THE IDENTITY OF PLANTS USED AS SOMA
Although Western interest in soma began more than two hundred years ago, no detailed study of the facts has ever been presented. Even R. Gordon Wasson's research on soma, though very useful, is considered incomplete today. We are in a better position to solve the riddle of the soma plant and soma drinks now than ever before. Both Avestan and Rg Vedic studies have progressed since Wasson's landmark book Soma was published in 1968. In addition, the study of psychoactive and medicinal plants has advanced significantly. Major botanical breakthroughs on both the Avestan haoma plant and the Rg Vedic soma now make it possible to draw some conclusions about the identity of the soma plant.(1)
Many researchers who have tried to determine the identity of the soma plant in the Rg Veda have relied too heavily upon what the Iranian Avesta says about haoma, its counterpart. Even though the haoma and soma plants have much in common, it cannot be overstated that the soma of the Rg Veda differs in many respects from haoma. These differences are the result of non‑Indo‑European influences upon the composers of the Rg Vedic hymns and the subsequent alteration of both the soma ceremony and the plants used in it.
Hardly isolated, the Indian subcontinent had from ancient times established trade contacts with various regions of the world, including central Asia. Artifacts uncovered from the ancient Indus Valley culture of India, which flourished from about 2800 B.C.E. to 1200 B.C.E. show without doubt continuous contact with central Asia and the Aryans at or before 2800 B.c.E.2 The Indus Valley appears to have been a meeting place for a number of ancient cultures, including that of the central Asian Aryan people.
Because of this ancient contact, the hymns of the Rg Veda are a combination of original Aryan conceptions and ancient indigenous Indian elements, mixed with elements from other cultures.
The Rg Veda does not speak of any of the large cities of the Indus Valley culture, whose urban phase ended around 1900 B.C.E. It does refer, however, to ruined places where one might collect pots, potsherds, and other objects for ritual purposes. This indicates that those post‑invasion Rg Vedic hymns were composed after 1900 B.C.E. Archaeological finds indicate that remnants of the Indus culture persisted in some form until 1200 B.C.E. The fact that the composers of the hymns collected objects for ritual purposes indicates their respect for the Indus culture and a probable continuation of similar ritual practices, especially since both cultures had been in contact since at least 2800 B.C.E. (2)The sacred knowledge of the Indus civilization persisted among its indigenous inhabitants, such as the powerful Kanva clan, who had a major impact on the soma ceremony and the Rg Veda.
The indigenous influences on the composers of the Vedic hymns made the soma drinks and plants they called soma different from those purely proto‑Indo‑Iranian forms of haoma that may have existed in ancient central Asia previous to any contact with India, Iran, or the Near East. There is, however, evidence that the Iranian haoma drink became more like its Indian counterpart in Zoroastrian Iran at least by 900 B.C.E. or even much earlier than this. This change came about because of the merging of the ancient botanical knowledge of indigenous India and that of the Aryans before and during the composition of the Rg Vedic hymns, which created a variety of drinks using various plants with different modes of preparation that were still called soma in the Rg Veda.
Although a number of plants were used in the Rg Vedic soma ceremonies, there are two genera of indigenous Indian plants, the Nymphaea and the Nelumbo, that stand out among the rest as being used to prepare soma drinks in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony. Nymphaea plants are known as water lilies, while Nelumbo plants are the true lotus plants. When the genera are used together in my discussions I sometimes refer to both as lotus plants.
India has the largest variety of naturally occurring water lily and lotus plants of any country in the world. They were once so numerous, in fact, that Sanskrit names were not known for many of them. These plants are also well known for producing naturally occurring varieties, which makes it nearly impossible to name all of the varieties that occurred in ancient India. Some of these plants were certainly known as soma and are actually called soma in Sanskrit texts. Despite what has been stated in various articles and books about the nonentheogenic effects of Nelumbo and Nymphaea plants, some Indian varieties of lotus and many water lilies do contain a variety of alkaloids and other compounds that are entheogenic.(3)
Here we can mention only a few studies of the psychoactive aspects of these plants as they pertain to our current subject of soma as a divine hallucinogen. Certain indigenous varieties of Indian Nymphaea plants, as well as Nelumbo plants, are psychoactive and can be visionary and auditory entheogens when the sap or juice of the plant, and certain other parts, are prepared properly. These two genera can also be shown to have psychoactive properties that match those of soma in the Rg Veda.
