How a psychoactive substance becomes a ritual: the case of Soma
Introduction: Vedic Peoples
THE Rigveda, the earliest of the four Vedas, describes Soma in three forms: as a God, a plant, and a beverage extracted or pressed from that plant. (1) All are endowed with extraordinary powers. A few centuries after the Rigveda was composed, Soma juice began to occupy the central place in the ritual ceremonies of the Yajurveda and Sama chants of the Samaveda. More recently, in the latest stage of its career so far, Soma has become a topic of discussion and controversy among Vedic and other scholars and scientists. The bibliography in Sanskrit and modern languages is vast. In English, it begins with a note to a Bhagavad Gita translation of 1784 (Doniger O’Flaherty, 1968: 102). The most recent treatment in book form is a two-volume work on the religion of the Veda, published in German and largely devoted to Soma texts and mythology (Oberlies, 1998-1999). But Soma is more than either, and it is its real world features on which I shall concentrate.
To understand Soma, we have to begin with the peoples for whom it was important. We may refer to these as “Vedic peoples” but when we use terms such as “Vedic” we must be careful to be clear about what we mean. Almost all our knowledge of Vedic peoples comes from the four Vedas, compositions by priests and poets that have been orally transmitted, along with their ritual performances, until the present day. Often regarded as mythology, the Vedas abound in concrete information, conveyed not only by geographical data such as the direction of rivers but also through their language. The geography points to the Indus Valley or greater Punjab that now covers a good part of Pakistan and northwest India. The earlier Rigveda calls up mountains and rivers farther north and west, suggestive of Afghanistan. Its language is Indo-European and some features are closely related to language, such as its poetic style and techniques. The Atharvaveda is similar in these respects but seems to reflect a different social stratum and is not concerned with the rituals that I will describe. The middle Vedic language of the later Yajurveda and Samaveda is also Indo-European, but Rigvedic poetics has virtually disappeared from it.
A disconcerting feature about the Vedic peoples is that they left few archeological traces. It is true that some have been related to excavated pottery such as the Painted Grey or Black-and-Red Wares, variously dated to the late second millennium or early first millennium B.C. This could be of interest in our present context because Soma liquid is still transported, kept in, and poured from pots and vessels that are characterized by traditional shapes. Figure 1 shows a scholarly conversation that took place in 1975 in a small village in Kerala, southwest India, in front of a large Soma vessel made from clay and about to be used in the performance of a Soma ritual. (2) But there are no connections between any of these ritual shapes and the excavated varieties. This is not surprising because, even in a highly ritualistic culture, most pots are used not during ritual performances but in the kitchen. The goblets from which Soma is drunk or offered left no traces because they were (and still are) made of wood.
[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]
The fact that the Vedic peoples left few traces has led to much speculation, but the solution to that apparent mystery is not difficult. The Vedic peoples did not form a distinct racial group but were made up of various tribes and lineages that were in contact with each other and spoke or adopted the same Vedic language or closely related languages and dialects. The earliest Vedic people were seminomadic and almost always on the move. Their language was gradually adopted by others who were more sedentary. That gradual settlement is illustrated by several Vedic words and phrases. One is grama, which, in early Vedic, referred to a train of herdsmen, roaming about with cattle, ox-carts, and chariots in quest of fresh pastures and booty. Subsequently it came to denote a temporary camp for such a train, made of bamboo poles and reed mats that could be quickly assembled and taken apart. Grama denotes “village” for the first time in late Vedic, that is, after 700 B.C., and continues to be used in that sense today (Rau, 1997).
A disjunction exists between the Rigveda and later Vedic literature. Both share a Central Asian background, but the Rigveda is closer to it. The evidence is primarily linguistic. The language of the Rigveda is the earliest form of Indo-Aryan, one of the two main branches of Indo-Iranian. Indo-Iranian is a subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The sketch in figure 3 has been drawn with the language of the Rigveda in mind. Some Indo-European languages of Europe have been stuffed together. The position of Tocharian, the easternmost member, is attested late, in Buddhist manuscripts from the end of the first millennium A.D. that have been discovered in Xinjiang, northwest China. For reasons that will become apparent later, I have assumed that it split off early.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
Indo-Iranian speakers trekked, east of the Caspian Sea, in a southern direction. Speakers of Iranian moved into Iran. Those who spoke Indo-Aryan trickled across the high mountains in a southeastern direction and composed the Rigveda between 1600 and 1200 B.C. A few Indo-Aryan speakers went west, all the way to Anatolia (now Turkey and northern Syria). They left traces on Hittite clay tablets of circa 1450 B.C. that mention Indo-Aryan numerals and carry names of Vedic deities. It may explain the relatedness of Greek and Vedic geometries, which both derive from ritual constructions (Staal, 1999, 2001d). The bulk of Vedic culture moved east. The Yajurveda and Samaveda were composed in middle Vedic dialects and later, around 1000 B.C., when the sociopolitical center had shifted to the Kuru “supertribe” or state not far from modern Delhi (Witzel, 1997a, 1997b).
The Vedic language preserves a few words that are not Indo-European (Witzel, 1999). Animal names such as camel, donkey, and panther, and terms of material culture associated with agriculture and brick-built settlements may be traced back to a language spoken by citizens of the “Bactrian-Margiana Archeological Complex” (BMAC) (2300-1500 B.C.), who used bricks to construct fortified towns. About a hundred sites have been excavated by Russian archeologists (especially Viktor Sarianidi) on both sides of the Oxus, the most important Indo-Aryan river Oust as the Indus became important for the Vedas and the Ganges for later Hinduism). Since speakers of Indo-Iranian passed through that region, it is not surprising that a BMAC language left traces in their languages.
