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The Rgvedic Soma Plant

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 29th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

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

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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

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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’.

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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

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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.


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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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


Brockington, J.L. (1996) The Sacred Thread: A Short History of Hinduism, 2nd ed. Edinbrugh : Edinbrugh University Press, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, Reprint, 1997)

Brough, J. (1971) Soma and Amanita Muscaria. Journal of School of Oriental and African Studies, 34 : 331-62.

Day, Michael 0998) If you cannot beat them, join them. New Scientist, 160, No.2155 00 Oct.), 18-19.

Falk, Harry 0989) Soma I and II. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 52 : 77-90.

Geldner, K.F. 0951) Der Rig Veda Vol.lII. Cambridge, USA (Harvard Oriental Series, Vol.35).

Griffith, R.T.H. 0896) The Hymns of the IJgveda. (New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, Reprint, 1976).

Hillebrandt, A. 0927-29) Vedische My tho logie, 2nd ed. ( by S.R.Sarma), Motilal Banarasi Dass, Delhi, 1990).

Kochhar, Rajesh (2000) The Vedic People: Their History and Geography. Hyderabad : Orient Longman.

Macdonell, A.A. & Keith, A.B. 0912) Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, 2 Vols. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Dass Reprint, 1982)

Modi, J.J. 0937) : The Religious Caremonies and Customs of the Parsees, 2nd ed. (Bombay: Society for the Promotion of Zoroastrian Knowledge and Education, Reprint, 1995)

Nyberg, H. 0995) The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: The Botanical evidence. In : The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethmicity, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, Reprint, 1997).

O’Flaherty, W.D. 0968) The Post-Vedic History of the Soma Plant. In: Wasson 0968).

Possehl, G. 0994) Radiometric Dates for South Asian Archaeology. Philadelpia : University of Pennsylvania Press. Sarianidi, V.I. 0987) South-West Asia: Migrations, the Aryans and Zoroastrians. Information Bulletin of the International Association for the Study of the Cultures of Central Asia (Moscow) 13: 44-56.

Sarianidi, V.I. 0994) Temples of bronze Age Margiana : Traditions of ritual architecture Antiquity 68:388-97.

Sastri, B.N.(ed) 0952) The Wealth of India: Raw Materials. Vol.3. New Delhi: Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. SBE 0879-1910) Sacred Books of the East, 0879-1910) 50 vols.

(Gen.ed.: F.Max Muller) (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Reprint, 1988).

Wasson, R.G. (1968) Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Watt, G.0890) Dictionary of the Economic Products of India. Vol.3, Calcutta.

Genetically modified crops:Fears and excitement (2008)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 29th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

 Foundation Day Lecture of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,

delivered at Bangalore University 25 Jan. 2008

A shorter version appeared in  The Hindu, 24 Feb. 2008


Genetic engineering constitutes the second industrial revolution. The first one involved physics and went hand in hand with colonialism. The present one involves biology and is being accompanied by globalization. Biotech  is in fact the most revolutionary of all revolutions. So far, right from the making of stone tools to landing on the Moon to the development of  the internet, humankind  has been arranging and rearranging building blocks provided by the nature. Now it has become possible to modify these building blocks themselves. This development is unprecedented in human history and raises questions of ethics and consequences that have never risen before. So far questions of ethics have pitted man against man. Now it is humankind against nature. Any meaningful discussion on genetic engineering cannot be confined to its science; it must incorporate the other dimensions also.


Plants owe their characteristics to their genes, which they inherit form their parents. Since ages, it has been possible to cross-breed closely related varieties. Such exercises have been carried out in the fields and have involved evolutionary timescales that are reassuringly large. It has now become possible to quickly change the genetic composition of a plant, working in the lab itself. Genes can be added or silenced. They can come from totally unrelated sources: other plants, microbes or even animals. Some people prefer to use the term “genetically manipulated” rather than “genetically modified”, because modification denotes a soft concept, while manipulation carries a negative connotation.


