Originally posted on India International Centre website.
Closing in on Soma
by Hasan Javaid Khan
[Presented as part of: Dimensions of Science 48. The Rigvedic Soma Plant. Speaker: Prof. Rajesh Kochhar, Director, NISTADS
Chair: Dr. M.C. Joshi, former Director-General, Archaeological Survey of India. Soma is a celebrated plant in the Rigveda as well as in the Avesta where it is known as Haoma. Can this plant be identified? What is the significance of various descriptions in the later Vedic and classical texts? These questions are important from the point of view of botany as well as ancient history.]
It has been called the 'elixir of immortality' and 'drink of the Gods'. Identification of the Soma plant has always been a controversial academic exercise. However, at a talk delivered at the India International Centre, Prof. Rajesh Kochhar, Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) zeroed in on Ephedra as the most likely candidate for the Soma plant on the basis of references in the RgVeda and Avesta. The lecture was part of the 'Dimensions of Science' lecture series organized by NISTADS.
Soma is a celebrated plant in the RgVeda as well as in Avesta, where it is called Haoma, later shortened to Ho'm in Pahalvi. A drink, also called Soma, was extracted from the plant by pressing or crushing its stalk for offering to the gods and for drinking. Significance of the Soma cult is apparent from the fact that the RgVeda devotes a full mandala to it. The Ninth Mandala, Soma Mandala, consists entirely of hymns to Soma. Similarly, the Haoma plant figures in three hymns in the Avesta.
Thus, Soma/haoma was perceived as a giver of immortality, a healthy and long life, offspring, happiness, courage, strength, victory over enemies, wisdom, understanding and creativity. The Soma drink has been called 'the procreator of thoughts'. More realistically, it prevents sleep and keeps the drinker awake and alert. In effect, it was energizing, invigorating and anti-sleep.
Prof. Kochhar informed that the Soma plant as described in the RgVeda and Avesta was leafless, just like a twig. The juice was extracted from the shoots or stalks, never from the fruits or berries. The term ksip is particularly apt, because the stalks, like the fingers, had joints or knots. The colour of the stalk was ruddy (aruna), brown (babhru), or golden (hari), corresponding to zairi in the Avesta.
An important piece of information is that Soma grew in the mountains, said Prof. Kochhar. The RgVeda describes Soma explicitly as parvatiivrdh or 'mountain grown'. It uses the term Soma Maujavata, 'the Soma from Mujavat'. Mujavat, according to Yaska's Nirukta was a mountain. It also mentions Haraiti Bareza (also called Hara Barazaiti) as the Soma habitat. Haraiti is identified with Mount Elburz. But the name Elburz not only denoted the present Mount Elburz, a peak in the Caucasus, but was applied to the whole range of mountains, extending from the Hindu Kush in the East to the Caucasus in the West.
There was a whole ritual associated with the drinking of Soma. The Soma ritual, Prof. Kochhar informed, though elaborate, comprised a number of simple steps: extraction of juice, its collection, purification, modification, libation and consumption. There were two methods of extracting the juice from the Soma stalks. One could use mortar and pestle for processing the plant. Significantly, the Avestan practice was also to use a mortar, called havana. A woman 'pushing [the pestle] backwards and forwards' had no place in the ritual. The ritualistic practice was to pound the stalks between two stones held in hands. The stones were also held in high esteem. The juice was purified by passing it through a strainer made of sheep's wool.
However, in the whole procedure, there was no time for fermentation, nor was any fermented beverage (sura) ever added to Soma. In fact sura was frowned upon.
In the Brahmana period, the Soma plant ceased to be commonplace. It became a prized item in the ritual, which was difficult to procure, and so was first rationed and then substituted by locally available creepers called Soma-latas and Soma-vallis which are leafless with fleshy stems. At the same time, the original Soma became a mythical plant.
There have been many attempts at identifying the plant in the past but people have often misread the text, said Prof. Kochhar. For instance, people have said it was hallucinogenic. It was not. But the most dubious has been identifying Soma with Somalata and Somavalli. Somalata, used as a substitute in south India, is Sarcostemma brevistigma, which has a very bitter taste, and so could not have been the Soma plant of the RgVedic era whose juice was so enthusiastically imbibed three times a day.
In 1771, in his French translation of the Avesta, Du Perron quoted Farhang Jahangiri to say that Horn is a tree that grows in Persia in the mountains of Shirwan, Guillan, Mazendran and the neighbourhood of Yezd. It resembles sweet heather, its knots are very close to each other, and the leaves are like those of jasmine. He went on to say that Horn did not grow in India and that 'the Dasturs of India are in the habit of sending at the end of a certain season two Parsees to Kerman to search for the branches of Horn.
Today, according to Prof. Kochhar who has himself researched the topic in great detail, most scholars agree that the plant as described in both RgVeda and Avesta is Ephedra. There are many species of Ephedra, but the Ephedra of RgVeda and Avesta are the four or five mountain-growing species containing ephedrine.
When we identify Ephedra as 'Soma' and place the RgVedic people in the Ephedra habitat of Hindu Kush, all the diverse pieces of the puzzle fall into place, said Prof. Kochhar. The vast Ephedra-growing area in Afghanistan and Iran was occupied by or was accessible to the Indo-Iranians, who could develop a common Soma/Haoma cult. As the Indo-Aryans moved eastwards, their distance from Soma increased, first cutting down the supply and then stopping it altogether. Finally, in the plains, Soma's place in the rituals was given to the substitutes. In course of time, Soma became a mythical plant.