The compounds found in certain Nymphaea species are known to cause excitation, ecstatic states, luminous visionary and auditory hallucinations, narcotic sedation, and other psychoactive effects. The experiences are dependent upon the dosage, preparation, and parts of the plant used. The compounds responsible are found in the flowers, sap, nectar, stems, rhizomes, and possibly the leaves. The flowers of certain Nymphaea species have been shown to induce ecstasy states similar to those of the drug 3, 4‑methylene‑dioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), popularly known as "ecstasy."
In the nineteenth century the botanist de Candolle stated that the sap of lotus plants could be poisonous if taken in large quantities, but in small doses would merely induce hallucinations. De Candolle may have been using the term lotus in a generic way to refer to both the Nelumbo and Nymphaea genera, because the sap found in certain parts of both plants can be hallucinogenic and even poisonous. In the ancient Egyptian medical text known as the Ebers Papyrus, the rhizome of the Nymphaea species is described as poisonous, and in Sanskrit the rhizome of some Nymphaea species is called visa, meaning "poison."
The water lilies of the Nile are of the same species as the water lilies of India; modern taxonomic botany has not been able to distinguish morphologically between the Egyptian and Indian Nymphaea plants, which indicates that they are conspecific and must have a common origin. That the Ebers Papyrus states that some water lily rhizomes are poisonous is significant. First, it is a known fact that many "poisonous" plants are both renowned medicines and entheogens. Second, the ancient Egyptians were well known for importing plants into their country and cultivating them for food, medicines, and, most importantly, for sacred religious entheogenic rituals and magical herbal healing. The two most sacred Egyptian plants, the papyrus and water lily, were not indigenous to Egypt. There is good evidence that water lilies were brought to the Nile River valley in ancient times, either from tropical Arabia or from areas further east along the trade routes. This important plant first appears in Upper Egypt, associated with the predynastic race who first appeared there and whose origins have recently been shown to derive from the Persian Gulf region, particularly Iran. It is not improbable that the sacred Egyptian water lily was anciently derived from India via the predynastic race of ancient Iran (Elam). It is also known that Indian Nelumbo plants were imported into Egypt and cultivated at a much earlier date than was previously thought.
Not only are some Nymphaea species psychoactive, but certain Indian Nelumbo varieties are as well. Nelumbo flowers, nectar, sap, leaves, and rhizomes contain compounds that are stimulating, hypnotic, it nd narcotic and that can induce trance‑ecstasy states as well as visionary experiences. The psychoactive properties of Indian Nelumbo species have been known for a long time. Parts of the Nelumbo were mixed with tobacco and smoked for their psychoactive effects, which are similar to the effects of such plants as Cannabis sativa, Hyoscyamus niger Datura alba, Datura fatuosa, Datura metal, and Papaver somniferum All of these plants contain strong psychoactive compounds that are narcotic, hypnotic, ecstasy‑inducing and can be hallucinogenic.
The evidence found in the Rg Vedic hymns clearly indicates that Indra is initially stimulated by drinking soma, but he also exhibits other effects depending on what soma drink he has been offered. These different effects may indicate that soma juice when consumed alone or prepared in special combinations and in low dosages was a stimulant. But the same combinations in moderate dosages were entheogenic, and at higher dosages were narcotic and dangerous. This can be concluded from the hymns themselves, since Indra exhibits all three conditions after drinking soma. These same pharmacological traits are associated with the compounds and preparations for lotus and water‑lily plant drinks.
Soma is mentioned in the hymns as being dangerous, but not fatal, when consumed; the latter is probably due to its preparation. The sap from some parts of the Nelumbo plant can be dangerous. The rhizomes of a number of Nelumbo species are absolutely psychoactive, but not deadly, whereas the sap and rhizomes of most Indian species of Nymphaea are strongly psychoactive and deadly if overconsumed. A warning should be sounded here that certain parts of these two genera of plants are extremely dangerous if not properly used. Death can occur within minutes of ingesting certain parts in high dosages, especially the sap in the rhizomes of some Nymphaea species.
MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF INDIAN NYMPHAEA AND NEL UMBO PLANTS
It should be emphasized that for a plant to be even considered as the soma of the Rg Veda, it must have more than just psychoactive effects; it must also have the important medicinal properties of healing, rejuvenation and life‑span extension that are specifically attributed to the soma plant in the hymns. Both lotus and water lily plants, used alone and in combination, supply these important attributes. Even though they can be entheogenic at certain dosages, the various plant parts, when prepared properly and to specified dosages, are important medicines used to heal various diseases, to rejuvenate the heart, brain, and skin, and to increase longevity.