It is an extraordinary situation that the most momentous scientific development in the whole history of humankind, concerning the vital commodity of food,   is not driven by curiosity but commerce. The State and the international agencies have no role. The entire agri-biotech business is controlled by no more than five companies.  The lead player is the American company Monsanto, with 90% of the business. The remaining 10% is shared by Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Dow, and DuPont. Only four genetically modified crops are in commercial production: soybeans, maize, cotton and oilseed rape (canola). The next in line is sugar beet. The genetic manipulation in these crops has been at two levels. A gene from a bacterium with the abbreviated name Bt has been transplanted in maize, cotton and others to give them insecticidal properties. Secondly, plants have been engineered to develop immunity to herbicides so that chemicals sprayed on the crops will kill weeds but leave the main plant un-touched.


Since  the 1995  introduction of Bt maize  cultivation  in US , GM acreage in the world has been expanding at an annual rate of 10%, but the country-wise distribution is extremely non-uniform. According to 2004 figures,  merely five countries account for 96% of the world’s fields under GM crops :   US ( 59%): Argentina (20%);Canada (6%); Brazil (6%); and China (5%) (India has only 1% of the world area under GM. Next to US, China is the most enthusiastic about plant biotech. Given its political system it is the least deterred by concerns about the consequences. Australia, a big agricultural producer and exporter, makes a clear distinction between commercial crops (like cotton) where  it has adopted GM and foods like wheat which are strictly kept out of the orbit. Europe is dead set against GM foods. Its  opposition influences many countries attitude toward GM crops. Exit of agri-biotech companies from the European market has increased pressure on the developing countries to become more receptive. India on its part is extremely sensitive to the dangers inherent in the technology.


Currently, the most important task before the agri-biotech giants is to attain financial viability. Developing a marketable transgenic strain is  an expensive proposition, like  developing a new drug. The companies need a captive market and a big market. To recover initial costs, prices must be kept high and farmers made to buy GM seeds every year. Technology can become cheap only if it becomes widespread, which means that it must conquer the developing countries.  However, the technological developments so far have been driven by conditions in US.


Is GM safe? We do not know. The Nobel prize winning geneticist Brenner notes  wryly  that most scientists are unwilling to say that GM is completely harmless lest they are proven wrong in their own lifetime.  In October  2007, the chairman of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Food Safety Authority, Harry Kuiper, said very cautiously  : “So far, we have not detected a risk for human life  or the environment, not yet”. The significance of use of terms such as “so far” and “not yet” will not be lost on anybody.


Even at the best of times it is difficult to assess a cutting-edge technology. GM represents a major intervention in nature and can truly be a turning point in civilization. Its assessment is inherently difficult and impossible on short timescales. It is not possible to anticipate all possible consequences that will arise if GM technology is extensively used across the world.


GM crop technology may in fact be un-testable, on methodological grounds. Scientific analysis pre-requires that the system under investigation be isolated. But,it is not possible to isolate GM from the non-GM. The pollinators like the  birds, bees, butterflies and  wind, move from one agricultural field to another unmindful of whether a conventional crop is being grown or a modified one. In a lighter vein, may be as a first step,  bees, birds and butterflies should be genetically modified to be able to distinguish between GM and non-GM vegetation. A senior New Scientist reporter, Andy Coghlan, wrote in 2003: “Commonsense tells me that contamination only matters if it materially alters the quality or safety of the harvest of a processed food”. Sounds reasonable. But the problem with commonsense is that it is capable of telling different things to different people. Brenner has pointed out that though biological systems are complex they are unique in the sense that they carry an internal description of themselves in the form of their genes. But this cannot be said of the environment. It is an easy matter to modify crops at  the genetic level; it is impossible to predict their effect.


Plant biotech is controversial. It is not that positions are being taken on the basis of evidence (there is hardly any). Rather, arguments are being proffered in support of known positions. For many critics, GM agriculture is a frontier post to be defended. If GM crops are permitted, what next?



British field trials 2000-2002

Some years ago when the British government planned to introduce GM crops it was taken aback by the backlash. As a way out it decided to carry out extensive field trials. Large plots were planted half with herbicide-resistant GM crops and half with conventional varieties to monitor their effect on bees, weeds, insects and other farmland wildlife. The trials which took place between 2000 and 2002 showed that in the case of beet and oilseed rape the level of weeds, their seeds as also the insects in fields of GM crops was markedly lower than in the   ones with conventional varieties. Since birds feed on these populations, their numbers would also go down markedly.


