Monthly Archives: November 2008

Rise and decline of modern science in India (2008)

National Academy Science Letters (Allahabad), 31 (5&6) , 171-174, 2008

Prof. R.C. Gupta Endowment Award Lecture of National Academy of Sciences India, Allahabad, delivered at Panjab University, Chandigarh, 18 Jan.2008


It is a matter of great honour for me that the National Academy of Sciences India, Allahabad, has bestowed on me its Prof. R.C. Gupta Endowment History of Science Lecture Award for the year 2006. More than an award to an individual it is the Academy’s statement in favour of a rigorous, detached, open-ended approach towards history of science. I am particularly happy that the lecture is being organized by my alma mater, Panjab University. When I entered the University in 1962 I was barely 15 years old. My first and the lasting impression of the University is about its Central Library. The schools I had gone to had no library worth the name. The college where I spent a year had a beautiful library, but the library staff tended to view us as potential thieves. I am not sure whether I alone was under suspicion or others also. But, in the Panjab University library we had the whole storehouse of knowledge at our disposal. I mention this because much has changed, and changed for the worse, in the last four decades throughout the country.  I am not singling out any particular university or college, but drawing attention to a common phenomenon. Book prices have gone up, rupee has gone down, and the library, and laboratory,  budgets have been slashed. Although today I am talking about rise and decline of  modern  science in India, I could be talking about scholarship in general. There is a growing concern in India about the state of health of science education and research. It would help if science decline is viewed not in isolation but in the larger context of  a general  scholarship decline.


My basic degrees from this University have been in Physics/Astrophysics. It was a happy accident that I strayed from modern Astrophysics into History of Astronomy and the History and Sociology of Science. Whenever I gave a talk on science in British India, the question at the end was invariably this. It is all right to talk about George Everest, J.C. Bose or C.V. Raman but what about today? It is this persistent query that led me to look into the post-independence science in India. My stint as Director of NISTADS helped me gain familiarity with the scientific developments in the globalization era and benefit from the research work carried out by my colleagues. To understand the modern situation, it is necessary to form a perspective on recent history.


Since there are very many  in the audience who are students, science students, biology students, I would like to  make some comments on the state of the world science today.


World science today

We notice first of all that  the faith societies and nations had placed, in the years immediately after the second  world war , in  science’s ability to deliver solutions has largely vanished. There is now a wide-spread cultural fatigue of, and backlash against, science the world over.


As is well known globalization has been made possible by developments in information and communication technology. A less obvious feature of globalization is the round-the- clock free flow of financial capital across the world. Concerted efforts are being made to provide mathematical basis for the behaviour of world capital and stock markets. Many persons with high skills in physics and mathematics are being employed in these endeavours. These experts may otherwise have gone into science. Indeed, natural science now has a serious rival.


We shall now look into   the  developments within science. In the 1930s the Nobel-prize winning nuclear physicist , Lord Rutherford, made an interesting observation. He said to te effect that physics was the only science; everything else was stamp collecting. Why did he say that? Those were the days when botany and zoology were mere taxonomy. Of course, now they are lab sciences, wherein manipulation is possible at molecular level. Just as the years  immediately after the war belonged to physics, the present, and the near future, belong to new biology.


The first stage was when Nobel-prize level research could be carried out in small, even private, laboratories. Then came the stage when, while cutting-edge physics research required high technology, reasonably competent research could still be done with relatively modest equipment. Physics has since advanced to a level where this is no longer possible. But now biology is probably  in a similar state. The dynamism in new biology may continue for another twenty, thirty or more years. After that, whether physics will stage a comeback in a cyclic fashion or whether science itself will become listless, only time can tell. Instead of venturing into fool-hardy guessing game into the next hundred years of science , we will instead look at the past century of Indian science with a view to understanding how we have ended where we are and where do we go now.


A century of Indian science

Decline in Indian science is ironic because of the fact that India was the first country outside of  Europe and America to take to modern science. Two Calcutta degree-college professors, J.C. Bose and P.C. Ray, were the world’s first non-Western main-stream scientists. C.V. Raman’s Nobel prize was the first one  to go out of the West. It would perhaps have been better for India if Raman had missed the  Nobel. The freak individual honour has raised false hopes and made it difficult if not impossible to carry out  a clear-headed analysis of Indian science.


The Indian pursuit of science during the past eleven decades can be discussed in terms of three sequential phases: (i) Nationalist Phase; (ii) International Phase; and (iii) Globalization Phase. The first phase can be assigned  a precise beginning,1895, when Bose’s first paper appeared. The second phase can nominally be taken to begin with the 1945 setting up of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, by Homi Bhabha. The third phase, now on, began with the onset of globalization


As we move down the phases, there is a general decline in   the quality of Indian science and in its impact on the world. I would argue that there is a striking correlation between these three phases and the stages in the diminishing role perceived by the middle class for itself in the national scheme of things.


Nationalist  phase

The phase that began with J.C. Bose and Ray is characterized by the Nobel prize – winning work of C.V.Raman and the Nobel-class theoretical researches of M.N. Saha and S.N. Bose. These spectacular achievements were made possible by a fortuitous combination of circumstances. (i) Modern science was young then. It was just a short step ahead of, or rather a continuation of, M. Sc.-level studies. Thus Raman could publish research papers in international journals while still a student and establish his credentials as a world-class experimentalist working part-time. Saha and S.N. Bose as young lecturers produced the first ever English translation of Einstein for use as course material. Saha and before him J.C. Bose could identify research problems by reading popular accounts.


(ii) Another very important feature of this phase was that the caliber of teachers was exceptionally high. Teaching was the best career option after the  ICS. Surendra Nath Banerjee after being unfairly dismissed from ICS became a college professor (He taught P.C.Ray). Since Saha could not enter civil services because of his  pronounced nationalist leanings, he  became a university lecturer. Raman left a cushy civil job to become a professor.


(iii) The infrastructural and technological requirements of experimental research were very modest and easily available at the level of a college teaching.  As J.C. Bose  pointed out  in his time  library and lab-wise the Presidency College, Calcutta, was among the best equipped anywhere in the world. Ray had a B.Sc. – failed assistant, Jitendra Nath Rakshit, who “Out of a few bits of rejected glass – tubing” “could improvise an apparatus, which hitherto could be had from a firm in England or Germany after months of anxious waiting”. Raman used to boast that his equipment cost only 200 rupees. Raman misses the point completely. What is important is not the cost, but the fact that at the time state-of–the–art labs could be easily set up in the country.


Now Nobel –prize level work requires billions of dollars worth of equipment which needs continual up-gradation. Basic science has increasingly become a child of high-technology and the days of simple discoveries are long over. It was one thing to theorize on Bose–Einstein statistics using paper and pen ( as S.N. Bose did), but quite another to achieve the technological feat of isolating the predicted condensates (which was honoured with a Nobel prize in 2001). It was the “science application” ‘under the aegis of the British administration that made “science speculation” by the natives possible. But as science developed, India failed to keep pace with science application. Science speculation cannot be maintained in a technological and industrial vacuum.


International recognition won by J.C.Bose and Ray was the first tangible proof that the natives could be the equals of and command respect from their European masters. In recent times there has been much back-dated regret at J.C. Bose’s failure to encash his pioneering experimental discoveries pertaining to radio receivers and transmitters. It is forgotten that at the time being treated as  equal ranked higher than being a part of the industrial machinery. Notably ,  in the same spirit Bose declined a professorship in England and chose to remain in Calcutta.


 The take-off stage of modern physics coincided with the enhanced sense of Indian nationalism. Making scientific discoveries requires a certain amount of defiance. The suppressed anger against the colonial rulers provided that defiance. Paradoxically, while Indian achievements in science were perceived as part of the nationalist movement, at the same time honours bestowed by the colonial rulers were coveted and even flaunted. In the early days when India was new to modern science, it was natural that recognition be sought from the West. But modern science in India never became self-assessing. Scientists have continued looking towards the West for encouragement, support and recognition.


In the early 1950s when the celebrated British physicist Paul Dirac visited India he found to his horror that S.N. Bose was not a Fellow of the Royal Society. Such a glaring  omission showed the Society in poor light. Dirac promptly arranged to have  Bose elected as a Fellow. Interestingly, at the time, there were already a number of Indian Fellows, but none  of them chose to propose Bose’s name. We have here at work what we may call the Sultan’s Harem Syndrome. Inmates of a harem compete with one another to catch the eye of the  Sultan, in this case the West.


In the pre-Gandhian years, the nationalist movement was strictly a middle class affair, with the leadership still making appeals to the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige. In this scheme science and public affairs reinforced each other. Things changed with the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the scene. Leadership remained in the hands of the middle class but its constituency became more broad-based. As a strategy, Gandhi put the West on the defensive on ethical grounds. Since modern science was largely seen as a part of the Western civilizational baggage, it went out of focus during years of Gandhi’s ascendancy. Science returned centre stage with the emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru as the undisputed leader of independent India.


International phase

To fix our ideas we have taken the foundation of TIFR in 1945 as the starting point of this phase. It essentially deals with India from independence till the onset of globalization (and Mandalization). During this phase, at least in the earlier part nation building was a recurrent theme. Attempts at industrialization, reverse engineering, irrigation dams, agricultural production, strategic science, health-care and desire for expansion of science and engineering all placed science (including technology and engineering) in a pivotal place. This rubbed onto basic scientific research also.


Generally speaking, research was of lesser quality than before. This is understandable because in the interim science had developed faster than India had.  Indian science depended on foreign collaboration and visits; and had an eye on the man-power needs of post-war West. Yet, it fitted in with the national desire to harness science for economic development, and as an instrument of national prestige. Although in a democratic set up, political power was transferred to elected representatives, the distance between them and the middle class was still small. The distance has since increased to such an extent that middle class has lost whatever sense of national obligation it had cherished earlier.


