LIGHTS, ECSTATIC STATES, AND OTHER EFFECTS OF SOMA
The ritual use of sacred plants to induce entheogenic experiences was common among certain shamanistic, medicinally oriented, or priestly classes in ancient world cultures. In most cases, the experiences associated with entheogens were connected directly with light and light phenomena. It is. not unusual to find sacred entheogenic plants prominently associated with solar cults connected with healing, rejuvenation, and immortality rituals, and this is especially true of the soma plant and drink in the Rg Veda.
The soma plant itself and the experiences it brings about are closely associated with light and transference by light to realms beyond our own. The Rbhus, a group of ancient soma sacrificers, were said to have entered rays of light, being transfigured into luminous subtle bodies. Through drinking soma they became resplendent with the golden luster of the sun and attained immortality.(1)
The soma plant and the drink prepared from it were used ritually in association with various "operations of the sun," which functioned both on a macrocosmic and microcosmic scale to induce both exterior and interior light phenomena. The consumption of the soma drink helped priests come into contact, through the medium of light, with the deity Soma, experienced as an inner radiant ecstasy. By the internal seeing of the luminous amrta, one was said to gain that amrta. The experience of the abode of Soma, which was a pure realm of light beyond the material universe, was associated with the madhu‑vidya honey doctrine, the source of divine knowledge in the Rg Veda.
Tradition tells us that sacred plants, including soma, were thought to have unique properties as storehouses of light, an attribute that seems to be associated with the entheogenic effects of these plants. The Gnostic Manicheans, for example, whose tenets were mainly derived from Indo‑Iranian sources, believed that certain herbs and trees were particularly rich in particles of light.(2) The same idea is found in the Rg Veda in association with the soma plant and its juice; the plant is said to glow and its juice to be bright in color. Priests such as the Rbhus and other rsis who drink soma were said to glow, and Indra, the main deity who drinks soma during the ceremony, is called the glowing god. Because of its luminous attributes, soma juice became directly associated with luminosity, brilliance, and the origins of light in the universe.
The beliefs of the Manicheans were similar to those of the somapas. The Manicheans believed that plants and human bodies contained the greatest number of the captured energetic light particles that were imprisoned in matter at the time of creation. Through the process of ecstasy induced by consuming sacred plants, one could absorb the entheogenic light from them and trigger one's own inner light, with the goal of bringing this light back to its source upon reentering the divine realm of light. This restoration of captured light particles to their original heavenly home of light enabled one to gain immortality. The Manicheans saw these special sacred plants as important means for obtaining salvation. Chaste and strict vegetarians, the Manicheans were known to have used entheogenic plants in their religious rituals. It is suspected that their knowledge of such plants originally came from the much older soma ceremonies of the Rg Veda, since the procedure of the return of the imprisoned soul of light through the use of sacred "light‑inducing" plants is also the central focus of the ancient Rg Vedic soma ceremonies.
Entheogenic plants are often said to induce light phenomena in association with divine inner experiences. In the Rg Veda, soma is described as giving light to all luminous bodies, and the creation of radiant light phenomena plays an important part in the soma ceremony. The hymns associate soma with all light phenomena, whether in the physical universe as starlight, sunlight, moonlight, lightning, fire, and all glowing energies or within human beings as internal, luminous mystical experience. Indeed, soma is said to be the origin of all light phenomena in both the macrocosm and microcosm. It both creates glowing radiance and gives one the experience of light.(3)
In the Rg Veda, soma and other plants are said to have a luminous appearance. The types of luminous phenomena, both internal and external, that entheogenic substances produce are usually of white light, golden light, or varicolored or rainbow light. With soma, mention is also made of "clear light," sometimes associated with rain and with certain mystical states of being. In addition, red, white, and gold light are associated with the soma drink, and red, orange, purple, gold, and white light, among others, are associated with soma inebriation. Light phenomena are associated with profound ecstatic states, and they are almost always associated with the ingestion of hallucinogens. It is difficult to see stimulants alone producing these kinds of effects, which gives credence to the view that soma was a divine hallucinogenic plant extract or admixture.
