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


The plant Soma was finally deified as god Soma in charge of all vegetation by the early Aryans. In between its juice became a drink of longevity and a drug conferring resurrection. Soma was first identified as ephedra, in. 1884, by the botanist, Aitchinson. As drug of longevity it has been depicted as being offered to Buddha in a Gandhara piece of sculpture of 300 A.D. (Mandihassan, 1962). In 1932 Stein reported in an Aryan grave the dead was interred with a small bundle of ephedra twig. Thus botanically and archaeologically Soma has been identified as edphedra. Moreover the Zoroastrians of Iran have all along administered a few drops of ephedra juice to the newly born child to insure its longevity. Such use was intolerant to any substitute so that the ritual history of Soma unequivocally confirms it as ephedra. Several names of Ephedra which have survived, such as Hum, and Soma itself, finally prove• Soma=Ephedra. Plants that have been misidentified as Soma clearly bore other names, such as Somalata and Somavalli, while Soma, without any suffix, is the name still current for ephedra in Chitral.
Now any history must respect chronology. Here we must know who discovered the Soma plant and how he came to designate it as such. From known particulars, this may be construed as follows. In China, as ascetic looking out for foodstuffs, found ephedra full of red berries. Feeding upon them he felt energized and happy. Ephedra contains ephedrine which is an energizer or bestower of physical strength and also euphoriant. The Chinese species resembled the yellow fibres of hemp. Hemp in Chinese is called Huo-Ma, as Hyatt (1978;128) also reports it, Anciently it was called Hua-Ma (Karlgren, -1923;p.65). In Avesta it became Hau-Ma. Later in Pahlavi it mutated into Ho-Ma. Parallel changes occured in Sanskrit and the word Soma entered Sanskrit about 4000 B.C. Thus Soma is the Chinese name of hemp fibres transferred to ephedra. It then specifies that plant, not its juice, and plant is usually recognized before its juice. On the contrary, most writers have supposed Soma to be the derivative of the root, Su=to press, and Soma becomes "The pressed out juice." Here Bailey (1972;105) critically observes that "the plant has no responsible name if it is traced to Hau or Su, (and thence) to the pressed stuff. Moreover being a loanword from Chinese "it has no parallel in any Indo-European languages" as has been remarked by Keith (1925;171). From the Chinese ascetics the name of the plant and its use finally reached the Aryan nomads who were mainly hunters at the time. Now began the main history of Soma.
To quote Radin (1952;73), we must begin with "the man in the midst of life" and its problems. As hunter the Aryan was prone to be fatigued due to over-exertion. The Soma drink then made him indefatigable. Finally he made it his domestic drink which he consumed thrice a day, unlike wine or hallucinogenic drug. Since ephedrine is bitter Soma was diluted to reduce bitterness and usually there were additives like milk, curds and honey to make it pleasant to consume. Rigveda is rich in references to Soma being flavoured which thus speaks of its being bitter. As the plant ephedra grows wild in lands where the Aryans used to roam, Rigveda, while extolling the juice, does refer to the plant. Briefly as Kowl (1928;35) indicates "the Avesta refers to Haoma as golden (yellow) plant with many stems." Wasson (1968;45) observes that in "Soma passages of Rigveda, there is the domihance of the word Amsu, stalk." The descriptions indicate that the plant has no leaves, no trunk, but mainly thin stalks and Rigveda compares them to arrows. RV. 5.44.5. speaks of "the branching plant that grasps the juice. "Accordingly we find that Ephedra = An all - branching plant = Containing only stalks. 9.50.1 refers to "thin arrow's sharpened plant," when the stalk is compared to an arrow. 10.89.5 suggests the plant being "armed as with arrow" is Soma whence "all the bushes" are eliminated thereby allowing Indra "not to be deceived" in seeking his favourite plant. The plant is full of stalks and the stalk is thin like an arrow, but it is jointed. Rigveda expresses this idea by the use of two words, Kship, 9.79.4 and Pristha, 4.20.5 comparing the joints of Soma stalk with those of a finger Wasson ( p. 59 ) finds the Vedic word in plural Parusha = Nodules. Then the portion between the nodules or joints is specified as Par van, 10.68.9. These are indications of the reeded nature of Soma stalk. Atharvaveda, 12.3.31 speaks of "plants and joints". 'Charaka, (p.496) clearly refers to "the sovereign herb Soma with fifteen joints or Knots", per stem. A summary description of the plant in Rigveda is found in verse 9.5.10. as "Vanaspati, the ever-green, the golden hued, with a thousand boughs". Now Ephedra is ever - green; there are species with yellow stalks, and ephedra is mainly all - stalks" her spoken o the "thousand boughs". In Avesta a term for Soma is Vereshaji. Its etymology signifies it as a perennial plant. Next the word Fravakshi likewise suggests a plant with erect stalks. Finally the word Frasparage means "Shoots" or stalks. Thus Vedic and Avesta sources confirm Soma=Ephedra.