Globalization phase

Globalization has transformed India economy as well as the India middle class.For the past many years India has been enjoying an growth rate of 8-9%.While the rate is commendable, it has been driven by the services sector, which is manifestly science-less. If the economy of a country becomes derivative so will its culture. Science cannot flourish in a society whose economy does not require science. If the Indian economy has disowned science, the middle class has disowned India itself. Globalization has introduced India to a consumerist lifestyle that is beyond the intrinsic strength of India economy. This lifestyle can only be maintained by servicing the Western economy.


Throughout the world science provides the quickest, shortest and the surest route to middle class and for upward social mobility. Indian Science and engineering degree-holders from among the middle class  are more than willing to do petty un-intelligent jobbery for big companies for the sake of a salary, which though small in dollar terms translates into a hefty rupee bundle . If they want to pursue science they go to USA,  where a middle class living is still an improvement over their Indian status. At a technical level, it must be admitted, there is a cascading  effect in the decline  of science in India. There is an ever-increasing chasm between the best of Indian science and the best of world science. If any Indian wishes to make a mark in scientific research, they can as well go abroad, especially when the world is culturally far more homogeneous than ever before and travel and communication costs have come down drastically. Interestingly  while politicians, lawyers and doctors want their children to follow their parental profession, Indian scientists would not like their children to become Indian scientists. ( Similarly , while military officers do not like their sons to follow suit, a burning ambition of junior and non-commissioned officers is to see their sons as officers.)


It is noteworthy that American-born young men and women irrespective of their ethnicity are not interested in a career in science. Science in USA is being kept alive by immigrants. This has a lesson for India. The biggest shortcoming of India today is that its middle class has become a closed club; they are no new rants into it through education. If science is to survive in India, the education system must step out and embrace children of illiterate parents. For these, a science-related career in universities, defence, national labs, public sector undertakings, etc., would be a social step upward and therefore acceptable.


 During the colonial period, production of wealth aspects of modern science were looked down upon. There was  an economic role for science  under Nehru’s influence, but the phase soon came to an end. The lessons of the past eleven decades of Indian pursuit of India science very clear to anyone willing to see them. During the nationalist phase there was this desire to show the world. That spirit somehow vanished on the way. It needs to be revived again. At the same time it is important to remember that it is not possible to sustain science as a purely cultural activity for any extended period of time. If science is to survive , leave aside flourish, in India, it must play a leading role in GDP.  Science empowers not its worshippers, but its harnessers.

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar: Life and times

R. Kochhar (2004) S.S. Bhatnagar: Life and Times. (Review essay) In New edition, Life & Work of Sir S.S. Bhatnagar (by Norah Richards). (Delhi: NISTADS) first published 1948


Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (1894-1955) was, in a way, a bridge between two cultures and two eras. He came at a time when science was greeted with a sense of mission, but literature was still valued. Encouragement and recognition were sought from the colonial empire, not as an end in itself, but as a prelude to nation building.  An internationally acclaimed chemist, Bhatnagar wrote Urdu poetry under the aptly chosen pen-name of Seemab (meaning mercury) and went on to compose, in Sanskrit, the ceremonial hymn for Benaras Hindu University. Notwithstanding his knighthood and the official position of Director (since renamed Director-General) of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Bhatnagar had the courage to publicly touch the feet of the Congress president on the latter’s release from jail. If the chemical industry, along with its derivative the pharmaceutical, is an important part of Indian economy today, it is in no small measure due to the scientific and managerial efforts of Bhatnagar who half in jest claimed intellectual lineage from the pioneering Indian modern chemist P.C. Ray, Bhatnagar’s teacher having been Ray’s early student.  Chemistry was rather a laboured link with Bengal; what exercised great influence on the course of Bhatnagar’s life was the Bengal-born Brahmo Samaj movement.


Shanti’s father, Parameshwari Sahai, became a Brahmo, preferring the idealist vocation of a teacher to the family’s favourite practice of taking well-paying, middling jobs in revenue and judiciary. Leaving college half-way through on his father’s death and estranged from his uncles because of his religious beliefs, Sahai became second master at Anglo-Sanskrit High School, Bhera, district Shahpur, Punjab, from where, in 1893, he went to Lahore to serve as a volunteer at the Indian National Congress. In 1894, on 21 February, Shanti was born; in March Sahai privately sat for his B.A. examination, which he passed with distinction in history and English. Sahai however died when Shanti was barely eight months old. Cut off from the husband’s side and without any means of her own, Sahai’s young widow and her three children (one yet unborn) were received by her father, Munshi Pyare Lal, one of the earliest products of Roorkee engineering college who had now “retired with ample means” to his ancestral house in Sikandarabad, district Bulandshahar, UP. The old house was the repository of a rare collection of Persian books and manuscripts by an ancestor, Mirza Ghalib’s junior contemporary and friend, Munshi Har Gopal Tufta, himself a well-known poet. The collection came down to Bhatnagar who, in 1919, passed it on to the

university library, Lahore. One of the rarities was “a

Persian version of the Mahabharata for which Shanti

Swarup received a small sum from the library




In the comfortable, albeit sheltered and secluded,

atmosphere of his grandfather’s house, Shanti spent his

first thirteen years. Henceforth he would pay for his

education himself, by winning scholarships and giving

private coaching. In 1908, Rai Sahib Lala Raghu Nath

Sahai, Parameshwari Sahai’s childhood friend and soulmate

and Shanti’s future father-in-law, took the young

lad under his wings. How this happened is an

interesting story. Raghu Nath Sahai accompanied by his

son Bishwa Nath Sahai travelled from Lahore to

Panipat to attend a wedding. “Those were the days

when young children from the groom’s side and from

the bride’s side used to participate just before the

marriage, in a competitive spirit, in a function called

Ghazal-Khwani [Ghazal recital competition]. Young

Shanti Swarup was found quite outstanding in this

competition. Mr Bishwa Nath Sahai, who was a

graduate in psychology, gave an IQ test to young Shanti

Swarup and found him much above average. He

brought this to the notice of [his own father] R.S.

Raghu Nath Sahai, who immediately made enquiries

regarding the boy and found to his great joy and

surprise that Shanti Swarup was the son of his very dear

lamented friend Parmeshari Sahai. Soon R.S. Raghu

Nath Sahai made up his mind to take Shanti Swarup to

Lahore for proper care and better schooling.”1 Here

Shanti joined Dyal Singh High School of which Raghu

Nath was the headmaster. (Dyal Singh was a prominent


landowner and a leading light of the Brahmo movement

in Punjab. He also founded the influential English paper

The Tribune.)

At school, Shanti developed an absorbing interest in

science, “delighting in scientific experiment”.

“Whenever boys in senior classes failed to answer

questions in science, he was sent for and invariably

gave the correct answers. As a reward, he was asked to

box the ears of senior boys.”2 He “contrived for

himself a crude laboratory in one of the galleries of the

School Hall and had stocked it with old tubes, broken

flasks, batteries and any useful thing that by hook or by

crook could be got hold of.” “Then, it is said he gave

some chemical preparation as hair tonic to his

mathematics teacher, Mr. Ram Narain Gupta. To the

latter’s shock his hair turned white prematurely. Shanti

Swarup was given a few cane strokes as punishment.

Later on, Mr. Gupta used to proudly say that his cane

can work miracles and can send a student abroad.”3 The

teachers often complained to the headmaster that Shanti

“was a great trouble to them, perpetually plying them

with questions; that he was restless in the class room

and always too ready to retort when admonished.” In

1911, the schoolboy Shanti published a letter to the

editor in The Leader (Allahabad) on how to make a

substitute for carbon electrodes in a battery, by using

molasses and carbonaceous matter under pressure and

heat (Attempts to trace the letter have so far been

unsuccessful). Significantly, 31 years later, Bhatnagar

returned to the problem in his laboratory when material


for making electrodes could not be imported because of

the second world war.

On matriculation in 1911, he moved on to the newly

opened Dyal Singh College on a university scholarship.

A lasting influence on him here was the theatre

personality, Irish-born Norah Richards (1876-1971),

whose husband Philip Ernest Richards came from the

Unitarian Ministry in England as the Professor of

English literature and whose duties included “freethinking

religious discourse.” Having been a successful

stage artiste herself, under her maiden name Norah

Mary Hutman, she encouraged students not only to

perform the plays that were “prescribed for academic

study” but also to write original ones. In the spring of

1912, the Irish play “Spreading the News” by Lady

Gregory “of Abbey Theatre, Dublin fame” was

performed at Dyal Singh College, in which “the deaf

apple-woman was played by S.S. Bhatnagar with much

drollery” (as Norah Richards recalled later). The same

year, Norah Richards initiated an intra-college one-act

play competition in which Bhatngar’s Urdu play

Karamat (pronounced karaamaat, “miracle”) won the

first prize. The play “satirized the clash between

scientific and superstitious methods of healing”. Norah

Richards declared it to be “pure Bhatnagar!” “The play

was however banned by an over-cautious principal lest

it offended local sentiments”. In 1915, Norah Richards

founded an inter-collegiate Saraswati Stage Society

with herself as the president and Sir Rabindra Nath

Tagore as one of the associates. Bhatnagar by then in


Forman Christian College was among the honorary

members. Karamat was enacted by the Saraswati


Bhatnagar was greatly inspired by his professor,

N.N. Godbole, whose enthusiasm for indigenous

industrial products he imbibed. Bhatnagar in fact

contributed an article on “Fermentation phenomena of

pomegranate juice,” in a magazine aptly called

Raushani (light) brought out by the Society for

Promoting Scientific Knowledge launched by Lahore

Medical College students.

