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Soma I and II1

  • Harry Falk


It was a common idea in the last century, and one which can be found even today,2 that Soma/Haoma was a drink which led to ecstasy, and drugs which produce such an extraordinary state of mind have always been objects of curiosity. Therefore, the search for the plant which was used by the Indo-Iranian peoples in their solemn rituals was never abandoned, although the variety of candidates brought forward made the question look unsolvable.Some of the strong drugs suggested for the original Soma had to meet with statements from the Rgveda or Avesta which ran contrary to their shapeor properties. The effects of others on the human mind are so unspectacular that it was difficult to accept them as the plant so highly praised in antiquity.



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2 Geo, Widengren: Die Religionen Irans (Stuttgart, 1965), 29: ‘ursprünglich ein wirklicher Rauschtrank’.

3 Kuiper, J. F. B.: ‘An Indian Prometheus?’, Asiatische Studien 25, 1971, 85–98; idem: Varuna and Vidūṣ on the origin of the Sanskrit drama (Amsterdam, 1979), 19ff., 103.

4 Mary, Boyce: ‘Haoma, priest of the sacrifice, in M., Boyce and I., Gershevitch (ed.), W.Henning Memorial Volume (London, 1970), 6280; Boyd, James W. and Kotwal, Firoze M., ‘Worship in a Zoroastrian fire temple’, III, 26, 1983, 306f.

5 e.g. Mukhopadhyay, B., ‘On the significance of Soma’, Vishveshvarananda Indological Journal, 16, 1978, 7; Vassilij Ivanovitch Abaev, ‘Contribution á l'histoire des mots,. 1. Vieil-iranien hauma- et le nom eurasien du houblon’, in Mélanges linguistiques offerts à Éntile Benveniste (Louvain, 1975), 2.

6 Kuiper, , Varuna, 19.

7 cf. Jan, Gonda, Die Religionen Indiens I: Veda und แlterer Hinduismus (Stuttgart, 1978, 2nd ed.), 68 f. Cf. RV 1.161,9.

8 Here, preference is given to the latest research. A full account of the earlier opinions is given by Wendy Doniger, O'Flaherty, ‘The post-Vedic history of the Soma-plant’, in Wasson, R.Gordon, Soma, divine mushroom of immortality (The Hague/New York, 1968), 95147.

9 Jogeś-Chandra, Ray, ‘The Soma plant’, Indian Historical Quarterly, 15, 1939, 197207.

10 Wasson, R. G., cf. note 8, by the same: ‘The Soma of the Rig Veda: what is it?’, JAOS, 91, 1971, 169–87; cf. p. 177: ‘the poets never mention the ⃛ branches ⃛ of Soma’ with RV 10.94,3! Refuted with ample arguments by John, Brough, ‘Soma and Amanita Muscaria’, BSOAS, xxxiv, 2, 1971, 331–61; and in ‘Problems of the “Soma-mushroorn” theory’, Indologica taurinensia, 1,1973, 2132; for another of Wasson's errors see Emmerick, R. E., ‘Ein Mānnlein steht im Walde’, Acta Iranica, 24, 1985, 179–84; rather diplomatic is Kuiper's, F. B. J. review of Wasson's book in III, 12, 1969/1970, 279–85. Partial or total consent is found in Ilya, Gershevitch, ‘An Iranist's view of the Soma Controversy’, in Ph., Gignoux et A., Tafazzoli (ed.), Mémorial Jean de Menasce (Louvain, 1974), 4575;Elizarenkova, T. I. et Toporov, V. N., ‘Les représentations mythologiques touchant aux champignons dans leurs rapports avec l'nypothese de l'origine du Soma’, in Y. M., Lotman et B. A., Ouspenski (ed.), Traveaux sur les systemes de signes. Ecole de Tartu (Bruxelles, 1976), 62–8;Stella, Kramrisch, ‘The Mahāvīra vessel and the plant Pūtika’, JAOS, 95, 1975, 222–35, refuted by Kuiper, F. B. J., ‘Was the Putfka a mushroom?’, in S. D., Joshi (ed.): Amrtadhārā: Professor R. N. Dandekar Felicitation Volume (Delhi, 1984), 219–27.