Vedic Soma is not a name but derives from a root su, which means “press” or “extract.” Its Iranian counterpart is haoma and the reconstructed Indo-Iranian form is *sauma (the asterisk denotes that the Ur-form has been reconstructed by linguists). It refers primarily to the juice and perhaps also to the plant from which it is extracted. Its Indo-Iranian cult may be connected with the Indo-European usage or cult of madhu, an Indo-European word used in the Rigveda that is related to English mead. As far back as 1859, Adalbert Kuhn drew attention to these and other similarities and F. B. J. Kuiper (1970: 283-4), regards it as a “reasonable conjecture” that the Indo-Iranian speakers, “having become acquainted with the practice of crushing and pressing a certain plant and drinking its juice which had an invigorating effect, substituted the *sauma for the older madhu.”
We shall begin with a closer look at what the Vedas say about Soma, beginning with the Rigveda.
The Soma Juice of the Rigveda
The Rigveda is replete with deities. Prominent among these are Indra, Agni, and Soma. Indra is a divine hero who fights on a cosmic level and assists the Vedic tribes in their struggles with opponents or each other. Indra is fond of Soma, from which he derives part of his strength. It also inspires the Vedic poets and conversely, as Rigveda 7.26.1 declares: “Soma unpressed has never enraptured Indra, nor the pressed juiced unaccompanied by sacred hymns and mantras.” Agni is fire. It is etymologically related to Latin ignis, from which English inherited ignite and ignition. Like Soma, Agni is a deity as well as a substance–the fire on which the oblations are cooked, into which they are offered, and which carries them to the Gods.
The Rigveda connects Soma with a plant with stalks but without leaves or flowers. It grows high in the mountains. Several words are used to describe its color or that of its juice. The most common is hari–“golden,” ranging over yellow, yellowish-green to green as in Indo-European generally (Brough, 1971: 350; 1996: 385). Soma drinking and its influence is a favorite topic of the Rigveda, as in the following poem or hymn, composed around the thirteenth century B.C. The translation is by Wendy Doniger. (3)
This, yes, this is my thinking: I will win a cow and a horse.
Have I not drunk Soma?
Like currents of wind, the drinks have lifted me up.
Have I not drunk Soma?
The drinks have lifted me up, like swift horses bolting with a
chariot. Have I not drunk Soma?
The thought has come to me as a lowing cow to her beloved
son. Have I not drunk Soma?
I turn the thought around in my heart, as a wheelwright turns
a chariot seat. Have I not drunk Soma?
The five tribes are no more to me than a mote in the eye.
Have I not drunk Soma?
The two world halves do not equal a single wing of mine.
Have I not drunk Soma?
I greatness, I surpass heaven and this great earth.
Have I not drunk Soma?
Yes, I will place the earth here, or perhaps there.
Have I not drunk Soma?
I will thrash the earth soundly, here or perhaps there.
Have I not drunk Soma?
One of my wings is in heaven, the other trails below.
Have I not drunk Soma?
I am huge, huge! Flying to the clouds.
Have I not drunk Soma?
I am going, a well-stocked house carrying oblations to the gods.
Have I not drunk Soma? (Rigveda 10.119)
Other hymns are concerned with the art of preparing and clarifying Soma juice. Crushing Soma stalks could be done by the wife at home, using pestle and mortar as is mentioned once (Rigveda 1.28). Pestle and mortar are compared to male and female sexual organs. Soma is the special subject of Book 9, one of the ten books of the Rigveda. The stalks are pressed by pounding them with stones on a plank. The juice is clarified through a sieve made from sheep hair. It is first mixed with water and drunk pure. The taste is strong and sharp. After a second pressing it is mixed with milk. It now tastes mild and sweet.
The effect of drinking Soma is generally described by forms and derivatives of the verb mad, which has nothing to do with English “mad.” It has a range of meanings including delight, intoxication, and inspiration. It also refers to the heavenly bliss of gods and ancestors and is, in the context of Soma, best translated and interpreted as rapture or elation.
The Soma Rituals of the Later Vedas
The Yajur- and Samavedas are filled with ritual. Verse, phrases, bits, and pieces from the Rigveda, recur as mantras, formulas recited in the course of a ritual performance in which form is more important than meaning (Staal, 1989, 1993). The Samaveda turns verse into chants that are listed in their ritual sequence and introduce a great variety of meaningless sounds, especially long o’s, sometimes ending in -m. One result is the famous mantra OM.
The Rigvedic verse that addresses Agni–agna a yahi vitaye (“Agni come here to the feast” [Rigveda 6.16.10])–is sung in the Samaveda as:
o gna i / a ya hi va i / ta ya i ta ya i /
The first verse of the ninth book of the Rigveda:
svadisthaya madisthaya (“With a flow most tasty and elated,”)
pavasva soma dharaya (“Soma, clarify yourself!”)
indraya patave sutah (“Pressed for Indra to drink!”)
is turned into five chants and sung, at the final Soma pressing, by three priests taking turns:
I. svadisthaya ma da yisthaya /
II. o sva so o /
III. a yindra /
IV. o pa tava havu va /
V. su tah //
Chant and recitation are an essential feature of Vedic ritual. While the Rigveda recitations may take up to 20 minutes, the corresponding Samaveda chant, replete with o’s, may take almost an hour to sing. The paradigm of the Soma ritual consists of 12 Soma Sequences, each consisting of a Samaveda chant, a recitation from the Rigveda, Soma offerings to deities, and Soma drinking. In the 12-day variety we studied in Kerala (Staal, 1983; Gardner and Staal, 1976, 2000), there were 29 such sequences and we recorded 80 hours of chant and recitation that took several years to track down (Staal et al., 1983, 2001). The sixteenth chant contains the largest number of long syllables, the longest lasting 18 seconds. Single mantras have to be recited in one breath and this demarcation of the units of language signals the birth of linguistics (Staal, 1993, chap. 5; 2001a, 2001b, 2001c).
