The Soma-Haoma Question

CANNABIS CULTURE – The Sacred soma/haoma were plant based ritual drinks of the ancient Vedic and Avestan religions, thought to have originated from a common earlier past.

Soma and haoma were said to have inspired the poets who recorded these traditions as well.

Through ancient prohibitions and the passage of time, the identity of soma and haoma was lost, leaving only the religious texts that described their entheogenic qualities behind them. As a result this has left modern religious scholars a riddle in discovering this ancient mystery plants long lost identity.

This is the first instalment in a series of articles that will explore the mystery of the identity of the supreme sacraments of the ancient world, the Indian Vedic Soma and its Persian counterpart, the Avestan Haoma. These well researched articles are highlighted throughout, with hyperlinks, which will take the interested reader to rare source material, as well as more information about the people and topics discussed.

In this series we will examine some of the most popular candidates that have been put forth as answers to The Soma Question, Cannabis, Psychedelic Mushrooms and Syrian Rue. “The History of the search for Soma is, properly, the history of Vedic studies in general, as the Soma sacrifice was the focal point of the Vedic religion… everything of a mystical nature within that religion is pertinent to the identity of the plant” (Doniger O’Flaherty, 1968).

Part 1: The Soma-Haoma Question

Rig Veda Tenth Mandala [excerpts]

Sanctify Soma our mind, our heart, our intellect; and may thy worshippers delight in thy friendship, like cattle in fresh pasture, in thine exhilaration (produced) by the sacrificial food; for thou art mighty….

Like the winds violently shaking the trees, the draughts of Soma have lifted me up, for I have often drunk of the Soma

The praise of the pious has come to me like a lowing cow to her beloved calf, for I have often drunk of the Soma

Both heaven and earth are not equal to one half of me, for I have often drunk of the Soma

I am the sun, the greatest of the great, raised to the firmament; for I have often drunk of the Soma

In the Tree in Religion or Myth, it is noted that:

The drinking of vegetable juices, fermented or otherwise, was no doubt one of the  means by which early races were accustomed to produce dreams and visions, and so, in their view, to get themselves possessed by or put into communication with a spirit. It was natural, therefore, for them to assume that the spirit in question had entered into them with the drug, and was therefore present in it and in the plant from which it was derived… this… was one of the chief factors in the origin of plant worship in general, a main reason why plants yielding intoxicating agents, and hence other plants, came to be regarded as containing supernatural beings. (Philpot, 1897)

Nowhere in the history of the world, has such a relationship been more identifiable, than with that of ancient Humanity’s relationship with the long lost Soma-Haoma, which was at the same time a plant, a God and the sacrament ingested by that God’s cult.

It is extremely difficult for the person who is not acquainted by actual study with the history of religions to understand how a plant can become deified on account of the peculiar medical or intoxicating effects which it is supposed to possess. We may read in the Vedic literature page after page of the virtues of the Soma plant and the way

in which it affects both gods and men, and becomes itself an object of divine worship, but since the plant itself is unknown, and only represented in the present day by a substitute, we have no means of observing experimentally the potencies which the Aryans attached to the original plant and its juices. (Harris, 1927)

In this series we shall see if what once was lost, has now been found, as we explore the story of the Soma-Haoma cult from its origins with the common Indo-European ancestors of the Vedic Indians and Avestan Persians.

Ever since the Aryans crossed the Hindu Kush into India in prehistoric times, the mystery has persisted. And ever since Sanskrit was discovered by Europeans in the eighteenth century, an apparently insoluble riddle has lain at the heart of Vedic studies: the identity of the mysterious, sacred psychotropic plant of the Brahmans called soma. (La Barre, 1980)

The identity of the ancient Soma is undoubtedly one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the field of religious history.  Common in both the religious lore of ancient India and in Persia where it was known as Haoma, the plant was considered a God and when pressed and made into a drink the ancient worshipper who imbibed it gained the powerful attributes of this God.   

