earlier background. Poets of Rig Veda 4.26 and 27 celebrated the theft of soma by an eagle in one of the earliest and most enduring myths concerning a celestial or mountain origin.
Many substitutes for soma were named in Brāhmaṇa texts before 800 b.c. Possibly the plant known to early poet-ritualists became unavailable during migrations from steppe or highland regions onto the Gangetic Plain. Identification of Vedic soma or Avestan haoma has been vigorously debated since the late eighteenth century; botanists, archaeologists, and historians have proposed as candidates species of the genus Ephedra, as well as Peganam harmala, Amanita muscaria, Cannabis sativa, Papaver somniferum, and others. An asclepiad called somalata or somatiga, probably a species of Sarcostemma, a bitter-tasting green creeper, not hallucinogenic, is pressed in parts of South India today by small communities of Vedic sacrificers.
The ritual process of extracting juice from plant stems was institutionalized in the soma sacrifice with three pressings each day. The pressings are filtered through wool; the liquid is collected in tubs, sometimes mixing in water, milk, curds, clarified butter, barley flour, or honey. It is then poured into offering fires for designated gods. Soma is served in special carved wooden cups to the sacrificer (yajamāna) and ten priests called by heralds (somapravāka) to perform the sacrifice. Both sacrificer and wife (patnī) are transformed by the rite and entitled to be renamed soma sacrificers. After the initiatory five-day agnishṭoma, they become eligible to perform other soma rituals of varying magnitude and duration, including the seventeen-day Vājapeya (drink of strength).
Whether from chemical inspiration, or exhaustion and sleep-deprivation during intense sacrificial sessions, an ecstatic response to the drinking of soma juice is clear from ancient poetry and formulas of ritual texts. After offering and drinking soma, a priest may recite Rig Veda 8.48.3, boasting on behalf of all, "We have drunk soma, become immortal, attained the light, reached the gods." A common epithet of soma is amrita (not mortal). Several gods receive soma offerings, but none more than Indra. The consequence of his soma-drinking is an enthused battle fury, rendering him invincible in combat.
Associations with immortality led to an important role for Soma in traditions of death, particularly after the Upanishads distinguished the pitṛyāna as a "path of the fathers (ancestors)" that recycled an immortal ātman (self) down from the moon for rebirth in this world. In Hindu rituals, amāvāsyā, new-moon day, is traditionally a time to offer rice as food for ancestors. Soma as the moon—therefore one of the navagraha (nine planets)—lends his name to the calendrical weekday Somavaram (Monday is from Old English "moonday"). In Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas, Soma lives on as Oshadhīpati (lord of plants), husband of the nakshatra (constellations), and guardian deity of the auspicious northeast.
David M. Knipe
Gonda, Jan. Change and Continuity in Indian Religion. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. Ch. 2 on soma, amṛta, and the moon.
Nyberg, Harri. "The Problem of the Āryans and the Soma: The Botanical Evidence." In The Indo-Āryans of Ancient South Asia, edited by George Erdosy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995. Perspective of a specialist in plant chemistry.
Staal, Frits. Agni. The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities, 1983. Soma as used in 1975 Agnicayana sacrifice in Kerala; excellent plates.
Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma. Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. Numerous plates and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's translations from the Rig Veda build a case for soma as Amanita muscaria.
1. Intoxicating or hallucinogenic juice or substance, offered in Hinduism to the gods, and ingested by the brahmans and other participants in sacrificial rituals. The identification of the plant is uncertain and contested. All 114 hymns of Ṛg Veda 9 are addressed to Soma. The ways of preparing and drinking soma are carefully described, and it is said to make one acquire the eight powers of the god.
2. Hindu moon god who protects herbs and rides in a chariot drawn by white horses or antelopes. The moon is the cup of soma (above).
1. the entire body excluding the germ cells.
2. the body as distinct from the mind.