Soma's philosophical meaning can be deconstructed to showcase its entheogenic properties as the elixir of immortality.
If you have ever skimmed through the Vedas and glanced through the list of gods that the Vedic hymns are dedicated to, chances are that you would have definitely come across the word ‘Soma’ somewhere along all that browsing.
However, it may not have been very clear from the one odd verse or even a couple what it really stands for. Based on their reading of the scriptures, various scholars describe Soma as a plant or a drink derived from the plant sometimes equated with Amrit – the elixir of immortality. Some identify it with the moon-god Chandra and yet others believe it is just a metaphor for certain deeper yogic or philosophical concepts.
Given these myriad interpretations and the poetic nature of Vedic verses, how does one really understand what Soma actually refers to? The interpretations are so varied that when I was going through the Rigveda for the very first time, I decided to completely skip the Ninth Mandal dedicated to Soma because I didn’t really have the luxury of time to understand its mysteries at that moment. However, since the past few months, I am being constantly accosted with the term in random literature, discussions with friends and even on television in mythological shows.
Taking the hint from the Universe I decided to plunge myself into the study of Soma and emerge only when I had made enough sense of it to thread the seemingly disparate references into a cohesive string. So, without beating about the bush any further, let me initiate you into the mysteries of this enigmatic Soma as I have understood.
The first step is to realize that the term refers to two distinct yet related entities – one, the Moon-god also known as Chandrama and second, the invigorating (NOT intoxicating) drink that was consumed by the gods. The excerpts I am going to share below should be able to help us understand the distinction between the two as well as their relatedness.
To start with, let us take a look at the Shatapatha Brahmana, an ancillary text to the Shukla Yajurveda that gives us some really interesting stories about the origins of the fire-sacrifices and rituals related to them. Verse 24 of the Section 1.6.3. mentions:
The sun, indeed, relates to Agni, and the moon to Soma; the day relates to Agni, and the night to Soma; the waxing half-moon relates to Agni and the waning one to Soma.
So here, we have the first hint of the connection between Soma, the drink, and Soma, the moon-god. The next Section details this further through the following verses:
The gods said, ‘Nothing but Soma will satiate him: let us prepare Soma for him!’ They prepared Soma for him.
Now this king Soma, the food of the gods, is no other than the moon.
When he (the moon) is not seen that night either in the east or in the west, then he visits this world; and here he enters into the waters and plants.
He is indeed a treasure for the gods, he is their food.
And since during that night he here dwells together (amâ vas), therefore that (night of new moon) is called amâvâsyâ (the dwelling together, or at home). S Br 220.127.116.11
These verses, besides giving us a poetic meaning of the word ‘Amavas’, also help us understand how exactly the moon is related to the drink that was offered to Vedic gods like Indra. Soma, the moon-god comes and resides in the water bodies and plants on Amavasya night and his essence is collected by gathering the Soma plants and water. Now it is all very good to say that the moon comes and resides in the plants but it begs the simple question – why?
The answer comes from the Puranas since the connection made in the Vedic scriptures is preserved in the later literature as well. Vishnu Purana tells us that Brahma made Chandrama or Soma the lord of plants, Brahmins and constellations (nakshatras). In the Puranic story of the rishis called Prachetas, once the world is overrun by vegetation and massive trees block wind and sunlight from people living on earth. When the Prachetas see the condition of people they immediately decide to burn down the forests and Soma, the patriarch of the vegetation then takes the responsibility of calming down the rishis for the sake of his subjects.
That the moon is connected to the water-bodies is quite evident if we just remember how the tides are formed. Many believe that it also affects the fluids within our bodies and they cite the connection of women’s periods with the lunar cycle. Be that as it may, the connection between Soma and the plants and water-bodies is not as far-fetched as it seems in the first glance.
Now that we have established the connection between the deity and his subjects, let us see what more can we learn from the scriptures. The next few verses from the Shatapatha Brahmana mention that Soma resides in cows’ milk! Now this seems a little far-fetched and one may wonder how these bovine species come into the picture, but the answer is quite simple – since cows consume plants and water, turning it into milk, this milk is believed to have the essence of Soma.
This will become clearer with these verses:
They prepared it (Soma for Indra), after having it collected, part by part, by the cows: in eating plants (they collected it) from the plants, and in drinking water (they collected it) from the waters. Having prepared and coagulated it, and made it strong (pungent), they gave it to him. S Br 18.104.22.168
However, this is true only for the plant and the milk that is collected on new moon days as mentioned in the below verse.
But as they (the cows), previously (to the new moon), eat mere plants (not imbued with the moon or Soma), and drink mere water, and yield mere milk,–so that (milk which they offer on the day before new moon, is not imbued with Soma, is ordinary milk).
