Though there are several possible plants that can claim to be the bearer of the Soma elixir, presently there is only one that meets the prerequisites.
Dr. Vineet Aggarwal is a doctor by qualification, manager by profession and artist by temperament. Born in a family of doctors, he successfully completed an initial stint with the family occupation before deciding to venture into pharmaceutical management and currently pursues writing as a passion. He is the author of popular online blogs ‘Decode Hindu Mythology’ and ‘Fraternity Against Terrorism and Extremism’ and the author of books ‘Vishwamitra – the Man who dared to challenge the Gods’, ‘The Legend of Parshu-Raam’ and 'Bharat - The Man who built a Nation'. His literary repertoire extends from politics to poetry and travel to terrorism but his favorite genre remains the amalgamation of science and mythology.
In the previous article, we had asked some fundamental questions related to Soma and what it represented. I had shared with you the evidence that comes from the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, namely the Vedas and their ancillary texts like the Shatapatha Brahmana.
Before we move forward, let me recapitulate the same for the benefit of those who haven’t gone through the previous article and yet want to read the current one – Soma refers to two distinct yet related entities, the Moon-god and the invigorating drink that was offered to the gods. The moon-god comes and resides in the water bodies and plants on Amavasya night and his essence is collected by gathering the Soma plants and water. Also, since cows consume plants and water turns it into milk, their milk is also believed to contain the essence of Soma but only on the new moon nights.
The juice from the Soma plant was extracted through pounding the stem either through a mortar and pestle or two rocks and it was then collected in wooden vats after filtering it through sheep’s wool. It was then mixed with milk or curd to make it fit for consumption by the gods, especially Indra. Now that we have established the relationship between Soma the moon-god and Soma the drink, let us try and identify which plant it could be.
There are a few things that are relatively clear about the plant – it was more or less like a shrub with very few or no leaves and it favoured the hills and mountains. The stem was jointed like fingers and the juice was extracted from it instead of using the fruits or flowers. It was not very easy to procure, especially at the time of writing down of the later texts, which is why it was considered extremely precious. In fact, the Shatapatha Brahmana also mentions the use of substitutes giving credence to the belief that the plant was becoming difficult to procure.
Based on the above characteristics, you may feel that it would be fairly simple to identify the plant but unfortunately it isn’t so. Many scholars, botanists, and archaeologists have tried to figure it out but have only ended up with contradictory claims. Being a science student, I have studied botany to some extent and pharmacology in greater measure, so I am going to take help of both these disciplines to present to you some short-listed plants so that you can decide for yourself the identity of this enigmatic plant.
Many hymns from the Rig Veda mention that Indra drank copious amounts of it before fighting his biggest wars:
I will declare the manly deeds of Indra, the first that he achieved, the Thunder-wielder.
He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft the channels of the mountain torrents.
He slew the Dragon lying on the mountain: his heavenly bolt of thunder Tvaṣṭar fashioned.
Like lowing kine in rapid flow descending the waters glided downward to the ocean.
Impetuous as a bull, he chose the Soma and in three sacred beakers drank the juices.
Maghavan grasped the thunder for his weapon, and smote to death this firstborn of the dragons.
When, Indra, thou hadst slain the dragon's firstborn, and overcome the charms of the enchanters,
Then, giving life to Sun and Dawn and Heaven, thou foundest not one foe to stand against thee.
Unlike the assumption of many western scholars, Soma was not an intoxicant and was rather an invigorating drink that filled the drinker with tremendous energy. Its effect was something similar to the modern day ‘Red Bull’ and its likes that are supposed to ‘give you wings’.
Based on a few verses that mention Soma putting the drinker into rapture and stimulating his creativity, some scholars thought it could be the mushroom ‘Amanita muscaria’ whose extract has psychoactive properties. It could have been an interesting candidate except that physically, it is nowhere near the plant described in the Vedas and more importantly, it is not found in the Indian hills or mountains. Also, it is the extract from the head of the mushroom that shows pertinent chemical activity rather than its stalk.