11 David Stophlet, Flattery, ‘Haoma’, Ph.D. dissertation, Berkeley, 1978; updated and extended in Flattery, D. St. and Martin, Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline (forthcoming University of California Press, 1989). The authors have conclusively shown that the rue, Peganum harmala, was used as a hallucinogenic drug in Zoroastrian circles some time before A.D. 900. The plant was given the same high respect and some of the epithets of the Haoma of old. But all the attempts to connect this plant with the one in vogue more than 2000 years earlier are not convincing. According to Steblin-Kamenskij, I. (BSOAS, L, 2, 1987, 377a) harmala is burnt for fumigation, not pounded.

12 Against the traditional quail good reasons have been brought forward by Rainer, Stuhrmann in favour of the lapwing: ‘Rgveda X.119: Der Rausch des Kiebitz’, Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, 11/12, 1986, 299309.

13 Dange, Sadashiv A., ‘Three stages in the advent of Soma’, Journal of the Oriental Institute (Baroda), 14, 1964/1965, 63;O'Flaherty, W. D. in Wasson's, Soma, 146, and in The Rig Veda (Harmondsworth, 1981), 119, 133;Jan, Gonda, Die Religionen Indiens, I (Stuttgart, 1978, 2nd ed.), 362, Ergänzung, 82; Frits, Staal, Agni—the Vedic ritual of the fire altar, i (Berkeley, 1983), 105 ff.;Rainer, Stuhrmann, ‘Worum handelt es sich beim Soma?’, III, 28, 1985, 8593; idem, ‘Der Rausch des Kiebitz’, cf. n. 12; Maurer, Walter H., Pinnacles of India's past: selections from the Rgveda (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1986), 75.

14 Aurel, Stein, ‘On the Ephedra, the Hūm plant, and the Soma’, BSOAS, vi, 2,1931, 501–14;Morgenstierne, G., ‘A Vedic word in some modern Hindukush languages?’, in Sarūpa-Bhāratī: Dr. Lakshman Sarup Memorial Volume (Hoshiarpur, 1954), 30–3;Karl, Hummel, ‘Aus welcher Pflanze stellten die arischen Inder den Somatrank her?’, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Pharmazeutischen Gesellschaft undder Pharmazeutischen Gesellschaft der DDR, 29, 1959, 5761.

15 Havell, E. B., ‘What is Soma?’, JRAS, 1920, 349–51. For Soma and millet see ŚB 5.3.3,4.

16 Lennart, Edelberg, ‘Nuristanske Sølvpokaler’, Kuml, 1965, 153201.

17 Noteworthy is Strabo 15.1,53, relying on Megasthenes (the text in Felix, Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, m C,2 (Leiden, 1969), 634, line 22): ‘they ( = the Indians) do not drink wine (oĩnón), except at sacrifices (thysíais), but drink a beverage which they make from rice instead of barley.’ For liquor made from rice see Om, Prakash, Food and drinks in ancient India (Delhi, 1961), 186. The use of rice and barley as a substitute for Soma in ĀpŚS 14.24,13 is an innovation and without parallel.

18 Windfuhr, Gernot L., ‘Haoma/Soma: the plant’, in Acta Iranica 25 (= Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, Hommages et Opera Minora, 11) (Leiden, 1985), 699726, see pp. 703, 707.

19 Because of its shape as a anthropomorphical root mandrake may be connected with ginseng. Cf. Igor Khlopin, N., ‘Mandragora turcomanica in der Geschichte der Orientalvölker’, Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica, 11, 1980, 223–31. The effect of mandrake is ‘narkotisch und betäubend’ (p. 227). It grows at low altitudes of 600 m. (p. 226). Khlopin's species was found near Karakala in Turkmenistan, fairly near to Tepe Hissar. So it may have an old history, but certainly not as Soma, as this author claims.

20 Discussed by Alfred, Hillebrandt, Vedische Mythologie i (Breslau, 1927), 370 ff. and Brough, , BSOAS, xxxiv, 2, 1971, 339.

21 The contexts show that there are two subjects intended. One is Agni, who receives the poems from the singers, and the other is the poet, spoken of in the preceding line (5.44,13d): anubruvāṇó ádhy eti ná svapán, ‘Wer lernt, versteht es, nicht wer verschläft’ (Geldner).

22 Stuhrmann (Soma, 88) makes nidrà mean ‘Bewußtlosigkeit’ (unconsciousness) and ‘Delirium’, to adapt Soma to the effects of the mushroom.