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
The effects of some psychoactive substances appear to be similar to those of breathing in chant and recitation, including silent varieties that developed into meditation in the Upanishads and Buddhism, not to mention Yoga (Staal, 1988). The inhaling and exhaling that accompanies the gigantic opera or breathing exercise of a Soma ritual is one of the features that helps explain how a psychoactive substance can become a ritual.
The availability of the original Soma seemed to have decreased over the centuries. But as Soma decreased, ritualization increased. If the units were quantified a little better than has so far been done, we might be able to formulate a general law according to which the mathematical product of ritualization and psychoactivity is constant:
ritualization * psychoactivity = S
Vedic ritual takes place in a ritual space. The simplest enclosure is rectangular. It is used for the basic rituals of the Yajurveda, which include offerings of rice or barley. The ceremonies are performed with the help of three altars on which fires have been installed. The oblations are cooked on a circular domestic fire to the west, marked “G” (from its Sanskrit name, garhapatya), carried to the east, and offered by throwing them into the fire on a square offering altar marked “A” (from ahavaniya).
To accommodate all the chanting, recitation, and rites, the ritual enclosure for the Soma ceremonies is enlarged: a new domestic altar takes the place of the old offering altar and a vast trapezium, the Mahavedi, is constructed to its east. Its center is occupied by the Soma hall where the juice is extracted before it is offered on the new offering altar to the extreme east. It is then drunk by the priests in the Sadas, where the priests sit (sad-), recite, and chant.
Soma grows in the wilderness, where tribal experts have to locate it (Michael Witzel informs me that the Atharvaveda and later works refer to herb-collecting tribal girls, often Tibeto-Burman). When found, the plant falls into the hands of a merchant, who enters the ritual enclosure and tries to sell it to the priests who are waiting inside the enclosure. The chief priest measures the stalks and engages in a dialogue with the merchant:
Priest: “Soma merchant, is your Soma for sale?”
Merchant: “It is for sale.”
Priest: “Is it from Mount Mujavat?”
Merchant: “It is from Mount Mujavat”
Priest: “I will buy it from you for this cow.”
Merchant: “The Soma is yours. Tell me what you offer for it”
(Baudhayana Srauta Sutra 6.14: 172.14).
The merchant is obviously willing to sell, but not satisfied with a cow. He is offered gold and other valuables, and when he continues to refuse, is punished for his tenacity. His precious merchandise is taken away by force and he is driven away with blows. Louis Renou, whose aversion to speculation was as strong as his Sanskrit, concluded that the whole scene may have been intended to convey the illegality of trading in Soma (Renou, 1953: 37).
Soma is transported on a special vehicle, the “Soma cart” (see figure 5). Its solid wheels are remarkable since one of the great innovations Indo-Iranian speakers brought from the southern Ural area to South Asia was the art of harnessing horses to chariots with spoked wheels. The Vedas, however, know the modern “chariot” (ratha) as well as the traditional “cart” (sakata). Chariots were used in battle because they are fast and light. Carts were used for transportation, especially of Soma and its ritual implements. One variety of Soma ritual was performed by people trekking along a river. They threw a wooden peg and where it alighted, stayed one or more days and performed the ritual.
[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]
The Soma ritual continues with a formal reception of Soma, who is treated as a king and installed on a throne. Priests are then called upon to perform the important rite of “swelling” (apyayana). Each touches the Soma bundle and sprinkles it, not with water but with mantras:
Stalk by stalk may you swell, God Soma, for Indra who possesses unique
wealth! May Indra swell for you; do you swell for Indra! Make your friends
swell with gain and wisdom! With good fortune may I accomplish your
pressing, God Soma!
(Taittiriya Samhita 184.108.40.206 a-b)
Agni, carried in a pot with smoldering embers, is now carried to the new enclosure. His close companion Soma follows and the pounding of its stalks is done on a bullock skin spread over a plank in which holes have been dug to produce a resounding noise. While the liquid is filtered over the skin, the priest shouts “Here! Here! Here!” Soma goblets stand ready, covered by a cloth, to be filled once the Soma juice has been mixed with water or milk.
[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]
What Was Soma? Up to and Including Wasson
It is clear from the Vedas and later sources that substitutes for Soma were used increasingly, but what was the original Soma? The present consensus is that it was Ephedra. Its active ingredient is ephedrine, which is derived from the stem of the plant. It stimulates the metabolism, raises blood pressure, and has other medical uses. It grows all over the world and is abundant in Central Asia.
I regard Ephedra as one of the least likely among the many candidates that have been proposed over a period of more than two centuries. In 1968, Wendy Doniger published a chapter on “The Post-Vedic History of the Soma Plant,” which reviews more than 140 such theories published between 1784 and 1967 (Wasson, 1968: 93-147). The most common candidates include alcoholic beverages and species of Ephedra, Peganum harmala (mountain rue), Sarcostemma, Periploca, and other leafless climbers superficially resembling each other yet belonging to genera botanically far apart. Less common candidates are Cannabis sativa (hemp), the Afghan grape, Calonyction muricatum or Ipomoea muricata, whose seeds are used as purgatives, Eleusine coracana, the common millet, and even “Egyptian beer,” a fermentation of date juice and palmyra or coconut palm that was allegedly brought to India from Mesopotamia. Many of these hypotheses are easy to refute (for example, the idea that Soma was a kind of alcohol). The Vedas distinguish Soma from the alcoholic sura drink that produces an evil, dur-mada, form of intoxication, whereas Soma leads to mada–rapture or bliss.
Wendy Doniger (then Doniger O’Flaherty) wrote her chapter at the request of R. Gordon Wasson, a Wall Street banker with, at first, an amateur’s interest in mushrooms and ethnomycology that had been kindled by his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna. Wasson discussed Soma and the fly-agaric mushroom with Aldous Huxley, who had written about it in Brave New World in 1932 and was about to publish his novel The Island, which describes a Sanskritic cult based upon a hallucinogenic mushroom. Wasson’s interest in Soma was instrumental in his decision to retire from his bank in June 1963, and, as he put it, “translate myself to the Orient for a stay of some years” (Wasson, 1968: 176). One result of his researches was the profusely illustrated and magnificently produced volume Soma: The Divine Mushroom, which incorporates Wendy Doniger’s chapter. This sterling contribution heralded a new approach to the problem of the identity of Soma.