Indian lotus and water lily plants are referred to in Indian medical texts as rasayana or longevity herbs. The medicinal effects of these special herbs include the removal of poisons, improved complexion, increased energy and intellect, strength, life extension, and the attainment of divine vision and audition. These last two qualities are directly associated with the important entheogenic properties of both the soma plant and lotus plants.
Lotus plants have long been known in folk medicine for their important longevity‑promoting powers, their ability to increase the mental faculties, and their stimulating effects, as well as for their strength‑promoting and rejuvenating effects for the weak and ill. They are also well known for producing an elevated ecstatic state of well‑being, and they are credited with important medicinal properties in the healing and cure of numerous diseases. In both ancient India and ancient Egypt, lotus plants were used as amulets that signified the divine gift of eternal youth. The lotus has been associated with rejuvenation and longevity more than any other plant in world history; this alone makes it a candidate for the soma plant used in the Rg Veda.
The Nelumbo has numerous beneficial anti‑aging and rejuvenating properties. Various parts of the plant have been shown to have important properties for both the healing and rejuvenation of aged skin and improving the complexion. The Nelumbo is also used to treat parasitic eruptions, ringworm, inflammation, and other cutaneous skin ailments. The plant is also effective in neutralizing poisons throughout the body, and it is traditionally used as an antibacterial agent as well as to increase virility, turn gray hair dark again, increase mental alertness, and induce ecstatic states of well‑being. It has also been shown to have important antitumoral effects.
The Nymphaea species is credited with many of the same properties as the Nelumbo. They are used to maintain a glowing complexion and to rejuvenate aged skin, as well as for a number of skin diseases and to prepare various anti‑aging medicines. They also possess antitumoral and regenerative properties, enhance virility, and rejuvenate mental abilities by inducing ecstatic states of well‑being. Generally, both species of plants are powerful restoratives and rejuvenators of entire body systems; they also increase one's sexual potency and life span, and they have even been shown to regenerate aged or damaged internal organs and improve brain, heart, and central nervous system functions.
Although it is not very well known, in ancient India a special ecstasy inducing entheogenic drink was prepared exclusively from lotus plants. This fact is symbolically mentioned in the Rg Vedic hymns and was associated specifically with the ancient soma drink. A variety of lotus drinks, some made only from the flowers and saps of the lotus, others made specifically from the sap of its rhizomes and sterns, were prepared, as well as other drinks made from combining different parts of different lotus plants. These lotus drinks were prepared both as nonfermented drinks and as fermented drinks low in alcohol content.
It was common practice in the ancient world to use various entheogenic plants in fermented beverages. The low‑alcohol drinks in the hymns ()f the Rg Veda were obtained through the fermentation of
soma juice itself or through combinations of other plants added to the soma juice. The lotus drink described in the Rg Veda was sometimes fermented, but many times it was only the juice or sap of the plant that was pressed out and drunk directly to induce ecstasy. It should be emphasized that alcoholic infusions are not necessary to obtain the effects from the ingredients used in the soma ceremony. It is not always necessary to extract alcohol‑soluble compounds from plants using alcohol. Simple water infusions of either pressed flowers, flower buds, rhizomes, or pressed juice from the rhizomes of lotus plants could supply the alkaloids and other compounds needed to produce euphoric states with both visual and auditory hallucinations.
Both types of drinks, fermented and nonfermented, were offered to Indra, the main deity of the Rg Veda. The most important soma drinks prepared from lotus plants in the Rg Veda were made from a combination of pressed sap, called soma, and a separately prepared fermented drink. A ritual drink called soma was also made from lotus plants in a procedure that produced a low‑alcohol content containing entheogenic compounds. This drink was differentiated from a regular alcoholic drink called sura in Sanskrit. Some fermented sura drinks mentioned in the hymns produced an intoxicating stupor that was very different from the inebriation of soma and entheogenic soma admixtures. Yet, the same plants were used in many cases to prepare both soma and sari, and it was only the preparations and the various plant parts used that differed. Nelumbo plants contain specific alkaloids that block certain receptors that cause alcohol induced stupor, so when these plants are added to a fermented soma drink, the low‑alcohol content actually frees alcohol‑soluble alkaloids, which in turn increase the entheogenic potency of the drink while decreasing the normal stupor effects of the alcohol.
The fermented lotus admixture had superior effects compared to the unfermented version. The fermented drink, which was known as the soma amrta, or "elixir of immortality," combined the normal effects of the unfermented soma drink with other qualities for an increased entheogenic potency.