(Bhatnagar remained in touch with Norah Richards

through out his life. She left for Europe in 1920 on the

death of her husband only to return in 1924 for good.

Eventually she settled on a 15-acre property in a small

village Andretta near Palampur in the Kangra valley

(now in Himachal Pradesh), where she remained till her

death. Norah Richards wrote Bhatnagar’s biography

during January and February 1944 while staying in his

house in Delhi. “Originally a commission from a

Biographical Research Society in America, it missed

the last date for sending in… Two abortive attempts at

publication were then made, one with an English firm

in India and one in Britain.” A Lahore publisher

showed interest, but nothing came out of it. Finally the

biography with some additional material was published

from New Delhi in 1948. This affectionate and leisurely

biography written with full cooperation from Bhatnagar

remains our primary source of information on his

personal and family life.)



In 1913, after finishing his intermediate examination in

first division, Bhatnagar joined Forman Christian

College, “where he did not allow any distractions from

his studies in Science”. His unexceptional quest for

knowledge produced rather unexpected results. When

he sat for his B.Sc. examination in 1915, he flunked in

the subject his name is now associated with: chemistry.

One of the questions dealt with the nature of X-rays,

discovered ten years previously. Bhatnagar, on the

authority of the books he had read, wrote that X-rays

could be reflected, refracted and polarized just as

ordinary light. This however went against what was

written in the textbook, the examiner’s touchstone. (Did

the examiner know that Bhatnagar was right but felt

that he himself was duty bound to go by the textbook?

Or did he genuinely believe that the textbook was

right?). Bhatnagar eventually got his degree next year,

with honours in physics.

In retrospect, the incident of Bhatnagar’s flunking

the B.Sc. examination looks mildly amusing. But in its

time it increased his difficulties. The more so, because

he got married, in May 1915, to Raghu Nath Sahai’s

daughter, Lajwanti, who had received her early

education in Dyal Singh High School, “which was

purely a boys’ school” and where her father was the

headmaster. “Kumari Lajwanti would go dressed as a

tomboy with a Salma Sitara [decorated] cap.”

Throughout his college days, Shanti remained in

straitened circumstances. As an undergraduate he had


earned his examination fees by making an inventory of

the contents of the Forman Chemical Laboratories.

During this period, financially and professionally

rewarding was the consultancy work he did for a

leading Lahore stationer who could not import gelatin

duplicating pads from Germany because of the war.

The problem was referred to Bhatnagar by his

chemistry professor and the solution fetched him the

welcome sum of Rs.150.

After completing his B.Sc. in 1916, Bhatnagar took

up a job as demonstrator in physics and chemistry in

Forman Christian College, moving on to Dyal Singh

College as a senior demonstrator in chemistry. Youth

and love saw the couple through difficult times. They

lived in a hired two roomed first floor tenement within

the school campus. He took up private coaching to

augment his meager income as a Senior Demonstrator

at Dyal Singh college. “After college duty he would

rush to the hostel of Chief’s College, to tutor his ward.

He had to do nearly 20 miles up and down on bicycle

and would be quite late for his dinner with his newly

married wife. Her pleadings with him to return home

not so late did not cut much ice with him. One night to

his great surprise he found the staircase bolted from

inside. After knocking for some minutes, he could sense

the purpose of his young wife. Nobody could however

outdo this clever young husband. Adjacent to his house

there was a peepŭl [ficus religiosa] tree with a high

platform around it. Shanti Swarup just climbed it and

jumped from its branch over hanging the back yard of


his house and very lovingly woke up Lajwanti who had

dozed off.”4 In 1917, he studied for his M.Sc. as a

private student. Then for the next two years he worked

from the Forman College, receiving instruction from

professors of the Government College under the

scheme of inter-collegiate post-graduate teaching. He

obtained his M.Sc. degree in 1919, taking three years as

he had done for the B.Sc. As part of his degree

requirements, he studied the surface tension of water.

The next two years, 1919-1921, Bhatnagar spent at

the University of London earning his D.Sc. degree on

surface tension of oils, under the supervision of Prof.

F.G. Donnan, FRS. This was made possible by the

award of a scholarship by Dyal Singh Trust, thanks to

the efforts of Prof. Ruchi Ram Sahni, a science

professor at the Government College and a member of

the Trust. (Sahni was the father of the well-known

botanist, Birbal Sahni.) “It was during Bhatnagar’s first

years in London that H.R.H the Prince of Wales visited

University College and was shown over the Ramsay

Laboratories by the Director. The Indian students five

in number were at the time busy cooking their mid-day

meal…. H.R.H. looked closely at the preparations and

asked if he might have a taste. The students, thereupon,

invited him and Professor Donnan to share their meal

which they did.”

A travel grant from the British department of

scientific and industrial research enabled Bhatnagar to

visit France and Germany. He was in the group of

fourteen research students from London University that


went to meet Prof. Walther Hermann Nernst (1864-

1941, Chemistry Nobel prize 1920) in his laboratory in

Berlin with a letter of introduction from Donnan, each

name accompanied by nationality and research topic.

Nernst himself came out to say no; he “would not like

any Britishers to go round.” Later on a note came

addressed to Megh Nad Saha saying that Nernst would

allow the Indian students to see the laboratories because

“the last blow to the British empire would come from

India” (Ironically, the same Nernst took shelter in

England in 1935 after fleeing Nazi Germany).


Bhatnagar returned to India in 1921 to take up a

professorship at Benaras Hindu University on the

invitation of the founder Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya.

Bhatnagar took over from one Prof. Mane, an

undistinguished elderly person of about 55, who broke

down while handing over the keys to the new man,

because he had already held them for 15 years.

Magnanimously, Bhatnagar permitted him to remain

the head. “At the close of the meeting [of the Council]

the professors, pleased at Bhatnagar’s action, gathered

around him while Pt. Malaviya hugged him.” (What

the Council thought of Prof. Mane’s attachment to the

keys does not seem to be on record.) In Benaras

Bhatnagar focused on pure research which stood him in

good stead in his later industrial research. Interestingly,

when he learnt about a fellow professor’s plagiarism,


Bhatnagar “leapt on him and gave him a good

drubbing.” (The plagiarist later resigned.) While

bidding farewell to Bhatnagar, Pandit Madan Mohan

Malviya remarked that “whoever leaves Benaras has a

seat reserved for him in heaven.” Bhatnagar retorted

good-humouredly : “I agree with Malviyaji in the sense

that Benaras town being so dirty that whoever leaves

Benaras feels that he is going to a heavenly place.”

In 1924, 30-year old Bhatnagar took over as the

director of the newly opened University Chemical

Laboratories, Lahore, having been chosen in preference

to his rather ineffectual European competitor who had

been Bhatnagar’s teacher. Bhatnagar remained here till

1940. The laboratories addressed problems in industrial

and applied chemistry brought in by agriculturists and

industrialists, such as Sir Ganga Ram, an engineerturned

neo-agriculturist; Lala Shri Ram of Delhi; J K

Mills Kanpur; and Tata Oil Mills. The most celebrated

consultancy, of course, was the solution of the mud

problem brought in by Messers Steel Brothers & Co.,

London. The company, prospecting for oil in Punjab,

used mud to lubricate its drilling jigs. However as soon

as the mud came into contact with the underground salt

deposits, it coagulated, bringing the operations to a halt.

The other experts from the university, consulted by the

company, suggested several “chemical” and

“mechanical” methods which were all impractical. But

“the theoretical chemist – Dr. Bhatnagar – insisted from

the beginning that it was a simple problem in Colloid

Chemistry”. He added an Indian gum to the mud so that


it would not harden on contact with salt. The company

was so pleased with the result that it offered Bhatnagar

the substantial sum of Rs.1, 50,000. Consistent with the

spirit of the times and his own idealism, Bhatnagar

converted this personal offer “largely to the benefit of

the University and research”, in the form of six research

scholarships for five years. (Synergy with research has

been the strength of Indian chemical industry ever



The first world war had given a chance to Bhatnagar to

do a bit of consultancy on his own for a Lahore

stationer. The second world war (1939-1945) provided

him with an opportunity to build scientific

infrastructure for the country. So far, India’s industrial

backwardness had been Indians’ concern; war made it

Britain’s handicap. Export of raw material from and

import of finished goods into India stopped. At the

same time, India was called upon to take up the

responsibility of “supplying the technical equipment of

a modern army”. The government decided to tackle the

problem of “shortages and substitutes and war

requirements” in two ways: conducting research under

its own auspices; and more importantly funding

scientific and industrial research in centres outside the

government system. It was a foregone conclusion that

the British would leave India after the war. Indians

were already in important positions in government as


well as in industry and science. Though still working

under British auspices, the Indians sought to dovetail

their country’s post-independence interests into the

British exigencies of war.

In December 1939 Dewan Bahadur Sir Arcot

Ramaswami Mudaliar, commerce member in the

Viceroy’s executive committee, visited Bhatnagar’s

laboratory in Lahore, was impressed by what he saw,

and advised the Viceroy that Bhatnagar be appointed to

head the government’s war-time science effort.

Bhatnagar stipulated that he should have at his disposal

a laboratory for research and that in addition his

Lahore-based research students, funded by Messers

Steel Brothers, be permitted to come along. This was

accepted and in August 1940 Bhatnagar took over as

Director, Scientific and Industrial Research. He was

based in Alipore, Kolkata, where a pre-existing

laboratory was refurbished for his use. (The laboratory

was shifted to Delhi University campus in December

1942, in view of the threat of Japanese invasion.)