Wasson defended the thesis that the Vedic Soma was the “fly-agaric” mushroom, Amanita muscaria, familiar from the birch forests, alpine meadows, and folklore of the cooler regions of Eurasia from Western Europe to Siberia. The fly-agaric grows in mycorrhizal underground relationship with birches, conifers, and other trees that also grow in the higher mountains of more southerly regions such as the Hindu Kush and Himalayas, regions Indo-Aryan speakers crossed before entering the Indian subcontinent. Summarizing Rigvedic passages, Wasson wrote: “The poets say that Soma grows high in the mountains. They make a point of this. They never speak of its growing elsewhere. They must mean what they say” (Wasson, 1968: 23).
A characteristic feature of the mushroom is its brilliant red color. It emerges from the soil as a little white ball, swells rapidly and bursts its white garment, fragments of the envelope remaining as white patches on the red skin underneath. Wasson’s magnificent plates of the mushroom depict it and illustrate poetic expressions such as “the hide is of bull, the dress of sheep” (Rigveda 9.70.7). According to Wasson, Soma came in two forms. In the first, the juice itself is drunk; in the second, the urine of a person who has used the first form is drunk. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Wasson knew that Siberian shamans chewed the mushroom and others drank his urine. The psychoactive properties are not affected by the process of digestion and toxic side-effects may be lessened. There are other psychoactive substances that have this property, which is referred to as psychotropic metabolite. It may help explain that Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai (like many others in India and China) drank his own.
Wasson marshaled a vast amount of evidence and his book was reviewed by mycologists, botanists, anthropologists, and the leading Indologists of the day. (4) I am only competent to comment on the latter and shall restrict myself to the four most distinguished among them: Sir Harold Bailey from Cambridge, Daniel D. H. Ingalls from Harvard, F. B. J. Kuiper from Leiden — all positive reviews but not without qualifications–and John Brough from London, whose review is the most substantial and entirely negative. It has been my privilege to know not only Wasson but each of these four eminent Orientalists. (5)
Almost all reviews agree in two respects. They do not support the urine theory, which is not clearly supported by any evidence from the Rigveda. They all accept the new paradigm that Wasson introduced and Ingalls describes in the terms of the philologist, limited in scope but free from hype: “Mr. Wasson’s discovery suggests new ways of looking at Vedic verses and new roads of inquiry into their meanings” (Ingalls, 1971: 191). There is more to say but let me first discuss a few of Brough’s objections.
Brough (1971: 341; 1996: 376) writes about the Rigvedic hymn I quoted with the refrain “Have I not drunk Soma?”: “Such a hymn cannot have been composed by a poet under the influence of soma; the artifice of its structure excludes this. It is a dramatic monologue and could easily have been composed by one without personal experience of the original soma.” Easily perhaps, but Brough, even though he was not only an eminent Sanskritist but also a logician, commits here the fallacy of applying the excluded third where it is not applicable. There is an obvious third possibility, which is most likely true: this hymn was composed by a person not under the influence, but familiar with the influence of Soma. Another of Brough’s objections is that the color word hari means “golden” and perhaps also, as I have already mentioned, yellow, yellowish-green, and green; but “red is absolutely excluded.” Here Brough could muster his formidable knowledge not only of the Vedas and Vedic but of the semantics of color distinctions in a wide range of related languages. I have long thought that he was right and that here lies perhaps an insurmountable objection to Wasson’s thesis. But there is something that both Brough and Wasson seem to have missed.
Brough argued that the term soma does not refer to the plant but primarily to its juice and that the plant was called amsu, generally translated as “stalk.” If Brough is right, his argument that Soma cannot be red because hari means “golden, yellow,” etc., must apply not to the plant but to the “clarified juice,” (soma pavamana). It therefore supports Wasson, who describes and illustrates that very juice as “tawny yellow.”
For another argument, Brough expresses indebtedness to his wife. If Soma was the fly-agaric, why should all the pounding and filtering be necessary, and why was the plant not simply eaten? He also stressed, like others before and after him, that Soma was “a powerful stimulant for those about to go into battle.” This would make Ephedra, also “a powerful stimulant,” a suitable candidate (though Brough adds that he is not suggesting it as such), unlike the fly-agaric “which is a depressant.”
Wasson never described Amanita muscaria as a depressant and reacted in great detail to Brough’s critique. I am not only referring to his scrupulous reading of Brough’s words. For Brough, who could write as well as Wasson, made a few slips. Assuming A. muscaria to be deadly (which it is not), he remarked that Ammanita phalloides is “much more deadly.” Wasson quotes it with glee but pays serious attention to the tricky matter of color. He refers to Renou on its intensity but that does not exclusively or unambiguously point at only red. He quotes Harold Bailey’s observation that a cognate color term in Khotanese Saka covers a wide range, including red and orange along with yellow and green; but Khotanese is Middle Iranian, related to, but not the same as Vedic. As for the mushroom being eaten, a counterargument is that the fresh mushroom might not be readily available and had to be transported from elsewhere in dried form, which would explain in turn that it was subsequently soaked, pressed, and filtered. To me, this seems the most promising approach to the solution of the problem.
Wasson’s hypothesis introduced a new paradigm in the search for the identity of the Soma plant. His greatest contribution was to show that the identity of the Soma plant is not a problem that Vedic scholars can solve by themselves because one needs to take into account the rapidly increasing information about psychoactive plants among botanists, chemists, pharmacologists, and others. Wasson would have loved to have attended the “Altered States” conference and would have expressed his view in no uncertain terms: “Let the Vedists leave off feeding exclusively on the Rigveda and each other” (Wasson, 1972: 41).