The effects of the lotus drink included: (1) virility enhancement; (2) mental stimulation; (3) the inducement of ecstasy; (4) experiences of light; (5) the experience of blissful, rapturous joy and exhilaration; (6) the expansion of consciousness beyond the physical body, the earth, and heaven to the luminous ground of being, the abode of Soma; (7) divine vision and imagery; and (8) the attainment of immortality while still in a physical body through an ontological reorientation of being outside the physical body.
Even at the time of the Buddha, approximately 500 B.C.E., we have textual mention of an ancient drink prepared from the sap of the rhizomes of lotus plants with flowers of certain colors. Since the Buddhists were Brahmanical heretics, they cared little about expounding upon the ancient soma drink of the Rg Vedic Brahmans. Soma is never mentioned in any of the oldest Buddhist texts. Yet, at this time the soma of the Rg Veda was still very well known. Merely knowing the identity of the soma plant or plants, however, was not enough to recreate the soma experiences described in the Rg Vedic ceremony. This is because of the equal or even greater importance associated with the secret ritual preparation that may have already been fully or partly forgotten by that time.
The various ritual procedures for preparing soma were kept secret and only cryptically referred to in the hymns, but the identity of the sacred soma plant or plants was well known among Brahmans and others outside the priesthood. Soma plants collected for soma ceremonies were often stolen for use by non‑Brahmans, both because the plants were commercially valuable and many people wanted the health and longevity effects known to be associated with the soma drinks. A plant as sacred as soma would never he forgotten, even by 500 B.C.E., which is only four hundred years after the Rg Vedic period. This is especially true in India, a country that traditionally has retained its connection to its ancient beginnings more than any other ancient world culture, which helps to explain why lotus plants are still considered the most sacred plants in India.
The soma drink can be associated with the lotus drink prepared by the early Buddhists. The lotus was the major symbol of the Buddha and was linked by Buddhists to both the elixir of immortality, personified as water, and to fire, which is the same as the dual forces that produce the entheogenic Rg Vedic soma drink during the ceremony.
The Buddhist's lotus drink was prepared from the freshly crushed lotus rhizome, and the Buddha allowed it to be consumed by the monks during certain times, whereas alcoholic drinks were strictly forbidden. Like fresh soma juice, the lotus‑root drink is specifically noted to have effects different from those of alcohol. The lotus‑root drink was allowed because of its psychomental, invigorating, and restorative effects. The drink provided a calming, brain‑stimulating effect that increased the heart rate. Its overall effects would have included invigoration, euphoria, a feeling of well‑being, mental acuity, and ecstasy. The Buddha allowed monks to consume the lotus-root drink because it aided their practice of relaxation, concentration, it nd meditation. Only through overindulgence, either with or without the specially fermented lotus drink of the Rg Vedic soma ceremony, would the results go beyond pure ecstasy and healing to hallucinogenic and narcotic effects. The Buddha allowed the consumption of this drink, made from the most sacred plants of India, only during times of food shortages. Once this had passed, the consumption of the lotus‑root drink, as well as all parts of the sacred lotus plants, was strictly forbidden.
An important point to emphasize is that both Nelumbo and Nymphaea plants were extremely scarce, if not impossible to find,
on the plains of India during the time of the Buddha. They had become scarce through overconsumption, just like the soma plant. Both plants could be procured only from the mountainous lakes and rivers of Kashmir, where the soma ceremonies were thought to have originated. By 500 B.C.E. these lands were controlled by non-Brahmanical tribes who sold these plants to Brahmans on the plains, which shows that in the time close to the end of the Rg Vedic period, after the priesthoods had moved down into the plains, and with the emerging Brahmana textual literature, certain lotus plants used in the ceremonies were not easy to obtain locally but had to be imported from the mountainous regions in the northwest. This does not mean that previously they did not grow in the rivers and lakes on the plains, just that over time the lotus plants were used by large numbers of separate Aryan clans‑and even individuals, according to the Rg Veda‑who performed soma ceremonies daily. This scarcity also coincides with the drying up of the Sarasvati River. which was a major site for soma ceremonies in the Rg Veda and an abundant source for lotus plants of all types. It also corresponds to the Brahmanic priesthood moving further east and south from northwest India away from the Indus River, described in the Rg Veda as a source of various lotus plants used in the early soma ceremonies. Neither plant grows just anywhere, and overuse could have easily depleted them at various ritual sites.