The whole Sama-Veda is devoted to this moon-plant worship; an important part of the Avesta is occupied by Hymns to Homa. This great reverence paid to the plant, on account of its intoxicating qualities, carries us back to a region where the vine was unknown, and to a race to whom intoxication was so new an experience as to seem a gift of the gods. Wisdom appeared to come from it, health, increased power of body and soul, long life, victory in battle, brilliant children. What Bacchus was to the Greeks, the Divine Haoma, or Soma, was to the primitive Aryans. (Clarke, 1883)

As Zenaide A. Ragozin noted in his 1895 edition of Vedic India, Soma “was unquestionably the greatest and holiest offering of the ancient Indian worship”:

The Gods drink of the offered beverage; they long for it; are nourished by it and thrown into joyous intoxication… The beverage is divine, it purifies, it is a water of life, gives health and immortality, prepares the way to heaven, destroys enemies, etc.,

The fierceness of the drink, its exhilarating and inspiring properties, are especially expatiated upon. The chosen few who partake it… give most vivid expressions to the state of exaltation, of intensified vitality, which raises them above the level of humanity. (Ragozin, 1895)

The origins of Soma’s use goes back into the shadowy time of pre-history and to the common Aryan ancestors of the Persian Zoroastrian religion, and the Vedic religion of India.  It may seem strange to some readers that fair skinned Aryans are the source of both the Vedic Soma cult in India, and Avestan Haoma cult in Persia, but this is clearly the case. Fair skinned, yellow haired Indra, the celebrated Soma drinking God of the Vedas, clearly originated as a “white man’s” God.

At the swift draught the Soma-drinker waxed in might, the Iron one with yellow beard and yellow hair. (RV.10.96)

Fair cheeks hath Indra, Maghavan, the Victor, Lord of great host… (RV.3.30)

As  I.J.S. Taraporewala explained:

The Aryans (using the word in its narrower sense, as comprising the two peoples, the Indians and the Iranians, who called themselves by that proud name) had lived together for long ages in one land, had spoken one tongue and had followed one religion. Where that ancient Motherland of the Aryans was, we have now no means of determining, but it seems to have been a region far to the North, which, according to the Iranian tradition, was overwhelmed and destroyed by ice and snow. At a later period the two main stocks of these people migrated southwards, still keeping together, and after many generations of wandering, ultimately arrived in the neighbourhood of the high mountainous region which we know as the Pamir table-land today. They spread around from that region into the lower fertile and salubrious valleys of the south, west and east. The lands called by us Afghanistan and Bactria were the regions where the Aryans had long carried on their activities.

The language which these people spoke was the ancient tongue of which the language of the Vedic Hymns and that of the Gathic Chants of Zarathustra were both branches. The exceedingly close resemblance between the two has been noted by every student of Aryan philology. So close are these two languages that a mere phonetic change (or, to put it popularly, a slight mispronunciation) often suffices to translate a passage from the one into the other, keeping at the same time the sense absolutely intact. The differences are not greater than what are found between two ‘dialects’ of one original tongue.

The religious traditions inherited by these two great peoples, the Hindus and the Persians were, therefore, the common Aryan traditions…. Haoma is … [an]Indo-Iranian Deity, being the Vedic Soma. In the Avesta He is not a mere personification of the Soma-plant, but a great Teacher who appeared in the very early days to lead forward our infant humanity… Some scholars believe that it was He who introduced the Haoma-(Soma-) Cult among the Aryans and thus gave His own name to the plant and its juice which formed an important item of the Indo-Iranian ritual. The Hindu and Zoroastrian rituals turn entirely upon the offering of the juice of this plant. (Taraporewala, 1926)

This common ancestry accounts for the many similarities in the Indian and Persian cosmologies and language as can be seen in the surviving religious texts the Hindu Rig Veda, and the Persian, Avesta, and especially to their use of the sacred plant known in India as Soma, and in Persian Haoma. As Dasturji Dr. Maneckji N. Dhalla explained of the connections between Haoma and Soma:

…[T]he resemblance between… [the Haoma]and the Soma cult is so great that they are spoken of in identical words. We shall quote a few of the more important passages to show the close parallelism between the Haoma-Soma cult. The celestial plant, it is said, was brought upon earth by birds. It is girishta or girijata and parvata vrddhah, say the Vedic texts, and the Avesta says it is bareshnush paiti gairinam and paurvatahva viraodha, that is, growing on mountains. It is Av. zairi, and Skt. hari, meaning green or golden. It is passed through a sieve of the hairs of the tail of the sacred bull among the Iranians and from that made of sheep wool among the Indians. The extracting process is called Av. havana, and Skt. savana. It is Av. haomahe madho, and Skt. somyam madhu, ‘sweet juice of Haoma-Soma.’ It is Av. baeshaza, and Skt. bheshaja, ‘healing.’ The plant is deified among both and then it is called Av. hvaresh, and Skt. svarsh ‘celestial,’ it is Av. hukhratu, and Skt. Sukratu, ‘posessed of good intelligence.’ It is Av. verethraja, and Skt. vrtraha, ‘victorious’. (Dhalla, 1936)