Some have argued that Soma could have been ‘Cannabis’ based on its ready availability in the Himalayan hills but again similar objections come to my mind. Anyone who has ever consumed any of the cannabis products would know that instead of making the person alert and aggressive, they fill the person with a sense of relaxation and maybe even disorientation. Instead of making the consumer practical, it makes them more appreciative of art and beauty; instead of looking out for enemies as you would expect in a war, it makes us look within in and introspect. Also, more importantly, the plant is full of leaves and the stem does not really yield the relevant chemicals rather it is the leaves, inflorescence, and resin that give the best results.
I present another Vedic hymn dedicated to the consumption of Soma, or Indu as it is sometimes called, as a point in favour of it being a stimulant rather than a psychoactive substance:
We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
Now, what may foeman's malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man's deception?
Absorbed into the heart, be sweet, O Indu, as a kind father to his son, O Soma,
As a wise Friend to friend: do thou, wide-ruler, O Soma, lengthen out our days for living.
These glorious drops that give me freedom have I drunk. Closely they knit my joints as straps secure a car.
Let them protect my foot from slipping on the way: yea, let the drops I drink preserve me from disease.
Make me shine bright like fire produced by friction: give us a clearer sight and make us better.
For in carouse I think of thee, O Soma, Shall I, as a rich man, attain to comfort?
May we enjoy with an enlivened spirit the juice thou givest, like ancestral riches.
O Soma, King, prolong thou our existence as Sūrya makes the shining days grow longer.
King Soma, favour us and make us prosper: we are thy devotees; of this be mindful.
Spirit and power are fresh in us, O Indu give us not up unto our foeman's pleasure.
For thou hast settled in each joint, O Soma, aim of men's eyes and guardian of our bodies.
When we offend against thine holy statutes, as a kind Friend, God, best of all, be gracious.
May I be with the Friend whose heart is tender, who, Lord of Bays! when quaffed will never harm me-
This Soma now deposited within me. For this, I pray for longer life to Indra.
Our maladies have lost their strength and vanished: they feared, and passed away into the darkness.
Soma hath risen in us, exceeding mighty, and we come where men prolong existence.
Fathers, that Indu which our hearts have drunken, Immortal in himself, hath entered mortals.
So let us serve this Soma with oblation, and rest securely in his grace and favour.
Associate with the Fathers thou, O Soma, hast spread thyself abroad through earth and heaven.
So with oblation let us serve thee, Indu, and so let us become the lords of riches,
Give us your blessing, O ye Gods’ preservers. Never may sleep or idle talk control us.
But evermore may we, as friends of Soma, speak to the synod with brave sons around us.
On all sides, Soma, thou art our life-giver: aim of all eyes, light-finder, come within us.
Indu, of one accord with thy protections both from behind and from before preserve us.
If you pay attention to all the highlighted words, you would notice a clear pattern. Whatever chemicals were present in the Soma-rasa, it made the vision clearer, helped stay awake, made joints secure, mind more alert, helped fight diseases and granted wisdom. These results can not be obtained from a substance that intoxicates or dulls the mind or senses.
Coming to a more likely candidate, we encounter the plant ‘Sarcostemma acidum’ also known in Indian languages as Somlata or Somavalli. Notwithstanding the semantics, it also fits the physical description of the Soma plant being a mostly leafless, and much-jointed shrub that is present all the way from the Indian subcontinent to Europe, the preferred hangouts of the Vedic people. However, to my mind, there are two major objections to its selection as the Soma plant – one, it is abundantly available all across the country as a weed so the verses that talk about it being difficult to procure or requiring substitution, wouldn’t apply.
Also, the effect it produces does not really match with what the texts mention. In fact, the best possible use of its stem extract is as a bronchodilator and sometimes as an anti-infective but unless Indra had asthma or some other serious respiratory disorder, I doubt this would be really helpful in his exploits! Also, it has been shown to have some anti-spermatogenic activity and in ancient Persia, this particular plant was used as an anti-fertility drug for men. This does not gel at all with the virility and manliness of Indra as described in the Vedas or even in the later texts.
