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Books - The History and Natural History of Ephedra as SOMA
Written by S. Mahdihassan   


The position of Charaka in Indian Medicine can be compared to that of Hippocrates in that of Greek medicine. Charaka (1949;496) records that "the sovereign herb which is known by the name Soma has fifteen joints of knots (per stalk)." This recalls as observation of Aitchinson already mentioned. Charaka was court physician of King Kanishka who ruled from Peshawar. Thus Charaka could have easily obtained ephedra from no great distance. He can be dated about 150 A.D., a time when Soma was no longer needed as an energizer or as a panacea. Further, Soma has been carved on a Gandhara piece of sculpture, dated 300 A.D. The plant depicted was identified as ephedra for the first time by me (1962). Also, Agrawala (1953;371) inform that "Patanjali mentions Putika grass as a -Substitute but observes that Soma had not become obsolete." Besides the above carving and Charaka's record, the knowledge of the genuine plant can be carried up to the time of King Harsha. Harsha Vardhana, 606-648 A.D. ruled from Kinnoj for eastward from Peshawar. He was a worshipper of Shiva as mentioned by Sharma (1972;50). Of his reign there is an excellent account by the court-poet whose work is known as Bana's ,Harsh Charita. Alberuni lived in India about 1020 A.D. and has compiled a Materia Medica• which has been translated and edited by Hakim Mohammad Said (1973). On p.330 of this work we find that Ephedra = Hum-al-Majus, the Hum plant of the Magians, the Zoroastrians. Further we learn that "in Saghdi it is Khum; Arzad-Maghusi in Syrian and Aftabparast and Huyaghun in Persian. The Magians say that the Hum plant is a trunkless tree. It grows where no one can reach (its habitat being high mountains)." Most important in his recording the name Hum which is still current in Afghanistan. Sharma (1972;210) referring to Bana's life of Harsha inform us that "in the houses of Vedic scholars there were Dots of Soma, green, dense and delicate, on irrigation." This extract is traced to Harsha-Charita. Thus the knowledge of Soma can be carried up to about 650 A.D. We now realize that the genuine plant had not been forgotten until then.
But most officiating priests must have used common sense and realized that the role of Soma in the rituals depended not upon its being an energizer but merely upon belief in its powers. As such a suitable substitute could play the same role which, in fact, it did. For the sake of convenience, something merely emblematic was replaced by another emblem. Whereas so much is emphasized on the plant having become obsolete, even during the time of Satapata Brahmana or about 1000 B.C., no one ever speculated as to what replaced, Soma the domestic drink, which was consumed thrice a day. Above all, none of the commentators of Rigveda refers to Charaka's observation of the reeded nature of Soma stalks which recalls what Aitchinson also pointed out, nor to Soma being mentioned in Harsha-Charita. This would also contradict a statement by Wasson (1968;13). He identified Soma as the fly-agaric and mentions that, "like most species of mushroom it does not lend itself to cultivation." Mushrooms may not be cultivated but Soma, as ephedra, has been grown. That Soma had been cultivated is documented above.

Our valuable member S. Mahdihassan has been with us since Sunday, 24 March 2013.

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