In the meantime, on 1 April 1940, a purely advisory

body; Board of Scientific and Industrial Research

(BSIR), was set up with Mudaliar as ex-officio

chairman and a civil servant as the secretary. The Board

would receive research proposals from research

institutions, universities, industries and trades, and

advise the government “whether these proposals were

approved and if so what funds should be provided for

carrying them out.” A year later, on 14 November 1941,

the government agreed to sanction an annual amount of


Rs. 10 lakhs for five years towards establishing an

Industrial Research Fund for “fostering industrial

development in the country.” What was now needed

was a mechanism for utilizing this fund. Accordingly,

on 12 March 1942 a legal entity called a registered

society was set up in Delhi under the name Council of

Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with

Mudaliar as the ex-officio founder-president. On 26

September 1942, the government transferred the control

of the fund to the Council, at the same time making the

Board an advisory body to it. (26 September is now

celebrated as the CSIR foundation day.) In December

1943, the post of vice-president was created. Sir M.S.

Akbar Hydari, ICS, served as the vice-president till

1946. The first vice-president after independence was

Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee who held office 1947-


By virtue of his position in the government,

Bhatnagar was the key figure in the Board and the

Council. It is noteworthy that in the early years,

formation of CSIR hardly made any impact. The setting

up of BSIR was seen as a landmark, because it was the

first time official funding was systematically

forthcoming for research being carried out by

individuals and organizations outside the government

system. CSIR was seen merely as a clearing house. It is

only much later when national laboratories were

established that CSIR came to acquire its distinctive

identity. (Interestingly, Norah Richards’ detailed and

authorized 1948 biography of Bhatnagar does not seem


to make any mention of CSIR.) From the point of view

of later developments, an important date in the history

of CSIR is 29 February 1944, when the government

declared that “Rs. 1 crore will be forthcoming towards

capital expenditure on a chain of research institutions.”

The chain comprised five laboratories. Their foundation

stone was laid between December 1945 and April 1947:

Central Glass and Ceramics Research Institute, Kolkata

(CGCRI), 24 December 1945; Central Fuel Research

Institute, Dhanbad (CFRI), 17 November 1946;

National Metallurgical Laboratory, Jamshedpur (NML),

21 November 1946; National Physical Laboratory,

Delhi (NPL), 4 January 1947; and National Chemical

Laboratory, Pune (NCL), 6 April 1947. Significantly

for four of these, support was forthcoming from

industry and trade. The house of Tatas gave a grant of

Rs 8.3 lakhs for NCL, with the reasonable condition

that it be located in Pune, within the Mumbai industrial

zone. (The Tata suggestion that the laboratory be

named after them did not find acceptance.) For NML,

the Tatas donated 30 acres of land in their steel city

Jamshedpur, backing the offer with a grant of Rs 11.7

lakhs. For CFRI located in the central Indian coal-belt,

Raja of Jharia, Babu Shiva Prasad Singha, donated

about 100 acres of land, which lay near the colliery of

the Tatas as well as the Model Town being built by

them. CGCRI received Rs 10,000 each from the Bengal

and the UP glass manufacturers’ associations. CGCRI

was headed by Dr Atma Ram, who began his career in

1936 as a chemical assistant at the much-maligned


Industrial Research Bureau, and later (1966-1971) rose

to head the CSIR itself. For the futuristic NPL, Delhi

was chosen in preference to Kolkata partly on the

extraneous ground that this would enable the laboratory

“to keep in touch with the government.”

Interestingly the Punjab government was keen to

recall Bhatnagar after the war and make him the vicechancellor

of Punjab University, but the proposal fell

through because of the disinclination of the Union

government to relieve him. CSIR was transformed after

independence by Jawaharlal Nehru, who made the

Prime Minister ex-officio president of CSIR. (In this

respect, CSIR is unique in the country.) The five

laboratories sanctioned in 1944 were all opened

between January and November 1950, led by NCL,

Pune, which was inaugurated by Nehru on 3 January

1950, the occasion being provided by the holding of

Indian Science Congress. Significantly the first

laboratory planned after independence dealt with food,

and, equally significantly, was housed in a palace.

Thanks to the royal gift from government of what is

now Karnataka, Central Food Technological Research

Institute, Mysore (into which was merged the already

existing Indian Institute of Fruit Technology) was

ceremonially opened on 21 October 1950. During

Bhatnagar’s tenure as the Director-General (as the post

was later renamed), more specifically in the fiveyear

span 1950-1954, as many as 14 laboratories

were opened, acquired or had their foundation

stone laid. (These include the five sanctioned before


independence.) Being the solitary scientific

organization of its time, CSIR nurtured many

initiatives. Thus, as early as 1946, it set up an Atomic

Research Committee under the chairmanship of Dr

Homi Bhabha, a step that culminated in the

establishment of Atomic Energy Commission. It funded

research on “biological aspects of atomic research”, and

extended financial support to “the Research Institute of

the Indian Academy of Sciences”, directed by Sir C.V.

Raman. The building of Physical Research Laboratory,

Ahmedabad, was designed by the Council architects.

As a sidelight it may be noted that the 1000 – capacity

auditorium of the National Physical Laboratory, Delhi,

was a major addition to the capital’s culture life. It was

opened in time (14 February 1952) for a violin concert

by Yehudi Menuhin, visiting India on Nehru’s

invitation. The auditorium also had the distinction of

hosting Indrani Rahman’s first dance performance in


Bhatnagar concurrently held a number of posts in

the Government. In 1948 and 1949 he worked as

Secretary to the ministry of education, and educational

adviser to the Government of India. He was chosen to

become the first secretary to the ministry of natural

resources and scientific research, which was set up in

1951. He was also Secretary of Atomic Energy

Commission and later became the Chairman of the

University Grants Commission. He received a number

of honours. In 1936, the British Government conferred

on him the Order of the British Empire. A disappointed


Bhatnagar was consoled by his friends that in his case

OBE stood for Oil Borer of the Empire. A bigger

honour came his way in 1941, when he was made the

Knight Bachelor. From a scientific point of view, great

recognition of his work came with the 1943 election as

a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Independent

India honoured him with a Padma Vibhushan in 1954.


A casualty of his hectic life was his health. While still

in Lahore, he “accidentally exposed his eyes to some

harmful radiation. As a result he was in great pain due

to damage to his eye balls… In later year he had to use

refined glycerine and rose water as prophylactic

measure.” Heart was a bigger problem than the eyes.

“Climbing up a stretch of hill, for attending the function

at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of Tenzing

Norgay, made him gasp for breath. Dr. B.C. Roy, who

was already there, examined him and cautioned him not

to be so indiscreet with his over-strained heart.”

Bhatnagar died on 1 January 1955 after a massive heart

attack. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, whose feet

Bhatnagar had touched in 1942 when the former was

the Congress president and who now was Bhatnagar’s

minister, remarked: “I often felt that the effect of such

hard work might fell upon his health. Inspite of my

repeated requests, he would not, however, refrain from

his hard work. Last year, we sent him out in connection

with the work of scientific research. I extended his


deputation by two weeks and asked him to take

complete rest for a fortnight in Switzerland. I have no

doubt that this passion for work reduced the duration of

his life. Action was the breath of his life and he could

not live without work.”5

Mahendra Nath Sahai, Bhatnagar’s nephew by

marriage (see note 1) recalled on the occasion of

Bhatnagar’s birth centenary, in 1994: “In his personal

library, at his residence he had a large number of books

from leading scientists from all over the world. There

were a few books on other subjects such as psychology,

English literature, Urdu poetry etc. There was a book

on happy married life by Mary Stopes. Also books on

palmistry by Cheiro and Benhem. I used to avail of this

facility quite often. After acquiring some working

knowledge of palmistry, one day I asked him to show

me the palm of his right hand… The only strange thing

about the palm was that his heart and head lines were

completely merged forming a straight line right across

his palm. Sensing that I was a little puzzled, he asked

what was my interpretation? I quickly replied that this

shows that he will put his head and heart together in

whatever field of activity he undertook. He nodded to

agree. Now it was his turn to have a look at my hand.

He at once remarked that I had a girdle of Venus, and

that the goddess of love will influence my life and

advised that I should read Marie Stopes’ book in his


“He regarded palmistry and jyotish as empirical

sciences and their followers as pseudo-scientist. I had


heard from some old and well read persons that “Bhrigu

sanghyata” [should be samhita] written by Bhrighu

Rishi was the last word in jyotish. Though he seemed to

be sceptical about it, his curiosity was certainly

aroused. He mentioned this to his cousin, Mr Keshav

Sarup, who had a good knowledge of the Vedas. “Soon

after, he was put in touch with a Bhrigu Sanghyata

Pandit, who was furnished with the time and date of

Bhatnagar’s birth. The Pandit unrolled a long long [sic]

continuous paper strip. Finding the right text matching

Doctor Bhatnagar’s particulars, he read out that within

the next few months he [Bhatnagar] would be receiving

some big honour from government. Doctor Bhatnagar

told that the only big honour he could expect was a

Knighthood but that would be after a few years rather

than a few months. Keshav Sarup told me after several

years that Dr Bhatnagar had his greatest surprise in the

following month. Lord Linlithgow, on the advice of

Lord Wavell the then commander-in-chief, had

recommended Doctor Bhatnagar’s name for a


Bhatnagar was a romantic at heart. He nursed the

hope that after retirement he and his wife would settle

in a village where he would take to farming and she to

gardening. He imagined he would be working in the

fields when his wife brought his lunch, carrying a pot of

butter milk on her head. Time left over from farming

would be devoted to chemistry and “service of Urdu”.

If chemistry was his passion, poetry was his retreat.

From his childhood, thanks to the literary atmosphere in


his grandfather’s house, he had enjoyed listening to

poetry in “my own language” Urdu and took to writing

it himself. While travelling on holiday he would

compose verses on scraps of paper and pocket them.

His wife shared his poetic interest. Often on Sundays,

the Bhatnagars played host to poets, inviting them to

recite their poems and actively participating in the

proceedings. On her insistence he prepared his own

anthology for publication, but tragic-comically it was

mistaken for a money wallet and stolen by a petty thief

from the person of poet Faiz Jhanjhaanvi.