Since there is a lot of congruence between Indian and Zoroastrian rituals, I feel the correct direction could come from the Parsi ceremony of Yasna which is very similar to the Vedic Yagna. The Vendidad mentions the Haoma tree as the plant of eternal life and thriving in the hilly regions. Just like the Rigvedic hymns, various verses from Yasna 9 tell us about the health-giving properties of Haoma – it is nourishing, gives strength to warriors before battle, promotes healing, imparts clear thinking and has both physical and spiritual benefits.
Fortunately, we do not need to undergo an extensive list of drugs to recognize the Persian version of Soma. German scientist Joseph Bomrnuller had identified the Homa carried by a Yazdi Zoroastrian priest as a variety of the ‘Ephedra’ family. Others like him who were searching for the mysterious Soma also found that Ephedra stem was used all the way from Baluchistan to the Parsi colonies in India who imported the stuff twice a year from Iran for their ceremonies.
Various Ephedra species grow as shrubs in the Himalayas from Tibet to Kashmir to Iran. It has yellowish-green, sometimes golden, leafless and jointed stems. Physically, it seems to fit the bill but what about the chemical properties?
The Ephedra plant gives us two major chemicals - ‘Ephedrine’ and ‘Pseudoephedrine’. While the latter is commonly used in medicines even today as a nasal decongestant, what is of more interest for us is Ephedrine. It is released from the stems when they are pounded or crushed as in the Soma/Haoma ceremonies, so it fulfills another scriptural criterion in favour of Soma.
Similar to the effect of chemicals from Sarcostemma, Ephedrine has anti-asthma bronchodilator activity and is also an anti-spasmodic. But the biggest effect of Ephedrine is its Adrenergic action - it gives an adrenaline rush to the body making it capable of a ‘fight or flight’ reaction! It increases the heart rate, redistributes the blood to the brain and muscles and alters the body's metabolism, so as to maximise the availability of glucose in the blood. It causes rapid breathing, sweating, heightened senses, decreased ability to feel pain, and increased strength and performance.
It has an even more potent effect than adrenaline on the nervous system and is even today used by athletes world over as a performance-enhancing drug. Moreover, unlike adrenaline which needs to be given intravenously, Ephedrine is active orally and works wonders even with small quantities.
When taken in large doses it can also lead to hallucinogenic effects which can perhaps explain the rapture and embracing of senses referred to in some verses. Taken in large quantities it can also lead to paranoia which can explain why Indra was always so suspicious of rishis like Vishwamitra or Kings like Sagar and Prithu!
Considering all the evidence, it would seem that this particular plant found in the higher altitudes could well have been the Soma of our ancients, particularly since its extraction required the use of wool which itself comes from the sheep that are reared in the mountains. It seems extremely likely then, that this same Ephedrine, derived from the Ephedra plants in the Soma ceremony, gave Indra the confidence or the adrenaline rush to fight his enemies.
I don’t claim to have found THE Soma plant but an analysis of the description and activities of the probable candidates has certainly led us to short-list Ephedra as the most likely candidate. The tricky part now would be to identify the exact species that was used in the Soma ceremony. More than fifty species of the plant are found in various parts of the world and identifying the exact one that used to thrive in the Himalayas about five thousand years ago could be the real challenge.
Some say Soma is undiscoverable or extinct so it is impossible to identify it, but judging from all the evidence above, it would seem that it may perhaps be a rare species of Ephedra rather than a mysterious plant of the heavens. Till the time we keep thinking of it as a figment of ancient poets' imagination, we would never find out its truth, and if we don’t explore our scriptures for scientific hints and do the due diligence, it would remain an unnecessary mystery instead of bringing us one more step closer to our understanding of the ancient Vedic people.
May Soma grant us the wisdom to discover its truth.
Om Somdevaye Namah