The four Vedas– the RgVeda, Atharvaveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda – form the foundation of present Sanatana Dharma. There are many different deities mentioned in the Vedas, with popular in terms of number of times being mentioned being Indra (King of Gods), Agni (God of Fire), and “Soma”. “Soma” is mentioned in the RgVeda, and also in the other Vedas.
However, the mention of “Soma” is not only as a Deity, but also as a Plant, and as a Juice of a Plant which is considered a Holy Medicine.
In the Vedas, the God Indra, who drinks “Soma” from birth, is ever-youthful, and intoxicated after drinking 30 ponds full of “Soma”, the slayer of three-headed snake/demon/dragon Vrtra (‘slayer of resistance’), is the deity occasionally identified with “Soma”, and of overwhelming power is often invited to be present in “Soma” rituals.
How is “Soma” prepared for Rituals and Rites according to Vedas
According to the Vedas, Brahmanas, Srautasutras, and other commentarial texts, the rituals with “Soma” is described:-
- “Soma” is purchased in form of bundles of stalks of a Plant with shoots but no Leaves and purchased from Sudras, in exchange for tawny-coloured cow and sometimes other goods. The seller brings the Best-quality “Soma” from the Mount Mujavat. Details of purchase of “Soma” is mentioned in Yajurveda (books 1-9).
- Pressing of “Soma”: The ritual pressing of “Soma” is considered as a select sub-caste of Vedic society, and performed three times a day, in morning, noon and evening, compared with milking of cow. The expressed ‘Juice’ is said to make a lot of noise, like bellowing bull, when being pressed out, and is passed through sheep- wool filter, from which the juice issues flowing clearly purified – referred to as Pavamana. Soma Pavamana is prevalent image in “Soma” Hymns.
- Offer “Soma” to Gods: The expressed and purified “Soma” ‘Juice’ is then mixed in a trough known as Adhavaniya with specially drawn water and poured into wooden casks. Milk, often also curd, and barley are then added to the water and the “Soma” ‘Juice’. This ‘Mixture’ is then offered to the Gods on a litter of grass which has been carried on the special cart, Asandi, to the ritual enclosure, which is then drunk from bowls/cups (camasa) by the priests who officiate the ritual. Before drinking, a male goat (or goats) are sacrificed by asphyxiation at the sacrificial post – yupa.
Vedic rituals and rites relating to “Soma”
There are many kinds of Vedic ritual, comprising of both Domestic (grhya) Rites, which require the ritual establishment of the domestic fireplaces, and more elaborate Srauta Rites – both of which embody the combined and amalgamated types of rituals and minor rites. The Srauta Rites involve the three deities Indra, Agni and “Soma”, which is referred to as the ‘Divine Triumvirate’. The Srauta ritual is most associated with the Yajurvedic texts, where the “Soma” sacrifices are also highly elaborated, which are described in great detail in Brahmanas and Srautasutras. These are most important of the Srauta sacrifices in Vedic ritual which have been so since time of the RgVeda, core of which comprises of a liturgical collection of Hymns and rituals with “Soma” rites. The fundamental and typical Vedic sacrifices are the “Soma” rituals, which is regarded by all authorities as a distinct class of sacrifice and as the most important and superior of the three basic kinds of Vedic rituals – the other two being “Isti” and “Pasubandha”. The Hymns of the Samaveda, Yajurveda and Rgveda mainly relate to the “Soma” sacrifice or other Srauta rituals.
- Along with Mantras from Vedas, Srauta Rites require offerings from a wooden ladle in to the, usually three, fires established for the Rites. The substances for the rites include ghee, rice, and barley, and depending on the rite, also “Soma” and fat and omentum (Vapa) from sacrificed animals.
- The Rites require team of brahmans following different aspects of the rituals under the specific rites. The “Soma” sacrifices are performed on highest grounds in a locality, being regarded as pre-eminently suitable for ascending to the sphere of the Gods. Rituals may take place for one or several days.
- The Sacrifices which take place on the new and full moon are of particular importance. RENOU (2004:154) has described Vedic sacrifice as a kind of drama, with its actor, its dialogue, its portions set to music, and its interludes and climaxes. The sacrifice (yajamana), who is the patron, pays of the ritual and is usually wealthy. He will usually undergo initiation (diksa), and must fast (or restrict diet or abstain from any meat), observe temporary celibacy, bathe, and be shaven before the “Soma” ritual, and must be accompanied by his wife, who is girdled with a rope of darbha grass and remains in a temporary hut in the ritual enclosure during the performing of the rites. The initiation of the sacrifice and the co-sacrificer (wife) results in a symbolic death, followed by a rebirth – the sacrifice becomes like an embryo, closing fists like a foetus in the womb, represented by the temporary hut prepared for the initiate. At the conclusion there is a ritual bath, avabhrtha. With the help of ‘King’ “Soma”, the sacrifice eradicates any sing or fault he may have committed against the Gods.
- A clear distinction exists in literature between who is to consume the “Soma” (which requires invitation), and who should not, latter often compared to the sudras. Priests may drink “Soma” regularly during the “Soma” rituals, and the sacrifice may drink “Soma” only once or infrequently.