On his wife’s death in 1946, Bhatnagar was moved to discover that she had collected many of his poems and carefully preserved them. As a homage to her he got the anthology published, naming it Lajwanti after her, and giving his own name simply as Shanti (She had once expressed the poetic wish that if she were a book she would always remain in his sight). The anthology went into second edition in which some new poems were included (Nothing seems to be known about the original edition.)8 “On the whole, his verses are topical, humorous and reflective. Those written after the loss of his wife bear a tender wistfulness and the stamp of loneliness.”


Much of the information in this essay is taken from Norah Richards’ biography of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, reprinted


in the following. Official documents have been consulted on his CSIR days. This essay is an expanded version of Ref. 2

1. Narrated by Mahendra Nath Sahai, son of Bishwa Nath Sahai, whose sister Lajwanti was married to Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. See Ref. 1, pp 12-13.

2. Ref. 1, p.13

3. Ref. 1, p.13

4. Ref. 1, pp. 14–15

5. Ref. 1, p.24

6. Ref. 1, pp 21–22

7. Ref. 1, pp 21–22

8. The above information is taken from the preface of Lajwanti;

See Ref. 3.


1. Kayastha Bhatnagar Sadar Sabha Hind. Dr. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Centenary Year Celebrations (A-1, Ring Road, South Extension I, New Delhi 110049)

2. Kochhar, Rajesh (2002) Resonance 7, 82-89

3. Shanti (1946?) Lajwanti (in Urdu), 2nd edition (Lucknow: Naval Kishor Press) (No publication date is given, but forewords to the book are dated 1946)


The Rgvedic Soma Plant

From the book ‘Medicine and Life Sciences in India’, published by Centre for Studies in Civilization, 2001, New Delhi


Soma is a celebrated plant in the Rgveda as well as in Avesta, where it is called Haoma, later shortened to Horn in Pahalvi. A drink of the same name was extracted from the plant by pressing or crushing its stalk for offering to the gods and for drinking. (The name Soma comes from the root su, “to squeeze”.) Significance of the Soma cult is apparent from the fact that the Rgveda devotes a full mandala to it.1 The ninth mandala comprises 114 hymns, composed by different authors, but all addressed to Soma Pavamana, the purified Soma. The Rgveda’s longest hymn (RV 9.97) belongs to this mandala, which was prepared by taking out relevant hymns from the other mandalas and arranging them according to metre. There are only six dedicated Soma hymns outside the ninth mandala. In addition, there are numerous references to Soma in other hymns; the Rgveda is, so to speak, permeated by Soma2.

The Haoma plant figures in three hymns (9-11) in the Avesta. Yasna 9 is called the Horn Yast, while Yasna (10.18) uses the term Haoma’s Gathas. The use of the term Gatha is significant because the Yasts, believed to be composed by Zarathustra himself, are designated Gathas. Interestingly, the Zarathustrian Gathas do not make any reference to Haoma. 3

While Haoma is offered to all the gods, Soma, also called Indu, is particularly associated with Indra, who handsomely rewards his worshippers.4 The ~gvedic and Avestan mythologies associated with S6ma/Haoma run parallel. Soma/Haoma is of celestial origin. In the Rgveda (RV 4.27.3;9.72.2), an eagle or falcon brings it to the earth against the wishes of the celestial guards like Krsanu, who is known to the Avesta as Keresani (Yasna 9.24). In RV (8.12.16), Indra drinks Soma by Trita Aptya’s side. Valakhilya (4.1) mentions Vivasvat’s son Manu and Trita among the ancient sacrificers, whose Soma had once pleased Indra. The Horn Yast lists the names of early Haoma- pressers, which in Sanskritized form are Vivasvat, the father of Yama; Aptya, the father of Traitana; and Trita, whose two named sons are not known to the Rgveda.

The Rgveda makes a sharp distinction between those who press Soma and those who do not: “You scattered the settlement of ti}e non-pressers, maintaining your upper hand

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 725

as the Soma drinker” (RV 8.14.15). ‘May we win in fights over those who do not press [Soma]’ (RV 1.110.7). There is a rivalry among the Soma drinkers themselves, with different sacrificers aimed at enlisting Indra’s support. ‘When you have mounted on your car, let your yoked Boy Steeds carry you past other men’s libations’ (RV 8.33.14). Or, more simply, ‘Let not other sacrificers hold you’ (RV 2.18.3). A specific instance of rivalry within the Soma club is provided by RV(7.32.2): ‘Indra preferred Vasistha’s to the Soma pressed by Pasadyurnna Vayata’.


Soma is the mascot of the Aryans. Whatever the Avestan and the ~gvedic people needed or wished at individual and collective level, they asked Soma/Haoma to provide. Somal Haoma is thus perceived as a giver of immortality, a healthy and long life, offspring, happiness, courage, strength, victory over enemies, wisdom, understanding and creativity. The attributes of Soma/Haoma fall into two categories. The culture-specific attributes tell us about the needs, fears, wishes, aspirations and accon:l.plishments of the Rgveda and Avestan people. The role assigned to the Soma plant is incidental; these attributes could easily have been endowed on any other plant. In contrast, there are the object -specific details, which tell us about the plant itself.

First, the culture-specific attributes. According to Yasna (9.23), Haoma grants good husbands to maidens. In RV(8.80), a maiden, Apala by name, plucks Soma twigs by the wayside and chews them with the purpose of becoming attractive to men. Haoma provides brilliant and righteous offspring to pregnant women (Yasna 9.22). Anyone who maltreats Haoma is cursed to remain childless (Yasna 11.3). As if aware of this, in ~V (8.31.5), ‘with constant draught of milk, husband and wife with one accord press out and wash the Soma juice’, no doubt as a prelude to sexual intercourse. The Soma drink enables the poetic drinker to compose a hymn. Therefore, Soma is very frequently called a Kavi, poet. Soma is ‘the procreator of thoughts’ (RV 9.95.5), and is rsikrt, ‘the maker of seers’ (9.96.18). In RV (9.107.18), ‘the poet Soma procreates the thought’. The composer of RV (3.43.5) plainly asks: ‘Will you not make me the protector of people, make me the king, 0 Soma-dlinking lord, make me the rsi after I have drunk of Soma? Will you not give me of the excellent Arnrta?’

In addition to these psychological attributes, we obtain some valuable object-specific physical charcteristics. Soma prevents sleep; it keeps the drinker awake and alerts. ‘The Gods seek him who presses out the Soma; they desire not sleep. They punish sloth unweariedly’ (RV 8.2.18). Indra is awake, because he has drunk Soma (RV 8.92.33). Soma is jagrvi (awake) (RV 9.36.2; 9.44.3; 9.106.4).

It seems that some of the Rgvedic poetry was composed at night after drinking Soma. As RV (5.44.14) puts it, ‘the sacred hymns love him, who wakes and watches; to him who watches come the sarnan verses. This Soma says to the man who watches, I rest and have my dwelling in the friendship’. In RV (9.97.37), Soma is awake and has become ‘a singer most like Angiras’. In the same creative spirit, the poet in RV (8.48.14) wishes that neither sleep nor idle talk should govern him after he has drunk Soma. Soma’s ability

726 Rajesh Kochhar

to keep one awake was known outside the poetic circles also. To the gambler in RV (10.34.1) the die that never sleeps is dearer than the deep draught of Soma from Mujavat.

Of all the Indo-Europeans, the Indo-Iranians are the only ones who took to composing (and preserving) hymns. One wonders whether this is due to Soma. Soma is called an ancient plant (RV 9.98.11). It was a matter of pride to have Soma drinkers among one’s ancestors. ‘With you, a Soma Pavamiina, our wise fathers conducted their affairs’ (RV 9.96.11). Similarly, ‘Our Soma-drinking fathers, the most excellent ones, who came for the Soma drink’ (RV 10.15.8). Does this mean that in the community there were members, whose ancestors had been outside the Soma fold?

The Soma/Haoma tree was leafless. The juice was extracted from the shoots or stalks, never from the fruits or berries. A number of terms are used to denote the stalks: arrziu (literatlly “ray”), ksip (“finger”), vaksana (“tube”), vana (“cane”). All these terms indicate that the shoots were long and thin. In the Avesta, the shoots are called asu (corresponding to amsu). The term frasparega is also used where the word without the prefix ‘fra’ corresponds to the English sprig. The processs of juice extraction is called milking in the Rgveda, no doubt, owing to the resemblence between the stalks and the cow’s teats. The term ksip is particularly apt, because the stalks, like the fingers, had joints, called parvan or parsu.

The colour of the stalk was ruddy (aruna), brown (babhru), or golden (hari), corresponding to zairi in the Avesta. (In the Avesta, the plant is called Haoma-zairi to distinguish it from three other Haomas, persons or deities.)6 A very important characteristic of the Soma plant is that it was sweet-scented (Yasna 10.4, RV 9.97.19; 9.107.2).

The Rgveda (but not Avesta) uses the term andhas to denote the whole plant as well as the extracted juice? The significance of the term lies in the fact that it is cognate with the Greek word anthos, meaning flower. Here, then, we have an old Indo-European word with a change in meaning.

The Rgveda names a number of localities, where Soma was consumed: .4.rjikii, Pastyiivant, Saryal:liivant, Susomii (a river), etc. Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify any of them8. An important piece of information is that Soma grew in the mountains. This fact is mentioned or alluded to in a number of places in the J!.gveda. Thus, Soma is called parvatiivrdh, ‘mountain grown’ (RV 9.46.1). (In the Atharvaveda (3.21.10), the mountains are called Somapr:5tha, ‘carrying Soma on their back’.) RV (10.34.1) uses the term Soma Maujavata, ‘the Soma from Mujavat’. The latter according to Yaska’s Nirukta (9.8) was a mountain9.

