Soma is exalted in the Rig Veda, an Indo-Iranian scripture, as a drink that brings immortality and divinity to the drinker. Perhaps taking cue from this reference, Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel, Brave New World, uses the word ‘soma’ to refer to a recreational hallucinogen. Utopian or dystopian, the fact remains that psychoactive substances have been such an integral part of civilizations worldwide that some consider these substances to be the inspiration for civilization itself.
The Egyptians had their Blue Lotus, the Greeks had their Pythia gases while the Aztecs had their mushrooms. And just like the soma, these substances have traditionally been associated with elaborate rituals, from the shaman’s trance to the oracle’s prophecies. The soma has been part of various elaborate sacrifices which invariably end in the attendees consuming the soma prepared during the ritual. Upon ingestion, the soma was said to ‘roar’ and create a bridge between mortals and divine beings. The holiness of the soma concoction is reiterated in the fact that Indra (the King of Gods) and Agni (the God of Fire) were supposedly very liberal with their soma helpings. Indeed, so important is soma to the Vedic culture that out of the ten books that constitute the Rig Veda, one whole book is dedicated to it.
Even if we were to toss out the divinity and immortality talk as hyperbole, it is impossible to deny soma its stimulatory and perhaps even psychoactive properties. But what plant was used to create the divine drink? Even though many people these days equate Somras with alcohol, it couldn’t be further from the truth. To begin with alcohol doesn’t even come close to the stimulatory and psychoactive properties ascribed to soma. And to end it, the Atharva Veda details the way to prepare alcohol which is referred in it as ‘sura’. While alcohol can be crossed off our list easily, there isn’t a consensus among the other candidates. Some postulate it to be a species of Amanita mushroom while others contest that it has got to be Cannabis. Still, others maintain that it is the ubiquitous Ephedra found along the Himalayas.
However, excavations of ruins in Gonur Tepe in Turkmenistan which was inhabited by Indo-Iranian people till around 2,000 BCE suggested that perhaps there isn’t a single plant that can take away the distinction of being soma. Researchers found evidence of a boiler used to make a drink from cannabis, poppy and ephedra. It is perhaps also of interest that the Zoroastrians of ancient Iran had a drink they called ‘haoma’ which is believed to be identical to the Vedic soma. While the exact identity is still up for grabs, perhaps, the ‘drink of the gods’ was a concoction of the psychoactive but sedative cannabis/poppy along with the stimulatory ephedra.