Furthermore, the parts of these plants that are used ritually contain important compounds that oxidize readily and lose their potency. These parts must be used fresh after picking to obtain some of the experiences described as soma inebriation. This is probably one reason why all ancient soma ceremonies in the Rg Veda were conducted along rivers and lakes. Lack of supply, cost, and low psychoactivity may be very good reasons why substitutes were introduced in the Brahmanas for soma plants once used in the Rg Veda. Because the Brahmans did not want to cause the extinction of their most sacred plant, they established rules on the use of the lotus, cultivating it on the plains mainly in temple pools where it was generally
forbidden to be touched.
The writers of the Brahmanas, who came from the same priestly families as those who wrote the Rg Vedic hymns, knew the exact identity of the original soma plant described in the Rg Veda. When the real soma plant or plants could not be obtained, or were obtained and stolen‑since there was such a demand for the plants‑it would have become easier to find substitute plants in order to continue the ritual that was so important for the stability of the cosmos. And so we
find in the Brahmanas, which first appear around 900 B.C.E., about the same time as the end of the Rg Vedic period, the introduction of soma plant substitutes. These substitutes were introduced when the original soma plant became unavailable to carry on the tradition. At this same time, the ceremony itself became more ritualized and overshadowed the entheogenic experience at its core.
NYMPHAEA AND NELUMBO PLANTS
Concerning the lotus plant's role in the soma ceremony, it is relevant to mention that in the Rg Veda flowers are mentioned as part of the soma drink. An epithet for soma is the word andhas, which is related to the Greek word anthos, meaning flower. The word andhas, also meaning flower, is frequently associated in the Rg Veda with madhu, the sweet psychoactive nectar prepared from flowers.(4) The word andhas can also mean the soma sap, or the nectar extracted from the flower of the soma plant. It is not clear, however, whether it is newly pressed soma sap or an admixture that is referred to as soma.(5) Andhas is found almost exclusively in the Rg Veda. The word does not occur in the Iranian Avesta, occurs only twice in the Atharva Veda, and is mentioned very seldom in later Indian literature. This word seems to have been selected to convey a specific meaning for the soma plant and its juice, and it indicates that at least part of the soma drink was derived from flowers.
In addition to the soma plant, the only other plants that are frequently mentioned in the Rg Veda are various lotus plants.(6)The lotus flower is actually one of the few flowers even discussed in the Rg Veda.(7) In Vedic Sanskrit the word puspa means "flower" and the term puspavati is used in Rg Veda 10.97.3. One name for the lotus is puskara, which means "nourishing" and is derived from the same root as puspa. The nourishing quality of these plants relates to their restorative and rejuvenating effects as well as to special psychic states and feelings of well‑being and ecstasy.
In the Rg Veda soma was also considered a food in and of itself, and lotus plants have an ancient history as a restorative and rejuvenating food.(8)
Lotus and water lily plants are referred to not only by certain names in the Rg Veda but also by their growth patterns or plant parts. It should be kept in mind that the names do not refer to the whole plant, but just to the parts or effects of some of these plants. Lotus plants, more than any other Rg Vedic plants, were seen as combining a number of plants into one because of their unusual growth patterns. Each of their parts including flowers, flower parts, nectar, stems, rhizomes, and sap must have had different names.
These names often refer to only one part, such as the flower, or to one of the effects of the plant. Therefore the complete names, or real names, of the lotus and water lily plants known during the Rg Vedic period, of which there were a large number of species and varieties, are not mentioned in the Rg Veda, and they could easily be referred
to by the generic term soma, as was the pressed sap of these plants.
The two names used in the Rg Veda for water lily and lotus plants are puskara and pundarika, but these refer only to an effect and a color, respectively. So what about all the other lotus plants and parts of lotus plants? These must have been called something else, very possibly the generic word soma. Pupdarika, which occurs only once in the Rg Veda, is used in reference to the white flower of a single Nelumbo plant; it refers neither to the whole plant nor to any other part of that plant, nor to any other Nelumbo variety. The term most frequently encountered is puskara. It has been a subject of considerable debate among Indian ethnobotantists whether puskara refers to a Nelumbo or Nymphaea plant; in most cases it actually refers to the Nymphaea water lily, but not always.
In the Atharva Veda, a text containing ideas and doctrines as old as the Rg Veda and including many of the same cosmological views on soma and the soma ceremony, lotus and water lily plants are mentioned by various names that again refer only to parts or attributes of the plants and never to the whole plant itself. Again, this indicates that the whole plant of certain water lilies and lotuses may have been known by another name, such as soma, which referred both to the pressed‑out juice of these plants and to the lotus plants themselves.