Soma (Sanskrit: soma) or haoma (Avestan), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-, was a Vedic ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians. It is mentioned in the Rigveda, particularly in the Soma Mandala. In the Avestan literature, haoma has the entire Yasht 20 and Yasna 9-11 dedicated to it.
It is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant, the identity of which is now unknown and debated among scholars. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same.
There has been much speculation concerning what is most likely to have been the identity of the original plant. There is no consensus on the question, although some proposed candidates include Amanita muscaria, Psilocybe cubensis, Peganum harmala and Ephedra sinica.
Soma is a Vedic Sanskrit word that literally means "distill, extract, sprinkle", often connected in the context of rituals.
Soma, and its cognate the Avestan haoma, are thought to be derived from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-. The name of the Scythian tribe Hauma-varga is related to the word, and probably connected with the ritual. The word is derived from an Indo-Iranian root *sav- (Sanskrit sav-/su) "to press", i.e. *sau-ma- is the drink prepared by pressing the stalks of a plant. According to Mayrhofer, the root is Proto-Indo-European (*sew(h)-)
According to professor David W. Anthony, author of The Horse, the Wheel and Language, soma was introduced into Indo-Iranian culture from the Bactria–Margiana culture. The Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran. It was "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements", which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices" from the Bactria–Margiana culture. At least 383 non-Indo-European words were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink soma. According to Anthony,
Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.
In the Vedas, the same word (soma) is used for the drink, the plant, and its deity. Drinking soma produces immortality (Amrita, Rigveda 8.48.3). Indra and Agni are portrayed as consuming soma in copious quantities. The consumption of soma by human beings is well attested in Vedic ritual.
The Rigveda (8.48.3) says:
a ápāma sómam amŕtā abhūmâganma jyótir ávidāma devân
c kíṃ nūnám asmân kṛṇavad árātiḥ kím u dhūrtír amṛta mártyasya
Ralph T.H. Griffith translates this as:
We have drunk soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
Now what may foeman's malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man's deception?
Swami Dayanand Saraswati translates it as:
Som (good fruit containing food not any intoxicating drink) apama (we drink you)
amŕtā abhūmâ (you are elixir of life) jyótir âganma (achieve physical strength or light of god)
ávidāma devân (achieve control over senses);
kíṃ nūnám asmân kṛṇavad árātiḥ (in this situation, what our internal enemy can do to me)
kím u dhūrtír amṛta mártyasya (god, what even violent people can do to me)
The references to immortality and light are characteristics of an entheogenic experience. Also, consider Rigveda (8.79.2-6) regarding the power of Soma: "...He covers the naked and heals all who are sick. The blind man sees; the lame man steps forth....Let those who seek find what they seek: let them receive the treasure....Let him find what was lost before; let him push forward the man of truth...." Such is indicative of an experience with an entheogen of some source.
The finishing of haoma in Zoroastrianism may be glimpsed from the Avesta (particularly in the Hōm Yast, Yasna 9), and Avestan language *hauma also survived as middle Persian hōm. The plant haoma yielded the essential ingredient for the ritual drink, parahaoma.
In Yasna 9.22, haoma grants "speed and strength to warriors, excellent and righteous sons to those giving birth, spiritual power and knowledge to those who apply themselves to the study of the nasks". As the religion's chief cult divinity he came to be perceived as its divine priest. In Yasna 9.26, Ahura Mazda is said to have invested him with the sacred girdle, and in Yasna 10.89, to have installed haoma as the "swiftly sacrificing zaotar" (Sanskrit hotar) for himself and the Amesha Spenta.
The ritual of somayajna is still held with unbroken continuity in the South India. The somalatha (Sanskrit: soma creeper) which is procured in small quantities from the Himalayan region is used to prepare soma rasam or soma juice. It is also used in these areas in Ayurveda and Siddha medicine streams since time immemorial. The herb which is used is Sarcostemma acidum.
There has been much speculation as to the original Sauma plant. Candidates that have been suggested include honey, mushrooms, psychoactive and other herbal plants.
Since the late 18th century, when Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron and others made portions of the Avesta available to western scholars, several scholars have sought a representative botanical equivalent of the haoma as described in the texts and as used in living Zoroastrian practice. In the late 19th century, the highly conservative Zoroastrians of Yazd (Iran) were found to use ephedra, which was locally known as hum or homa and which they exported to the Indian Zoroastrians.
During the colonial British era scholarship, cannabis was proposed as the soma candidate by Joseph Chandra Ray, The Soma Plant (1939) and by B. L. Mukherjee (1921).
In the late 1960s, several studies attempted to establish soma as a psychoactive substance. A number of proposals were made, including one in 1968 by the American banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur ethnomycologist, who asserted that soma was an inebriant but not cannabis, and suggested fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as the likely candidate. Since its introduction in 1968, this theory has gained both detractors and followers in the anthropological literature. Wasson and his co-author, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, drew parallels between Vedic descriptions and reports of Siberian uses of the fly-agaric in shamanic ritual.
In 1989 Harry Falk noted that, in the texts, both haoma and soma were said to enhance alertness and awareness, did not coincide with the consciousness altering effects of an entheogen, and that "there is nothing shamanistic or visionary either in early Vedic or in Old Iranian texts", (Falk, 1989) Falk also asserted that the three varieties of ephedra that yield ephedrine (geradiana, major procera and intermedia) also have the properties attributed to haoma by the texts of the Avesta. (Falk, 1989) At the conclusion of the 1999 Haoma-Soma workshop in Leiden, Jan E. M. Houben writes: "despite strong attempts to do away with ephedra by those who are eager to see *sauma as a hallucinogen, its status as a serious candidate for the Rigvedic Soma and Avestan Haoma still stands" (Houben, 2003).
The Soviet archeologist Viktor Sarianidi wrote that he had discovered vessels and mortars used to prepare soma in Zoroastrian temples in Bactria. He said that the vessels have revealed residues and seed impressions left behind during the preparation of soma. This has not been sustained by subsequent investigations. Alternatively Mark Merlin, who revisited the subject of the identity of soma more than thirty years after originally writing about it stated that there is a need of further study on links between soma and P. Somniferum. (Merlin, 2008)
In his book Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna postulates that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis, a hallucinogenic mushroom that grows in cow dung in certain climates. McKenna cites both Wasson's and his own unsuccessful attempts using Amanita muscaria to reach a psychedelic state as evidence that it could not have inspired the worship and praise of soma. McKenna further points out that the 9th mandala of the Rig Veda makes extensive references to the cow as the embodiment of soma.
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation-Sidhi Program involves a notion of "soma", said to be based on the Rigveda.