Yasna (10.10) mentions Haraiti Bareza (also called Hara Barazaiti) as the Soma habitat. Haraiti is identified with Mount Elburz. But it must be borne in mind that 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 West1O.

Yasna (10.17) quotes Zarathustra as saying, ‘I praise all the Haoma plants, as many as there are on the high plateaus of mountains, as many as there are in the depths of the valleys, as many as there are in the gorges, which are tied into the bundles of women’.

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 727

Interestingly, while the Avesta shows familiarity With a much larger Soma-growing area than the Rgveda, it is the Rgveda, which displays greater variety as regards the colour of the shoots.

The Soma ritual, though elaborate, comprised a number of simple steps: extraction of juice, its collection, purification, modification, libation and consumption. It is clear from the }:tgvedic references that Soma pressing took place three times a day: in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. Yasna (10.2) refers to only two pressings a day.

There were two methods of extracting the juice from the Soma stalks. One could use mortar (ulukhala) and pestle (mantha) for processing the plant. In RV (1.28.;3), a woman uses the mortar in preparing the drink, and refers (RV 1.28.5) to a similar practice in ‘house after house’. To the extent it is permissible to generalize from a solitary hymn, mortar with pestle was the preferred (more convenient?) method of preparing the drink by the house-holders. Significantly, the Avestan practice was also to use a mortar, called havana (Vendidad 14.8).

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, called adri or gravan (in singular), were held in high esteem. Three hymns (RV 10.76;10.94;10.175) are dedicated to them; in addition, these stones figure in many other hymns. The stones were pounded with loud sound to scare away the evil spirits. At least in the later rituals, holes were bored to increase the sound. The stones were placed on cow-hide (tvac), which acted as a receptacle for the juice. Sometimes, the stalks were soaked in water to increase the yield (RV 9.75.9).

The next step was to purify the juice. This was done by passing the juice through a strainer made of sheep’s wool. The most common designation for the Soma juice passing through the strainer is pavamana or punana, the action itself being denoted by the verb pfi. (It is significant that in Punjabi, the word for straining is punana as against chhanana in Hindi.) The juice was of the same colour as the stalks and of the same scent as the plant (RV 9.97.19; 9.107.2). It could be taken either pure or mixed with other ingredients. The pure, unmixed Soma, called sukra or suci, was offered to Vayu and Indra. Vayu is . called sucipa (RV 7. 90.2,etc) and sukra-pfitapa (RV 8.46.26); both meaning ‘pure-drinker’. Vayu and Indra are jointly called sucipa in RV (7.91.4). A number of substances were available for addition to the pure Soma juice, described as tfvra, (astringent): milk, curd, water, barley, clarified butter (ghee), and perhaps honey. For later reference, we may note that poppy or cannabis was never added. In the whole procedure, there was no time for fermentation, nor was any fermented beverage (sura) ever added to Soma.


There is a striking similarity between the Vedic agni-stoma and the Zoroastrian Haoma ceremony, both of which must therefore have originated in the (common) Indo-Iranian period11. In the Brahma1:ta period, the Soma plant ceased to be a commonplace. It became a prized item in the ritual, which was difficult to procure, and so was first rationed and then. substituted. In the Baudhayana Srauta-sfitra (6.14), the adhvaryu asks the seller if

728 Rajesh Kochhar

the Soma came from Mujavat, which obviously was still a source of supply. In the Yajurveda (Maitraya’:11-sa1!1hita 1.160), the sacrificial offerings are hung from a tree with the words, ‘This is your portion, 0 Rudra! With this food pass by beyond the Mfijavat’12. By now, Mfijavat is the civilizational outpost, beyond which lay the unknown.

Katyayana’s Srauta-sfitra (10.9.30) enjoins the priests not to give the genuine Soma to a K§atriya or a VaiSya, even when it was available. They should instead be given the juice of the fruit of the nyagrodha tree (FiCl.lS indica, now called Ficus bengalensis, the Indian fig) 13. Satapatha Brahmal:ta ( lists the substitutes for use in the ritual, when Soma is not available. In decreasing order of preference, they are the Phalguna plant with the red blossom; the Syenahrra plant; the Adara plant; the reddish Durva plant; or as the last resort, any of the golden-coloured grasses14. The explicit mention of red and golden suggests that the substitutes were chosen to resemble the original Soma in one parameter, the colour. Also, the cow to be given as the price for Soma should be red-brown with red-brown eyes, no doubt, because this was the Soma colour (Satapatha Brahma’:1a 15.

The Soma substitutes are linked to the original Soma through mythology. When Gayatrl was bringing Soma, a shoot fell down and became the Syenahrra plant. When the head of the sacrificial victim was cut off, the Adara took shape from the juice squirting forth from it. Therefore, Adara can be used in place of Soma16.

The choice of the Soma substitute was not unique, but depended on the school. Tandya Maha-Brahmana (9.5.1-3) recommends the use of the putika creeper (Guilandina bonduc or Basella cordifolia). Or else, the dark grass known as arjunani could be used. Various other substitutes figure in the Brahmal:tas; syamaka (cultivated millet), mufija grass, kattr’:1a (a fragrant grass), and par’:1a (a sacred tree, Butea frondosa) 17.

The Brahmanas reverentially reserve the name Soma for the original }:tgvedic plant and talk of its substitutes. The reverence disappears in the later period, when the term Soma becomes free of all encumbrances, and is applied, normally suffixed with lata or valli (meaning creeper), to local plants (these terms do not figure in the Rigveda). There must still have been some memory of the original plant, because like the Rgvedic Soma, all Soma-latas and Soma-vallis are leafless with fleshy stems.

At the same time, the original Soma became a mythical plant. The Vedic commentators and Sanskrit lexicographers freely speculated on Soma. Amara Simha, the earliest of the Indian lexicographers (c. AD 450), lists many synonyms of what he calls Soma-valli, and also describes a plant Soma-raji. Sabarasvami, in his commentary on the Pfirva-mima1!1Sa-sfitra (2.2.17), calls Soma a creeper that yields milky juice. The milky attribute was probably based on the ~edic statements that Soma was mixed with milk18.

Even the medical texts give fanciful descriptions. Susruta-samhita (29) says that although originally there was a creation of one Soma-valli, it was later divided into 24 varieties, one smelling like ghee, the other having leaves like those of garlic, still others looking like cast-off snake skins, etc. Both Susruta-samhita (29.21-22) and Caraka-sa1!1hita (1.4-6) claim that Soma had 15 leaves, which appeared one per day during the waxing moon (sukla-paksa), and dropped off one by one during the waning moon (krsna-paksa)19.


The Rgvedic Soma Plant 729

To sum up so far, the }:Rgvedic Soma (as well as the Avestan Haoma) is a scented leafless plant with thin and long jointed juicy stalks, which grew in the mountainous region. The juice was extracted by pressing the stalks and drunk unfermented. In effect, it was energizing, invigorating and anti-sleep. The Brahmarna texts preserve the memory of the original Soma, and prescribe various substitutes which ranging as they do from grasses to trees are unable to provide any clues to the master plant. In the Jater period, while on the one hand the original Soma was mythified; on the other, the name Soma, often with a suffix, was given to a localy available field plant, usually a creeper.


The question of identity of the ancient Soma was taken up in the wake of ever increasing European commercial and colonial interest in India and its neighbourhood. There is no gainsaying the fact that the Soma studies constitute the most disappointing part of the Indic scholarship. Instead of asking the question as to what the }:Rgvedic Somal Avestan Haoma was, the studies were begun from the wrong chronological end. As part of the natural history survey, that was progressively carried out in conjunction with the British territorial expansion, Latin names were assigned to Indian plants and juxtaposed with their native names ascertained from local informers. This is how the various Soma-latas, Soma-vallls and Soma-rajis allover the country came to acquire their botanical names. Next, one or the other of these plants was boldly declared to be the plant of the ancient texts. In the absence of collation of the diverse field data and of any worthwhile acquintance with ancient texts that could constrain free flights of fancy, Soma was reduced to a mere Sanskrit name that could be tagged on to any of the superficially resembling plants. Somehow, an acquaintance with the Latin name of the plant gave the whole exercise a scholarly look.

In the whole debate lasting two centuries, not a single idea was rejected for good as being untenable, nor was any accepted as constituting received wisdom on the subject. The debate remained open, superficial and repetitive with the participants responding to each other rather than to the primary source material. Beating about the Soma bush became a badge of scholarship for a large number of European travellers and officers. Since the agenda was defined by dilettantes, even serious scholarship lost its moorings.

Historically, the European notice of SomalHaoma began in 1771 with Du Perron’s French translation of the Avesta. Du Perron quoted Farhang Jahangiri to say that Horn is a tree which 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’. The continuity in the Zoroastrian tradition provides a very valuable clue2°. At that time, however, neither the }:tgvedic Soma nor the Indo-Iranian connection was known. Du Perron’s first-hand account therefore went unnoticed.

730 Rajesh Kochhar

The first mention of Soma in English appeared in 1784 in Charles Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagavad Gita. In a footnote, Wilkins added that Soma was a creeper the juice of which was drunk at the conclusion of a sacrifice. The first attempt to identify Soma was made by [Sir] William Jones in 1794, who proposed that Soma was a mountain-rue.