The study makes it clear that root of problem is not genetic modification but the associated herbicide spray regime. Since conventional crops also get damaged along with the weeds when chemicals are sprayed, farmers apply less powerful weed-killers, and more often. This gives the weeds a chance. But since the GM crop is herbicide resistant farmers sprayed the field only once or twice with broad-spectrum weed-killers that removed almost all weeds from a field. One could argue that since the problem lies with the spray than with the GM crop one can easily devise a suitable regime for herbicide spray. But since there is already intense public opposition to transgenic agriculture the field trials have been seen as a vindication of public opinion. Note that these trials were ordered in the first place because of public backlash.  Indeed, Bayer CropScience which owns the patent for herbicide-resistant oilseed rape has abandoned its proposal for growing the crop in Europe.


The resistance to new initiatives complements opposition to existing practices. In January 2008, much to the annoyance of US, France, “Europe’s agricultural powerhouse”   has banned the cultivation of modified corn in view of “the need for additional analyses on the health and environmental effects of the genetically modified product MON810 in the long term.” It has been the only GM crop grown in France. Such is the pressure of public opinion against GM  that the Italian government has been charged by the pro-GM lobby of suppressing results of field trials that show GM in favourable light.


Austria has steadfastly refused to let GM corn in notwithstanding the fact that it has been    declared safe by the European Union. US, backed by Argentina and Canada, has threatened to  impose trade sanctions against  EU if ban on GM products is not removed. US and WTO notwithstanding, Austria has declared that it has no plans to lift its ban on corn.  The Wall Street Journal has noted that in Austria’s case “the facts don’t line up with their fears”.  Austria    appears to be quite comfortable with its fears. It is curious that  battles over a new technology instead of being fought in labs and seminar rooms are being fought in the corridors of WTO.


Do GM crops kill bees?

Since late 2006 USA has reported that its bees are dying in large numbers. This phenomenon, since termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been seen in Germany and other countries as well. It has been suggested that pollen from GM crops is the cause of honey bee deaths. A little thought will show that this is unlikely. If GM were responsible then the severity of the problem should be proportional to the intensity of GM cultivation.  But,  while the field area under GM crops in Germany is negligible compared to that in US, CCD incidence is not.


This argument has been gleefully made in pro-GM blogs,  but the issue does not get closed. There can be no doubt that the decimation of bees is due to a man-made reason. Whatever human activity is found to be the culprit, the fact remains that when it was initiated this particular consequence was not anticipated. (When it was decided to feed animal parts to cows, which are vegetarian by nature, it could not have been predicted that beefeaters could die of CJD. Similarly when South Asia introduced diclofenac as a cheap painkiller for the cattle no one could have imagined that it would  damage the kidneys of the vultures and bring them to the verge of extinction.)


It has recently been reported in the American journal Science that imported viruses are likely to be the cause of mass bee deaths. In 2005 US decided to import honey bees from Australia. Majority of these are infected with a virus known as Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), so-called because it was first isolated in Israel in 2002.Large-scale bee deaths have not occurred in Australia, no doubt because of different living conditions there. “In addition, the Varroa mite, which is widespread in the US and Europe and which has been shown to weaken the bees’ immune system, is not found in Australia.” It may be some consolation that GM is not to be blamed for the bees’ death, but a bigger issue is involved. When it was decided to import bees from Australia into US, colony collapse was not foreseen. Will other actions of today produce catastrophes tomorrow? Surely, a scientific post-mortem report does not condone death.




Nobody views GM technology as the fruit of collective human effort. Rather it is seen as a handiwork of localized commercial interests. The more perspective of the analysts have noticed that “many of the arguments that are used against GM crops are really arguments against the misuse of power by large multinational companies”.  GM crops have become a symbol of broad opposition to globalization and American domination.