What Was Soma? After Wasson
If there is one book that has taken Wasson’s warning to heart it is David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwartz’s 1989 monograph, Haoma and Harmaline: The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen “Soma” and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore. It is pathbreaking in that it is largely based on the Iranian evidence. Not exclusively, because both authors are scholars of Iranian, with the former familiar with the pharmacology of psychoactive substances and the latter a well-known specialist of Indo-Iranian. (6)
I cannot judge the Iranian evidence because I do not know the languages, but was baffled to discover that, in Iran, there were many haomas. We find that multiplicity in India among substitutes, but not with regard to the original Soma. As far as I know, all interpreters of the Indian Soma have always assumed that there had been one original Soma. It is explicitly stated by Brough and Falk (to whom I return). My hunch is that many haomas means many substitutes.
Flattery and Schwartz assume there was an original Soma since otherwise they would not present as their candidate Peganum harmala, the mountain rue. It had been the choice of Sir William Jones, founder of Sanskrit studies in the West. In 1794, Jones did not know about it from the Rigveda, but from a later source. Soma is of common occurrence in later Indian literatures and sciences for example, Ayurveda. The Susruta school of Indian medicine advocates Soma for rejuvenation. It first causes the patient’s hair, teeth, and nails to fall off and then turns the entire body into skin and bones. This is followed by a total reconstruction leading after four months to a new adamantine body that lasts for ten thousand years (Wujastyk, 1998: 171-7). Jones found Soma in a less exalted context in the Laws of Manu.
Flattery and Schwartz do not say whether Peganum harmala, after being put in water, swells, although that was a characteristic mark of the original plant. They describe how it is sometimes burnt. It is true that small quantities of Soma juice are poured into the fire since all substances offered to deities are thrown into the fire during a Vedic ritual. But unlike any other oblation–barley or other vegetable or animal offerings–Soma has not been first cooked on the domestic fire. It is the only oblation that is consumed in its raw state (Charles Malamoud has drawn attention to this exception in his studies on the raw and the cooked in ancient India [1989: 56; 1996: 40]). All this applies a fortiori to the Soma juice that is drunk by the priests: having been pressed, it is accompanied by chant and recitations and subject to other special treatments but never cooked, boiled, or burnt.
The most serious objection to the mountain rue as a strong candidate for the original Soma is that it is “uniquely abundant” (Flattery and Schwartz, 1989:35 and passim). It grows throughout Iran and Central Asia, on mountains and plains. It is a weed on overgrazed, abandoned fields and occurs most typically beside roads. Iranian peoples were acquainted with it from the earliest periods of which we have any knowledge. Flattery and Schwartz regard this abundance as a strong argument in favor of their hypothesis. I believe that same premiss leads to exactly the opposite conclusion. The Vedic poets extol the virtues of a rare plant that never ceases to kindle their enraptured imagination. They tell us that it grows high in the mountains. Actually, mountain rue is sometimes said to grow in the mountains as is indeed suggested by its name not only in English but also in Arabic and Persian. Such information could strengthen our authors’ theory but they brush it away. Whether it is a Mandaean text or a late Persian jingle, anything that emphasizes an elevated origin is turned upside down: “The emphasis given … to the lofty and remote origins of a plant that is in fact a common weed available from the nearest rubbish heap would seem to have been intended not to describe its habitat, but, rather, to counter its banal provenance” (57).
Claiming that a source of information means the opposite of what is says–advocated only, as far as I know, by practitioners of hermeneutics such as Hans-Georg Gadamer–is tantamount to abolishing all textual interpretation if not communication altogether. Our authors engage in that questionable procedure again when invoking the Indian caste system (of which there were no traces in early Vedic): Brahmin priests, they allege, could not control the access to Soma, wanted to prevent others from getting it, and so obscured its identity (93). Wasson committed that fallacy also (Staal, 1988 , 1993: 202-1): when opponents of the mushroom theory pointed out that some Vedic descriptions do not fit a mushroom, he replied that different descriptions were given because the identity of the Soma was intentionally concealed.
The Veda is not a do-it-yourself manual for growing Soma. It was composed by and for members of a specific tribe or community. It was their sacred property, inherited from their ancestors. It constituted part of their identity, whatever that may mean. It is true that members of other castes were excluded from the Vedas later. Mantras were, and still often are, secret. But there is no trace of duplicity among the Rigvedic poets who are extolling forms and virtues of the Soma and singing its praise. And why should Book 9 describe in such painstaking detail the preparation of the Soma liquid if its composers were eager to conceal it?
I cannot do full justice to Flattery and Schwartz’s substantial contribution and anyone interested in the subject should give it due attention. It contains excellent refutations of rival theories, such as that of Ephedra, and technical discussions, for example, of Harold Bailey’s etymologies, including his passing suggestion that soma should not be derived from the root su- and the suffix -ma, but analyzed as som-a, in which the first element corresponds to German Schwamm, Latin fungus, and related Indo-European terms for mushroom (full discussion by Schwartz in Flattery and Schwartz, 1989:117-21, and further references in Wasson, 1979: 103-5). But whatever the excellent qualities of this book, I cannot refrain from feeling that the theory of the mountain rue is as wrong as that of Ephedra, equally ubiquitous and much more ancient as we are about to discover. Soma grew in the high mountains, not only according to Wasson but also according to the Vedas.
I know only three more recent contributions that deserve brief comment.
Harry Falk’s 1989 article starts out with a fundamental and eminently sensible observation: the differences in mythology between India and Iran are so considerable that mythological properties of Soma/Haoma cannot “stand at the beginning of its career.” Rather, the plant must have been there first and the mythology added later. This is not inconsistent with Kuiper’s “reasonable conjecture” that the Indo-Iranians discovered a new plant even if they attached to it an old mythology (supra, p. 755).
