By the end of 19th Century, there was a scholarly consensus that “Haoma”, mentioned in the Avesta, and “Soma”, mentioned in the Vedas, were the same ‘reference’ – i.e. to a Holy Plant, Holy Medicine, and a Divine Deity – similar to the Holy Medicine of the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca, where the term “Ayahuasca” has been referenced.
It has also been generally acknowledged in the scholarly circles that certain Indian substitutes for “Soma” rituals were traditionally applied for over 2,800 years.
Substitute Plants for “Soma” in Ancient India
It seems, although not certain, that according to the Rgvedas, by the time of early Brahmanas (from c.800 BCE), the ‘original’ “Soma” had become rare, if not unavailable. This has been assumed by HILLEBRANDT (1980, Vol. 1:159), who remarked that several statements in the Rgveda did not agree with each other and gave the ‘impression’ that different Plants were already added to prepare the Holy Medicine of “Soma”. The Satapatha Brahmana (18.104.22.168-6) speaks of several Plants could be pressed to prepare “Soma”, if [original] “Soma” was taken away or stolen (yadi somamapahareyuh), which are:
- One of the two kinds of Phalguna Plant (with brown flowers)
- Syenadrta, Adara Plants
- Brown Durva (=dub) which are said to be akin to “Soma” Plants)
- Kusa grass, which are yellow or greenish.
- Syamaka, cultivated millet
- Parna (a Sacred Tree)
- Munja grass (O’FLAHERTY 1968:97):
- Somapattra, is identified by MONIER-WILLIAMS as Saccharum cylindricum, a species of Reed-like grass.
- Putikas: KANE (1997, Vol. 2, part 2:1203) also detailed substitutes mentioned in other Brahmanas, including the Juice of Putikas. The commentary on Asvalayana Srautasutra (6.8.5-6) states that Durva (= Darbha) and Kusa grass may be mixed with Putika stalks. The identity of Putika is not certain. HOUBEN (1992:110n.25) mentions references to Putika as “dark Durva grass” and as “the well-known kind of grass or herb”. SAYANA referring to the Tandya Brahmana (9.5.1), identifies Putika as a Creeper (Lata) and adds that a dark grass known as Arjunani may have been added (KANE 1997, Vol. 2, Part 2:1203). However, SHARMA and DASH (Vol. 1 1983:58), the translators of CARAKA (Sutrasthana 113) have identified the Putika as Caesalpinia crista Linn., the bark of which is said to be Medicinal.
Apart from Putika, Syamaka (cultivated millet), and Parna (Butea Frondosa/Monosperma), all the other identifiable Plans are kinds of grass. It must be noted that several kinds of grass have potential Psychoactive properties.
Syamaka also has one of the names in Sanskrit as “Soma” (NADKARNI (1954:477), illustrating continuing identification with “Soma”. The face that millet could also be possible to be “Soma” in the way that millet could have hosted the Holy Ergot Fungus, which is highly Psychoactive.
The Brahmanas also mention other substitutes for non-brahmans. The Aitareya Brahmana (5.7.28-32) recommends for Ksatriyas
- the pressed tendrils of the Nyagrodha (Banyan) Tree
- fruits of the Udumbara (Indian or cluster fig)
- Asvattha (Peepal)
- Plaksa Trees (wavy-leaf/white fig)
The Chandogya Upanishad (8.5.3.) refers to an Asvattha Tree (in the world of brahman) as “Somasavana” (“Soma”-pressing), while in the Atharvaveda (8.7.20), Asvattha, Darbha and “Soma” are all identified with immortal sacrifice.
Usana Plant: In the Satapatha Brahmana there are two references (22.214.171.124;126.96.36.199) to a Plant called Usana, which is said to grow on mountains and can be pressed to prepare “Soma”. This Plant has not been referred to as a substitute, but as ‘the’ “Soma”. The Plant could not be identified in either Sanskrit or Hindi dictionaries but is an example of one of the several Plants for preparing “Soma”.
Pata Plant: DAS (2001) discussed reference in the Atharvaveda (2.27) to Indra’s eating the Pata Plant and becoming victorious. Although this is synonymous with “Soma” and the identification of the Plant is obscure, MALANDRA (1979) maintains that in this verse “Soma” is in the form of an amulet and consumed ‘magically’ for victory, and also states that it is safe to interpret this passage that the ‘amulet’ was made from a ‘root’ or ‘tuber’. DAS (2001:33n.67) also refers to the Santikalpa of the Atharvaveda (19:6) in which the name of Pata occurs, as an amulet made from the root of the Pata Plant. If the Plant is a grass, then the roots or stems could be twisted, and an amulet could be created. Wearing ‘amulet’ as a wristband is still a common way of wearing ‘magical’ amulet in South Asia. Alternatively, KALAM (1988:22) identified Pata as a perennial creeper Clypea hernandifolia (= Stephania hernandifolia Willd. = Stephania Japonica Discolor), though the spelling of this Plant in Sanskrit is Patha, which contains about 20 recently discovered alkaloids, some of which are toxic, and is medical in Chinese medicine as well as Ayurveda. This also appears in several medicinal formulas in the Bower Manuscript. Nevertheless, even if Pata, as “Soma”, in Atharvaveda is considered as Patha (a Creeper), both can be carried as ‘amulet’. In fact Patha may also have been a Psychoactive ingredient added to prepare “Soma”.
SUSRUTA Reference: SUSRUTA (1963:530-538 [Vol. 2, ch. XXIX]) is often cited in Ayurvedic passage for medically restorative treatments (rasayana) for prevention of death and decay, where “Soma” is equated with Amrta (immortality) and which mentions about the twenty four (24) different species of the Holy “Soma” Plant. Some of the names which SUSRUTA has provided are mentioned in the Vedas, and several of them are Vedic epithets for “Soma”, such as Agnistoma and Candramah. However, SUSRUTA states that the virtues and methods of engaging with the different species are identical – i.e. the ‘effects’ are the same, although it is apparent that different kinds of Holy “Soma” Plants are referred. SUSRUTA mentioned that those which trail upon the ground or grow as small Shrubs or in bushes should be consumed as they are – i.e. without extracting any ‘Juice’. However, ‘Juice’ has to be extracted from the kinds referred to as Agnistoma and Candramah and which are said to be the best of “Soma”.
If “Soma” had become rare or unobtainable by the time of the Brahmanas then why would SUSRUTA mention so many Plants called “Soma”? It is because the Holy “Soma” Medicine could be prepared from various species of Plants, similar to shamans preparing the Holy Medicine of the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca.
The fact that Holy Medicine “Soma” could be prepared from more than one Plant, and that different Plants could be added interchangeably to prepare the Holy Medicine “Soma” is evident. Indeed, as speculated earlier, the Ancient Holy Medicine “Soma” is an ‘Analogue’ of the Holy Medicine of the Holy and Divine Mother Ayahuasca.
- Clark M. (2020), The Tawny One – Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca, Aeon Books Ltd., United Kingdom.