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


Direct confirmation of Soma as Ephedra
G. Majumdar (1945), a professor of botany, had specialized in "Vedic Plants." However he could not decide from among the five plants he mentions, and even illustrates, as to which of these was Soma. Among these five plants are Ephedra vulgaris and Periplaca aphylla, mentioned on p. 661, item 127. Now if I were a teacher of botany and were asked, what is ephedra, I would at once take the inquirer to the library and show him illustrations of the plant and of its important parts. I would next take him to the herbarium where he could confirm what he had seen illustrated. Finally, I would suggest his seening the plant itself, in its nearest habitat, so that he would then know all about it that was worth knowing. Let us now consider how far these three conditions have been fulfilled in the literature on ephedra. To begin with we want to know who it was that first identified Soma = Ephedra. Prof. Kashikar kindly informs r me that Aitchinson was the authority. There is much importance attached to Soma, called Hoama in Avesta, by the Parsis. Among them a newly born child is given a few drops of Hoama juice as promising long life. R.V. 3.50.2 states, "that day when thou wast born fain to taste it drankest the plant's milk which the mountains nourish. That milk thy mother first poured for thee." Thus, it becomes imperative for a Parsi to determine that his child takes the right juice and no substitute by any means. A specimen of this Hoama was sent by Sir J. J. Modi to Aitchinson, to have its identity confirmed scientifically. Modi (1922; 303) writes that "Dr. Aitchinson, a Naturalist of the English Afghan Boundary Commission of 1885, identified the twigs of Hoama which had been imported from Persia by Indian Parsees as ephedra. Here it may be mentioned that ephedra does not grow in the plains of India but it does in Persia, and was customarily imported from the latter place by the Parsees of Bombay. The Zoroastrians of Iran itself, have an uninterrupted history of the use of ephedra as Hoama." And Aitchinson's reply to Modi was as follows:
"The twigs belong to a species of Ephedra. A species grows all over Baluchistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Western Tibet identical with the species received. This species is called Hum, pronounced, Whom, and also Huma (a variant of Haoma). In Baluchistan a totally distinct plant, Periploca aphylla is called Hum. It grows equally on exposed hills and valleys consisting of branches and sprigs, one mass of upright twigs, each twig made up of. joints, like the joints of fingers. When covered with female flowers the bush, from 1 to 2 feet, is golden coloured, and the twigs are more or less so. The plant has no leaves. It is all twigs and jointed. Among the Pathans of the Khyber Pass and all over that country the twigs with water are made into a decoction and employed as a household remedy in sickness as possessing health giving and healing properties (as a tonic). Owing to a general likeness between the stiff rod-like growth, upright and erect of these two plants, in Baluchistan, they give both the same name. No one would mistake the jointed and true Hum from the non-jointed false Hum, Periploca. The latter does not occur in Afghanistan (possibly neither in Persia). Ephedra is only employed as ashes mixed with snuff to make it more interesting whether applied as a sternutatory or to the upper gum under the front part of the lip as is the habit here. I am convinced Ephedra was the nearest to the Soma plant, whereas Periploca is not. "Aitchinson has briefly described the plant in four words, "all twigs and jointed", emphasizing the likeness of the joints to "the joints of fingers." This is such an obvious feature that it had been recorded centuries earlier by Charaka, the Hippocrates of Indian Medicine. According to him the plant confers rejuvenation and longevity and "the sovereign herb, which is known by the name Soma, has 15 joints or knots per stem"; (Charaka Samhita, Vol. V, 496). Aitchinson has thus confirmed a feature of Soma previously recorded by Charaka. Aitchinson's work is briefly mentioned by Griffith (1889, Vol. 1, P. 3) in his translation of Rigveda. Thus guided by Griffith, G. Majumdar could have at least known Aitchinson's communication where jointed nature of the plant is emphasized. Moreover he, unaware of the previous record of this feature, does illustrate Ephedra as reeded and Periploca without joints. Yet he was somehow unable to eliminate Periploca from his group of five plants that could possibly be identified as Soma.
The use of illustrations for identifying a particular plant was mentioned above. A pen and ink drawing would, in the case of Soma, correspond to a picture of the plant carved on a piece of ancient sculpture. Such a carving has been found on a piece of Gandhara sculpture showing a bundle of plants placed vertically, with Buddha holding some stalks of the plant (Soma) in his hand. Comparing the sculpture with ephedra as seen in nature and photographed by Dr. Wright the Chief chemist of Marker Alkaloids, Quetta, I have been able to show (Mandihassan, 1963) that the plant depicted in the sculpture is indeed ephedra. The plant shown in this sculpture is markedly different from the bundle of grass that has been depicted-clipped at each end and placed horizontally - in another piece of Gandhara sculpture (see Mandihassan 1962). Unfortunately, both bundles - despite apparent differences - have been identified as grass by Sir John Marshall (1960) in his study of Gandhara art.
On account of increasing interest in the subject, a final attempt was made, (Mandihassan 1974) to present Soma from several stand points. Previous ideas were confirmed' as there was nothing new to be added. But none of the above three mentioned articles, appearing between 1962-1974 in Indian, Pakistani and Foreign Journals, has ever been cited by any of the later sceptics, including Wasson (1968), the author of a monograph on Soma. Dr. B. Mukhopadhyay (1979) has published his Doctorate on Soma in Bengali, but even here there is no reference to any of my above articles although he has been kind enough to mention my name as one interested in seeing his work published. However we can legitimately look upon the carving of Soma plant on the piece of Gandhara sculpture as the counterpart of an illustration of the same in a book. Glyptic evidence identifying Soma as ephedra has been presented in greater detail in a later section.
Now we come to the third criterion: observation of the actual Soma plant, preserved as such. This, fortunately, is possible on account of a discovery of Sir Aurel Stein (1932) who found "a small cemetry in Central Asia where the dead appeared to have been pure Aryans, Homo Sapiens. The bodies were enveloped in a shroud of course canvas which, in the case of the two best preserved burials, had its edge near the head tied with two little bundles. One contained wheat and the other small broken twigs, the contents representing provisions for the dead in another life." With regard to the interned twigs we have to remember that Vedic literature ascribes to Soma the power of conferring immortality and resurrection. Thus Rigveda, 10.57.3, states that "the spirit of our parted sires is called back by means of Soma." It thus stands to reason that the twigs discovered in the graves were those of Soma, being the plant of Immortality-cum-Resurrection. Stein had the twigs identified and states that, Dr. Rendle of the British Museum, Department of Botany, informed him that the specimens were fragments of ephedra, abundant in the drier regions of Central and Western Asia, the home of the Aryans before their migration into India and Iran. We thus have archaeological evidence to state that Ephedra = Soma.
By now we have fulfilled our three short criteria of identifying the ephedra plant satisfactorily. In lieu of illustration we have a carving on stone; the plant remains can be reasonably identified as belonging to ephedra. As the characteristic or specifying feature we have Aitchinson's field observation of its possessing reeded stalks. To prove its having played the highest role of conferring resurrection there is Stein's finding of ephedra in an Aryan grave. Here ends in brief the Natural History of Soma giving first hand or direct information. To a man like myself this information is sufficiently convincing to identify Soma as Ephedra. However what has further to be offered is information which is forthcoming from Rigveda and other Vedic literature. Only such internal evidence would be considered indisputable. We have then to go to the literary sources of information.

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

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