SOMA AND SACRED HERBALISM IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
Soma is the name of one of the most sacred plants of the ancient world. The drink made from this divine herb was known not only as a panacea but also for its powers of rejuvenation and increasing longevity. Soma also gave its consumer paranormal abilities and a direct experience of immortality. In the written documents that we possess, no other substance predates soma as a candidate for the "alchemical elixir" and "water of life" that later appear in various Western mystical traditions.
Knowledge of the soma drink and the earliest rituals surrounding its preparation were kept secret, and, with the exception of a single text called the Madhu Brahmana, this knowledge was never written down. We know of the Madhu Brahmana only by references to it in other texts; no manuscript copy of it exists. The ancient knowledge of soma must then have passed among select groups of priests only in oral traditions. The secret of soma and its preparation, as well as the secret essence of the Vedas themselves, was called the madhuvidya or "honey doctrine," the oldest references to which are contained in veiled, cryptic religious riddles found in the hymns of the Rg Veda, the oldest Indo‑European written document. The hymns in this text appear to have been composed mainly in India in the period between 1800 B.C.E. and 900 B.C.E., but it should be pointed out that the ideas, mythology, and cosmology concerning the soma plant and its drink are much older than the dates when these hymns were committed to writing.(1) The priests who wrote the hymns drew upon a vast array of background myths, which in most cases are never fully explained or defined in the text. Thus it has been suggested that many of the Rg Vedic myths, much of the cosmology in the hymns, and the soma ceremony itself date back to when the Indo‑Iranian peoples were still located in central Asia, sometime around 4000 B.C.E. to 3500 B.C.E.(2)
The mystery and secrecy surrounding soma evoke many unanswered questions. What exactly were the effects attributed to the sacred soma drink in the Rg Veda, and why was it considered a miracle drink? Was the soma drink prepared from a single psychoactive and medicinal plant or from a combination of several sacred plants with different psychoactive or medicinal ingredients? Was this soma drink a stimulant, sedative, or divine hallucinogen? Did ancient herbalists have secret knowledge, now unknown to modern science, about a medicinal and psychoactive drink prepared from various herbs that could heal the sick and even bestow paranormal abilities upon the consumer of the beverage?
It seems obvious that herbalists of the ancient world would have discovered many secrets about plants, plant combinations, and dosages over tens of thousands of years of experimentation. The use of such plants in a ritual setting was probably first developed in primitive shamanism, but over time, with the rise of sophisticated civilizations, the rituals and plant combinations would have certainly become more evolved and more precise, reaching far beyond their original shamanic origins. Unfortunately, much of this ancient herbal knowledge has been lost. The uses of these plants and their accompanying rituals, however, can still be glimpsed in ancient archaic languages, mostly in riddle or coded form. The information we do have indicates that many of these sacred plants, when used alone, but especially in combination, had great therapeutic potential for mental and physical healing and included a large array of even more profound effects.
Because of the slow progress of science in isolating and understanding the activities of the compounds in many sacred plants and plant combinations, the mysteries surrounding most of these plants remain intact. This is particularly true when the plants are used in specially designed psychotherapeutic rituals in which their therapeutic effectiveness is significantly enhanced. Only recently has ethnobotanical and pharmacological research begun to uncover these once‑secret herbal techniques used for healing, rejuvenation, and the inducement of paranormal effects and the experience of immortality. This interest in ancient herbal rituals, I believe, will eventually create a whole new branch of ethno‑psychotherapeutic practices within modern medical science.
The therapeutic effectiveness of the ancient world's use of sacred plants stems from the combination of medicinal compounds that work in a variety of ways upon the physical body with other psychoactive compounds that induce certain types of altered states of consciousness. The results of these combinations can have profound effects on the physical body, altering consciousness so as to induce it to use the body's own healing systems. These ancient medicines, and the model in which they are employed, reach the patient in important ways that allopathic medicine does not. For example, these plants and rituals have been shown to be successful in cases where the remedies of allopathic medicine have been exhausted or the prognosis is terminal. Even modern scientific studies, in what little they have explored of the known sacred plants and their combinations, have determined experimentally that the altered states of consciousness induced by these plants do have the ability to affect and heal a variety of biological systems. Because of their effects, these types of herbal rituals are currently called hallucinogenic or psychedelic medicine. The ancient soma ceremony is just such a type of medicinal ritual; it uses a sacred plant or plants to heal, rejuvenate, regenerate, induce paranormal affects, and gain a lasting experience of immortality.
Terms like hallucinogen and psychedelic (meaning "mind manifesting") are often used in both scientific and popular literature to describe plants that affect the nervous system and that are used in many sacred religious rituals for healing, divination, and for inducing altered states of consciousness. These terms, however, are now considered inaccurate for such plants. We have used hallucinogen in our title simply because of its familiarity, but we should also emphasize the fact that the use of this term is falling out of favor because its connotations lead to inaccuracies with regard to sacred plant usage in traditional cultures. This inaccuracy is also the case with regard to understanding the effects attributed to soma because most, if not all, of them cannot be strictly classified as hallucinations, a term that should now be reserved for certain types of mental illness and psychotic states.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, William James defined various types of hallucinations by saying they are often talked of as mental images projected outward by mistake. But when a hallucination is Complete, he argued, it is more than a mental image‑it is a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true as if there were a real object there. The object happens not to be there, that is all. James thus distinguished between true hallucinations, which appear objectively real and "fool" the perceiver, and pseudo-hallucinations, which lack the character of "objective reality." According to this terminology, the hallucinations produced by sacred psychoactive plants in shamanic rituals could be a mixture of true hallucinations, pseudo-hallucinations, and illusions (perceptual distortions).