Twenty years later, the exercise shifted from the library to the field. William Roxburgh, the first official superintendent of the East India Company’s botanical garden in Calcutta during 1793-1814, prepared a catalogue of its 3500 plants. This catalogue, called Hortus Bengalensis, was published in 1814. (His magnum opus Flora India came out in 1832). Roxburgh identified the plant, locally known as Soma-lata with Sarcostemma brevistigma (=Asclepios acida), ‘a leafless bush of green succulent branches, growing upwards with flowers like those of an onion’. He also pointed out that a different plant, a rue called Ruta graveolens, was also called Soma-lata. More importantly, he observed that Himalayan plants do not grow in Bengal21. This point, of significance in the understanding of ancient texts, was ignored. The Sarcostemma saga had begun.

Sarcostemma juice, however, presented a problem. It was noted in 1832 that ‘native travellers often suck the tender shoots to allay their thirst’22. It was pointed out in 1845 that “farmers use S.brevistigma to rid their fields of white ants’. Also, that the sap of the Asclepiads was bitter and acrid and in the West Indies given to children in doses of a teaspoon to a tablespoon as a remedy for worms23. These were hardly the attributes of a drink that was earlier enthusiastically imbibed three times a day. The contradiction perhaps had not been lost on the Sarcostemma-using Vedic commentators, who were as clueless to the identity of the original Soma as the later-day European enquirers. John Stevenson, in his 1842 translation of the Samaveda, says that Soma is S. viminale and that ‘according to the commentator, it is pressed and mixed with barley and allowed to stand for nine days.’ Fermentation of the juice was probably a means of camouflaging its bitterness. Displaying an orientalist bent of mind, not uncommon those days, William Dwight Whitney could say patronizingly, in 1853, ‘the simple-minded Arian [sic] people …had no sooner perceived that this liquid had power to … produce a temporary frenzy… than they found in it something divine’24.

In 1855, Max Muller dug up an old Ayurvedic verse25, which described Soma as a black creeper, sour, leafless, yielding milk, having fleshy skin, dissolving (or producing?) phlegm, causing vomiting, and eaten by goats. Though the description fitted Sarcostemma, Max Muller asked a valid question: If this freely available plant was indeed the Soma, then why did the Brahma~a-period priests have to use putika as a substitute? The passage was not taken up for discussion till 30 years later, when attention was drawn to its lateness and to the uncertainty whether the drug dissolved phlegm or produced phlegm.

Soon, field data started becoming available from different parts of the country. In 1866, J. Forbes Watson described the “Telugu” Soma-lata as S.brevistigma, and the “Sanskrit” Soma-lata as Ruta graveolens26. In 1874, Arthur Coke Burnell pointed out that the Hindus on the Coromandel coast used S.brevistigma in their rites, while their counterparts on the Malabar coast used a different plant, Ceropegia decaisneana or

C. elegans27.

In 1873, Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822 or 24-1891), who later became the first President of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, proposed a new hypothesis, doing away with the ancient

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 731

texts as it were. The Soma juice, he said, was merely a figure of speech. The Soma plant did not provide a drink by itself. Rather, like the hops, it was added to accelerate the fermentation of paddy and barley decoction to produce a kind of a beer. It is a measure of the confused scholarship on the subject that this dubious hypothesis received wide support, including from Max Muller, who concluded, to his satisfaction, that the original Soma was hop, later replaced by a Sarcostemma. He even suggested that the two words were etymologically related ! 28

A hundred years after Du Perron, Haoma finally entered the debate. In 1878, Friedrich Spiegel reported afresh that the Indian Parsees sent their priests’ to Kerman to bring Haoma29. In December 1884, the naturalist A.Houtum-Schindler wrote from Teheran that the plant used by the Zoroastrians in Kerman and Yezd agreed with the Sarcostemma30. In 1885, the botanist George Watt wrote that Dr Dymock, of Bombay, had sent him a Haoma plant, which was Periploca aphylla. 31 That these were mis-identfications soon became obvious.

During 1884-86, the British sent a commission to Afghanistan to determine its boundaries in conjunction with a similar commission from the Tsarist Russia. One of the members of the British commission was a professional botanist, James Edward Tierney Aitchison, who was asked to report on the Afghan flora and fauna. Earlier, he had supported the view that Soma was wine. The assignment made him change his opinion. While in Afghanistan, in 1885, he received from the Bombay-based Parsi scholar, [Sir] Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, samples of Horn for identification. Aitchison wrote back as follows.

“The specimens you sent me are the twigs of a species Ephedra… A species grows all over this country-Baluchistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Western Thibet-which seems to be identical with the species received. This species is here, in all this country, called Hum (pronounced as the English word whom, also Huma). In Baluchistan, it, as well as totally a distinct plant, Periploca aphylla, is called Hum. It grows equally on exposed hills and valleys, consisting of ‘branches and sprigs’, one mass of upright twig, if you notice, being made of joints like the joints of the fingers. When covered with male flowers, the bush (from 1 to 2 feet) is golden coloured, and the twigs are more or less so .,. This plant has no leaves. It is all twigs and jointed. Among the Pathans of the Khyber pass and all over that country, the twigs are, with water, made into a decoction, and employed very largely as a house-hold remedy in sickness, and are considered as possessing health- giving and healing properties. Owing to a general likeness between the stiff rod-like growth. upright and erect, of the two plants, in Baluchistan, the natives equally give both the same name. No one would mistake the jointed and true Hum for the non-jointed false Hum, Periploca.” 32

Aitchison concluded by saying, “before your letter and specimens came, I had made up my mind that the Ephedra was the nearest to the ‘Soma’ plant that I got to, but as it was stated that the Parsees employed the twigs of Periploca~ it rather put me out. Your ~pecimens are all on my side”33.

(This letter was included by Modi, in 1922, in his book “The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees”). On return to England, Aitchison published, in 1887, a

732 Rajesh Kochhar

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 733

734 Rajesh Kochhar

technical report on his findings. Further ‘Support came in 1893, when Joseph Bomrnuller wrote (in German) about his encounter with a Zoroastrian priest in Yezd canying Hum, which he at once recognized as Ephedra distachya. He added that large quantities of it were dried and sent to Bombay every year34.

In 1912, Macdonell and Keith, unable to cut through the maze of conflicting opinions, declared in their Vedic Index that ‘it is very probable that the plant cannot now be identified’35, thereby conveniently exempting the geographical interpretations of the ~eda from the severest constraint that the Rgveda itself supplies. Two years later, in 1914, the archaeological evidence on the use of Ephedra in Central Asia (but not necessarily as Soma/Haoma) about 2000 years ago was uncovered by Aurel Stein,36 who had been a student of the Gennan Sanskritist Rudolf Von Roth and was familiar with the official brief on Soma prepared for use by the Mghan commission. An examination of widely distant cemeteries in the Lou-Ian area of the Lop desert in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang (Sinkiang) revealed that in the case of six well-preserved graves in different cemeteries, small broken stalks of Ephedra had been tied up into little bunches on the edges of woollen shrouds. ‘In most of the other graves at these cemeteries, the bodies and their belongings were found in a badly decayed state hampering the close examination of details. But it may be safely assumed that the provision of such small packets fonned part of the regular practice among the indigneous people “37 Stein recalled that the Chinese use an Ephedra called Ma-huang to get an alkaloid drug (Ephedrine). He, however, naively concluded that Ephedra could not be Soma, because Ephedra was bitter, while Soma was sweet. If he had read his }:Rgveda, he would have realized that Ephedra’s inherent bitterness was consistent with the fact already noted that the unmixed Soma juice was called tivra.

Finally, in 1951, Karl Friedrich Geldner, in his posthumously published Gennan translation of the Soma hymns, declared that the }:Rgvedic Soma was indeed Ephedra38.

In reaction to the alcohol hypothesis of Soma, but with the same disregard for the Rgvedic evidence, it was suggested that Soma was hallucinogenic. Two candidates that are easily dismissed are Cannabis sativa (hemp) and Peganum harmala (wild rue). The hemp preparations, ganja, bhang and charas, result in an altered, dreamy state of consciousness with a feeling of well-being and even joy. Senses are sharpened and, with strong doses, hallucinations may occur. The human mind turns inwards, and aggressive behaviour is unlikely to occur. 39 Wild rue is a perenimal, branched herb with whitish flowers and narrow leaves. Its seeds are used as a remedy for many different diseases. The plant is fairly common in parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Sind, Ba~uchistan and Waziristan. Unlike the Soma plant, there is nothing “flamentous” in P.Hannala, which, moreover, has a seductive rather than stimulating effect. 40

In 1968, the eminent ethnomycologist, R.Gordon Wasson, introduced another Soma candidate: the mushroom fly-agaric, amanita muscaria. The 8-20 cm high mushroom has a white stem and a large (5-15 cm diameter), mostly red, cap with white patches. 41 Fly- agaric owes its hallucinogic properties to isoxazole compounds, which pass the human renal system intact and are thus present in the urine of the mushroom eater. 42 Since

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 735

ancient times, the fly-agaric has been used as a hallucinogen in nonhero Siberia, where the custom of urine drinking has been well-documented.