One problem with this view is that from the soma hymns it appears that the experience was mostly internal. It is not clear whether the priest saw white and gold light externally or only internally. If seen only internally, then the experience was based mostly upon the background cosmology, rituals, fasting, and maybe a mild psychotropic trigger. The experience of leaving the physical body that the hymns describe, however, seems more closely related to entheogens. Since the ritual is supposed to lead to immortality and the extension of the pneumatic or subtle body of light, it would seem that entheogenic light‑inducing effects are needed.
It is also important to mention that soma ingestion, according to some Rg Vedic hymns, can be dangerous, a danger that is also connected with the light phenomena. This suggestion also points to soma being a divine entheogen rather than merely a stimulant. Soma is said to be like a wild bull that is restless, and barriers or fences are put around him internally to hold him in check. If he gets loose, one tries to grab him, but he can slip away and overpower everything. This metaphor more appropriately describes the nature of an entheogen rather than a stimulant or sedative.
Whatever the danger the soma drink could cause, it was not lethal. Although drinking certain soma admixtures can cause one to collapse and fall down, nowhere in the Rg Vedic hymns do we find that drinking soma causes death. The real danger of soma, according to the hymns, seems to be more related to its ability to produce visions that are too strong, which again points to its being a visionary entheogen. In the hymns soma is asked, "do not terrify us; do not harm our heart with your brilliant or radiant light." "When we have drunk you soma, be good to our heart." Soma is asked to join closely, like a compassionate friend, so he will not injure us when we drink him .(4)
The internal colors associated with soma as described in the Rg Veda are the same colored lights seen in meditation and mystical experiences mentioned in the earliest Upanishads.(5) In the soma ceremony these colored lights are associated with the heart‑space, which lights up after soma is drunk. The rays seen in deep meditation, according to the Upanishads, are seen in the heart as well and are rainbow colored. In the soma ceremony these exact colors are seen in what is called the "heart‑sun" after soma is ingested. According to the soma tradition the seat of the soul resides in the heart. These colored rays of the heart‑sun are then used as threads during the soma ceremony to weave the inner, pneumatic pillar of light, the immortal soul that extends upward.
The cosmic pillar of light, called stambha or skambha in Sanskrit, is a fundamental part of the ancient Rg Vedic soma‑ceremony cosmology.(6) A similar pillar also appears in the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which the sacramental use of an entheogen has also been proposed. There we find that the ceremony was conducted in a darkened chamber or initiation hall resembling a cave, just as in the soma ceremony, where the universe and one's heart are both seen before creation as dark caves. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, participants spoke of the division between sky and earth melting away into an illuminated pillar of light.(7) This cosmic pillar of light is used to separate the heavens from the earth during the creation in order to introduce light into the darkness of‑chaos, and it is the radiant road by which one can move upward and downward, both out of and back into this world. In the soma ceremony the pillar of light represents the radiant core found within the heart‑cave of our essential being. The soma drink and ritual are techniques used to merge the dual processes of the creation of the universe of light and the creation of light within the heart of a person as his or her soul or essential luminous nature.
It appears that the normally concealed central cosmic pillar of light located at the radiant core of both the universe and of our being is a fundamental psychic archetype, since it is found described in several ancient cultures. It becomes visible under specific conditions, such as when our senses and consciousness are absorbed back into the origin of our being. This cosmic pillar, our true nature as self-originating luminosity, is the cosmic Anthropos, also called a pneumatic body of light. Contact with our essential luminous nature in the soma ceremony and the Eleusinian Mysteries was brought about through the use of an entheogen in combination with a specially designed ritual.
The preparation and ingredients of magical and ritual potions used in the Eleusinian Mysteries show exact formulaic correspondences with the Vedic soma ritual. These correspondences cannot be coincidental but must instead indicate that the Greek pattern reflects the ritual drink of the Indo‑Iranian religion .(8) It appears that the soma ceremony had a direct influence upon the formulation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, once a person took part in the performance of the soma ceremony and its internal components he or she achieved a permanent immortal experience that lasted an entire lifetime.