For king Soma, the food of the gods, indeed, is no other than the moon.
When he is not seen that night either in the east or in the west, then he visits this world, and here enters into the waters and plants. Having then collected him from the water and plants, he (the performer of the ritual) causes him to be reproduced from out of the libations; and he (Soma, the moon), being reproduced from the libations, becomes visible in the western sky. S Br 22.214.171.124
The composers of the Shatapatha Brahmana totally justify their existence by giving such beautiful poetic explanations! The gods share one of their own with us for our sustenance and the human beings offer it back to the deities, thereby creating a mutually symbiotic relationship. The next verse actually mentions Soma as the food of the gods and this is also reflected in the Puranic concept of waxing and waning of the moon caused by the Gods drinking up the Soma in it:
Thus during that night (of new moon) food moves away from the gods and comes to this world.
Now the gods were desirous as to how that (food) might (be made to) come back to them; how it might not perish away from them.
For this they put their trust in those who prepare the libation of sweet and sour milk (sânnâyya), thinking, ‘when they have prepared it, they will offer it to us.’
And, verily, in him, who knows this, both his own kin and strangers put their trust; for in him, who attains to the highest rank, people indeed put their trust. S Br 126.96.36.199
When our ancestors were conducting elaborate Soma sacrifices, they were repaying the debt we owed to the gods for sharing their food with us. The Soma-yagnya is a fire-sacrifice in which the priests offer Soma to the gods with Agnishtomaregarded as the most important one. It has a really elaborate procedure but for our purpose let us just remember that Soma juice needs to be extracted three times for its completion: Prātahsavana – in the morning; Mādhyandinasavana – at noon; and Tṛtīyasavana – in the afternoon.
For the details of this extraction process let us go back to the Ninth Mandala of the Rig Veda beginning with the very first hymn:
In sweetest and most gladdening stream
flow pure, O Soma, on thy way,
Pressed out for Indra, for his drink. RV 9.1.1
Flow onward with thy juice unto the banquet of the Mighty Gods:
Flow hither for our strength and fame. RV 9.1.4
By means of this eternal fleece may Sūrya’s Daughter purify
Thy Soma that is foaming forth. RV 9.1.6
Ten sister maids of slender form seize him within the press and hold
Him firmly on the final day. RV 9.1.7
Inviolable milch-kine round about him blend for Indra’s drink,
The fresh young Soma with their milk. RV 9.1.9
The above verses indicate that the juice was ‘pressed’ out of the plant, filtered through a cloth made of sheep’s wool and then mixed with milk. The ten maidens could perhaps be the fingers of the two hands used to extract the juice or a reference to the sieves similar to the ones used by Zoroastrians in their Haoma extraction. For those who may not be aware, the Zoroastrian customs have a lot of similarities with Vedic rituals and two of the major ones are fire-worship and Soma/Haoma rites. In the Parsi ceremony, a mortar and pestle are used for pounding and extracting the juice from the plant which is filtered through a nine-holed strainer and stored in a bowl.
The second hymn mentions the juice being stored in wooden vats that were known as the Drona-kalash and the sixth hymn re-affirms our notion that the ten maidens could be the sieves that are also referred to as the Dasha-pavitra:
Soma, flow on with pleasant stream, a Bull devoted to the Gods,
Our Friend, unto the woolen sieve.
Pour hitherward, as Indra’s Self, Indu, that gladdening stream of thine,
And send us coursers full of strength.
Flow to the filter hitherward, pouring that ancient gladdening juice,
Streaming forth power and high renown.
Hither the sparkling drops have flowed, like waters down a steep descent
They have reached Indra purified.
Whom, having passed the filter, ten dames cleanse, as ’twere a vigorous steed,
While he disports him in the wood,
The steer-strong juice with milk pour forth, for feast and service of the Gods,
To him who bears away the draught.
Effused, the God flows onward with his stream to Indra, to the God,
So that his milk may strengthen him.
In the next hymns, we are told that the filtered juice is golden in color and it is mixed with milk to make it fit for the gods, confirming what we had read earlier from the Shatapatha Brahmana. When mixed only with milk it is called gavāśira, when curd is added it becomes daddhyāśira and when mixed with barley, it is known as yavāśira. There are many such verses from these oldest scriptures of Hinduism that tell us conclusively that Soma is not an imaginary substance or metaphor for immortality but an actual drink that was made by combining juice from a particular plant and mixed with cow-milk collected on the new moon day.
What this plant could be we’ll see in the next part of the article. Till then I hope the mystery of Soma has excited you enough to do some research on your own and come up with some possible candidates in the comments section below.