Agriculture is the basis of the present phase of human civilization as we know it. If world agriculture becomes a child of high technology owned by a few big companies, what happens to local freedoms.  I am sure if agri-biotech was in public domain, with the option of take-it-or-leave it, the world response would be different.  In 1839, the French government purchased the pioneering daguerreotype technology of photography and gave it free to the world. (It is a separate matter that the inventors’ patent was retained in Britain.) In the same spirit the international agencies such as FAO should buy out the patents on  GM crops  and make the technology freely available to one and all. Give freedom to different countries  to  modify plants    to their own requirement and at their own pace, as happened in the case of green revolution.


It is unlikely that biotech companies read poetry or appreciate poetic wisdom. In the 19th century, when quantum mechanics and relativity were still in the future, and scientists were enamoured of a mechanistic, deterministic world, it was left to William Blake to record for posterity that “ To be an Error & to be cast out is a part of God’s design”. A bird or a bee or a weed may be an error from the point of view of a commercial crop, but they are certainly an inseparable part of nature’s design.




Colonial use of science and the native responses

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 29th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Lecture delivered at Istanbul University, 20 October 2008

Colonial use of science and the native responses


Rajesh Kochhar

Org Secy IAU Commission 41 “History of Astronomy”

Former Director, NISTADS, New Delhi

National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Mohali 160067, India

[email protected]


Dear Friends.

It is a matter of great pleasure and honour for me to be here. India has very old ties with the Turkish people. There are many words in common usage in north India that are of Turkic origin. Since ancient India’s own historical tradition was oral rather than written, it is not easy to reconstruct the past. Turkish archives contain manuscripts that provide valuable information Indian history. These sources need to be examined in greater depth.


Turkey has been the geography’s choice as a bridge between Asia and Europe. A striking example of this comes from the relatively recent history of small pox. As is well known variolation was introduced into Europe from Turkey in the early years of the 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley   Montague’s (1689-1762) five year old son was variolated in Istanbul in 1718 and her four-year old daughter in London itself, in 1721. This was Europe’s first introduction to the concept of immunization.  Since the early patronage   for small pox prevention came from the royalty and the aristocracy, the learned societies awoke to take note of what had been common knowledge in rural Europe, that is, cow pox gave immunity from the more virulent small pox. The synthesis of Turkey and rural Europe enabled Europe to move from traditional variolation to safer and more dependable vaccination, which received name and sound scientific status in 1796 thanks to Edward Jenner (1749-1823).


The period from Montague to Jenner is significant geo-politically as well. Europe became a colonial power and prosperous. Eastern antecedents of scientific discoveries (vaccination, zinc metallurgy) were ignored and modern science presented as a stand-alone. Europe had earlier displayed curiosity about and admiration for eastern knowledge. This was rapidly displaced by openly expressed disdain. This is understandable. You cannot lord over people you respect.


For later reference we may note that vaccination was introduced into India in 1802 as an exercise in colonial good governance, but was met with stiff opposition from the local population. To short-circuit the opposition, it was falsely claimed that vaccination was practised by ancient Hindus. To this effect some couplets were quoted in Madras Courier of 12 January 1812, said to have been taken from Dhanvantri’s Sakteya Grantha, “undoubtedly an ancient composition”. It turned out that the couplets were composed by one Mr Ellis of Madras and inscribed on old paper. Similarly, but independently, a “native physician of Bareilly put into the hands of Mr Gillman, who was surgeon at that station, some leaves purporting to contain an  extract of a Sanscrit work on medicine”. The work said to be entitled Sudha Samgraha written by a physician named Mahadeva, under the patronage of Raja Rajasimha, mentioned vaccination. The passage was shown to be a forgery. I shall return to this in more detail when I discuss Seductive Orientalism (as in India) vis-a–vis Confrontational Orientalism (as in the Middle East).


The year 1608 saw the chance invention of telescope by a Dutch optician. The same year the first English East India Company ship reached Indian shores. This numerology brings home the fact that modern science and technology have grown hand in hand with maritime activity, colonial expansion and domination over nature and fellow human beings.


There are three issues to be discussed.

      i.            Use of (modern) science and technology as a colonial tool.


   ii.            How this rule was  sought to be legitimized in the eyes of the natives as well as for  home consumption


iii.            How did the natives respond to the above two. In particular how has the Non-West’s attitude towards modern science and technology been fashioned by the colonial experience?