In the Rg Veda the soma drink induces effects that are called madana, madyati, made, or mada in Vedic Sanskrit, which can be translated into English as "ecstasy" or "rapturous joy," "inspiration," "heightened awareness," and "exhilaration," respectively.(9) These ecstatic effects were known to bestow holiness and the experience of immortality, moving consciousness into direct contact with the luminous nature of being. This ecstatic effect of soma inebriation appears to have been the mechanism that mediated all other experiences and effects known to have been obtained from the consumption of soma.
The ecstatic experience also gives one the special knowledge and powers of the healer; prophet, poet, and wonderworker. The Rg Veda says that soma, when united with the heart, produces the ecstatic vision, an ecstasy that brings expansion beyond this world, a perception of vastness surpassing both heaven and earth.(10) Many hymns describe profound ecstatic states that come about through ingesting soma juice, producing the experience of joy and bliss.(11) In other hymns, soma is referred to as the inspiring drink; soma drinkers say, "Let us drink soma and become ecstatic, let us drink of the ecstasy that is soma"; the gods are said to imbibe ecstasy and the exhilarating nourishment of soma; and priests become like the gods after drinking soma.(12)
Both the bliss induced by soma and soma itself are referred to as madhu, nectar, which is the source of the madhu‑vidya, or honey doctrine .(13) By drinking soma, the god Indra enters a state of divine ecstasy, and the hymns say that it was in this ecstatic state that Indra created the entire cosmos. The Maruts, who are deities that help Indra, are said to "drink in the ecstasy" of soma. And it is through these deep ecstatic states that the priest, identifying with Indra, leaves his physical body and ascends to the dome of the sky beyond this world. (14)
Although the ecstatic states induced by soma described in the hymn seem to indicate a divine entheogen was used, other parts of the soma ceremony, including ritual combined with the cosmology, legends, myths, and rhythmic chants, also contributed to creating ecstatic states. Rhythmic chanting not only helps to create altered states, but it also guides the ritual in its ultimate purpose. Ecstasy is certainly attained in the soma ceremony, but it is partly derived from the chanting and ritualized cosmological background.
The hymns describing soma illustrate that it created an altered state of consciousness that helped to concentrate the mind and senses to the one‑pointedness necessary to achieve the specific goals of the soma ritual, which varied from healing, life extension, paranormal abilities, and the attainment of immortality. Because of the nature of the background cosmology in combination with the entheogen, rituals, and chanting, it is hard to determine just how strong a drink soma really was. Evidence in the Rg Veda indicates that the drink varied in strength according to dilution procedures and various soma admixtures, with the admixtures appearing to be the source of soma's divine hallucinogenic nature.
Entheogenic substances are known to increase certain types of psychic experiences and this is certainly true for the soma drink.(15) The Rg Veda indicates that the structure of the soma ceremony was purposely designed for enhancing psychic abilities, which are mediated by special states of ecstasy. A large number of paranormal feats are described in association with soma in the hymns. Examples of these are the ability to create consciousness‑born or psychogenic creations of any object or type; the ability to levitate and walk on water; the ability to leave the physical body and return to it; the power of expansion of the subtle body or consciousness to include the entire universe; and the ability to exist consciously beyond a physical body.(16) Soma is also credited with powers of rejuvenation and life extension as well as the regeneration of various parts of the physical body. Along with its power to renew and even create life, soma is said to be able to sustain that life perpetually as long as one continues to drink it. Thus the Vedic gods maintain their immortality by consuming soma.