Falk starts from the assumption that Soma must have been alcoholic, a hallucinogenic, or a stimulant. He accepts the consensus that Soma is not alcoholic. To show that it is not a hallucinogenic, he takes up our hymn 10.119 (supra, p. 756-7) and makes four assertions. First, he believes it to be a description of a bird, or at any rate a winged creature; then, following medieval Indian commentators, he assumes that the bird is a God in disguise. Next he writes that the description of growing (or “surpassing”) in the hymn “gives no indication that it was due to the effects of any drug.” Finally he declares that all proponents of the theory that Soma was a hallucinogen, make their claim on the basis of this hymn.
No facts known to me support any of these assertions. The main translators of the hymn, Geldner and Renou followed by Doniger, accept as a matter of course that it depicts a Soma drinker describing himself. That its depiction does not refer to the effects of a hallucinogen is hardly likely when almost every line describes a typical hallucination and all are followed by the refrain: “Have I not drunk Soma?” Neither Geldner nor Renou comment on hallucinogens since they wrote before Wasson. Most advocates of a hallucinogenic interpretation, including Wasson and Flattery and Schwartz, do not mention this particular hymn at all. But Falk proceeds quickly to his conclusion: Soma is neither alcoholic nor hallucinogenic, so it must be Ephedra. The main argument is that Ephedra prevents sleeping and Vedic texts refer to nocturnal rites during which priests should stay awake. Many psychoactive substances, however, prevent sleep. The most recent hallucinogen reported in the media, yaba, spreading like wildfire from Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), was first discovered by German scientists and used during World War II to keep Nazi troops awake.
In 1995, Harri Nyberg, a botanist specializing in plant chemistry, made a promising effort to throw new light on the Soma puzzle. He paid serious attention to the psychoactive ingredient ephedrine and the Vedas’ assertion that Soma comes from the high mountains. His most interesting discovery is that the species of Ephedra with the highest ephedrine content, E. equisitina,
occurs primarily in mountainous areas. But he pays no attention to another fact he mentions elsewhere: the color of that species especially (Nyberg, 1995: 396) is blue-green–a color the Vedas never attribute to Soma. Of course, the history of color names is a tricky matter. According to Michael Witzel (personal communication), the opposition between yellow/red and blue/green was reversed during the Middle Ages in Japan, but the Indian color system has been “pretty stable”.
The third recent contribution is contained in the more than a thousand pages published in 1998 and largely devoted to Soma to which I referred at the outset. Its author, Thomas Oberlies, is chiefly concerned with texts and mythology, interpreted in the light of the work of B. Gladigow, a German hermeneutic theologian and scholar of religion. Oberlies is not interested in the botanical identity of the Soma plant: “The significance of this problem has been much overrated” (I: 166). In the second volume (II: 137), he descends to reality once. Following a suggestion made by Hermann Oldenberg, a leading Vedic scholar of a century ago, Oberlies argues that Soma pounding by means of mortar and pestle is compatible with the procedure explained in Book 9, where the stalks are pressed by pounding them with stones on a plank. He maintains that the supporting plank must have been square or rectangular in shape like the receptacles made of stone that archeologists excavated in Margiana, that is, the BMAC cultural area. A plate taken from a 1959 publication by the Russian archaeologist V. N. Masson illustrates this parallel from which Oberlies concludes that the form of the receptacle is Neolithic rather than Classical.
I mentioned that the hypothesis that Soma is Ephedra is now widely accepted. This wide acceptance is based in part on archeological evidence that I should not fail to mention. The great explorer and scholar Sir Aurel Stein recovered plant specimens from graves in the Tarim Basin near Turfan on the northern Silk Road that he described as Ephedra. However, as Flattery and Schwartz report (73 n.6, referred to also by Falk), Allison Bailey Kennedy went in 1984 to Kew Gardens where Stein’s specimens are kept and discovered them to be Equisetum or “horsetails,” a very different plant. Moreover, Stein did not believe that Soma was Ephedra since, according to him, Soma was sweet and Ephedra is bitter. His own candidate was wild rhubarb, which can be made into rhubarb wine–although he admitted that no Indians do so (Wasson, 1968: 133). A more recent discovery is due to Viktor Sarianidi, who excavated at the BMAC area and found Ephedra and other substances in one site. Nyberg obtained samples, which were analyzed at the Department of Botany, University of Helsinki, but no pollen of Ephedras were found and Nyberg concluded that further archeological investigation is necessary. Another well-known Vedic scholar, archaeologist, and supporter of the Ephedra hypothesis, Asko Parpola, referred positively to Sarianidi’s findings in his 1994 book on the Indus script, but in the end drew conclusions similar to Nyberg’s: more work is needed.
Introducing Doniger O’Flaherty’s account of earlier theories, Wasson wrote that the lesson to be drawn “about the futility of much scholarship is humbling” (1968: 92). According to Brough (1971: 332; 1996: 367), the discussion “has latterly been in the doldrums.” In 2001, I cannot but agree with these distinguished scientists and feel that we might do well to start all over again.
A depressing conclusion, but I am happy to report that there is something new, not on the identity of Soma but on its location. It amply supports the Vedas’ repeated assertion that Soma grows high in the mountains.
The Best Soma
We have seen in the ritual dialogue that the chief Nambudiri priest asks the Soma merchant: “Is it from Mount Mujavat?” and the merchant replies: “It is from Mount Mujavat.” Mujavat is the name of the mountain from which, according to Rigveda 10.34.1 and other early sources, the best Soma came. Where was it located?