Although much of the specifics comes from India, the discussion has a wider applicability.


Colonial tool

This has been extensively discussed in the literature. Let me illustrate it with the help of examples drawn from diverse areas, and arranged more or less chronologically.


Introduction of steam engine robbed Burma of its independence. Attacking the Burmese capital from Eastern India through land required cutting through thick forests, where the attackers would be cut into piece. Once steam engines became available, they were fitted into gun boats. These boats moved upstream from the mouth of Iravaddy and annihilated resistance.


Introduction of oceanic steam navigation robbed the “Middle East” of its freedom. Since the early steam engines were very inefficient, navigation via Cape of Good Hope was not feasible. Since coaling stations were required the African east coast was taken over. Also since part of the journey was overland, Egypt lost its independence.


Understanding the cause of malaria and its cure constitute a major scientific story. But it would be instructive to look at the other dimension also. Early attempts to dig the Panama Canal failed because of the huge casualties caused by malaria and yellow fever. Once the mosquito life cycles were well understood, mosquitoes could be destroyed and the gigantic engineering exercise carried out. A few years ago New York Times carried a story which contrasted the American success with the earlier French failure.  It was not France against US but man against mosquito.


While Panama Canal came into being thanks to a theoretical understanding of malaria, the European penetration of Africa was simply due to the empirical cure. Earlier attempts by Europeans to go into Africa were foiled by malaria (to which the natives had some immunity.) Cinchona plant was smuggled out from South America and domesticated in Indonesia. Given large dosages of quinine, European soldiers could triumph. Of course the African remained with malaria and got Europeans also.


These examples can be multiplied. It should be noted that colonial science was colonial in the sense that its agenda was utilitarian. But the natural science that came out of it was untainted.


Orientalism: Seductive vs confrontational

In earlier times, capture of power had been its own justification, but   the colonial powers had to justify their foreign conquests to the natives as well as to their own people.


In North America and Australia the natives were physically annihilated. Africans were treated as sub-humans whose muscle power could be put to good use. In India and the Muslim countries the issue of legitimacy had to be squarely addressed.


As authors of the powerful knowledge system of modern science, the Europeans claimed cultural and racial superiority over the rest of the world and therefore the right to rule. The extended exercises in ideological justifications have since been named Orientalism.


I would like to attempt a formal definition of (imperialist) Orientalism, which is based on but goes beyond Edward Said’s influential, area-specific over-stated thesis. Orientalism is an operational and ideological framework consciously created by the West to describe and define the East in such a manner as to facilitate and legitimize the West’s control of and domination over the East.


Orientalism was not a monolith. It took different forms in different parts of the East depending on the local characteristics and the nature of past encounters with Europe.


In Indian languages the word for European is Firangi, obviously cognate with Frank. How is it that France came to symbolize Europe? The term Firangi arrived in India from Arabic / Persian. These lands had their encounter with Europe through the Christian Crusaders who were known as Franks. By the time the term arrived in India, it had lost its historical baggage.


Colonial rule over India preceded that in the Muslim world. Orientalism thus began in India. It would become confrontational in the Muslim world, but in India  for the Hindus it was persuasive and seductive. In India, Orientalism took the form of Indo-Europeanism.


The thesis went like this. Both the Europeans and the upper-caste Hindus belonged to the Aryan race, while the Muslims were the other. The British rule set up by defeating the Muslims was therefore a restoration. The Hindus had had their period of glory in the ancient past; now it was the turn of their European brethren. Indo-Europeanism thus “placed in the hands of the British Government a powerful instrument of connexion and conciliation” with the (upper-caste) Hindus.


In colonial Algeria the natives were debarred from all professions except for medicine. But the situation was different in a vast country like India where governance required native support. Inherent in the British rule over India was the slow and increasingly reluctant training of the natives to eventually overthrow that rule. The strategy was entirely successful. The British rule lasted close to two centuries, and when the British finally left they did so with tremendous goodwill.