The hymns say the nourishing, life‑renewing soma bestows new life on the aged and gives long life.(17) To those who have found its hidden light, soma gives magical power, expansion of consciousness, and eternal life: "The worlds expand to him who from before time found light to spread the law of life eternal." (18) By drinking soma, the sages have become immortal.(19) In the Rg Veda, Manu, the first man, was given the "god‑loved oblation [soma]"(20) and had a long, nearly eternal existence as a result. The priests in the soma ceremony identify with Manu and eternal life when they proclaim, "I was aforetime Manu, I was Surya, the sun ....” (21) Soma is considered the "life‑bestower" because it has descended from the "triple height" that is beyond our created universe of matter.(22)
Every time the soma ceremony was conducted both the ceremonial site and those who drank soma were renewed. Soma was described as producing a golden fountain at the center of the ceremonial site, which was said to be the center of the world.(23) This golden fountain at the center is also the cosmic pillar of light formed in the heart of the priest and the original fountain of youth from which the water of life flows. The Rg Veda says, "The sage (Soma) the everlasting one, the milk (soma), the hymns unite them (the priests) with him (Soma) in the place of ceremony, which is ever produced anew.” (24) This special seat or altar is seen as the earth's highest point, the center of the universe where the cosmic pillar of golden light is formed and where the priest identifies with the luminous soma pillar, the trunk of the cosmic tree. When soma unites the priest to this golden pillar of the creative energy of the universe, he is able to not only rejuvenate the aged but also bring the dead back to life. By the power of soma both gods and humans are able to produce the most unusual paranormal feats.
In the Rg Veda, many stories of continuous self‑rejuvenation, restoring the aged to perfect youth, and even raising the dead are mentioned. One story tells of the very aged rsi Cyavana who was completely rejuvenated by soma. The sage Kali was also given back the vigor of his youth when old age was coming upon him; the rsi Kaksivat was rejuvenated when he was one hundred winters old, restored to full youth and strength like a new chariot. The sage Vandana was raised from the dead by soma, brought back to life with his youth restored.
The soma sages called Rbhus, who became the craftsmen of the gods and are said to be of the celestial race descended from the stars, rather than from the solar or lunar races, became creators and artificers who were able to create material objects by psychogenesis. They are the shapers who build and repair not with their hands but with consciousness. The Rg Veda describes how for Indra the Rbhus created, with their minds, horses harnessed by a word. The Rbhus also fashioned the cup from which the gods drank their soma and were said to have formed a nectar‑yielding cow and calf and to have rejuvenated their parents when they had aged.(25)
Indra is said to have rejuvenated the aged sage Bharadvaja by giving him a secret formula associated with soma. Bharadvaja is the sage who revealed the Ayurvedic system of Indian medicine to the sage Susruta.
The practice of medicine is well established in the Rg Veda; in fact, in one of the hymns, 107 plant remedies are mentioned. With the discovery of herbal medicines, a class of herbologists called the Bhisaj used medicinal plants to treat both physical and mental illnesses.(26) Most of the medicines were derived from plant admixtures or individual plants used in conjunction with magical practices.
The Vedic plant world was seen as a sacred and mystical domain within which the soma plant was the king of all plants and the source from which all other plants were derived. This view is based upon the cosmology that is directly connected to the cosmic tree or pillar of light, through which access is gained to the inner workings of nature. The soma plant itself is the cosmic tree and pillar, providing this access by virtue of its psychoactive nature and through its mythologized cosmic characteristics.
The soma drink was considered the most effective of all medicinal preparations. The soma drink was an elixir that worked both psychoactively upon the brain and nervous system to induce an altered state of consciousness as well as medicinally upon the human body to cure it of various diseases.
Both weakness and disease disappear in the physical body immediately after one drinks soma, a unique and divine medicine.(27) Among its benefits, soma is said to heal eye diseases and give clearer sight. (28) It heals the crippled by uniting and knitting their joints back together. (29) It initiates regeneration and replaces dislocated limbs.(30) Soma prolongs one's life span,(31) and it also replenishes one's store of vital strength and gives the ability to beget many children through its aphrodisiacal and virility‑enhancing effects.(32) The juice of the soma plant and the soma mixtures were thought to have more magical potency than any other medicinal herb or plant mixtures on the earth.