Unfortunately, over the millennia that have passed since these ancient texts were composed, the identity of the original HaomaSoma was forgotten. “Whatever plant was used by the Indo-Aryans in the early centuries it is certain that it was later replace by other botanical species” (Eliade, 1978). As has been noted, the subjects of psychoactive substances in magical rituals, even in the historic period, are hard to follow, as to both Priests and shamans alike, magic revealed is secrets lost. As Rendel Harris explained, at first the use of ritual consumption of Soma was an event for the general public, but this soon changed:

Then later the club, formed by the initiates, will assert itself against the drink; the democracy of the new draught will disappear; the god-intoxicated mystics will become a caste; the Aryan in the street will no longer make nor drink the beverage: it will come under the rule, ‘For the priests only’ and ‘By the priests only:’ in the beginning it appears to have been more widely diffused and more commonly enjoyed. The religious experience becomes transferred from the many to the few; one must not over-populate the upper atmospheres! Gods there; Brahmans here: but not too many of them. (Harris, 1927)

Detailed descriptions of the plant thus likely became a form of sacred knowledge and therefore not privy to the masses administered to by the priesthood. “Apparently for some time members of the priestly clique limited the knowledge and use of Soma to their own esoteric activities. Thus a small influential segment of ancient Indian society controlled religion and the distribution of the Soma plant” (Merlin, 1972). “In the end it could be the case, as it appears with the soma of the ancient Vedic religion, that the priests kept it so secret that they eventually lost the knowledge themselves” (Taylor, 1985). “Some scholars believe that it was an extinct variety of Indian hemp, others that it was some other long forgotten plant found only in the Himalayan foothills. It was already becoming scarce at the time of the Brahmanas, [composed 600 B.C., onwards]  and the Aitareya Brahmana even suggests a substitute” (Sharma, 1985).

As Vedic scholar Wendy  Doniger O’Flaherty explains, the confusion caused by this situation was further compounded as time went on:

Not knowing what plant the poets of the RgVeda had in mind, modern scholars have often jumped to the conclusion that the hymns are vague and obscure in speaking of soma. The Brahmanas, dealing as they do with involved chains of substitutes, add to the confusion in almost geometric progression; the few Avestan parallels are rendered more or less useless by the overlay of purely Iranian elements; and by the time the Europeans enter the scene, with their fixed ideas and various axes to grind, the situation approaches bedlam…. there seems to have been little contact between botanists and Vedists, Indian Scholars and Europeans. (Doniger O’Flaherty, 1968)

Although modern descendants of these ancient cults still perform the rituals of their ancestors, placebo non-entheogenic sacraments and in many cases the mildly stimulating plant Ephedra, is used as Haoma by modern Zoroastrians, and the non-intoxicating Sarcostemma acidum, consecrated in current Indian rites as Soma.  But ephedra and Sarcostemma acidum, along with other substitutions clearly do not live up to all of the claims about the Soma/Haoma as described in the Vedas and Avestan texts. Ephedra is a branching, dioecious shrub, which has a sharp, disgusting taste. Ephedra contains the active alkaloids pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, which are used in a number of cold and other medicines; as well, ephedrine is the base of methamphetamine, or ’speed’, and for this it has come under legal scrutiny in recent times.

The qualities of Soma are given in poetic detail and the ancient composers’ love and admiration for the plant can still be felt thousands of years after the texts were composed. In a spirit similar to that of the Catholic Eucharist, Soma/Haoma, was prepared in a sacred rite and then bestowed upon the pious to give them spiritual inspiration, wisdom, courage, health and other benefits.

The descriptions and praises of the plant left to us by antiquity have led numerous scholars to speculate on what the botanical identity of the original plant was. Western research into the identity of Soma/Haoma began in the 18th century, “but in the relatively short  time that has elapsed since the investigation was initiated, over 100 species have been suggested as the source of Soma” (Merlin, 1972). “With the rather unusually large number of notoriously varied candidates for Soma and with the controversies arising from a series of misconceptions and subjectivity-centered interpretations, it is no wonder that even genuine students of the Soma problem become baffled and ‘lost’ themselves” (Swamy, 1976).

Various plant candidates have been suggested for Soma/Haoma, and a very comprehensive list, as well as a full explanation of the background of this ancient sacrament can be found in the essay Sources For a History of Plant Sciences in India II. The Rg Vedic Soma Plant B.G.L. Swamy of the department of Botany, Presidency College, Madras, as well as S. Mandihassan’s ‘The Seven Theories Identifying the Some Plant‘. Both of these authors have their own favoured candidate, and part of this series offer a solution in which both may well have been right.