All we know is that Mujavat is the name of a mountain. The -vat suffix is a common possessive and the name means: “having muja-” or perhaps: “inhabited by the Muja tribe.” The element muja is not Indo-European. Michael Witzel considered several possible etymologies in 1980(104-5 nn.16-7). According to one, muj- or its relative munj- may be preserved in the name of the Munjan people who live north of the Hindu Kush in the Kotcha Valley. There are also possible cognates in Burushaski, the language of Hunza. More recently, Witzel (1999: 345, 363) has suggested Muztagh Ata, a colossal mountain (24,386 ft.) close to the sources of the Oxus and Yarkand-Tarim Rivers. Tagh and ata are common Uighur words for “mountain” and “father” and the name means “Muz Mount Father.” There are at least two other mountains carrying the name Muztagh and of which Muztagh Ata may be called the father because it is higher. The important point of Witzel’s linguistic equation is that muz- is easily related to Vedic muj-. Mount Muztagh Ata, now on the border of Tajikistan and China’s Xinjiang, is beyond the northeast frontier of northeast Afghanistan, the area through which Indo-Aryan speakers trekked. Anyone who has seen that part of the world on a map recalls the Wakhan corridor, the longish promontory that we could call a peninsula–like Baja California–if Afghanistan were a continent surrounded by sea. If we take the modern frontier seriously, Muztagh Ata is just beyond it. If we, more realistically, regard that corridor as a recent creation, we must say that Mustagh Ata can be reached by following it for a little over 200 miles. True, “a little” is not so little at 15,000 ft., but we are talking about tough mountaineering people and the watershed here is far lower than the axial range of the Hindu Kush, an important geographical and geopolitical fact first emphasized by Lord Curzon, later Viceroy of India, in his still useful and readable monograph The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus (1896: 40).
In our present context, the most important fact is that Muztagh Ata is the mountain that is located close to the source of both the Oxus and Tarim Rivers. The Tarim or Yarkand River flows, with many tributaries and smaller streams and streamlets, through the full west-east breadth of the Tarim Basin. That basin has recently come into the news because of the discovery of numerous so-called mummies (really dessicated corpses), with tattooed skins and clothes surviving in excellent condition and often accompanied by little bags containing Ephedra. These mummies do not look like the Egyptian paradigm, “wizened and eviscerated pharaohs wrapped in yards of dusty gauze” (Mallory and Mair, 2000: 8). Because of the extraordinary dryness, the openness of some tombs that were well aerated, and the fact that the dead probably died in midsummer so that the corpses quickly lost fluids and dried, they are so well preserved that they seem to be merely asleep. The colors of their attire is striking. Victor Mair’s Ur-David wears knee-high socks of matted wool fibers in the bright rainbow colors of the gay flag. The earliest of these discoveries date from approximately 2000 B.C. and the latest from the second or third century A.D. (Mallory and Mair, 2000).
I shall not reopen the Pandora box of Ephedra. The species contained in the little bags was identified as Ephedra sinica, the Chinese variety. It does not affect the Soma problem because we know already that Ephedra use is ubiquitous. The newsworthy feature of these corpses is that their physical appearance and DNA analysis demonstrate that they belonged to people who have been called by various terms: European, Europoid, or Caucasian. Corpses found after the third century A.D. are increasingly Mongoloid and Chinese.
It has been widely assumed that the language spoken by these mummies before they were mummies was Indo-European. If that is so, their language must have been Indo-Iranian or an early form of Tocharian–the easternmost Indo-European language family (see figure 3). It is true that the evidence for Tocharian is Buddhist and of a later date, but it is also true that it was spoken in the very same area of Xinjiang. All Tocharian documents have been discovered along the northern Silk Road. The Tarim mummies have been found along the northern and southern branches both, but in the north they are mostly concentrated near Lop Nor, far to the east and close to China proper. Along the southern branch, a series of finds leads close to the source of the Yarkand-Tarim River, the colossal mountain complex towered over by Muztagh Ata, favorite candidate for the best Soma.
To sum up. The Tarim is the river of the mummies who probably spoke an Indo-European language, perhaps Indo-Iranian, Iranian, or Indo-Aryan. The Oxus is the river of the Indo-Iranian speakers who trekked south on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea. If Muztagh Ata is the same as Mujavat, Soma is the personification of the Indo-Aryan or Vedic contribution to the formation of Indian culture. No wonder that Soma developed into the most characteristic Vedic ritual, perhaps the oldest surviving ritual of humanity and certainly the most prolific. (7)
The case of Soma shows how a psychoactive plant was regarded as a God, inspired a mythology, and became a ritual. When the original Soma of the Rigveda became difficult or impossible to procure, Vedic peoples constructed a ritual edifice of unprecedented complexity, combining rites with chants and recitations. It happened around 1000 B.C., when their sociopolitical center shifted from the Indus Valley to the Kuru region near modern Delhi, between Indus and Ganges, where most of the other three Vedas were composed. The entire development demonstrates how ritualization increases as Soma decreases.
Is my story an illustration and confirmation of Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of the people? It is to some extent and I am sure he had a point. It is less persuasive as a general theory about the origin of religion. Every psychoactive substance does not lead to a religion and every religion does not arise from such a substance. The former theory is most easily refuted by counterexamples. Brough noted (1971: 335; 1996: 370) that opium users do not rhapsodize over the beauty of the flower of Papaver somniferum. In his recent book, Huston Smith lists Robert Graves, Gordon Wasson, and Alan Watts as proponents of the idea that most religions arise from psychoactive substances; and to Mary Barnard, who generalizes from most to all (2000:18-9). Wasson, who published widely on American Indian peoples and cultures of the New World, came close to defending that view as well. Smith is content to limit himself to points where drugs “surface in serious religious study” (ibid.). He starts out himself from the belief in a monotheistic God, sometimes called an Absolute, who unlike any Absolute sends us a mushroom whenever he so disposes (2000: 63). That was not the belief of any Vedic peoples, for they did not know absolutes or other Vedantic ideas inspired by the Upanishads.