- The purpose of the Vedic rites is primarily for ‘cosmic order’, as well as for the sacrifice to obtain a ‘better life’, with gold, health, sons and cows.
- There was also traditions and records of performing “Soma” Rituals for sorcery and black magic, belonging to the Samaveda branch of the Vedas.
- The “Soma” rituals related to performance of Vedic recitations was practiced by a small number of people, and performed by mainly Brahmans. Around the 1500CE – 1000BCE, in South Asia, the group of people estimated to be who would know about the Vedas and “Soma” rites, might have numbered around 1000s.
Location, Colour, attributes of the “Soma”
- “Soma” is several times mentioned to grow on mountains (or in heaven) from where a falcon would bring “Soma”, which is both terrestrial and celestial.
- Adjectives used to describe colour include hari (‘green’, ‘yellow’ or ‘golden), babhru (‘brown’ / ‘tawny’), and aruna (Red brown/ tawny). “Soma” has also been called ‘sweet’, madhu, but only after addition of milk, which made the “Soma” ‘Mixture’ milder, without which the taste remains sharp or bitter/piquant/astringent.
- Although the myth of the “Soma” permeate the Vedas, it has been difficult to determine reliable botanical evidence from religious texts. Also the poetic, allusive, multivalent, and polysemantic use of the “terms” make them open to variety of interpretations.
- One of the most common epithets of “Soma” – often referred to as “King Soma” -in the Vedas and Brahmanas is ‘Amsu’ which can be translated as ‘stem’ or ‘stalk’.
- The term ‘amsu’ (Avestan qsu) is the original name of the “Soma” Plant, from which the ‘Juice’ is pressed. Other of the many attributes of “Soma” in the Vedas include ‘Lord of Vision’ (Dhi), Indu (the bright drop), Andhas (refering to the Plant and the “Soma” ‘Juice’), Drapsa (Drop), Pitu (‘Juice’/Drink/Food).
- Soma” is also the ‘King’ of Plants, and the effects are compared with the strength of bull; swift life a steed, brilliant like the sun, conferring immortality on Gods and men.
- The medicinal powers confer long life.
- Destroys falsehood and promotes truth.
- Stimulates voice and spires poets and the composition of hymns (“Soma” is identified as the ‘Divine Poet’).
- “Soma” is all-knowing, seeing everything with a thousand eyes and killing demons and the wicked.
- Pressing “Soma” engenders Ananda (bliss/happiness).
- “Soma” is referred to as amrta (non-death/immortal).
The Holy “Soma” compared between the Vedic and the Yogic Sastras
“Soma” in Vedas is not a proper name but rather a ritual designation for a substance out of which “Soma” is pressed, observes ELIZARENKOVA (1996:28). According to some scholars, in the Vedic context, “Soma” may have referred not necessarily only to a specific Plant but to an effective preparation of Plants.
One of the popularly known main attributes of “Soma” is to be Amrt, i.e. to be immortal. However, although such reference as amrt is mentioned occasionally in the Vedas, the well-known myth of the “Juice of Immortality” does not appear until long after the Vedas were composed, in the well developed form in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas. This identification of “Soma” simply as amrta or as a ‘Nectar of Immortality’ or the key to higher wisdom or consciousness. Although such notion may have been correct in essence, however such may have been detracted from an analysis of what exactly in terms of botany “Soma” actually had referred to in the Vedic context.
Interestingly, “Soma” being identified as amrta is reversed according to later Tantric and Yoga texts, wherein the ecstasy producing amrta, which is believed to be stored in the cranial vault becomes identified as “Soma”; and thus amrta becomes “Soma”. Details of this can be found in the Hathapradipika (3.44-46)
Here, what is being referred to is clearly an allegorical “Soma” rather than extracted “Juice” from a Plant. Simiarly, in the Khecarividya of Adinatha, “Soma” Is identified as an internal Nectar (Amrta), stored in eight places (kala), or as either streams/oceans – in one’s head, ‘drinking’ which , through khecari mudra, the yogi conquers disease and acquires a diamond body (MALLINSON 2007:124). Also in Tamil Siddha tradition it is believed that there is an endogenous “Soma” (correlative with exogenous “Soma”), which is fluid known as civampu (the flowering of civam) which is secreted in the midbrain, and which can be activated by yoga exercises (ZVELEBIL 1996:92). In Some Tibetan Buddhist transgressive rites (such as, for example, in the c. 8th century Cakrasamvara Tantra), combined male and female sexual emissions, which are consumed, are also sometimes referred to as “Soma”.
“Soma” was a part of the Vedic ritual, in the form of ‘Expressed Juice” of a Plant (or Plants), but on the other hand “Soma” had later also been identified in later yogic and tantric circles as an internal ‘Nectar of Immortality’, providing similar kinds of ‘siddhis’ and bliss engendered by the drinking of the “Soma” Holy Medicine.
Contrary to popular belief, the “Soma” is not only a Holy Medicine, but “Soma” is also considered as a Deity in Vedic cultures, similar to how the Holy Medicine is referred to as “Ayahuasca”, in relation to the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca. Indeed, undoubtedly so, that the “Soma” of ancient times is related to the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca.
- Clark M. (2020), The Tawny One – Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca, Aeon Books Ltd., United Kingdom.