Amongst the many suggestions for Soma and Haoma are,  are milkweed, Sarcostemma acidum, mandrake, rhubarb, ginseng, opium Poppies, blue lotus, Stropharia cubensis, wine or liquor and the still used ephedra. Most popularly and more relative to what shall be discussed here, Syrian rue, the Amanita muscaria mushroom and cannabis have been suggested. As the editors of the authoritative Encyclopaedia Britannica have recorded on the subject;

One of the pharmacological mysteries is the nature of Zoroastrian haoma and the early Hindu soma, both sacred drinks made from plants.  Their source may have been the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, the mind-affecting chemicals of which pass into the urine with their properties very little diminished; there are scriptural references to sacred urine drunk as the source of divine insights.  Allusions to twigs and branches of haoma, however, suggest other plants, perhaps hemp.  The mushroom, which does not grow in hot countries, may have been introduced to India, by Aryan invaders from the north; subsequently, other plants may have been substituted until their identity was confused and lost. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

References to its rich color and wonderful fragrance, the blissful state produced by Soma and the quantity and extent to which it was used also limits the number of potential candidates, as some of the botanical suggestions produce effects which could be considered far from blissful, and in some cases, if ingested in the quantities in which Soma was consumed, would have been toxic.

Various plant candidates have been suggested for Soma/Haoma, and a very comprehensive list, as well as a full explanation of the background of this ancient sacrament can be found in the essay Sources For a History of Plant Sciences in India II. The Rg Vedic Soma Plant B.G.L. Swamy of the department of Botany, Presidency College, Madras, as well as S. Mandihassan’s ‘The Seven Theories Identifying the Some Plant‘.

In this series of articles about the  Soma/Haoma cult we will be looking at the most popular candidates, Amanita Muscaria, Syrian Rue, Cannabis, and Ephedra.   The ideas that Vedic Soma was the Amanita muscaria mushroom as put forth by R. Gordon Wasson, and the Avestan Haoma was Syrian rue, as suggested by co-authors David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwartz, have become so pervasive in academic circles, in some cases seemingly accepted unquestionably as fact, that a thorough examination of the flaws in these theories is needed before one can understand a more realistic presentations.

In regards to The Cannabis Soma Theory:

I will release a synopsis of The Soma Cannabis Theory based on my book 2010 Cannabis and the Soma Solution, as well as updating it with the most recent archeological and textual information.

I will also respond directly to all criticisms of the Cannabis Soma Theory made in Mike Crowley’s Secret Drugs of Buddhism 92019), in a separate article.

In Regards to The Mushroom Soma Theory:

I will expand on my critique of R Gordan Wasson’s ‘Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, (1968) to include material from Crowley’s Secret Drugs of Buddhism and some of the other books that have built on Wasson’s shaky ground.

In a separate article I will closely examine some of the spurious claims made about the role of Mushrooms in Hinduism and Buddhism in Mike Crowley’s Secret Drugs of Buddhism (2019)

In regards to The Syrian Rue Haoma Theory

I will be using the critique I put forth on ‘Haoma and Harmaline: The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen “soma” and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle-Eastern Folklore’ (2010) by David Stophlet Flattery, Martin Schwartz, in my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution, and beyond disputing the identification of Syrian Rue as Haoma, I will critique their linguistic interpretations of bhang, and curious claim there was little to no use of psychoactive cannabis prior to the Muslim period.

You will find these articles, extensively highlighted and linked to rare source material or pages with more information about the subject mentioned. It is my sincere hope that these articles open up the debate on all fronts, and that the truer soma and haoma will flow forth.

If you are a researcher, and have a proposed candidate for soma/haoma, or papers related to this question, that are similarly sourced and highlighted, and you wish to submit them for consideration of  publication as part of this series, contact [email protected] to submit papers. I will also try to respond directly to reasonable questions in the comment section of these articles.

Any paper on any potential candidate offered needs to address:

1)How the terms soma and haoma originated and how they relate to their candidate

2)Where the use of this candidate originated with the common Indo-European ancestors of the authors of the Vedas and Avesta

2)The identifications of the plant used based on a description in the Vedas or Avesta (All translations must be cited and referenced as to their source from an existing published translation of the Vedas or Avesta and related ancient texts).

4)The candidates method of preparation based on Avestan or Vedic descriptions.

5)What led to its prohibition, disappearance of this candidate and how this plants identity was lost

Watch for Part 2 of this series – The Cannabis Soma/Haoma Theory: A Synopsis Based on the Latest Textual and Archeological Evidence – coming soon.

[This article has been adapted from Cannabis and the Soma Solution, (2010)]

No Comment

Comments are closed.