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


It is not Soma but Sura that is clearly recognised as an intoxicant, in Rigveda. Wasson (1968; 95) summarizes all that Sura was supposed to be. He writes that "Sura is generally believed to have been an alcoholic drink of some sort, wine, or rice wine, or fermented liquor, or beer, or even distilled spirits." The difference between the euphoriant Soma and the intoxicant Sura has been clearly grasped by many researchers. Thus Whitney has dwelt (see Dowson, 1968; pg. 302) upon the euphoriant and energizing properties of Soma, but has never made the slightest hint that Soma was intoxicant. We have also learnt that Keith contrasts Soma with Sura. The latter he pronounced as being alcoholic and held in ill repute while Soma was a consumable drink made pleasant with the addition of milk and honey. Again Macdonell (1912) and Keith mention that the effect of Soma was exhilaratory and exciting, with no implied suggestion that it was alcoholic or comparable with Sura. _Keith (1925) was, however, unable to satisfactorily interpret the impression Soma left upon its consumer. He (p.283) writes that, "we do not know whether the drink was popular outside the circle of priests who took it sacrifically. In Rigveda Soma was a pooular (domestic) drink, the normal civil drink was Sura. This was allied to beer and to brandy being intoxicating it was held in ill repute and limited in use at the sacrifice. Corresponding Avesta Hura - Sura was used in the offering. Soma drink was originally pleasant, honey and milk were mixed with it." Keith tails to realize that Soma was consumed thrice daily so that it was an indispensable drink while Sura was beer used occasionally in assembly. Roth (1881) was also one who had raised the inquiry early enough as to the exhilarating effect of Soma. Writing in 1881 he stated that, "Soma is merely the juice of a plant stalk and no fruit juice nor a distilled liquor similar to Asava, Arishta or Sura." The question continued to puzzle him so that by 1884 Roth wrote "on the one hand one could not see clear enough what significane is really to be assigned to this remarkable juice. If it was to be used merely in divine service and consumed in small quantities then it could be any thing. But Soma was for the Aryans what wine has been to other peoples." It means a popular drink. An understanding of this popularity can be obtained from an understanding of its first user, the ascetlic, and next from the over-exhausted Aryan nomad who consumed it thrice daily. Aged and infirm the ascetic could search food-stuffs helped by an energizer; likewise the hunter could continue chasing game, taking Soma to make himself exhaustion-proof.
Soma we have explained was as energizer and as euphoriant always keeping its consumer is normal wits, never prone to hallucination, not even inducing one to sleep. Soma, in fact, was antisomnolent. Let us now consider the properties of Sura. Griffith (1894) translating Atharvaveda verse 15.91.2. quotes Taittiriya Brahmana stating that "Soma is said to be the best nourishment for god, and Sura of men, the two are a pair, man and wife." Thus the two, Soma and Sura, are clearly differentiated. A verse in Rigveda 8.2.12. has been differently translated by Zimmer and by Griffith. Zimmer's (1879; ,280) rendering is clearer and states that "Drunk (and severely intoxicated) with Sura they quarrel." This harmonizes with what Macdonell (1912;458) and Keith write, that "Sura, an intoxicating spirituous liquor, was opposed to Soma. Soma was essentially a drink of ordinary life (domestic drink) and Sura the drink of men in the sabha (assemblies) and gave rise to broils. It was kept in skina." On p.459 we read that "Sura-Kara, maker of Sura would be included in the list of victims of human sacrifice." This danger meant something real for we know that the Aryan practised human sacrifice and required victims for this purpose. Macdonald (1896; 46) deals with Purusha - Medha, human sacrifice, in a long chapter. Thus the manufacturer of Sura ran the risk of becoming a victim of human sactifice, for his product gave rise to broils which led to serious consequences. Murdoch (1893;38) also informs us that Manu enacted a law, that "for drinking Sura the sign of tavern be branded on the