To a nomad and hunter Soma was indispensable. Living on the verge of starvation, nomads were intolerant of social parasiticism and the aged unable to support themselves, were killed. Later on however, they were exiled to become ascetics. The Sanskrit word Pravasanam (Bhide;761) signifies first Killing and next Exile. Then fearing exile, the middle aged Aryan found he could avoid this by taking an extra by dose of Soma. He now could over-exert himself, and thereby remain in the tribe and thus prolong his life. Thus Soma, in such cases, did function as drug of longevity. Moreover the middle-aged consumer of Soma felt himself the equal of his younger comrades so that in a subjective sense, Soma did confer rejuvenation. As hunters the Aryans had little knowledge of drugs and since Soma could easily make its consumer feel happier it was used in every ailment so that Soma became Panacea. 10.97.22 states "all plants say 0 King Soma save from death the man whose cure a Brahman undertakes." Moreover being an energizer it could also function as aphordisiac. In fact in folk-medicine of Afghanistan, ephedra is actually used as such. In Rigveda verse 1.116.10 says that "Soma lengthened the life of old Chyavana and made him lord of youthful maidens. "Thus Soma further functioned as rejuvenator and as aphrodisiac. Finally it was deified as god. Thus arose besides the concrete Soma, a plant on earth, an abstract Soma, as god in heaven, in fact moon-god in charge of all herbs. Thus Soma, as panacea, acquired a mythical celestial origin which gave rise to a system of faith-cure whereby Soma could cure any disease. At the same time Soma became a drink of immortality for 8.48.3 says "We have drunk Soma and became immortal." Altogether it became, "auspicious juice" as stated in verse, 9.61.17, and in its abstract form" auspicious energy," 1.91.5 so that even the dead could be restored to life. Soma then became a drug of resurrection and Stein found it interred with a dead Aryan: In this connection, RV 10.58.1 says "Thy spirit that went away to Yama we cause to come to thee again", as also 10.57.3-5.
If Soma is the oldest herbal drug of which the history can be properly traced Red-ochre is the oldest drug that man used. The cave man was a hunter and wounds were his chief complaint. Red ochre being styptic, it functioned as the drug of longevity in this case. It also cured dysentry. Its use having survived, medicinal tablets made from red ochre have been found in the island of Lemnos in Greece. During the middle ages, water from pots made of red ochre, was believed as capable of curing even plague. Now the word Adam etymologically suggests that images of gods were made of red ochre. It means redness was life-essence and red-ochre was life-essenceincorporate. Hence red-orchre could also revive the dead. This explains how the Neanderthaler and other cavemen interred their dead smeared with red ochre. Then, like Soma, once there is a drug of longevity it becomes the drug of resurrection. In between Soma had been deified. Corresponding to it is the fact that the earliest figures of god were made of red ochre and Adam, as word, signifies red-ochre. Irving (1980;12) writes that "Adam is a symbol for original man. Banu Adam, the name, is derived from Red Earth, (ochre) in Arabic, referring to the clay-god used in fashioning him." Thus red ochre, the drug as panacea, finally was used to "fashion" god himself.
We find ephedra best compares with the Coca plant. Coca is indispensable to the Red Indians, so much so that the Encyclopedia of Recreation Drugs (Kowl, 1978;1664) says of the Indians of Peru and Bolivia that "about 90 percent are still using it." It bestows physical strength enabling them to work in the mines, is hunger pacifier, producer of lasting euphoria, also antisomnolent, and finally a divine herb. Then "even at the present time (1940) the Indians put Coca leaves into the mouths of the dead persons", as reported by van Tschudi. Finally Byck (1974;135) states that "it is said to be an aphrodisiac" (on p.51) so that "when Indian takes a woman or whenever his strength is more than usually taxed he increases the customary dose." Thus, in all its characteristics, Coca is comparable to Soma. But every thing revolves on the drug becoming indispensable to its user, a fact never brought out by the interpreters of Soma. While to others "Soma was originally looked upon as life-force of this universe" (B. Mukherjee, 1979;15), this idea itself finally evolved with Soma being consumed thrice a day to maintain life as nomad and as hunter; in fact the nomad Aryan virtually lived on it. Other drugs with a similar history would be coca and even red-ochre, when their remote past is properly appreciated.