23 KB, 17.7,21. ed. Lindner: ārephantaḥ śayīran is translated by Keith, : ‘they should lie snoring’. This would mean that the priests were sleeping. Sarma gives the better reading: ālebhantah, which I connect with ribh, rebhati ‘to sing’. The prefix ā is not attested in Vedic nor in classical Sanskrit but with a verb denoting ‘singing’ it is not surprising. A modern form of jāgarana shows some striking similarities to the Vedic atirātra. For a description see Monika, Thiel-Horstmann, Nächtliches Wachen: eìne Form indischen Gottesdienstes (Bonn, 1985).

24 Remarkable is the reference to ‘retinue’, gana. Soma as a herb in the RV is not known to be accompanied by followers. On the other hand indu is a term used for Soma as well as the moon in the Brāhmana literature, and the moon may be regarded as having the stars as its retinue. In any case a priest drinking Soma and describing himself as ‘having a complete troop’ (sarvagaṇa) equates himself with Indra or Bṛhaspati, who are both called ganṇpati (RV 10.112,9; 2.23,1; for Bṛhaspati being sarvagaṇa see RV 5.51,12). And just like the god who is invoked to come to the drink the priest calls himself ‘invited’, upahūta. Whoever speaks the lines in question presents himself as someone comparable to Indra or Brhaspati.

25 It is tempting to compare the habits of other Indo-European cultures. Poetry is connected with a beverage in Old Norse mythology, where it is Odin who steals the skalden met (Thule, 20, pp. 120–3; Hávamál, 104–10; Skáldskaparmál, 4–6,11), and thereby becomes God of lyrics. In more recent times the connexion is only vaguely remembered, but still Egil composes his long poems exclusively at night, cf. Kurt, Schier (ed. and tr.), Saga von Egil (Düisseldorf, 1978), ch. 59. p. 179, and ch. 78, p. 238: ‘Meint er vielleicht, ich werde die Nacht iiber wach bleiben und ein Gedicht üiber seinen Schild machen?’ Material regarding the Celtic world is collected in Fergal, McGrath, Education in ancient and medieval Ireland (Dublin, 1979) 56 f.

26 Sir Arthur Salusbury, MacNalty (ed.), The British medical dictionary (London, 1961). 505.

27 Herbert, Schaldach (ed.), Zetkin-Schaldach—Wörterbuch der Medizin (Stuttgart, 1978, 6th ed.), 391: ‘schlafhemmender Effekt, lange Wirkungsdauer’. This source also states that urinating becomes difficult, ‘Blasenentleerung durch erhöhten Sphinktertonus erschwert’. This make one think of the strange fear that soma-drinking priests could die of retention of urine, ámeha, MS 3.8.7 (105:2); KS 25.8 (115:2), 33.7 (32:11 f.); TS 6.2.9,4, 10,7; PB 5.10,2.

28 Otto, Stapf, Die Arten der Gattung Ephedra (Denkschriften der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften; (Math.-Nat. Kl. 56; Wien, 1889), 59 ff.;Riedl, H., ‘Ephedraceae’. = K. H., Rechinger (ed.), Flora Iranica, 3 (Graz, 1963).

29 This appears from Tang, Teng-Han, ‘Beiträge zur Pharmakognosie der Ephedrin-Drogen’, Dissertation, Berlin, 1929. Teng-Han checked dried specimens of kinds most of which do not grow in the region concerned.

30 B. N., Sastri (ed.), The wealth of India: raw materials, 3 (New Delhi, 1952), 179. The author shows in a table, p. 178, that even a rather common kind, Ephedra gerardiana, can be rich in ephedrine.

31 Wealth of India, 178: ‘The alkaloid content of the green twigs is considerably greater than that of the woody stems;⃛ The twigs should be dried in the sun.⃛ The dried twigs must be stored dry; complete elimination of alkaloids has been reported when the drug was exposed to humid conditions for one month.’

32 Stein, , Ephedra, 505, with n. 2; repeated by Hummel (art. cit. in n. 14 above), 58.

33 cf. Geldner, on RV 1.23,1. The tīvrasoma is the strongest kind in PB 18.5,2.

34 Hummel, 58. A succulent plant is also expected by Roth, R.,‘Ueber den Soma’, ZDMG, 35, 1881, 684; Stein, , Ephedra, 513.

35 The haoma gaoma in Yasna, 10.12 is not ‘milchreich’ (Wolff), but ‘mixed with milk’, as Yasna, 10,13 shows.

36 cf. BŚS 17.45 (326:5), where Soma appears as a white person with reddish eyes. This is not referring to the shape of the plant.