James's definitions, however, do not fit well with what the Rg Veda says about soma. The soma drink described in the Rg Veda produces paranormal effects in the consumer that can neither be considered hallucinations nor be defined by modern neurochemistry. It is in the text of the Rg Veda that the earliest examples of miracles produced by human beings rather than gods have been recorded. I shall discuss these miracles in full, shortly.
The question of whether soma was a divine hallucinogen or simply a stimulant or sedative has been hotly debated for decades, but has never been settled because not all of the evidence has been presented. When gathered from the hymns, the evidence points to soma having all three effects. It is certainly a stimulant; by drinking it the priests and their gods are invigorated.(3) It is also shown to have narcotic, sedative, and even debilitating effects when it is overconsumed.(4) In addition, visionary experiences are clearly associated with soma in the Rg Veda, and Indian medical books specifically state that the chief means of producing visions is by use of the soma drink. In the Rg Veda (8.48.3 and 9.87.9) drinking soma causes the priests to have visions of the gods, and it is through soma that the gods were first discovered.
Whether or not soma induces visionary experiences must depend on how it is prepared in the ceremony. As a drink, it could not always have induced visionary experiences with strong hallucinations because the Rg Veda indicates that others in addition to the priests took soma on a daily basis for long periods of time. It would have been not only impractical, but probably impossible, for soma to have been prepared as a hallucinogen in these cases. If soma were always hallucinogenic, it would have interfered with the completion of the soma ceremony itself, which was of paramount importance for maintaining the stability of the cosmos, order, fertility, and life on earth. The soma drink prepared in the ritual must have varied according to the different parts of the ceremony that were being conducted. This leads to the conclusion that the soma drink probably induced states of ecstasy and well‑being at certain dosages and that it could also induce visionary states or hallucinations at other dosages or when other plants or plant parts were added to the preparation.
With regard to the light phenomena, out‑of‑body experiences, the experience of immortality, and other unusual paranormal effects mentioned in the hymns, the soma drink in the Rg Veda has all the hallmarks of being a divine visionary drink. The hymns also suggest that these effects may result from soma's being prepared in different ways and in various combinations during the ceremony. There is considerable evidence in the hymns of a variety of soma drinks, made during the ceremony, that produce stimulation, sedative states, and what can popularly be called hallucinations, all of which can be attributed to different forms of soma. The single most important effect that soma induces is a state of divine ecstasy, and it is through this state of ecstasy that paranormal experiences are mediated. This inducement of a state of ecstasy, along with light phenomena and paranormal effects, is what most closely connects soma to a divine hallucinogen, creating what is now called an entheogenic experience.
The word entheogen is derived from the Greek word enthous or enthousiasmos, meaning "divine indwelling" or the "god within one," and an entheogen thus reveals the divinity or deity within a person after it is consumed. I use entheogen in place of hallucinogen as a more appropriate term for the effects of sacred plants. While the term psychedelic can still be used to denote consciousness expansion, entheogen is the best term to describe the plants and their byproducts used in ritual and sacred contexts. The word itself was coined by Carl A. P. Ruck, R. Gordon Wasson, and others to replace the above‑mentioned shortcomings of the terminology of hallucinogen, psychedelic, psychotomimetic, and so on. Wasson offers several definitions of the word entheogen as it applies to psychoactive plant use. One is simply that of having an experience of the god within after ingestion of the plant.(5) Another definition is any plant that was and/or is‑being used in holy agapes and that affords the celebrants what they consider supernatural insights .(6)
The original soma plant, and the various drinks that were prepared from it, along with its accompanying ritual, must be classified as inducing an entheogenic experience in the consumer based upon the descriptions in the Rg Veda. The unusual experiences mentioned in association with soma are connected with divine ecstasy, and these experiences are markedly different from hallucinations. Any plant that can induce an ecstatic state that leads to an expansion of consciousness of the divine could, by definition, be called entheogenic. All of the experiences described for soma inebriation in the Rg Veda can be attributed to ecstatic states. These ecstasies lead to paranormal activity and healing, which are not associated with mental illusions. Thus the term hallucination does not fit the experiences that are attained through the consumption of soma as described in the Rg Vedic hymns. The ecstatic experience and its associated miracles are connected more with paranormal activity than with illusions, fantasies, or false impressions. This is not to say that visual imagery, photic experiences, and expansion of consciousness beyond physical body awareness did not take place, only that because of the effects of the soma drink and soma ceremony these paranormal abilities could occur at any time, even outside of the ritual context. The ingestion of soma facilitated extraordinary events and induced a type of permanent state of being that was retained by a person even beyond the ritual use of the drink. One example of this is the ability to walk on water, which is first mentioned in the Rg Veda. In that text a number of soma priests are described as being able to walk on water at any time, and this feat is accomplished by various somapas (soma sages) at least nine other times. Many of these somapas were considered powerful sorcerers and were called upon numerous times for their unusual abilities. One such group was the Kanva clan, who developed the soma ceremony and wrote many of the hymns in the Rg Veda.