Now life meant first its creation, next its birth and finally its end. Creation of life, in effect meant creation of the world. Hence there is a proto-cosmology in Rigveda. Water came as the first substance but it was lifeless matter. To make it dynamic and productive life-essence was necessary. Soma came to consecrate water which meant to enliven it. RV.10.30.5 suggests "go unto waters and purify with herbs" when only such waters, according to 10.1376 "have healing powers driving away disease." Thus enlivened by Soma, water, already First Principle as matter, became productive or generative, and was now designated as Apamgarbha, Aqueous - Womb, or better still Hiranya - garbha, Golden - Womb, signifying an Eternal Productive Source of existence or in one word, Creator. From such life-impregnated water issued Fire as the son-of-water, Apamnapat. Now water as cosmic element carries a cosmic quality Humidity: RV.1.23.23" the water this day I have sought and to their Moisture have I come." Correspondingly, fire as element contians Heat as its quality: RV.10.88.10 "Agni ripens plants of every form", and the proper name for the energy that ripens plants is Heat. Thus we have Water, Soma, and Agni as three primary powers, water with Humidity, Agni with Heat, and Soma with creativity, being qualities most essential to life-thrm.
Above all Soma, as donor of creative energy, represents the proto-form of the later cosmic element, Akasha, when Akasha=Brahma, creative energy, and this would be "the life force of the universe" to quote Mukherjee. Thus the proto-cosmology of Rigveda would have Soma as proto-Akasha. Soma as creative energy has been conceived at its best, as "Auspicious juice," RV.9.61.17 and as "auspicious energy, 1.91.5. It has also been named "The Red, which reaches up to heaven", 9.11.4. The Red one,as the synonym of Soma has never been explained. It means Redness-incorporate "life-essence incorporate", the eternal one, the immortal. We have seen that Soma can vivify water and even consecrate Agni in the Homa cremony. Altogether there is Soma as plant and Soma as moon-god, Soma as "auspicious juice". Then to assign due importance to all three, Soma, Water and Fire, as indicated in Rigveda, is to recognize a proto-cosmology with three cosmic powers, Soma as proto-Akasha,, with water and fire as the other cosmic elements.
When Aryans moved into the interior of India, where ephedra was not available, Soma as panacea, was replaced by Rasyana drugs. As juice it was Soma - Rasa being juice was the real substance; Ayana means Abode, so that Rasayana, the Abode of Rasa, signifies Rasa-incorporate. Rasa then specified the active principle or the basic principle. Now Soma, as panacea of the nomad, meant a drug that prolonged the stay of the middle aged in the tribe. It then functioned as the drug of rejuvenation first and of longevity next. Thus, as direct descendent of Soma - rasa, the Rasayana drugs, aimed at rejuvenationcum-longevity. When we now turn to Greek medicine there is no counterpart of Rasayana nor of any claim of rejuvenatin. The history of Indian medicine clearly explains this difference. There were no ascetics as founders of medicine in Greece.
Rasa finally evolved as generic term for the "basic principle", the impressive principle of any entity, something which confers life. In the human system blood functions as life-principle but its precursor is Chyle which is basic, whence Chyle = Rasa.
In alchemy metals are reduced to two elements, sulphur and mercury, corresponding to spirit and soul in the human system. Now Sulphur = Soul and Murcury= Spirit, whence Mercury = Rasa in Indian alchemy. Finally in literary criticism a term was required to characaterize a composition that was immediately appealing as opposed to one that was boring. Here again what constitutes the "basic features", or something appealing and "tasty" would be Rasa. According to our emphasis on comparative study, even Rasa as signifying "Taste" in literary criticsm can be confirmed. Ibn Khaldun (Rosenthal;358) writes that "it should be known that the word Taste is in current use among those who are concerned with the various branches of literary criticism." This confirms Rasa=Taste= The appealing feature in literary composition.

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