Introduction of western judicial system (1774) and western medicine (1835) produced a very significant effect. Since law deals with human rights and medicine with human body, both the professions propagated egalitarianism. Indeed, lawyers and doctors would play a leading role in Indian nationalist movement. The British introduced Indians to English language and literature; western thought; ancient India’s glory; and to modern science. It was now for the Indians to prove to themselves and to everybody else that they could become equal members of the world’s club of science.


This brings us to the 1870s. Indo-Europeanism was now sought to be inverted for use by the Indians to their own advantage. Indians were no longer content with holding the ancient end of the Aryan stick. They declared that it was the duty of their European brethren to hold them by hand, teach them modern science and elevate them in the scale of nations.  


Indo-Europeanism made the Hindus revivalist and increased their distance from the Muslims. It is noteworthy that by the 1880s Hindu community leadership had largely passed to a class (drawn from the upper castes) which had no pedigree but owed its station in life to English education. The Muslim leadership was still in the hands of pedigreed people. Also while Hindus had risen to high positions in the government, Muslims still occupied relatively low hierarchical positions. After independence the hitherto marginalized caste/ class groupings have asserted themselves on political and educational fronts, but the Muslim entry into the middle class has been slow and limited.


India was the first country outside the Western world to take to modern science. J.C. Bose (1858-1939) and P.C. Ray (1861-1937), who began their research career in the closing years of the 19th century, are the world’s first non-white modern mainstream scientists. C.V.Raman’s (1888-1970) 1930 Nobel prize was the first one to go out of Europe and North America.


Modern scientific research in India was initiated in the closing years of the 19th century by two Britain-trained professors working in a government college that is Presidency College Calcutta. J.C. Bose’s work on radio waves was far more inspired and original than P.C. Ray’s chemical researches. Between 1895 and 1902 Bose published as many as 14 research papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. But then Bose left physics and moved on areas like the response of the living and the non-living which at the time were not considered part of the mainstream. In spite of Bose’s pioneering work, physics research and applied physics failed to take off in India. On the other hand Ray went on to found a school as well as an industry and be justly recognized as the father of modern chemistry in India.

Bose and Ray were the first tangible proof that the natives could be the equals of their European masters. The impact Bose made by his presence in Europe energized the whole nation.


Eleven decades of Indian pursuit of science can be discussed in terms of three sequential phases: (i) Nationalist Phase; (ii) International Phase; and (iii) Globalization Phase. The nationalist phase began in the year 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 (1909-1966). 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

This phase began with J.C. Bose and Ray and   is characterized by the Nobel prize–winning work of Raman and the Nobel-class theoretical researches of M.N. Saha (1893-1956) and S.N. Bose (1894-1974). 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. There was hardly any difference between a classroom textbook and a research journal. 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 English literature). 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. Post-independence weakening of the university system to feed national laboratories has also meant the denial of inspired teaching to students.


(iii) As J.C. Bose noted, in his time, the Presidency College Calcutta was among the best equipped anywhere in the world. The infrastructural and technological requirements of experimental research were very modest and easily available at the level of college teaching.   In 1896 when Bose went to England on a lecture-demonstration tour he took with him electric apparatus “made with such help as Calcutta could afford”. He got a duplicate made by the best firm of instrument makers in London which “expressed a wish to make copies of the same instruments for supply in the laboratories of Europe and America”.  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 in his 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 Western industrial machinery. After all, Bose also declined a professorship in England and chose to serve 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 semi-articulated resentment 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 guidance, 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 had chosen 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. Its founder Bhabha was very keen that Indian scientists integrate with the Western scientific community at social level also. (Contrast this with the self-conscious pride that Raman took in his turban.) This phase 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 education all placed science 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 political power now vested in 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 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 it. 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 for entry into the 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, that 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 before and travel and communication costs have come down drastically. Interestingly while Indian politicians, lawyers and doctors want their children to follow their parental profession, Indian scientists would not like their children to become Indian scientists.


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 entrants 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 (more strictly engineering) 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 are 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.


Paradoxically while the world over science is playing an ever increasing role in all walks of life, it is fast losing ground in India. My personal concern is not so much with scientific research as with science education. If science is to survive, leave aside flourish, in India, it must play a leading role in GDP and bring in first-generation learners.  Science empowers not its worshippers, but its harnessers.