37 According to Gershevitch, (Mémorial Jean de Menasce, 47), all three terms have nothing to do with Haoma at all but refer to plants towards which Haoma grows.

38 Mahdihassan, S., ‘Soma, in the light of comparative pharmacology, etymology and archeology’, Janus, 60, 1973, 91102; idem, ‘A Persian painting illustrating Ephedra, leading to its identity as Soma’, Journal of Central Asia, 8, 1985, 171–5. This painting from the sixteenth century shows one plant growing on the top of hills. Since Soma too is said to grow on mountains, both are equated. This kind of logic devalues some other plain though justified statements.

39 Reproduced also in Marshall, J., The Buddhist art of Gandhara (Cambridge, 1960), fig. 61, and Harald Ingholt, Gandhāran art in Pakistan (New Haven, 1957), fig. 59, and again in S. Mahdihassan, ‘Soma of the Aryans and ash of the Romans’, ABORI, 68, 1987, 639–44.

40 Qazilbash, N.A., ‘Ephedra of the Rigveda’, The Pharmaceutical Journal, 26, 11. 1960, 497501.

41 Sir Aurel, Stein, Innermost Asia (repr. New Delhi, 1981), 265, 736, 741, 743; one bundle reproduced on plate 26, numbered L.S. 6.03.

42 Jivanji Jamshedji, Modi, The religious ceremonies and customs of the Par sees (Bombay, 1922, repr. New York/London, 1979), 54.

43 From sleep, i.e. from one form of nirṛti, the sacrificer turns away, according to MS 3.6.3 (63,13): yám prathamám dīkṣitó rátrīṃ jāgárti táyā svápnena vyávartate (cf. JB 1.98). Parallels from the AV are discussed by Kuiper, Varuna, 31 f.

44 cf. AiGr., H,2 p. 578; Thieme, P., Untersuchungen zur Wortkunde und Auslegung des Rigveda (Halle, 1949), 64.

45 Herrmann, A., Lou-Ian: China, Indien und Rom im Lichte der Ausgrabungen am Lobnor (Leipzig, 1931). There are some hints in the later Vedic and epic literature, pointing beyond the Himalayas for the home of the Soma, e.g. Rām. 4.42 describes the regions of the North and, bypassing mount Kailāsa (v. 19), ends at the Somagiri (v. 53). In AV, 19.39,5c–8c it is said that the plant called kúṣṭha lives together with Soma (sá kúṣṭho viśvábheṣajaḥ sākáṃ sómena tiṣṭhati; cf. AV, 5.4,7b sómasyāsi sákhā hitáḥ), whereas stanza 1 of the same hymn makes it come from the Himalayas (áitu⃛ kúṣṭho himávatas pári, cf. AV, 5.4,8a údaṇ jātó himávatah). In AV 5.22,5,7 and 8 the people of the Mūjavats are closely connected with the Bahlikas and Mahāvrsas. Lake Somabhadra and river Bhadrasomā are located in areas around the Pamir by Ali, S. M., The geography of the Puranas (New Delhi, 1966).

46 Flattery, and Schwartz, , table 3; I. Steblin-Kamenskij, M., ‘Flora iranskoj prarodiny (Etimologiceskie zametki)’, Etimologija, 1972, 138–9, summarized in BSOAS L, 2, 1987, 377b.

47 Kapadia, B. H., A critical interpretation and investigation of epithets of Soma (Vallabh Vidyanagar, 1959), 4.

48 Hillebrandt Vedische Mythologie, I, 217 ff.: RV 1.9,1; VS 20,27; TB 3.7,13; VaitS 24,1.

49 Riedl, , Stapf, passim; Wealth of India, 178: ‘They can be grown in northern India at altitudes of 8,000 ft. or more’, Stein, , Ephedra, 504: ‘growing in stony gravelly soil’.

