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

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

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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.

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