The wondrous virtues of the soma drink do not end with its paranormal, rejuvenating, and medicinal effects; it also gives its consumer immortality. In the hymns of the Rg Veda the soma sages speak of the "great purifying" (soma) that places them in that deathless, undecaying world, where the light of heaven shines eternally:
Flow, soma drops and make me immortal in that realm where dwells the king, Vivasvab's son, that place where is the secret shrine of heaven. That is the place where all waters are young and fresh. Make me immortal in that realm where they move by consciousness alone. Make me immortal in that realm where happiness, joy and felicities combine, and longing wishes are fulfilled.
During the soma ceremony the somapas proclaim that they have drunk soma and become immortal; they have attained the light that the gods discovered.
The glorious soma has given us total freedom beyond the body and has preserved us from disease. Soma has made us shine bright like fire produced by friction, and given us clearer sight. That soma which we have drunk, immortal in himself, hath entered us mortals. Our maladies have lost their strength and vanished: they feared, and passed away into darkness. This soma is now deposited within us. Soma has risen upward in us, exceeding mightily, and we have now come where men prolong their existence.
All of these descriptions show that the priest becomes immortal by identifying with the deity Soma and the cosmic processes governed by soma in the drama of the universe. He is bathed in the light of soma and has expanded his subtle body in a way that results in immortality and freedom. This inner, anthropocosmic body of light is a luminous consciousness that can leave or expand away from the physical body and travel beyond the earth and heaven. This experience is said to reveal one's true immortal nature. The soma sage thus describes the effects of soma drinking as being like violent gusts of wind that lift him upward and out of his body the way fleet‑footed horses draw a chariot skyward. "The heavens and earth themselves have not grown equal to one half of me," says the soma sage; he becomes the greatest of the mighty ones and is lifted to the firmament beyond this world. By extension of his pneumatic subtle body of light, internally generated by soma, the soma sage becomes the cosmic Anthropos of light at the center of the universe where the primal laws of creation originate.
When we review the main physical effects attributed to fresh soma juice and to soma admixtures in the Rg Veda, we find that they have it numerous array of medicinal benefits as well as significant psychoactive effects on the central nervous system. The conclusion one could draw from the Rg Vedic statements is that soma could be a stimulant or even a strong sedative, but it was also an entheogen that induced both interior and external light phenomena. A fairly large variety of psychoactive and medicinal compounds would be needed for the soma drink to accomplish everything revealed in the hymns. The characteristics that we have mentioned here point to soma's being an entheogen, but of an extraordinary kind that contains medicinal compounds that not only heal, but also rejuvenate, regenerate, and induce ecstatic states and visual and auditory effects.
The hymns indicate that a variety of drinks called by the generic term soma were derived from plant juices prepared during the soma ceremony. In addition, the term soma had a significant symbolical and mythological meaning associated with light, and it did not refer only to the pressed sap of a single botanical plant but to a divine prototypical plant of heavenly origins that was connected to light phenomena. The evidence in the Rg Veda suggests that a number of different soma drinks were prepared during the ritual, which usually lasted a minimum of three days or longer. These drinks could be made from the soma plant alone or from various plant saps (also called soma) added to the pressed‑out juice of the soma plant. This would still be in line with the actual meaning of the word soma, since "pressed‑out sap" could refer to the juice of various plants mixed together to produce the ceremonial drink. This interpretation is also in accord with the idea in the Rg Veda that soma is the sap that flows through all plants and that a prototypical plant of heavenly origin gave rise to all plant life on the earth.
Even though we believe that the evidence points to soma being a divine hallucinogen, this need not be the case, as the inducement of ecstasy can be accomplished through a variety of plant compounds that are not considered hallucinogens but have other psychoactive effects upon consciousness. Ecstasy induced by a non-hallucinogenic drink can also lead to the loss of body consciousness that enables a person to enter various altered states, including soul flight. Yet the prominence of soma's association with light phenomena must be carefully considered, because it seems to indicate that ecstasy states induced by at least some of the soma drinks were hallucinogenic. It is only through an exhaustive study of the spiritual aspects of the Rg Vedic versionofthe soma ceremony that an answer to whether soma was a divine hallucinogen can be determined.(33)