Wasson suggested that the mushroom fly-agaric be identified with the Soma/Haoma plant, and its orange-coloured juice with the soma/Haoma drink. He went on to distinguish between two forms of Soma: the first form of a direct drink; and the second form of the urine of the primary drinker. He claimed to have found passages in the Rgveda and Yasna, which referred to the Soma/Haoma urine.44 It is recorded that when it was casually mentioned to Wasson that the Rgveda refers to the “pis sing” of Soma (RV 9.74.4), he immediately connected it to the Siberian practice.43 (Wasson’s translation: The swollen men piss the flowing [Soma]. Generally understood translation is “the Maruts (Rudras) pouring down rain, figuratively considered as the urine of their heavenly horses.”45

In an extensive critique, Brough pointed out that Wasson was in error: “Some of the translations he [Wasson} used were misleading, and that he seemed to arbitrarily connect Rgvedic phrases and verses which do not properly belong together. More matter-of-factly, the juice of the mushroom comes from the cap, and not from the stem, as the Rgveda would demand. 46

Wasson’s hypothesis, contained in a well-produced, well-illustrated book, did serve a useful purpose; it brought the Soma problem once again into sharp focus. -While Sarcostemma may well have been the commonly-used substitute for Soma in the later period, there is now a growing consensus among experts in the field that ‘there is no need for a plant other than Ephedra for the original Soma… Ephedra fits each and every detail of the texts’.47

The various varieties of Ephedra look like bushes of leafless, jointed twigs, some prostrate, but mostly standing erect 1-6 feet high (Figure 1). The plant has a pine-like aroma and a strong astringent taste. It owes its importance to the alkaloid Epherdrine (CIO HIS ON) extracted from its twigs. The alkaloidal content of the plant increaes with age. Twigs are much richer in alkaloidal content than the woody stems, while the roots are bereft. The best plants are four year old and in blossom; the best time for harvesting twigs is after the rains but before the winter frost.48

Ephedrine is soluble in water and can be taken orally. It stimulates the nervous system, increases the intake of oxygen, and acts as a restorative and a mild anaesthetic agent.49 Compared to adrenaline which must be injected, Ephedrine’s effect is slower and less intense but more persistent. It dilates the pupil and contracts the uterus. Soma’s role as an aphrodisiac can only be attributed to the general feeling of euphoria that Ephedrine causes. In excessive doses, ephedrine causes nervousness, insomnia, headache, vertigo, palpitation, sweating, nausea and vomiting. When the Rgvedic poet asks Soma to be sweet to our heart (RV 8.68.7) and ‘wound not our heart with dazzling flame’ (RV 8.68.7), he is probably requesting for exemption from the effects of over-indulgence.

Ephedra’s utility as a geographical diagnostic comes from the fact that it does not grow every where, and all its varieties do not contain Ephedrine. Four species of Ephedra are native to the mountaineous regions of north India, Afghanistan and Iran: Egerardiana (E. vulgaris, H.distachya), E.major (E.nebrodensis)’; E.intermedia and E.pachyclada. They all

736 Rajesh Kochhar

contain Ephedrine. In addition, there is E.foliata, which grows in the plains of south , Punjab and Rajasthan. It does not contain any appreciable quantity of Ephedrine. The rest of India is not the natural habitat of any species of Ephedra. Local names of Ephedra were. recorded a hundred years ago. Thus E.gerardiana is called asmania, butshur, budshur and chewa in Punjab, Phok in the Satluj valley; tse, tsapatt and trano in Ladhak; and khanda and kharna in Kunawar (not identified). 50

Since the Rgvedic Aryans could pluck twigs from the wayside, they must have lived in the mountainous regions. Since the Avestans were also using Soma, the common residence can be nqrrowed down to the Hindu Kush and its western environs. The species native to Chitral, Baluchistan and Mghanistan, E.pachyclada, can then be singled out as the Soma of the ~gveda. The name for the plant still survives in the region, as noted by Aitchison: Hum in the Herat valley, as well as in Balucm, Pashto and Brahui, and Sam in Gilgit, Chitral and Kafiristan. The remarkable fact that the same name designates a plant in a vast area also points towards its great antiquity.

When we identify Ephedra as Soma and place the ~gvedic people in the Ephedra- habit~t Hindu Kush, all the diverse pieces of the puzzle fall into place. The vast Ephedra- growIng area m Mghamstan 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.

In its transition from an easily available herb that could be processed by husband” and wife in their home to a myth even for the later-day medical celebrities, Soma records” the distance the Indo-Aryans traversed, figuratively and literally, from the ~gvedic times to the classical period.

Archaeological evidence

Archaeological evidence for the cultic use of Ephedra has been uncovered in the Murghab delta (known to the Greeks as Margiana) in southern Turkmenistan.51 At Togolok 21 (with a calibrated radiocarbon date of 1745 BC)52, archaeologists unearthed a huge rectangular complex, 130m x 100 m in size, with circular turrets at the comers and semi- circular ones at mid-walls. Inside this was another rectangle, much smaller, but also with circular and semi-circular turrets. All along the inner side: of its western wall, there were 30 odd narrow rooms (Figure 2).

Inside this rectangle is the ‘fortress’, measuring 50 m x 60 m with 4.5 m thick walls, and turrets. In the middle of the northern wall, there is a central portal, flanked by two monumental pylons. One of the rooms inside the fortress is plastered white with gypsum. Along its walls are special brick platforms into which vessels have been sunk. Chemical analysis has revealed that the organic material from inside these vessels contains microscopic twigs of Ephedra as well as poppy. Traces of poppy were found on the stone mortar and pestle also. It seems that the purpose of the apparatus was to prepare a sacred drink.

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 737

The eastern wall of the outermost rectangular structure contained a niche near t~e northern comer, which has a number of connected rooms. Walls and floors of these rooms were also plastered white with gypsum, like the inner Ephedra room. The passages from the rooms lead to the northern side of the niche, where two round brick-faced altars have been dug into the earth. The smaller, flat-bottomed altar contained a half-metre thick layer of compressed ash. It seems to have been dedicated to the fire cult. The larger altar, conical and deep, has a shell hearth in the centre with remnants of coal. There is a large stain on its wall, suggesting that this altar was used for ritual libations. 53

Similar structures have been found at Gonur 1 (dated 1887 BC) 54 and Togolok 1. At Gonur 1, the vessels contained remnants of poppy and cannabis in addition to Ephedra. 55 It is notewonhy that while Ephedra has been identified with the Soma/Haoma plant of the Rgveda and Avesta, there is no indication of the use of poppy and cannabis in these texts. In Rgveda, one drank Soma to keep awake; addition of poppy to the drink would have had an opposite effect.

Who the Togolok 21 people were, and how they were related to the Avestan-Rgvedic people are not known. Nevertheless, the evidence of the use of Ephedra in the region is significant.


The material in this chapter has been taken from Kochhar (2000).


To help place an author’s work in context, the original date of publication is given, rather than of tranalsation or reprint. Enclosure of a page number in square brackets denotes that the reference is to a reprint, which very often is a jacsimili of the original.

1. A convenient, if not always the best, source of English translation of the Rgveda in Griffith (1896).

2. Brough (1971; 331).

3. SBE (1887, [31 : 230-47]).

4. Hillebrandt (1927, [1:129-51]) provides a summary of the characteristics of the Soma plant, as culled from the Rgveda and Avesta. For a useful summary of information in later texts, see a’Flaherty (1968).

5. Falk (1989 :79).

6. Modi (1937 :[283]).

7. Hillebrandt (1927; II : 145]) 8. Ibid. [175]

9. Ibid. [154-6].

10. Modi (1937: [205]). 11. Ibid. [182].

12. Hillebrandt (1927, [1:156]). 13. Ibid.[158]

14. O’Flaherty (1968 :96)

15. Hillebrandt (1927, [1:136]) 16. Ibid.[159].

17. O’Flaherty (1968 : 96-7)

18. Ibid.94 iT:”‘” J

738 Rajesh Kochhar

19. Ibid.99

20. Ibid.102 21. Ibid.103

22. Watt (1890 :249)

23. O’Flaherty (1968 :106). 24. Ibid.106-7.

25. The verse occurs in Dhurtasvami’s commentary on the Apastamba Sraiitasiitra (O’Flaherty 1968 : 100).

26. O’Flaherty (1968 : 108). 27. Ibid.110. 28. Ibid. 109. 29. Ibid.110. 30. Ibid. 118.

27. Ibid. 110

28. Ibid. 109

29. Ibid 110

30. Ibid. 118

31. Watt (1890: 248).

32. Modi (1937: [285]).

33. Ibid. [286])

34. O’Flaherty (1968 :122).

35. Macdonell & Keith (1912, [11:475]).

36. Stein (1931; 503).

37. It is now suspected that Stein might not have found Ephedra at all; some of his floral samples were examined in Kew Gardens, and found to be the remains of horsetails (Equisetum equisetaceae). Nyberg (1995 : [399]).

38. Geldner (1951, 111:1)

39. Nyberg (1995 : [386]). 40. Nyverg (1995 : [390]). 41. Nyberg (1995 : [390]). 42. Nyberg (1995 : [392]) 43. Nyberg (1995 : [393]). 44. Wasson (1968 : 25).

45. Brough (1971: 346).

46. Nyberg (1995 : [393]).

47. Falk (1989 : 57). Similarly, Nyberg (1995: [400]) : ‘the ephedras best meet both the textual and pharmacological requirements for the botanical identification of soma/haoma’. However, Needham (1974: 5.11 :116) accepts Wasson’s hypothesis. More surprisingly, a well-regarded Sanskrit scholar writing two decades later calls Soma a ‘hallucinogenic drink’ [Brockington, 1995 : [7]) and accepts, though tentatively, Wasson’s identification (Brockington, 1995 : [17]). Recently, Brockington, has’ made his position clear in a personal communication: ‘Harry Falk has mounted a powerful argument in favour of an older identification with members of the Ephedra species; much of what he says is very plausible, and on balance I regard it as the most probable hypothesis yet advanced, although its weakest point in my mind is the relatively slight effects of ephedrine, compared with those claimed for Soma’. As to the last point, one wonders whether the Indo-Iranians were carried away by the novelty of Soma/Haoma, the like of which they had never tasted before.

48. Sastri (1952 : 177-8).

50. It is noteworthy that Ephedrine figures in the International Olympic Committee’s blacklist of banned substances (Day 1998 : 18)

50. Watt (1989 : 251-2).

51. Sarianidi (1986 : 5-6). 52. Possehl (1994 : 116). 53. Sarianidi (1987 : 49). 54. Possehl (1994 : 37).

55. Sarianidi (1994 : 388).

The Rgvedic Soma Plant 739


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