50 ŚB 3.4.3,13 (= 4.2.5,15): vṛtró vái sáma ásīt tásyaitác chárīraṃ yád giráyo yád áśmānas tād eṣóśāná námáuṣadhir jāyata iti ha smāha śvetáketur áuddálakis tám etád āhŕtyābhíṣuṇvanti. ‘The term uśāná led to some confusion. Singh, R. S., ‘Contribution of Unani Materia Medicas to the identification of Vedic plants with special reference to Ushna’, Studies in History of Medicine, 3, 1979,42–8, connected the term with ūṣa, ‘salty ground’ and expected to meet with a plant ‘growing on alkaline earth’. This was rightly refuted by Kashikar, C. G., ‘Identification of the Vedic plant Ushana’, in the same journal, 4, 1980, 190–3. But the learned scholar takes nāma as an adverb, ‘verily’, and traces uśāna to the root vas, ‘to shine’, assuming a present participle meaning ‘shining’, because the colours of Soma, viz. tawny, ruddy and brown ‘would mean, “shining”’ (p. 191). Kashikar treats uśāná as if it were uṣāṇa, in itself a supposed (?) irregular form of vasāna, with no attempt to explain the formal differences. RV, 10.30,9 auśāná shows that the term is older than the ŚB, but a convincing etymology is still outstanding. Read uśānā nāmeyam oṣadhir bhavati in BŚS 21.12 (90,1) instead of uṣasā (Caland) and upasthānā (MSS)?

51 For details see Kuiper, ‘Was the PutÍka a mushroom? (art. cit. n. 10 above). JMS, 6.3,31 ff. with Śahara's comments seems to imply that Soma was still very well known in the third century A.D. In Vedic texts, substitutes are called for only when the sacrifice has already started and Soma is not for sale—against all expectations—or isstolen.

52 Gerhard, Madaus, Lehrbuch der biologischen Heilmittel, II (Leipzig, 1938), 1264: ‘Einen großangelegten Versuch führte Vondráček durch, der an 12 Soldaten die Einwirkung von Chinin, Strychnin, Yohimbin, Harmin und Ephedrin auf den Muskel prüfte. Dabei ergab sich, daß am besten das Ephedrin zur therapeutischen Erh曶ng der Leistung anzuwenden ist, weil es yon alien genannten Substanzen am kräftigsten auf die Muskelstärke wie auch auf den Willen zur Überwindung der Müdigkeit einwirkte.’

53 cf. Kashikar, C. G., ‘Soma-drink vis-a-vis the ruling class’, ABORI, 67, 1986, 247–50.

54 Wilhelm, Rau, Staat und Gesellschaft im Alten Indien (Wiesbaden, 1957), 82.

55 There is only one ‘highest’ addressed and only one Soma spoken of. But there are two terms in stanza 5, viz. aśvatthá and parṇá. In middle-Vedic times parṇa denotes the Bulea frondosa, also called palāsa. But it seems possible that originally parṇa was nothing but an epithet of the Ficus religiosa. Its leaf, Skt. parṇa, is of a particular shape and was already painted on pottery in Mundigak 3/4 and in the mature Harappa phase. The Bhagavadgīta, 16,1 equates the leaves of the aśvattha with the rhythmical poetry (chandāṃsi yasya parṇāni), comparable to AVP 9.25,16, where it is said that its leaves never rest (aśvatthasya parṇāni nelayanti, for the reading cf. III, 10, 1967/68, 239). In both TS, 3.4.8,4 and 7.4.12,1 four kinds of trees are listed, and three of them are figs and identical, viz. plakṣá, nyagródha and udumbára, but the fourth differs: in TS 3.4.8,4 the aśvatthá is mentioned and in the second instance the parṇá!) In TS 3.5.7,2 the Butea and the fig are clearly separated: rāṣṭráṃ vái parṇó víḍ aśvatthó. A split in meaning would also explain why the Butea frondosa appears as representative of Soma, e.g. in KB, 2.2,14 (somo vai palāśaḥ), ŚB 6.6.3,7 (ditto), TB 1.1.3,10, JB 1.355.

56 Uno, Holmberg, Der Baum des Lebens (Helsinki, 1922/1923);Åke, V. Ström, ‘Indogermanisches in der V曶luspá’, Numen, 14, 1967, 186–8; Eugen Kagarow: Der umgekehrte Schamanenbaum. In: Archiv für Religions-wissenschaft 27 (1929), 183-5, with further literature.

57 cf. Kane, P. V., History ofDharmasastra, II (Poona, 1974), 546, 895;Odette, Viennot, Le culte de I'arbre dans I'lnde ancienne (Paris, 1954), 34, 64, 87;Walker, B., Hindu world, I (London, 1968), 358.

1 A preliminary version of this article was read at the seventh World Sanskrit Conference in Leiden, August 1987. I wish to thank Professors St.Insler, J. F. B. Kuiper, and H.-P.Schmidt for their comments during the session and in written form thereafter. This exchange of ideas has led to a complete revision of the text, although the basic statements remain unaltered.

Soma I and II1

  • Harry Falk


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