We are puzzled by the not infrequent case of a drug addict overcoming addiction by a religious conversion. Is it permanent or temporary? Is it a cure or is the new religion itself addictive? Meditating daily for 10 hours may appear to be an addiction, but isn’t that what Buddha did? Here we get involved in value judgments that according to some scientists and philosophers of science are part and parcel of science. I am convinced that there is no science without the search for truth but have no good answer to these questions.
It should be pointed out, however, that religion is not the same as ritual. The English term “religion” is used primarily in the monotheistic sense, but rituals are performed by many animal species. The discovery that Vedic ritual is a ritual without religion led to my thesis that ritual is meaningless. It has helped me to achieve notoriety. Some anthropologists and philosophers have found my hypothesis preposterous. Linguists and other philosophers have regarded it as obvious. It is true that I have not always formulated my thinking conspicuously nor has it always been understood adequately. My thesis says, in a nutshell, that ritual does not, like human language, convey meaning in a systematic manner. It has a syntax that constructs larger units from smaller ones; but no corresponding semantics that does the same. The meaninglessness of ritual does not prevent it from having a syntax, nor from preserving significant information (for example, about the past of a community or civilization). To extract such information, we have to study each particular rite with all the care and attention it deserves.
The rite of sprinkling Soma with mantras to make it swell preserves information about the original Soma. All priests do it in the same manner and the sprinkling with mantras and the mantras themselves suggest that the Soma was sprinkled with water to make it swell. There is a difference but it pertains to origins. The Rigveda employs the root apyai- (“swell”) in several senses, but the swelling (apyayana) mantras come from the Yajurveda. The explanation must be that during the earliest Rigvedic times in the mountains, the original Soma was still available. Later, during Yajurvedic times in the Indian plains, it had to be transported from elsewhere and was available only in dried form. Given the large distances and difficulty of the terrain, quantifies would have been small, contributing to the rarity of the plant.
When dried plants are soaked in water, some maintain their original size; others swell. The Chinese knew stalks that swell when they become humid and used them to make dildos (van Gulik, 1961: 165). Ritualists possess a vast knowledge, but if we want to know the identity of the original Soma, we need botanists to find a psychoactive plant that grows in the high mountains of the Pamir watershed or similar surroundings, may be dried, and swells when put in water.
We have found that ritual is replete with chant and recitation and is, at least in part, a breathing exercise. Indian traditions speculate in depth about breath and air and their close connections with recitation, chant, and meditation. Has it something to do with the high mountains and thin air that are evoked by the English expression “getting high”?
I have paid attention to the identity of the original Soma and its original location since these explain a least in part its subsequent ritualization. As regards its identity, I hope to have shown that the equation of Soma with Ephedra and other ubiquitous stimulants does not solve the problem since the original plant was powerful, awe-inspiring, and difficult to obtain.
Many mysteries and questions about Soma remain and cannot be solved by a single individual. We need teamwork between experts on psychoactive substances and human physiology, Vedic scholars, botanists familiar with high mountains, geographers, historians, chemists, pharmacologists and others. My contribution has been ritual but I hope that some readers will take up the identity of Soma in earnest.
(1) I am grateful to Harold Arnold, Martin Schwartz, Giovanni Vitiello, and especially Michael Witzel for valuable information and helpful comments on an earlier draft. I thank Adelaide de Menil for permitting her photographs to be used in illustrations 1, 2, 5 and 6 (the first and third have never been published; 2 and 5 were published in Staal (1983, vol. I, plates 21F and 105). I was especially delighted to receive, albeit too late to incorporate its results, the draft of a paper entitled “Soma and Ecstasy in the Rgveda” read by George Thompson at the meeting of the American Oriental Society in Toronto on March 31, 2001, and forthcoming in the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies s. Dr. Thompson is similarly dissatisfied with the present consensus on the identity of the Soma, equally critical of the influential article by Harry Falk discussed in this paper, and has offered a new translation of Rigveda 10.119 that is consistent with my interpretation but carries it much further. Some of our arguments are similar, others different, but the upshot is that the two articles and points of view complement and considerably strengthen each other.
(2) On the left is Erkkara Raman Nambudiri, in 1975 doyen of Vedic scholars among the Nambudiri brahmins of Kerala; on the right, Professor E. R. Sreekrishna Sarma, editor of the important Vedic Kausitaki Brahmana, together with a medieval Nambudiri commentary.
(3) With minor changes. For example, I translate mati not as “prayer” (Geldner “Gebet”) but as “thought” (Bergaigne “pensee’); prati in verse 7 implies “equal” rather than “set against” in view of Rigveda 6.30.1 (referred to by Geldner). For “greatness” in verse 8 see Brough (1971: 341; 1996: 376), who prefers it because it does not refer to physical size whereas I prefer it because it does not refer to physical size only.
(4) Huston Smith (2000: 57-60) has recently discussed some of these reviews in a chapter on “Historical Evidence: India’s Sacred Soma.” Without evaluating the evidence (as he had done earlier), Smith calls Wasson’s arguments the strongest in the field, “but the debate continues” (46).
(5) Orientalists have been regarded as politically incorrect and in general disrepute ever since Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Said did not seem to know that almost all our reliable knowledge of the ancient (and many of the modern) languages and civilizations of Asia, including history, archeology, philosophies, religions, sciences, literatures, and the arts, comes from Orientalists who are, like other scientists, of African, American, Asian, European, or some other extraction and sometimes right but often wrong for a great variety of reasons.
(6) Since it has caused some confusion, I hope no one will be displeased when I add that the “Flattery” in David Stophlet has nothing to do with the “O’Flaherty’ now vanished from Wendy Doniger.
(7) Ritual proliferation led to the discovery of notions of default and recursiveness by Indian scientists of ritual and language. They formulated rules that apply to their own output and generate an infinite number of ritual acts or expressions of language (Staal, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c).
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Frits Staal is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley. His books include Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, I-II (1983) and Rules without Meaning: Ritual, Mantras, and the Human Sciences (1989). He has two films to his credit as well as more than 130 published articles.
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