forehead of the drinker. and for a Brahmin foolishly drinking Sura he shall be forced to drink that spirit boiling hot" and thereby killed by it. By such laws, discouraging the preparation and consumption of Sura, we can conceive the earlier position of a Sura consumer as that of an infidel. Zimmer (p.281) then brings out the sense of Rigveda 8.21.14 explicity stating that "enjoying Sura makes men arrogent enough to scorn gods." Griffith translates a portion of the same verse as "thou findest not weathly man to be thy friend, those who scorn thee •who are flown with (Sura)". Verse 7.86.6 has been clearly translated in Wasson (p.15) where we read that, "malice has not been of my free will, 0 Varuna, it was Sura, anger,dice and muddled head due to the intoxicating Sura." Now with all that it seems strange that Sura could nevertheless be equated with Soma even when the latter alone finally became a god. One such interpreter of Soma as intoxicant has been R. L. Mitra. Wasson (p.109) briefly refers to him writing that "in 1873 Rajendra Lala Mitra revised the case for Soma as an alcoholic beverage. the original Indo-Aryan drink Soma-beer and strong spirits". Thus Soma and Sura came to be identical for all events and purposes. Moreover when we consider the sources of Soma and Sura they again are clearly different. Soma comes from some plant while Sura is rightly taken by Zimmer (1897;280) to Dhanya-Rasa, Corn-juice, which would be, Nishasta in Hindusthani, barley-malt in English. Zimmer directs it to Atharvaveda 2.26.5 which, in part, appears in the translation by Griffith as "hitherto have brought the juice of corn." Finally the containers in which the two drinks are prepared are again different. For preparing Soma wooden vats were required while Sura was fermented in large leather-bags. The nomads had little use for fragile pottery. They drank Soma in wooden beakers so that for fermenting malt they used a large leather bag, made out of a single cow hide. Such bags as still in use in rural India for transporting toddy. It is such an item that is mentioned in RV.1.191.10. A portion translated by Griffith speaks of a "wine skin in a vintner's house." The Aryans during Rigveda period were pastoral people, with no agriculture, much less any vine-cultivation. Hence there was no wineskin but leather-bags for fermenting and storing beer.
Now that we know what Sura was, we finally come to its etlymology. In Rigveda Sura, as word, would have three different connotations. As genuine Sanskrit word, Sura = Sun. Verse 6.56.3 clearly, speaks of "the golden-wheel of Sura's car." Sura, the sun god, has a golden car with golden wheels. It is the golden solar disc projected that becomes the golden solar disc, a car-wheel. Then Soma bears numerous synonyms, one makes it "as bright as the sun." Verse 9.66.18 says "Soma as Sura bring us food." This because the ideal bestower of food is the sun which makes all plants grow. Soma as food giver then is compared with the sun implying, Soma = Sun. But Soma is actually a hunger pecifier and only indirectly a food giver while Sura is directly the Sun and only as epithet of Soma. Then Sura always means sun and if Soma singnifies Sura it is because Soma is looked upon as bright as the sun. Now Sura does mean beer. This is a different word and of Chinese origin. As Sanskrit word it should have been Sura with Su, to press as Su-Ma or Soma. Whereas a plant can be pressed to yield a juice what then has to be pressed to produce the intoxicant drink Sura. If Sura be wine then grapes would be pressed to produce it. And Griffith does translate Sura = Wine. But there were no grapes in Rigvedic times and no wine either. Sura was beer made from barley. In Chinese Su, as inscribed character, is a compound of two others, Ha plus Yu = Su. Now Ho=Grain and Yu=Spirits which makes Su=A spirituous product from grain. Briefly Su=Beer and La= Sharp in taste, as an alcoholic drink would be, hence Su-La=Beer. Now Sula mutated into Sura.
As nomads Aryans roaming all over Central Asia they would be regularly coming in contact with the Chinese. This explains a common origin of •the two words Soma and Sura, discussed before (Mandihassn, 1978).

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

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